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Including Otherness

May 19, 2019

After some three years of barely any activity outside of the mum sphere, I took on a week long acting job- workshopping a novel that’s being adapted into a play- and another, once monthly job, assisting on a psychotherapy course.

Six straight days of working, split into three full days and three half days, is the longest I’ve ever been away from my children. I managed to tuck both babies to bed every night, and prepped meals and such to the best of my ability, AND I had a heavenly week of being back in the world. At least that’s how this has felt.

Practically, my ‘workload’ doubled, as I came home to catch-up on all my homely duties. Though, I’ve been energised by using my body, my mind, expressing my emotions and ideas in a way I haven’t done in a long time. Also amazing to be with other adults, outside the context of motherhood, and of course, the luxury of solo trips to the loo!

I digress.

What I’m with right now, and eager to share, are some challenges that both the theatre workshop and psychotherapy course groups seem to grapple with at certain points:

How to include Otherness.

In the context of theatre, the challenge was to find ways to transpose a foreign novel onto the stage, without the cliches we might inadvertent impose.

The novel being workshopped was originally written in Arabic, set in Baghdad, so do we put on Arabic or vague Middle Eastern accents to convey a different language? Or do we stick to the (largely regional English) accents in the room? Can we avoid the fetishised, Orientalist flavours of Scheherazade as storyteller or a call to prayer as soundscape? Do we risk dehumanising characters by hiding behind accents and costumes? And if we distil the story, and keep much closer to home, do we risk missing the flavours of the original novel?

In the psychotherapy group, where the majority in this profession remain of a European white disposition, a question was raised on how to include the client’s cultural identity into the therapeutic space, when the therapist does not belong to that group. And in this particular case, most therapists on the course worked with children. A double whammy of a challenge!

During an art therapy exercise, called ‘house, tree, person’, I drew a palm tree. After the tutor demonstrated how a therapist might use the drawing relationally with a client, to initiate dialogue, the group was invited to make connections between the drawing and the drawer’s personality. Observations were formulated into questions, then checked-out with the client, as to avoid imposed assumptions. Seeing my palm tree, one of the participants, an experienced therapist, asked if I felt exotic. I said I didn’t feel ‘exotic’, and the word didn’t sit right with me. The palm was exotic to them, not me.

I was later struck by something the tutor said:

‘You need to stay with your whiteness to help the client be in contact with their own cultural identity.’

What he meant by that, I think, is being aware of who you are, of your position, to make space for difference. To make difference OK, safe, maybe even beautiful in its own way.

There’s no diversity without difference.

Privilege, in my opinion, is when a person is unaware of the power they have by virtue of who they are, whether that’s white, wealthy, socially connected, male etc.

In the theatre workshop context, I’m moved by the director and playwright’s fight to be authentic, and doing so in this refreshing way: refusing the easy representations of this part of the world.

Instead, finding their own truth, and evocative mediums to create a new piece, deeply rooted in the novel. Characters were drawn from the writer’s wife or an actor’s father, words were transcribed from an improvisation and directly from the novel alike, and the drafted script spoken with the actor’s Liverpudlian accent or natural Middle Eastern lilt.

The Arabic names often stood out, anglicised and out of context, but there’s time for more grappling, before any need to polish for production.

————–

Specifically:

Theatre director, Jack McNamara of New Perspectives, was workshopping Frankenstein in Baghdad, a novel written by Ahmed Saadawi.

Gestalt psychotherapist, Jon Blend, was running Gestalt Creative Arts Approach to Working with Children.

From → Artistic, Therapeutic

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