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Healing The Wounds Of Domestic Violence Through Theater

Jackie Yamanaka/YPR news

Theater can be a force for change, said writer and director Jessie Sherman. In this case, shining the light on domestic abuse.

Credit Verge Theater

“More Than Bruises Stories of Abuse and Healing” features a dozen stories Sherman gathered from domestic abuse survivors from the Bozeman-area. She describes her play as a quilt, pieced together from the words of these women, who trusted her with their stories.

“It felt like I was asking for a really big gift from the survivors,” she said. “I feel really grateful they were willing to open up to me and share.”

Sherman met the women at Haven, which provides support to victims in the Gallatin Valley.

“I think because domestic violence is such a taboo issue, being able to share your story and to say, ‘this happened to me. And I know this is wrong. I know that I lived through it and I’m in a healthier place now,’ can feel really empowering,” she said.

Empowerment that’s similar to the #MeToo movement, where women used social media to proclaim they had been the victims of sexual abuse or sexual harassment.

Sherman said like social media, theatre can also be a force for change, first by giving victims a voice.

“A lot of survivors feel silenced,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll be able to make change as a community until we challenge that silence. I think it’s also really hard to heal if you’ve been forced into silence.”

“Story telling is how we create and keep a culture,” said Hilary Parker, executive director of Verge Theater. She said once victims speak - through the actors on stage - the audience is drawn in.

She said the stories are a mirror of what’s happening in our world.

“What do we like and not like about it? What do we seek to change? What do we want to honor? And when we’re facing an issue like domestic violence those questions ring extra true to me,” Parker said, “because we’re really looking at changing how we present ourselves. How we hold those most dear to us. How we keep each other safe. If theater can do that, then everything opens up and people can have really deep conversations that you don’t have in a typical day-to-day correspondence.”

Parker said the stories were hard on the actors. Some ended up recusing themselves and had to be replaced. Others shared they too were survivors.

“We weren’t expecting that,” she said. “That’s a measure of our naiveté, collectively, and a measure of just how authentic this script is. These are real and raw stories and you can’t look away.”

“More Than Bruises Stories of Abuse and Healing” just finished its last performance November 10, 2018 at the Verge Theater in Bozeman. It now moves to The Shane Center in Livingston November 15, 16, and 17, 2018.

Once the curtain falls Saturday in Livingston, writer and director Jessie Sherman has no plans to bring “More Than Bruises” to other communities. She said the power of this play is that it’s stories of domestic abuse from local women for a local audience. And while these stories resonate to the greater audience, Sherman still urges other communities to seek out survivors in their own towns and let them speak in their own voice.

Director's note from the playbill:

The play you are about to watch is the result of years of work by a community of people. It has been a process of pain, compassion, uncertainty, and connection. And it has been a process of generosity. We would not be here without the benevolence of the survivors who shared their stories, the nonprofits who shared their resources, and the artists who shared their time and their hearts. More than anything, it has been a process of community — of people coming together to digest and discuss stories about the violence that is currently happening in homes on your street, in your town, in our community. This play is about each and every one of us. I can guarantee that you know a survivor. Probably several. Maybe he or she has told you. Maybe they have not. Regardless, you know them. 

Unusually early on in the process (at least from my point of view as a regular procrastinator) some of my actors asked about costumes. What does their character wear? How does this real person dress in daily life? It was important to them to be as faithful as possible to the women they represent. Perhaps, I have made their jobs harder. I decided that rather than costumes, I wanted each actor to wear her own clothes. As you watch, my hope is for you to see both the woman who shared her story and to see the actor who is performing her story. You will also see some of the actors reading from note cards at times. This is in part a result of the difficulties of this project (see note about the process). But it is also fitting. These are the real words of real women from our community, performed by actors from our community. This play would not have been impossible without all of them, and carrying their words, while difficult, is a labor of love. I hope the clothes the actors wear and the notecards they hold will be a reminder to us — a reminder that a community has come together to create this play. And that the whole community is needed to end domestic violence.

I have been thinking a lot about witnessing. What does it mean for us to be witnesses to violence? What does it mean for you all to witness this play? When I follow these questions to their end, especially on my darker days, I feel that being a witness does not mean as much I want. Simply watching does not stop abuse. However, when I am less tired, less deeply sad about the pain I have witnessed, I can see the effects this project has already had. People have already learned something. Others have already felt supported. This has been possible because we are not just here to witness. We are here to intentionally and actively bear witness. We are here to open our hearts and minds to something we might not understand. We are here to actively support survivors. Do not remain a passive observer. After tonight, tell someone who is not here something that you learned, a story that touched you, a moment that puzzled you. Survivors for too long have had to bear their stories in silence alone. I am done with that. Help me bear witness. Help me take the first step towards healthier homes.

A note about the process (from Jessie Sherman) from the playbill:

This project took place in three stages: 1) story gathering, 2) playwrighting, and 3) production and performance. During the first stage, I interviewed twelve survivors. Some shared their stories in group story sharing sessions, while others shared in one-to-one interviews. I invited two survivors who are men to share their stories. Both said that while they appreciate the project, they did not feel comfortable participating. Afterwards, I (with the help of HAVEN staff member Kathryn Lyle) transcribed the nearly 20 hours of interviews.

Using the transcripts, I created the script for the play. We intentionally spell playwrighting with the “wright” as in “to wrought.” I am not a writer. I did not generate text. I took pieces of the interviews and forged them together, looking to highlight connections… Sort of like making a quilt. Each interview was like a fabric with its own pattern. I cut the interviews and sewed them together to make a new whole. All of the words you hear tonight (with the exception of a few moments of narration) came directly from the interviews. Word for word. I did my best to cut down the 20 hours of interview into a play-length script. It was hard. There are a lot of stories still left to tell. Numerous people helped me revise the script including some of the survivors who shared their stories. 

Once the script was drafted, we produced the play. In many ways, this part of the process would be familiar to any of you who have been in a play. Auditions were open to the public. We rehearsed for weeks, pushed through the stress of tech week, and are excited to perform for you. In other ways the rehearsal process has been harder than any of us anticipated (and we were ready for a challenge!). This content is extremely challenging for actors, especially as so many women have personal experience with domestic violence. Many of the actors struggled to memorize the stories of abuse; it felt like their brains were trying to protect themselves from the pain of the stories. Several actors needed to step down from their roles, some just weeks before performances. And we are deeply regretful that we had to cut one of the characters due to losing an actor. Try as we might, we couldn’t find a replacement. We are terribly sorry that the survivor will not see her story performed as part of this play. We hope to find other ways to perform her story in the future. In the meantime, please take the time to read excerpts from her story included in this program. This process has required the actors to be immensely strong. Strong enough to say no, I need to stop. And strong enough to see the project to the end.

I started working on this play over two years ago. The process is not complete… cannot be complete until we share it with you, our audience. I believe this to be true of any play. For me the heart and center of theater is what happens between the performers and the audience. In a play like this — one about, by and for our community — you are even more important. Thank you for joining us in this process!