- Charlotte Charke, a Shilling, and a Shoulder of Mutton:The Risks of Performing Trauma
As teachers, directors, and choreographers, we ask our performers and students to push beyond the boundaries of what is known and comfortable. As we aim to challenge them, as well as our audiences, how do we decide what will cause them to stretch and grow, without overwhelming them? To what degree are we willing to risk harm, and how do we stay aware of different levels of risk for different people? I grappled with these questions during my work on the production of
Charlotte Charke/Mr. Brown, a devised musical theatre piece about the eighteenth-century London performer who lived much of her life dressed in men’s clothing.1 In one particular scene, “A Shilling and a Shoulder of Mutton,” I asked my cast to risk confrontation with issues that made some of them squirm, and taught them how to protect themselves as they pushed at the edges of vocal trauma. In this same scene I had to balance the vocal stresses of repeated screaming with the necessity of good vocal health. As I guided my cast through these hazards, I myself had to discover how to negotiate the balance between the call to name, remember, and re-voice acts of unspeakable violence, and the chance of harmfully reviving any trauma that that violence may have caused in our audience members. Through the process of creating Mr. Brown, I began to realize how crucially important it is for me to be aware of, in terms of positionality, prior experience, and bodily practice, the risks I ask of others, and from this awareness to find a way to present challenges without inflicting harm.
In thinking through these risks, I am theorizing trauma as both an individual and cultural phenomenon. According to Roger Bechtel, in his 2013 piece in Theatre Journal on Troika Ranch’s loopdiver, trauma can be produced in an individual when they experience “any event that overwhelms a subject’s capacity to regulate stress” (87). This can be a single event, or an accumulation of events. Ann Kaplan tells us in Trauma Culture that trauma can be experienced vicariously, by therapists or by spectators of a traumatic event (39, 90). She maintains that vicarious trauma is different from experiencing trauma itself, perhaps more like pain evoked by empathy. She includes transgenerational trauma subjects in the category of those who are experiencing vicarious trauma (106). However, a study by Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler in Nature Neuroscience in 2013 showed that fear learned by one generation of mice is passed down epigenetically to successive generations, and that “the experiences of a parent, before even conceiving offspring, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations” (95). More than an empathic response, transgenerational trauma reshapes our genetic structure.
As I worked on Mr. Brown I needed to be aware of the potential for traumatic events that affected individuals, communities, and the accumulated trauma of past generations. Of trauma’s place in performance, Kaplan optimistically tells us that “[a]rt that leaves the wound open pulls the spectator into its sphere” and has the “power to move the audience ethically, to expose the structure of injustice and to invite viewers to take responsibility for related specific injustice” (135). But when we re-present trauma in performance, we cannot assume we are performing only for those who need to take the responsibility for committing injustice. We may also be re-presenting a traumatic act to those who have experienced a similar trauma firsthand—empathically, culturally, or ancestrally. How do we balance the desire to awaken an awareness of injustice with the dangers of imposing a traumatic experience on the members of our community who are most vulnerable to it? [End Page 333]
About the Show
Charlotte Charke/Mr. Brown began as a Practice as Research project asking the question: “What can the voice do when we attempt to work outside the boundaries of gender and genre?” The production that emerged alternated between narrative scenes drawn from Charlotte’s life, and interludes in which the cast, a group of University of California...