Voices heard

11 April 2020

ShanaĆ© Chisholm reflects on Winsome Pinnock's workshop about writing trauma

Theatre itself is the re-enactment of human existence. It is the performance of stories that are both contemporary in its occurrence and historical in the themes that are explored. With happiness and joy, comes sadness and grief, and the thoughtful balancing of these feelings, is what can lead to a truly authentic piece of writing. Yet, audiences don’t come to the theatre for therapy, nor do they want to feel exposed; they want to escape, they want to be entertained. So what do we do with the emotions that people would rather leave at home? As a playwright, what do you do with trauma?

Attending the ‘Writing Trauma (without traumatising the audience)’ workshop with Winsome Pinnock was incredibly insightful. At times, I have drafted an idea for a play and stopped myself from pursuing it, because it centres around feelings that are unpleasant. How do I protect my audience from the depth of these emotions, whilst exposing the reasons behind them? By sharing her creative process of writing Rockets and Blue Lights, Winsome gave us a means of navigating these internal conflicts. 

At the core of Rockets and Blue Lights, is the experiences of those who were enslaved by the transatlantic slave trade and in conducting research for this play, Winsome was confronted by stories with a traumatic legacy that is still prevalent today. Thus, Rockets and Blue Lights became a vehicle through which structural racism could be contextualised, enabling audiences to acknowledge its inception. Plays such as Rockets and Blue Lights are essential in combating the erasure of the lives of those who were enslaved and those who are bound by its repercussions, but how do you begin to write about that?

Winsome encourages us to remember that theatre is one of the safest spaces to discuss and explore things, and has the capacity to heal and bring people together. We shouldn’t shy away from discussing trauma, because in order for people or institutions to be held accountable, trauma has to be witnessed and acknowledged, voices have to be heard. Important and progressive work can be achieved through writing about trauma, as it combats the ‘silence of the archive’; the loss of stories and experiences because they weren’t documented or spoken about. Your voice and the voices of those that you choose to uplift have power and deserve a platform on which they can be expressed and valued.

By using examples such as Fairview and Misty – two plays that discuss the representation of Black communities in contrasting ways – Winsome highlighted that the discussion of trauma doesn’t have to exist in darkness. Audiences can laugh and characters can be satirical and the message of your play can still be understood. Rather than be challenged by writing about trauma, Winsome calls us to challenge trauma and how it is portrayed. How can you disrupt the way in which we consume trauma? How can the hierarchy of perpetrator and victim be subverted? Is there power in victimhood and how can that be explored? 

In this workshop, I learnt that trauma can be expressed in a multitude of ways, and your representation of it doesn’t have to be restricted by its negative nature. There are lessons to be learnt and networks to be made through the sharing of traumatic experiences, and through the medium of theatre, they have to potential to be transformative.

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Photograph: Beatrice Debney