Good Grief Transforms Pain Into Extraordinary Theater
by Kylie Fitzpatrick
I can’t think. I don’t feel anything. I don’t remember.
The performance artists in Everett Dance Theatre’s new production, Good Grief, are not just acting when they deliver these lines, and nor is this someone else’s script, but the result of a collaborative process between performers and artistic direction.
Each of the cast of five of Good Grief is intimately acquainted with trauma and its aftermath and, like all of Everett’s work, this production is cutting edge theatre and choreography. But Good Grief is more than this; it is also a dynamic and thought-provoking recovery project.
Everett, based in Providence Rhode Island, has a thirty-year history of championing young performers from disadvantaged communities, and of integrating personal stories into dance theatre. As Everett’s co-artistic director Aaron Jungels says: ‘growing up poor can expose you to many stressors, and to trauma, and personal stories organically became part of the work we did.’
Everett’s previous production, Freedom Project, was the seed from which Good Grief grew. Freedom Project shared the stories of people in the Providence community who had been through the prison system, often as a result of being excluded from school because of behavioural disorders, which are in turn often the result of poverty, hardship and trauma, or ‘the school to prison pipeline’ as Aaron Jungels calls it.
Good Grief was, in the latter phase of the workshopping process, developed with the support of David Medeiros, a practitioner of Internal Family Systems or IFS. IFS is a relatively new psychotherapy and also a philosophy for living. It was developed by Richard Schwartz and applies a family therapy model to the individual, the premise being that the mind is like a family whose members are each at a different level of maturity. IFS is based on the idea that we all have these ‘parts’: the part that is angry or hurt and wants to hit back, which is sometimes but not always placated by the part that is the peacekeeper, and the part who wishes to rise above uncomfortable emotions and reactive behaviour. In IFS, Medeiros explains, our multiple parts have three categories: exiles, who carry the burdens; managers whose exhausting job is to keep the system going, and firefighters, whose approach is well-intentioned though not always helpful, since firefighting blasts the problem into oblivion.
Richard Schwartz himself saw Good Grief and said – ‘it was very moving for me – I was crying through much of the performance. It is a very accurate portrayal of what we do.’ When asked by an audience member about the ‘self’ that is at the centre of the IFS model, Schwartz explained that the true self, ‘has all these wonderful qualities and can’t be damaged; it knows how to heal all its parts.’ His vision for IFS is that it should become a mainstream psychotherapy and also that it be introduced to school-aged children to support personal development as well as to help traumatised individuals.
Besel Van Der Kolk, a leading expert in trauma and the Medical Director of the Trauma Centre in Boston, explains IFS in his book The Body Keeps the Score: ‘How we all get along with ourselves depends largely on our internal leadership skills – how well we listen to our different parts, make sure they feel taken care of, and keep them from sabotaging one another. Parts often come across as absolutes when in fact they only represent one element in a complex constellation of thoughts, emotions and sensations.’
Jungels says that, for him, finding IFS was the key to Good Grief: ‘ It provided a safe way to explore the performers’ traumatic experiences and a process for going deeper without exposing personal details or negatively impacting family members. It allowed the piece to become more about the process of healing than about revisiting trauma stories.’
The performance itself is the result of a unique collaborative process which is a hallmark of Everett. In rehearsals, the company’s two artistic directors, Dorothy and Aaron Jungels, set up improvisation exercises – movement, acting and interviews, designed to encourage the performers to tell their stories. They video-tape rehearsals and later view the footage and decide what has the most truth and impact. They then bring edited videos to rehearsals for performers to relearn and, in this way, start to build a collection of material.
Good Grief itself is structured in parts: a piece of one story is told and then another piece and another, keeping the pace buoyant and the intensity building until, in beautifully-timed sequences, a dance routine intersects. Light and then dark; emotion and then release. Here is the addicted father who depends heavily on his child, for emotional support, for money. Here is the tenth-grader who can’t go home so stayed out all night and danced to keep warm. And can he dance. Here is bag lady who drags her troubles behind her, scoffed and taunted until, in desperation, she attacks her attacker.
‘We wanted the creative process of Good Grief to be transformative and healing for the participants,’ says Aaron Jungels. ‘We believed that if we accomplished this we would have something of value to offer audiences. My first priority was not to do any harm to the performers who were sharing their stories and making themselves so vulnerable. That’s why it was confidence-building to have David Medeiros collaborate with us.
David Medeiros says that ‘as a therapist it was very exciting to watch the process, and to recognise the symptoms of trauma being played out. Part of his contribution to the development of Good Grief was to facilitate individual IFS sessions with the performers and to lead a parts sculpting exercise that was integrated into the performance. ‘The idea of IFS is to unburden the exile and to reestablish harmony and trust in self-leadership. The courage it takes to tell your own story blows me away,’ he says. ‘The arts can bring something together that would be impossible through therapy alone.’
The performers themselves attest to the power of the fusion of IFS therapy and dance theatre, and are now using IFS principles and insight in their own lives. Joseph Henderson says of his former anger: ‘half the time what I was angry about had nothing to do with anyone around me.’ For Laisha Crum the process has been ‘so healing and eye-opening [that] I wanted to share it with my family and friends.’ Sharing and reaching out, starting with audiences, is part of the ethos of Everett.
‘In a broader sense,’ says Aaron Jungels, ‘we wanted to raise awareness about how widespread the impact of trauma is in our society; to communicate to audiences who are experiencing trauma disorders, or have people in their lives who are, that they’re not alone. We wanted to show what healing from trauma looks and feels like.’
‘Checking in with parts is a way to understand what state you’re in,’ says Grace Bevilacqua. Like other performers she has been having IFS therapy in rehearsals. ‘I realised that some things had affected me way more than I realised.’
In his book Trauma and Memory, another leading trauma expert, Peter Levine, explains how overwhelming emotion can interfere with proper memory processing. Traumatic memories are caused by a breakdown of the brain systems responsible for creating autobiographical memories. The trauma becomes trapped, not just in our brain but in our bodies. It is replayed over and over as anxiety or panic, or as a more serious psychological disturbance, and it floods the body with chemicals and hormones that we can experience as depression. The frontal brain is shut down, which is responsible for creative thinking, empathy, and human connectivity.
‘With no compassion for my wounded parts I couldn’t feel compassion for others,’ says Justine Jungels in Good Grief. It is little wonder, then, that there is also a feeling of detachment in the body after trauma, a disassociation which can lead to self-harming and eating disorders. ‘I have this lonely part,’ says Tiana Whittington, ‘when she feels lonely I end up in bad relationships. She doesn’t know how to love herself. She finds other people to give love to instead.’
Everett has in the past been contracted to create arts adaptions to implement a clinical program called Cognitive Behavioral Interventions for Trauma in Schools for middle school students. The company is now exploring an arts-based education program that uses IFS to address the social and emotional needs of young people. Richard Schwartz has signed on as a consultant for this work and is providing scholarships for several Everett artists to be trained in IFS.
The work Everett is doing could not be more important. The effects of trauma can devastate lives for generations, but can also be converted into an extraordinary strength. The cast of Good Grief have been courageous enough to transform their pain and grief into a powerful piece of theatre; and in doing so have created change. When we become whole and integrated as individuals, then, and only then, can we facilitate change in the world.
-Kylie Fitzpatrick, Phd
Kylie Fitzpatrick is an author and researcher in the use of creative practice for recovery and rehabilitation.