The performance of a play is certainly entertaining, can sometimes be engaging, and often may be emotionally moving. It can also be life-changing. But can it be healing? Can a dramatization be a catalyst for curative forces to effect a change in the audience? Can theater cause people to think differently of themselves and their interactions with others? Back in May a rare opportunity was entrusted to me to see a play move from idea, to concept, to performance, and it may just have what it takes to begin a healing transformation in those involved and the witnesses.
coLAB Arts, based in New Brunswick, “engages artists, social advocates, and communities to create transformative new work. coLAB Arts facilitates creative conversation through innovative programs and artist infrastructure, connects artists with community partners and mentors, and executes productions that challenge perceptions and inspire action,” according to their website. I was able to see this take place. Community members engaged with local artists and created something before my eyes.
John Keller, the director of education for coLAB, told me, “In 2010 coLAB Arts was introduced to the First Reformed Church in New Brunswick, and then co-pastor, Susan Kramer-Mills. FRC had just founded a community development corporation, Town Clock CDC, with the mission to convert part of their campus in New Brunswick into long-term, affordable, supportive housing for survivors of domestic violence.” He continued, “As part of this effort coLAB Arts continued to provide support telling the stories of survivors and creating arts opportunities for both the residents and other organizations that work with survivors.”
About that project he said, “In that same year coLAB Arts began working with the Middlesex County Center for Empowerment, developing storytelling workshops for support groups and staff. The goal of these workshops was to empower survivors to tell their own stories for their own healing.
“In 2020, coLAB Arts and the Center for Empowerment began an oral history collection process documenting, through long-form in-depth interviews, the experiences of survivors of all forms of domestic, sexual, and intimate partner violence and harassment. I interviewed eight individuals with a wide variety of experiences. Through this work coLAB Arts began a process of commissioning artists to create original works of theater that engage audiences in the larger themes and challenges faced by survivors, and the ongoing need for cultural shifts in understanding and policy.”
“This is when I met two of coLAB’s theater artists, Stephanie Van Huss, the director of the play, and Jasmine Carmichael, the assistant director, who gathered together professional actors, and “narrators,” the survivors who shared their oral histories, to create a play about a survivor’s hesitancy in telling anyone about their experience with sexual violence. It was exciting to see a work of art, the play, emerge from the stories, the statistics about female and male survivors, the debates, the analysis, and the deliberation that went on throughout this creative process. And then, finally, came the performance of the play. Only the two directors and the dramaturge were privy to the final creative step in writing the dialogue. Everyone else had to wait with great suspense for which of the many discussed events and tales would be enacted. And we waited to see how these would move the audience.
“The event was cathartic, and I don’t think just for me. To see such matters exposed, contemplated with expert craft, brought to life, and communally live in the minds and hearts of those in attendance was indeed transforming. After the play I felt as if a darkness had been lifted. Things few of us like to talk about were examined with grace and skill.
“I’m certain that others felt differently afterward, too, as will a new audience, since this play will be further developed and presented to other survivors, friends, lawmakers, offenders, and the inquisitive.”
Assistant director Carmichael adds, “As an artist, it is important to me that I use my time and talents to be of service to underrepresented and marginalized communities. The process of creating this show was emotionally intensive and required much care and consideration, not just for the survivors, but also for the audience who would be receiving their stories. We hoped to produce a play that would empower survivors to speak the truth of their experience and teach people how to listen and support survivors when that truth is spoken.”
Keller, the assistant director concludes, “Working with this community is incredibly humbling. These are individuals from all walks of life proving that violence is experienced across races, genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status. The courage it takes to speak openly and honestly about previous experiences of violence is extraordinary. coLAB Arts’ partnerships with organizations like the Middlesex County Center for Empowerment and Town Clock CDC are vital to providing artists and survivors supportive and compassionate spaces to counteract the cultural shame around speaking about these topics.”
He went on to say, “The play continues to be workshopped.” The artists had the 2023 presentation and final piece presented on Sept. 30, 2023.