Using your body to take your place in life


Imagine you are in an 8×12 cell in the county jail. The cell has bunk beds, so add another person. The jail is overcrowded so add a third person who sleeps on a cot on the floor. And add a toilet. You’re in this cell for 18 hours per day; if there’s an incident in the jail, then you may be in your cell for 23 hours per day. This is the situation at the Skagit County Jail where I serve on the jail chaplaincy team. 

“Females are kept in two big, stuffy bunk-filled rooms with no privacy at all. An inmate could spend more than a year in the county jail and never see a tree. Narrow, opaque windows let in some light but block out all views of the street. The crowded jail is a “pressure cooker” for the inmates, which creates safety and health concerns for both the inmates and jail staff, Chief of Corrections Charlie Wend said.

“Corrections officers are pushed to their limits, and budget cuts means there are fewer of them.”

“It’s not healthy for them, and it’s not healthy for their relationships (with their families),” Wend said. – Source: Skagit Valley Herald.

This situation would be not be an easy scenario for a couple hundred of healthy, integrated, grounded adults. (Maybe a good reality TV show.) However, incarcerated adults and youth almost always have endured a serious level of trauma in their lives. And we know that events are traumatic when we don’t have any escape, we are stuck, our bodies have no way out from the abuse/violence we have experienced.

Bessel van der Kolk, whom I quoted in my last post, makes the connection between finding healing/agency and embodiment (reincorporation, as I’m putting it). And how a powerful way that embodiment can be realized is via acting:

“Our sense of agency, how much we feel in control, is defined by our relationship with our bodies and its rhythms: Our waking and sleeping and how we eat, sit, and walk define the contours of our days. In order to find our voice, we have to be in our bodies — able to breathe fully and able to access our inner sensations. This is the opposite of dissociation, of being “out of body” and making yourself disappear. It’s also the opposite of depression, lying slumped in front of a screen that provides passive entertainment. Acting is an experience of using your body to take your place in life.” (bold added) (The Body Keeps the Score, p.333)

Enter Trauma Drama. In short, it’s an improv program for traumatized youth in Boston.

“The idea of using techniques like theater to treat trauma, van der Kolk said, came from the biological response to danger. A threatened person typically starts by calling out for help and support. If no one responds, the person defaults to either fighting back or fleeing the location of danger. But if aggression or running away is impossible, the last resort is to shut down.”

”In those cases, ‘the body is unable to reset itself to safety or think clearly about a course of action,’ said Mimi Sullivan, a psychotherapist and PhD candidate at Widener University, who is writing her dissertation on Trauma Drama.”

“The students experience the same sort of threatening situations in the [trauma drama] scenes, but because they are not in real danger, they are able to react in new ways.”  (Source: Seervai, Shanoor. for STAT, August 23, 2016)

So what would improv look like for those who are incarcerated? How could improv impact traumatized youth in my community? I want to find out.

In mid July I’ll be going to the Trauma Center’s week-long Summer Institute. One whole day will be devoted to presenting the Trauma Drama program. I’m curious to discover how this scene will unfold as I bring all these various aspects of my life on the stage together: my concern/compassion for marginalized/incarcerated/traumatized, improv play and facilitation, (and Upfront Theatre), interpersonal neurobiology, embodiment, and my playful self being my truest self. All of this is informed by my christian faith, and Jesus who embodied a new way of being, being present with marginalized ones, and enacted new stories which granted agency (and even joy) to those long held down.

For those who want to be inspired – here’s the short version of the Trauma Drama video:

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