Replacing the sofa with the spotlight: interrogating the therapeutic value of personal testimony within community-based theatre

Elliot Leffler

In mid-2010, I assistant-directed a community-based performance with an ensemble of youth in a small South African town. We began by exploring the town’s historical narratives, conducting interviews with local adults and dramatising that material. But at the end of the first week of rehearsals, one of my South African colleagues -- a choreographer who I’ll call Denise -- radically changed the direction in which the piece was evolving. Corralling the ensemble into a circle, Denise instructed everyone to talk about what frustrated them. The theme of frustration had emerged out of the historical material we had been investigating theatrically, but now the participants engaged in what seemed to me more like talk therapy. To encourage high-stakes storytelling, Denise validated some narratives as ‘real’ and criticised others as dishonest. ‘Real’ stories were traumatic tear-jerkers -- stories of harassment and emotional abuse. Less intense stories -- sibling squabbles and romantic jealousies -- she deemed ‘dishonest’.

It was one of the most memorable afternoons of my theatrical career. Secrets emerged, tears flowed, and by the end of the afternoon, we were no longer investigating the town’s historical narratives. Despite the fact that most of the conversation that day took place in Afrikaans, a language I don’t speak, I understood that the cast had become incredibly invested in each others’ narratives, and that we would now inevitably begin adapting those stories for performance.

I was reluctant to move in this direction, particularly to cast participants as themselves in their stories of abuse and neglect. Julie Salverson, a Canadian scholar-practitioner, has long challenged the assumption that personal storytelling within Community-Based Theatre is necessarily therapeutic. Salverson critiques an ‘aesthetic of injury’, arguing that theatre practitioners have foregrounded personal narratives in a way that reinscribes a ‘victim discourse’ and a sense of powerlessness (Salverson 1999, np). In his 2009 book Performance Affects, James Thompson extends Salverson’s scholarship by advocating that Applied Theatre practitioners focus their ensembles’ attention more on the beauty they seek than on the pain in which they live. Moreover, Thompson suggests that the therapeutic value of painful personal storytelling is culturally situated within post-Vietnam War USA, and that ‘Western’ theatre practitioners export this therapeutic notion across the globe in a well-intentioned but misguided act of neocolonialism. In Thompson’s view, as ‘Western’ practitioners promote this dramaturgy of personal testimony, they undermine indigenous aesthetics, supplant local therapeutic practices, and potentially exacerbate the psychological harm of the original incidents.

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