Jane Ensell, 28 January 2015

Theatre as Experiential Therapy

(Have you experienced it? How can we implement it?)

Session called by Jane Ensell ([email protected])

Contributors included:
Deborah Reeds <
em>[email protected] Jonathon Carr [email protected]
Karen Wilson [email protected]
Jenifer Toksvig [email protected]

This session was initially rather quiet - possibly no one knew what the title was about. I consequently made the decision to add the following explanation:

Disclosure: I am a survivor of sexual assault, with a long history of mental illness and twelve years of conventional treatment for depression and PTSD under the NHS. Last year, I attended Punchdrunk’s immersive production “The Drowned Man”. Following an interaction with a performer in the space, in which I faced threat in a constructed environment, I experienced an astonishing and extreme improvement in my condition. Evidence gathered from other attendees suggests I am not alone in benefitting from this. A filmmaker and a qualified psychotherapist are currently gathering data to document this effect and decide whether it can be utilised, both artistically and

What are your experiences? What shall we do?

The list of contributors included performers, directors, dramaturgs and a life coach.

Other anecdotal evidence regarding Punchdrunk’s work

Experiences already gathered have included people who have credited PD with curing specific phobias; increasing overall confidence; tackling eating disorders; saving their relationships; and improving health, both mental and physical, whilst undergoing chemotherapy.

The “safe space” in art and therapy

We discussed this term with reference both to a therapy environment and a rehearsal room. Many thought the wording suggested something sterile and tightly controlled. “Live space” as an alternative - a space in which things can happen and change.

Therapy, process and intellectualising emotion

Is therapy the right term? Setting up specific expectations and intellectualisation of a process which seems to be occurring on a very sensory/emotional level. We don’t like “process” either! Is taking healing into a non-traditional space/language part of it?

Pushing the boundaries - who is ultimately responsible?

Pushing boundaries is inevitably dangerous. Boundaries at TDM were different to “real world”, but actually very strictly enforced. Is a space which say “no boundaries” (barring physical harm!) actually safer than one where boundaries are fluid? Participants must know what they are committing to. Who bears responsibility?

A contract: questions of choice and agency

The issue was raised that the experience I opened with, whilst positive to me, could have been triggering to someone else. What safety nets need to be in place? Performers must be flexible/responsive to participants. I mentioned the “red tag” system - aware of my condition, I was given a label for “no interaction” on entering. I wore it for about 5 minutes, before deciding I had to commit to what this world offered! Choosing to remove the red tag constituted a contract that I would accept what happened next. TDM was entirely about audience choice (or at least the illusion of it!): where to go, what to do, who to follow. Even specifically referred to interaction: “Do you trust me?”. Agency seems to be key. Parallels were drawn with forum theatre and the ability to influence narrative outcome.

Immersion - making the real unreal

Is this an effect which is specific to immersive work? Creating a realised space in which rules and outcomes can be different, allowing for experimentation. No other experiences of art being similarly transformative to audience members were presented, but several arising from R&D or the rehearsal room. Is immersion/interaction, and its direct connection with the artists, emotionally more akin to making art than consuming it? Is the value in pure, unfiltered experience?



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Research, Experience