Performa 13 goes social. At least it is supposed to. Clifford Owen’s Five Days Worth is characterized in the Performa program as a series that “will include the activation of objects and the staging of conflicts and resolutions.” The description of Abdel Amir’s performance series reads: “Our Best Intentions invites audience members to take part in an intimate participatory performance combining elements from psychotherapy, theater and art.” The roster is full of socially engaged, participatory, and interventionist performances, cooking events, barbecues, dinners, and so on. Jerome Bel’s Disabled Theater, which is presented as a theatrical highlight, does just what Performa seems to aim at as a whole: it both comments and relies upon the social turn in the arts.
At the same time, and just around the corner, there are social performances taking place, although still seemingly far from Performa: Esmin - Four Years Later is presented at the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street by NYU’s Program in Drama Therapy. And it draws a totally different crowd.
In drama therapy, theater is employed in order to treat individuals with a variety of psychological, social, institutional, and educational problems. Here, performance is used in therapeutic processes as a means of acting out instead of just talking through, but also as a means of creating distance through fiction in order to discover new aspects of the self. With this basic knowledge in the back of my mind, I wonder how the public performance I am about to see could be classified as therapeutic. Will I be part of a therapeutic process simply by witnessing a play? Will my engagement include other forms of participation – something more active than watching, listening, experiencing? And if the process can be considered therapeutic, will it be impactful for just the performers on stage, for the audience members too, or maybe even for everyone involved?
Having watched Esmin twice now, I still have no definite answers to these initial questions. The trouble I face just trying to describe the content of the play testifies to its multi-layered structure. The play is based on the sad true story of Esmin Green, a woman who died in the psychiatric emergency room at Kings County Hospital in New York City; she waited there unattended for over 24 hours. The reason for her death was not her mental state, but a thrombosis resulting from sitting in a chair motionless for too long. Finally, Green tried to get up, fell to the ground, and even though other patients and hospital staff saw her, no one bothered to check on her for another hour. This failure to provide assistance was captured on the video cameras installed in the emergency room. The autopsy revealed that she was alive for another half hour while lying on the ground. Those who ignored her could have saved her life.
This tragic story was the point of departure for the drama therapy project, which approached the material postdramatically, constructing a collage of different sources, as well as a score, which encouraged social interaction and improvisation. There was no preexisting dramatic text; Kate Hurd, who also performed in Esmin, devised a play text that consisted mainly of texts developed during rehearsal, recorded interviews with the Kings County Hospital staff, and quotes taken from press coverage on the case. There was also an ‘open chair’ integral to the staging, where audience members were invited to sit down, share their stories, and be interviewed by Hurd.
All five performers, including Hurd and Dave Mowers, the director, are either staff or alumni of the Steinhardt Drama Therapy Program. The performers play themselves dealing with the challenges they faced during the rehearsal process of finding a theatrical form for Esmin Green’s story. These self-referential presentations are not at all detached from the goings-on at Kings County Hospital though, because, as Hurd points out during the performance, all five performers are accustomed to working in clinical contexts. In addition to these two intertwined layers – telling Green’s story and sharing insights about the rehearsal process – the performers constantly change roles, stepping and lying inside a white line drawn on the ground, which signifies the corpse of Esmin Green, representing different nurses and doctors. To make the setting even more complicated, both Hurd and Mowers actually engaged in drama therapy sessions with the staff at Kings County Hospital after Green’s death, in order to work through what Hurd refers to as “institutional trauma.”
So for whom is this performance therapeutic? Obviously, the performers are dealing with their own responsibilities and limitations working in clinical settings, and this results in a rather personal and conflicted process presented on stage. Or are they merely representing this process, just following a script that has turned into text after rehearsing each scene many times? The performers are also reenacting the roles of real staff members, some of whom were in the audience both times I saw the play. It must have been an intense, maybe even beneficial experience for them to hear their voices fictionalized but raised and to have their concerns being taken seriously and spotlighted. The audience may have also consisted of people who knew Esmin Green, or people who are generally familiar with the position of being vulnerable and denied help. For these people, elements of mourning in the play, like a song sung by Britton Wiliams, may have been more than mere expressions – or representations – of sadness on stage; maybe they were able to join in during these moments, to take the theatrical form and allow it transport their own emotions. Maybe being witnessed by others intensified this experience.
But how about someone like me? Someone who did not know Esmin Green, and had not heard about her death before attending the performance. Someone who is neither familiar with the goings-on in a psychiatric hospital, nor with the work of a drama therapist. Of course I can relate to the story; of course I am touched by certain words and images; of course I am shocked about the tragic fate of Esmin Green. But was this process any more therapeutic than any other theater performance in which I was moved by the story, in which I identified with certain voices and was alarmed by others? Did this performance evoke more than empathy? I don’t know. Maybe the open chair was the key: I could have gone and shared my thoughts, could have opened up generously and sympathetically as some audience members did. Maybe my experience would have changed had I occupied this space, filling the performance with my personal story. Maybe even the chance to do so did.