The Role Improv, Performance, and Storytelling Played in my Trauma Recovery Journey

Shattered_promo image_photo credit_ Clark and Main Photography

By: Diana Varco, TRF Guest Blogger

Intro

“Trauma is about trying to forget..theatre is about finding ways of telling the truth and conveying deep truths to your audience.”

My mother tells me that at age 3, I’d sing and dance at the library. My father tells me that at 3, I’d “read” my older siblings bedtime stories, but the book was upside down –  I must’ve loved the story and – more specifically, the act of telling a story – so much that I had memorized it by ear. At 5, I was leading my friends in ‘monkey bar aerobics’ during recess, acting out well choreographed routines on the monkey bars, a la 1980s jazzercise videos. Finally, at the age of 7, I joined a local children’s theatre; I’ve been performing on stage ever since. 

As an adult, I trained in theatrical performance and improvisation. I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career and, about a year in, experienced a sexual assault that completely devastated me. After years of silence, in 2017, I wrote and premiered my solo play Shattered, about my journey to heal after the assault. The night of premiering my show will go down as one of the best nights of my life. For the first time, I told my Truth – on stage for friends, family and total strangers. I finally felt whole. I’ve been performing Shattered ever since, but it wasn’t until I read The Body Keeps The Score in 2020 and, specifically, the chapter on the use of Theatre as a therapeutic modality, that I realized the profound impact that theatre, improv, and performing my show has had on my ability to process my trauma.

My upbringing was uncertain and chaotic, but the theatre provided a stable community for me, a place to go. Scripts provided structure and expectation – I would have to a) learn the lines b) show up when the script dictated and c) connect with the audience in a shared experience. The stage gave me an opportunity to be heard, a safe space to play and be seen. It taught me boundaries, gave me a sense of accomplishment, built courage, and, did I mention that performing is incredibly fun, too?

What is Improv? 

“Trauma devastates the social-engagement system and interferes with cooperation, nurturing, and the ability to function as a productive member of the team….” Improv does the opposite.

Improv is the art of performing impromptu, non-scripted scenes. It’s usually comedy driven and collaboratively created amongst peers on stage – it’s also wildly fun. In improv we create our own reality. A fun-damental rule of improv is, “Yes, AND”. That whatever suggestion is made by a teammate, the rest of the group supports it – enthusiastically. 

If I step on stage and say that I am a duck, my teammate agrees that I am a duck and might say “yes, and your purple feathers are exquisite”. This add, lets me know that I am a duck with purple feathers AND, because of the use of the word exquisite, I’m a duck with high status. I might respond ‘Thank you, this tea is absolutely delightful’. My partner now knows that I am a purple duck of high status, and we are currently enjoying tea in this completely plausible scene. Wacky? Yes. Wacky for improv? No. It’s just the opening three lines. 

Improv taught me to approach life from the perspective of possibility. It gave me permission to follow my intuition, embrace the unknown and create fantastical realities with curiosity and imagination. It strengthened an essential muscle I was building in my private therapy sessions, the ability to re-imagine and re-frame life. Improv kept my sense of joy alive.

Shame. Truth. Denial. 

“Secrets…become inner toxins – realities that you are not allowed to acknowledge to yourself or others but that nevertheless become the template of your life”

My play Shattered is a dark (dark) comedy solo show about dating, dysfunction, and sexual devastation – told through the voices of 35+ characters. The Truth is that it ventures into some really ugly parts of my life and childhood; it’s a story that I never wanted to tell. I wrote the show because while I gleefully played on-stage with my peers in the improv world; privately, I was daily trying to hold myself together, desperately searching for healing after the sexual assault. 

It’s an unspoken agreement that the improv environment is supportive, playful and cooperative; however, the subject of rape is (or was at the time) a very popular punchline. I was in therapy to process the assault, and yet, I was constantly re-triggered by the world around me. The very environment that nurtured, supported, and enlivened me, became the impetus to break my years of silence and use my theatre training to create a response.  

Let’s talk about Shame.

“ As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself.”

Performing my play brings this ‘war with myself’ to the stage. 

In Shattered one of the main characters is Shame. He’s a nasty, gnarled, hunched over character. The things he says are painfully cruel and, unfortunately, truthful words extracted from my mind. In creating the character of Shame though, for the first time, I was allowed and able to start separating myself from the voice of Shame in my head. For the first time, I could objectively look at the terrible things Shame was saying to me and I was horrified that I spoke to myself that way! The character and theatrical elements enable me to step into some really ugly moments because they create distance for me from the true pain and give me a container to express it. 

Finding Value

‘Traumatic events are almost impossible to put into words” but writing my show forced me to articulate the story through sound, movement, and dialogue, to get curious and creative, to start to play with the overwhelming feelings and experiences I couldn’t cognitively understand. 

Growing up I buried my story. I wanted to be ‘normal’, like everyone around me. What I realize now is that I am normal; it’s normal for a 3 year old to “read” a book upside down. Difficulties and challenges, traumatic experiences, are widely experienced. Life is both painful and beautiful; it is how we respond to our past that determines our present and future. For me, I’m grateful that Shattered and my writing allows me to approach my Truth with compassion, nuanced awareness, and boundless creativity. 

A New Perspective

‘If they can embody their experiences well enough, other people will listen…Competence is the best defense against the helplessness of trauma”

The stage gave me valuable foundational skills for expression as a child and an essential creative outlet as an adult. Nobody could hear me before I wrote my show and now, I share my story to demonstrate it’s possible to find release from and joy amidst some of our most painful experiences. I share my story to help people not feel alone. I share my story to inspire hope, raise awareness, and create conversations that call for change. I share my story for 1,000 reasons, but mostly, I share my story because the Truth deserves to be heard. It deserves to be seen.  

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps The Score. Penguin Books, 2014.

Photo Credit: Clark & Main Photography

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