By: Diana Varco creator of Shattered and Rise
(Warning: This content may be activating to some individuals.)
“Trauma stories lessen the isolation of trauma, and they provide an explanation for why people suffer the way they do.”
As I wrote in a recent blog for TRF, The Role Improv, Performance, and Storytelling Played in My Trauma Recovery, the stage has always been my safe place. As a child, the local children’s theatre provided me with community, acceptance, and the feeling of being seen. As an adult, my improv training provided me safe relationships, an opportunity to play, and a perspective of possibility.
In my 20s, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career and, unfortunately, experienced a sexual assault that decimated me and my sense of safety. I avoided seeking help for six months and finally could no longer ignore the truth of what happened – I went to therapy. Privately, I sought to heal the devastation of the assault and unpacked deep wounds from my chaotic childhood. Publicly, I pursued improv training, sketch comedy and performed often.
After years of silence, I finally wrote Shattered, a solo play about the personal impact of sexual assault. By blending the creative devices I learned in my theatre and comedy training with my lived experience and the deeply personal work I had done in therapy, I’m able to bring experiences I never intended to speak to the stage, cultivate compassion, and release myself from stigma and shame around my trauma history – shame that was never mine to keep.
“Traumatized human beings recover in the context of relationships.…the role of those relationships is to provide physical and emotional safety…”
My improv training helped me to develop the expectation of supportive, reciprocal ‘give and receive’ relationships. I learned to communicate, even when no identifiable words were used at all.
In improv class and before performances, we do ‘warm-ups’ to connect the group, relax nerves and awaken the body and voice. One warm-up game is standing in a circle and passing sound and movement. A player comes up with a sound and movement, then passes it to the next, who will ‘yes, AND’ what was given, re-define and reshape the sound/movement before passing it along to the next player. It’s like an open, intentional game of “telephone” with gibberish and body movements.
I employ this same technique in my solo show Shattered, which is told through a series of characters – some are emotions of the mind such as Shame, others are inanimate objects and others are individuals of my past brought to life through flashbacks.
Sound and movement play a role in articulating the communication of words I can’t always find. For instance, I act out the sound of a beep to protect the anonymity of someone in the story. There’s a moment in the show when I release the truth about my past and embody a bomb explosion. The growlings of the character of Shame act as both a gibberish expression for the character and a comedic release for the audience.
Creating characters to tell my story in Shattered and engaging sound and movement, provides me with safe relationships in the story. I’m able to step into moments that are very difficult and the characters create distance. The characters offer me the space to say things I don’t feel I can or want to say in real life. Heartbreaking words such as the character of Shame’s tagline ‘you’re not good enough ‘ – words that are not true, yet far too many of us tell ourselves often. The moments where I use sound (mentioned above) allow me to go beyond the limitations of language and almost inexplicably tap into a collective understanding.
“We may think we can control our grief, our terror, or our shame by remaining silent, but naming offers the possibility of a different kind of control.”
Therapy gave me tools and terminology to start to approach and slowly unpack pieces of my traumatic past, reframe it, develop self-compassion, and expand my emotional vocabulary. Essential experiences that I deeply value. Theatre and the creative arts gave me tools to create conversations around these painful moments with joy, purpose, and power.
In my solo show Shattered, I employ the tools of satire and personification to respond to an often unspoken (sometimes spoken) societal judgment in conversations around assault: ‘What were you wearing?’
The character of Shame puts the dress on trial, creating a fantastical, bizarre – bordering macabre – experience for the audience. With Shame interrogating the dress as if it is her fault for the assault, the dress responds, ‘How could I do it; I’m strapless!’ At once challenging society’s often-held view that clothes are to blame for assault and calling attention to the physical realities and limitations of the dress – it was strapless and therefore logistically couldn’t carry out such actions; if, in fact, it did become somehow possessed with the a) life force to attack another human and b) desire to do so.
“Sooner or later most survivors…come up with what many of them call their “cover story” that offers some explanation for their symptoms and behavior for public consumption. These stories, however, rarely capture the inner truth of the experience.
In the early days following my assault, and for years after – before I wrote my solo show Shattered – my form of expression was silence. So many times, I witnessed my peers in the improv/comedy world joke about rape, and I froze, opting to pick a spot on the wall and mentally travel elsewhere. With time, I got the courage to leave when I heard jokes or saw rape scenes in improv class. With time, I finally started to speak to friends of mine and soon – my private writing, thoughts, and experiences found their way to the stage.
Yet, still, in my new solo play Rise, I write the line, ‘The assault. decimated me. Do words exist to explain all the feelings?’
I have found in my theatrical experience that often the body language, an eye glance, a sound or movement or even a silence can convey more than words itself. I’ve also found that in attempting to explain my experience, the repetition of words can be powerful.
In Shattered, I use the concept of a ‘call back’ – a reference to something previously stated – to bring voice, commentary, and comedy to an aspect of my trauma healing I struggled with. During my therapy sessions, I kept looking to be ‘cured’ – I soon learned and had to accept that trauma healing is not linear. At various parts in Shattered, the character of Denial repeats the phrase ‘We are cured. The end.’ – as she tries to end the play early. To which the character of Truth replies, “That’s not the end Denial, that’s definitely not the end.” The line repeats three times during the show, bringing my frustration to life without explicitly saying the words and creating a parallel experience for the audience.
In my new work Rise, I bring voice to this same concept in a different way, referencing iconic Shakespearan text – the harrowing words of Lady MacB ‘Out damn spot’ woven into my personal feelings of powerlessness, guilt, and grief; heightening the depth of my frustration around growing tremendously in therapy, yet still not being ‘cured’. Out of all my writing, this moment comes closest to inexplicable feelings that I have yet to find words to express.
Earlier in this year, TRF hosted a series of workshops led by the organization DE-CRUIT – https://www.decruit.org/ – an organization that uses Shakespeare to treat veterans with trauma. DE-CRUIT will be at the 34th Annual Boston International Trauma Conference!
“Hitherto unspoken words can be discovered, uttered, and received, is fundamental to healing the isolation of trauma – especially if other people in our lives have ignored or silenced us. Communicating fully is the opposite of being traumatized”
Before I wrote my solo show Shattered, I would leave stand-up rooms or improv shows where peers joked about rape. I was extremely upset but didn’t know how to respond. So I left. I would get so mad at myself – where was my voice?! Why couldn’t I say anything?!
Later I realized that leaving is a form of expression – I did speak. I spoke with my feet.
Now I have a platform to hold space for discussion after my performances. Though post show our conversations are full of words, the silence between the words is potent with information. Silence can be problematic, even deadly, as we suffer in shame or turn a blind eye to injustice, but silence can also speak. When I engage in conversation with another survivor, it’s like we share an unspoken language. Eyes meet – I don’t have to explain my grief, my strength, or my story. I know I’m immediately understood.
We can speak through words and actions, with our money, through established routes politically, and established texts. In artistic expression, we can speak through color, repetition, sound, movement, and metaphor. We can speak through showing up to support causes that we care about. We can speak by example – through being kind and respectful to each other. Expression comes in many forms, as does personal, societal, and generational change. Taking action is the first step.
*please note this blog is written with awareness that not everyone has the capability for vocal and physical expression and that many more forms of communication exist far beyond the able bodied experience*
Bio: Diana Varco is a Upright Citizens and Groundlings trained improvisor, story-teller and actress using humor to heal. Her first solo show Shattered has graced many stages in Los Angeles, New York, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and internationally. With 10+ years in comedy, Diana also co-created the improv-based web series Riding Buddies available on youtube and co-wrote the pilot Mom Circle, available now on the Undiscovered Scripts podcast. For more information about Diana visit www.dianavarco.com or follow @dianavarco!
How to view the shows:
Digital access – C ARTS | C venues | C digital online year-round | http://www.cthearts.com
Bookings and information for Shattered – http://res.CtheArts.com/event/34:3452
Available on-demand (1hr00) | Theatre (True-life, Satire, Comedy) | (mature content)
Reykjavik Fringe Festival | 26 June to 3 July | https://rvkfringe.is/
Edinburgh Festival Fringe | theSpaceUK | 22 to 26 August at 13:55 (50min)
Theatre (True-life, Satire, Comedy) | (mature content)