Recently I had the privilege of attending a workshop with Teya Sepinuck, the creator of Theater of Witness, in which she guided us to share intimate truths: about ourselves, our ancestors, and life itself. We uncovered stories that needed to be told, but that had, in many cases, been kept buried a long time. On the first night we told about one of our ancestors. I shared the story of my grandmother Mickey, describing the hardships she experienced, the strength she showed, and the love she found and gave. Hearing about each other’s remarkable ancestors gave us a vibrant sense of the varied human beings who have shaped the world in which we live now, the challenges they confronted, and the wisdom they passed on.
In subsequent days, we worked with our own stories. Each participant found the courage to reveal heart stories, including anguishing loss, illness, suffering, and encounters with death, as well as love, spiritual power, and vision. Each story helped us to move more fully into the territory of raw truth, the place where intimacy and healing live. Teya’s work incorporates a wide variety of modalities, including movement, writing, and drawing. An exercise in which we discovered and then shared gestures and short phrases to express deep truths was especially powerful. What emerged from me is still reverberating, guiding my work going forward.
Sepinuck explained the amazing art form she has created, called Theater of Witness. Originally a dancer, choreographer, and dance professor at Swarthmore College, she found a deeper passion when she explored aging by creating a theater piece. An ad placed in the paper brought six “fabulously interesting” old men and women to work with her for a few months. Out of their heart-felt experiences, metaphors, images, and words, a theater piece took shape in which the old folks told their own stories. The audiences who witnessed the performance were moved to tears, and Sepinuck realized that the type of performance they had created together was more powerful than any dance she had choreographed. She experienced a calling to dedicate her life to this new form; after two more productions, she took a leap of faith, left her teaching position, and started the non-profit company, TOVA, “Artistic Projects For Social Change.”
Since 1991, Sepinuck has been meeting with people who have experienced many kinds of challenges. She interviews each person individually, deeply and intimately drawing out their stories, and then brings them together to collaborate in creating performances in which they tell their own stories. She creates the script out of words and stories she has heard from them. Over more than twenty-five years, she has worked with people who have been homeless, refugees and immigrants, prisoners, the families of prisoners, runaways, and those who have been engaged in or impacted by terrorism, domestic violence, inner-city violence, war, and more. Many of her pieces draw together those who have experienced these challenges from very diverse perspectives. For instance, one piece brought together those who had perpetuated domestic abuse along with survivors, and her work in Northern Ireland included those who committed terrorist acts as well as family members of those who died in the violence. The stories help audiences understand what shaped the lives people have led, and what has been the learning and growth in the aftermath of suffering. In working with people to draw out their deepest truths, Sepinuck seeks to find the “medicine” in their stories, the places were transformation, redemption, and healing happen. Again and again, by working together in telling about their suffering, anguish, and hope, participants in Theater of Witness who have been enemies have found compassion and understanding for one another. Audiences, too, have found their hearts opened to include people they might have previously condemned and shut out.
Sepinuck‘s book, Theatre of Witness: Finding the Medicine in Stories of Suffering, Transformation, and Peace, tells about her work with many different groups of people, from around the world. Some of the stories are hard to forget, including the account of a young girl who survived the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia by living in a hole in the ground, breathing through a hollow bamboo tube for a year and a half. Carlos and Sofia participated in several Theater of Witness pieces and helped to create performances based on their heartbreaking but ultimately healing stories of nearly dying in the desert, being homeless, and then suffering and finally overcoming domestic abuse.
In Theatre of Witness, Sepinuck shares the “Twelve Guiding Principles of Theatre of Witness.” The first is to start from a place of “Not Knowing,” with one’s mind and heart open to see things afresh, without judgment, trusting that the stories people tell of their experience will reveal what needs to be known. The stance of Not Knowing assumes that deep listening will reveal the next step to take or words to use. The second principle is to “Bear Witness,” to compassionately open oneself to the stories people tell, even those that are heartbreaking, without trying to control or change them. The third principle is to “Find the Medicine,” to draw out the story in a way that reveals the place of healing, “to walk with someone through his or her wounds until the place of strength, redemption, or transcendence reveals itself.” In working with people who have experienced all kinds of suffering and trauma, Sepinuck has discovered that it is possible to find “The Blessing at the Center of the Wound,” the fourth principle.
Theater of Witness performances give the audience the very particular experiences of real human beings; at the same time, they reveal a great deal about the cultural context which shaped those experiences. Audiences often hear much about their own deepest suffering, hope, and truth expressed in the stories that are shared. Together everyone witnesses the healing that can happen when raw and painful truths are shared communally with the intention of transformation and reconciliation.
The newest piece from Theater of Witness, “Walk in My Shoes,” brings together police with community members, some of whom have spent time in prison for committing violent crime. On her website she describes the performance this way: “The tremendous wounds of our society are in full reveal. What are the Stories that need to be heard? In this time of fear, turmoil and anger, Theater of Witness brings people together across divides of difference to bear witness to the beauty of meaningful engagement, cultivate empathy and truly listen to the stories of people we’ve never heard before. This is the time for a new story. One that taps into the spirit of love and connection between us all.”
A two minute trailer exists for “Walk in My Shoes.“ At the workshop I attended, we saw some clips from the show. In one, a man tells the wrenching story of the racist abuse he suffered as a teen, the bitter rage that compelled him to commit violent crimes, and the spiritual growth that has happened after spending much of his life in prison. Now he has come to a place of remorse and the desire to help others. The wisdom that comes through him is powerful medicine for the viewer.
There will be a free screening of “Walk in my Shoes“ on November 9th at 7pm at Jefferson University – Alumni Hall 1020 Locust Street. For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Theater of Witness website invites support of many kinds, including financial donations, volunteer work, and invitations to have a full showing of “Walk in My Shoes” in your location. Or ask for “The Soul of Story,” a multi-media performance and talk by Teya Sepinuck.
After attending the workshop, reading the book, and watching several clips from Theater of Witness performances, I’m struck by the power of speaking and hearing truthful stories of our deepest suffering. Doing so makes us vulnerable, which is why so much of our culture is geared to avoidance and denial of painful realities. We divert a great deal of our time and attention into entertainment and distraction. But the lesson of Theater of Witness is that healing involves facing painful truths, in an open, nonjudgmental, and compassionate way. In doing so, we find a commonality in our humanity and connect with a spiritual power that knows the way to healing and can lead us there.
Theater of Witness: The Healing Power of Telling and Witnessing True Stories © 2018 Marcelle Martin
Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website. Reviewed by Friends Journal, the book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their own experiences of ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey of faithfulness.