The scene of the crime
After last Saturday’s work-in-progress showing of “CABIN,” a piece of dance theatre by Brooklyn-based artist Sean Donovan, the audience at North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL Theatre) engaged in a panel discussion on the subject of place in theatre. The performance takes place in a replica of an upstate New York cabin, which is explored by a blindfold dancer, Brandon Washington, as he remembers and relives the horrifying events that transpired there.
This technique of returning to the scene of the crime is familiar to anyone who has watched mystery shows on television. The idea is that, by going back to the place where a traumatic event occurred, a victim can fill in the blanks since blocked out by the protective mechanism of memory repression. Trauma specialists observe that a person who has undergone a traumatic event may experience the event consciously for the first time only upon remembering it much later. In this sense, the event isn’t fully lived until it is relived.
Theatrical re-creation provides trauma victims a literal and figurative safe space to explore memories, feelings, bodily sensations and a host of lived experiences in a way that can be extraordinarily helpful in the healing process. Not only do drama therapists employ this sort of real world re-enactment, but they also make use of more creative role-playing techniques to allow patients to experience alternate points of view in imagined circumstances. Professionally guided sessions can stimulate empathy, compassion and understanding both personally and interpersonally.
Just as a patient can come to understand his or her life in new and beneficial ways through active engagement with the creative imagination in therapeutic settings, audiences gathered in the theatre can also gain insight into their own societies by experiencing the world brought to life onstage. In ancient Greece, the citizens of Athens, for example, would gather to bear witness to tragic stories in order to cleanse the polis from the “pollution” of character traits that might bring about any number of social ills. This cleansing was called “catharsis,” and it is a testament to the power of theatre that we still use this word to describe the feeling of relief experienced in real life when we have been released from psychic strife.
The ancient tragedies were generally set right in front of the palace, the symbol of civic society’s core. Nowadays, tragedies can be set anywhere; our blind Oedipus can perhaps be found knocking around in a cabin in the woods. Our theatres can accommodate many different scenic locations, whether through detailed, realistic set design or abstract suggestion.
This Saturday, NACL will host a group from New Orleans named “Vagabond Inventions,” which will stage a play not in the theatre, but outside, in and around a beat-up automobile in a post-apocalyptic no-man’s land. The company, whose name signals a fluid relationship to place, will engage in its own sort of collective re-enactment, allowing the audience to live with them for a while in an invented world ravaged by war, climate disaster and social upheaval (see page 21). Perhaps, by taking the show out of the theatre, these artists from afar might lead us to see our land as connected to theirs, our air, our water, our social conventions and customs as both contiguous with and contingent upon theirs.
When we witness theatre, we are all together in one place. When that place can transport us from the real to the imagined and back again, we might stand a chance of preventing a traumatic event from ever happening in the first place.
[Brad Krumholz is co-founder and artistic director of the North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL).]