Trauma and transformative experience: considering ethics of representation in recovery theatre

Applied theatre work can offer an experience of expression, healing and hope following collectively-experienced trauma. Peter O’Connor has created theatre in post and ongoing disaster settings for over 30 y'ears. Most recently, this has included working in Mexico City' following a major earthquake that killed 400 people, and in Christchurch following the terror attack on March 15 2019 when 51 people were murdered whilst at prayer in mosques. He argues that applied theatre post disaster is always fraught with ethical choices that centre around the role and purposes of the work, and the political and cultural constraints it operates inside.

Performative events are deployed in the immediate aftermath for multiple reasons. First and foremost, they create formal and informal spaces for communal grief. As bodies are pulled from rubble, or into make-shift morgues outside mosques, communities gather to sing and pray and connect themselves again to those who have died. Theatre acts as a bridge between the present and the past, the living and the dead. Often supported by religious ceremony, these performances include improvizational outpourings where the boundaries between religious and civic leaders and citizens become blurred in mass performances where the pain of death and the guilt of survival are displayed. They can become focal points for the creation and sustenance of national narratives that speak to the hurt and fragility of a nation post trauma.

Theatrical forms can be harnessed towards great harm. The Christchurch attacks had themselves been fashioned as a performance event, with a camera attached to the terrorist live streaming the murders across social media and into the dark neo-Nazi recesses of the internet for thousands to watch in real time and then later for millions to share. O’Connor wrote the following in the national newspaper just days after the attack as a call to the arts post disaster to be used as a tool to combat the harm.

The night after the terror attack I stood in the Auckland Town Hall with 1,000 others. After the traditional voices rang out to farewell the dead we stood and we sang Whakaaria Mai. New Zealand’s unofficial national hymn. We started tentatively, listening carefully to each other. We found ways to weave our own voice, our own story into the wider song.The waiata (song) connected us together in the room and then it felt, somehow to the people of Christchurch. In the soaring chorus as we grew louder and more confident our singing became a bridge to possibility. Our song was a cry of faith and hope. In its communally created beauty it was an act of defiance against the ugliness of terror. This is the possibility inherent in arts making. It gives us, as individuals and communities, the strength to imagine afresh, to see the world again as a place where hope might dwell. It gives us the possibility of connecting to others across time and space and beyond life itself. Through the arts as a nation we will remember, mourn, come together, rebuild who we are. The arts will be the way we resist and claim back the spirit of who and what we might be as a nation. In the same way we did last night, through different art forms we will find ways to deeply listen to each other and to find new ways to breathe in harmony. Terrorist attacks deliberately make the world unbearably ugly. The arts are the finest and best tools we have for resistance to terror. They do this as indestructible acts of solidarity, potent healing balms that remind us of our common humanity. The world has always needed the arts, but perhaps never as much as we do today.

Across the country, in the days following the attack, people gathered to lament the loss of life and the end of a sense of political innocence that had persuaded New Zealanders they were inoculated by distance from the possibilities of mass murder and the obscenity of white supremacy terror. Within a week in Christchurch, following the terror attack, tens of thousands gathered in the city gardens, performed or watched ritual haka (indigenous dance), and sang hymns and songs of reconciliation. The Prime Minister wore a hijab as a symbol of solidarity and thousands of non-Muslim women followed her example. Haka was performed across the country, children painted and drew images of kindness, poetry was shared, and tears of grief and anger found form for communal and individual expression.

The terror on the Friday afternoon had forced the city’s schools into lockdown. Children had lain on the floor in silence for hours. Two days later, they then returned to their classrooms.

Following advice from educational psychologists on the Ministry website who stressed the need for a return to normalcy, to routine, teachers were left to deal with the trauma without any advice or support other than to ignore the fact that their city had changed forever.

O’Connor had worked extensively in Christchurch schools following the 2011 earthquake that killed 181 people and then in the ongoing trauma of thousands of aftershocks and quakes. A Christchurch drama teacher, Alys Hill, contacted O’Connor for advice and support as she was working in an after-school drama programme with groups of refugees and recent migrants at the high school that had been the makeshift police centre for the response to the attack.

O’Connor travelled to Christchurch and met with Hill ten days after the attack. Primary concern for both of them was to structure work that provided ways for the young people to safely explore their fears and their deep feelings of loss and confusion. The ethic of care incumbent on them was to work with aesthetic forms so as to not merely retell the horror of the recent events but reshape possibility for present and future. Hill used physical theatre forms to create ways into stories. The group of teenage Muslim women she was working with wanted to create a dance about the paradox of the weight of the hijab. They said it was light and yet heavy to wear, and it made you a target. How this story might be told was eventually at the heart of the work she did with this group. O’Connor was welcomed into the room as the group began making small dance pieces. Hill worked slowly, deliberately and layered her work with opportunities for the group to relax and laugh together. The work inched forward over a period of weeks as Hill built her relationship with the group. Her commitment to the group was that she would be there week after week for the long term. This wasn’t a helicoptered applied theatre project to paste band aids across a hurt community. It grew within a promise to make and build work together.

As part of this commitment, O’Connor worked with a small group of young Muslim and migrant children ranging in age from 7—11. In the first workshop that night immediately after the attack, the children chose to act as if they were superheroes. They flew around the room, whooping and laughing, and then decided to be invisible. They were asked to test out their superpower by standing in front of their parents in the room and being rude to them. There was the delicious tension of them knowing they weren’t really invisible, their parents acting as if they were, and working out how far they could push the conceit. Giggles erupted everywhere. Looking at Hill, the group decided they wanted to create a drama about Alice in Wonderland. When questioned why they wanted to, this group of young migrants and refugees said that they wanted to know more about wonderland, because it sounds like it is a great place to go to, but it’s hard to understand how it works, when people aren’t quite what they seem. One little girl commented,“And there is a queen who wants to take her head off”.

Over the following weeks, O’Connor and Hill worked in wonderland, finding ways to confront the queen about her meanness, attempting to find ways of making sense of the rules of this strange world. As a metaphor for the lives they were leading, the enquiry within Wonderland was remarkably close.The process of exploration reinforced the recognition that a sustained engagement via applied theatre can provide the opportunity to use metaphor and create fictional worlds through which to better understand real worlds.

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