Performing Stories of Lived Experience

Photograph/Ambarin Afsar

By Shea Wood, MA, CCC

We tell stories every day to communicate who we are and what we have experienced. The sharing of experience in the form of a story involves a personal process of meaning-making by reflecting on an experience through the telling of it (Lewis, 2011). Performing personal and family stories (as opposed to simply telling them) can provide even further opportunities for meaning-making and growth.

I am currently researching how performances based on lived experience can foster transformation in the witness. The purpose of my research is to develop theory that can aid in the creation of performances—with roots in lived experience—that may achieve an optimal balance between affective/emotional engagement and critical personal reflection. A learning experience is more meaningful when it includes both emotional content (makes us feel) and intellectual content (makes us think and reflect). Therefore, achieving this balance in performances will create an opportunity for transformative learning (see Grabove, 1997) to take place in the witness.

In preparing for this research, I have reviewed a large amount of literature about:

  1. The theory of transformative learning (Davis-Manigaulte, Yorks, & Kasl, 2006; Dirx, 2008)
  2. The cognitive/affective dimensions of engagement and response often discussed in the fields of therapy (Dalgleish & Power, 1999; Greenberg, 2008), theatre (Jackson, 2007) and education (Yorks & Kasl, 2002)
  3. Aesthetic approaches and theatrical conventions that are commonly used to present stories of lived experience (Jones, 2002; Mienczakowski, 1995; Saldaña, 2011; Smith, 1993).

It became evident after reflecting on all of this literature that I would actually need to create a performance to use in this research in order to study the impact of witnessing. I would need to be able to control and design the elements of the performance that have been discussed in the literature as being useful in bringing about emotional arousal and critical reflection in the spectator.

That is what I want to talk about here: the experience of creating that performance piece. I want to speak about this part of my process because I think it is very important for us, as drama therapists, to reflect on what it means for a person to tell his/her story through dramatic processes and performance. Stories hold the essence of who we are, what we have lived, and how we make meaning out of our experiences. As we ask our clients to express their personal material and stories through dramatic processes, it can be useful to reflect on what it is about this experience that promotes meaning-making and personal growth.

I have created a performance piece based on my mother’s experience of being the child of an alcoholic. It is a story of struggle and perseverance, trauma and healing, relationships and forgiveness. It is a story that lives in my family history and influences the person that I am. This process began with my mother writing journal entries and sending me photocopies of her beautifully expressive writing, and progressed to me writing and workshopping a script while integrating her feedback. Some of these stories I had heard before, and some had never been told within my family. As I sifted through the memories inking those pages, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the process of telling this story would influence my mother, my self, our relationship, and the individuals who will have the opportunity to witness this piece. And though I am only currently researching one part of this equation (the witnesses), I am certainly keeping detailed notes on the rest of the process in anticipation of one day exploring it in depth.

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