Some years ago I read a novel called Fugitive Pieces it follows the story of a young Polish boy who escaped the Nazis during the Second World War. He hides in a hole in the wall and witnesses the death of his parents. His sister disappears without trace.
He is discovered by an archeologist buried in earth in the middle of a wood.
For the rest of his life he is reminded of this trauma, the memory firmly planted in his body seeming to pull him constantly away from the present.
This book had a grip on me and I found myself constantly being drawn back to it.
As a director I wanted to discover more about how memory lives in the body. What do we mean by memory in the body? How does trauma affect the body and the mind? And why is it that in certain cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder our body remembers even if the mind does not?
I had mentioned to a number of people that I was interested in creating a show around this. Fern Smith was one of them, she had kindly pointed me towards a number of books I could start to read and people I could talk to.
It was this idea I approached NTW with. Whilst reflecting on my work as a director I recalled the themes I had explored over the years. Domestic Abuse, Teenage Pregnancy, the Holocaust. Themes relating to grief and abandonment etc.
Trauma seemed to run through the veins of my work. Why was I only starting to realise this? I had always been drawn to the mess of human existence. Why? I have spent all my life working with children and young people and had never cried shy of so called ‘taboo’ subjects. My feeling was that young people go through stuff in their lives so let’s not pretend it doesn’t happen and in the meantime raise questions…Why do people behave the way they do? What can we done about this? What strategies can be put in place to support people? What kind of coping mechanisms do people need to develop?
Whilst working on my last show ‘They Shoot Dogs’ by Sandra Philip at Trinity, St David in Carmarthen I was exploring the subject of PTSD and the soldiers who served in Afghanistan, the effects of their experience on themselves and others. We invited both the writer to share her doctoral research on what she refers to as ‘Traumatology’ into rehearsal and a veteran who had served in Iraq. I try to ensure that actors understand how these experiences impact on people’s lives and that we hear this from people who have actually experienced these situations whenever it is appropriate.
One of the students commented that they suffered from anxiety and the conversation with the ex-soldier had been disturbing. A lightbulb moment for me!
As a director who was an actor I find myself constantly stepping in to the shoes of characters. You might call it empathy but although I was thoroughly enjoying my experience of directing I found that I was taking my work home with me and I do not mean the research & exploration but physically carrying some of the ‘stress’ that people who have experienced Trauma share. I was at times hypervigilant on a state of hyperarousal, my muscles were tense and then I would crash (state of hypoarousal). I put it down to just being thoroughly involved in the process and that as soon as the experience was over I would return to my usual self. But I did not or at least not immediately.
Whist researching this new project for NTW WALESLAB I came across a company called ‘Moving Pieces’ www.movingpieces.co.uk and a woman called Charlie Blowers. She kindly took the time to talk to me.
Charlie is a registered Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor, as well as having a background in Physical Theatre.
My questions were
Is it possible to be affected by working on a play about trauma?
Is it possible that you can be affected by listening to people's stories of trauma?
Is it possible that if you know people who have experienced trauma that this in some way can affect you?
Her answers were ‘Yes, it is possible’
We talked and talked and I was lucky that ‘Moving Pieces’ were running a ‘Seminar on Secondary Trauma’
The day contained ‘body based strategies to reduce the impact of secondary trauma’. I was in a room with mostly Psychotherapists which made me feel like a bit of a fraud, but Charlie had reassured me that she works with theatre practitioners also.
So in answer to my questions I discovered that ‘Yes it was a thing’ and that by listening to people’s stories around Trauma you can indeed be impacted by this. ‘Empathy is not only a psychological phenomenon but a highly integrated process involving both cognitive and somatic processes’
I went back to Cardiff armed with my ‘toolkit’ for taking care of my Autonomic Nervous System!
Observation of Breath
Lifting and lowering the Autonomic Nervous System
Connection to Sensation
Mindful Meditation Practice
And so the journey had begun....
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