Exploring the Abyss

Contributed by Jennifer L. Mickelson

Some Thoughts on the Charleston Shooting, Fighting Monsters, and Theatrical Violence

On the evening of June 17th, a gunman opened fire on participants in a Bible study group at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing nine people.  Responding to the tragedy on Facebook, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley stated that “[W]e’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”  It is understandable that Governor Haley, like so many of us, would choose to view the perpetrator of such a heinous crime as unfathomable.  It’s a relief to think that a mass murderer is a completely different type of creature–a monster–nothing like the rest of us regular good people.  It’s a comfort.  But it is also irresponsible.*

For how are we to prevent violence if we refuse to comprehend the perpetrator’s point of view?  The social and medical sciences have long labored to provide us with insight into human behavior of all sorts.  We employ the knowledge they provide in ways that we hope will deter would-be evildoers.  It is a vast and worthy effort that has done much good.  However, there’s more than one way to fight monsters.

Spence Humiston 2 JK 6510 loresMcCreery_Fukawa_Fox_Dornheggen_Dvorak_JK_7109 = Kalina "Kitten" McCreery (Citizen), Kim Fukawa (Cinna the Poet), Ashley Fox (Citizen), Alison Dornheggen (Citizen), Catherine Dvorak (Citizen). Photo by Johnny Knight.BWB LDoO Logan Black IMG_4583 CROP

As theatre artists, we too have a role to play (sometimes literally) in the search for understanding.  Unlike the sciences, bound by logistical and ethical constraints, theatre offers a laboratory in which we can transform regular good people into anything we wish, including the most violent criminals.  As we write, direct, design, or perform, we explore not only the situational stimuli but the emotional responses that motivate people to kill and destroy. We seek out the darkest reaches of our own minds to find the part of us that could embrace such actions.  In practicing the craft of theatrical violence we take that exploration a step further, putting not only our minds but our physical bodies in the monster’s place.

Then comes the key moment: we invite an audience to enter our space and make this exploration with us.  They accept the invitation, protected by the knowledge that here the monster is controlled, that here it is safe to allow oneself to understand.  Understanding is a step toward recognition.  Recognition is an opportunity to intervene.Coates_Peck_JK_7463

We don’t always use our laboratory this way, of course.  It is unwise to look too long into the abyss.  At Babes With Blades, we may use theatrical violence to provide our audiences with laughs, thrills, or catharsis.  But it is the nature of our work, from time to time, to allow the abyss to look back into us, and to report its echoes.

*And inaccurate.  This shooter, like many others, has directly stated his motives–racist motives, in his case.  However, it’s worth pointing out that there is no shortage of racists in this country, and most of them don’t go so far as to single-handedly commit mass murder, so there remains much to learn.

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One Response to Exploring the Abyss

  1. I’ve always viewed theatre as a gateway for empathy, and empathy is one of the main ingredients needed to foster peace in this world.
    Hippy dippy, yes. But I believe it to be true.

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