Issue 2

︎What I’m Working On︎Elise Morrison︎What I’m Working On︎Elise Morrison︎What I’m Working On︎Elise Morrison

Domestic Tension, Wafaa Bilal, 2007. Courtesy the artist.

What I’m Working On
Elise Morrison

What am I working on these days? Well, given that I am writing this in the fall of 2020, what I have primarily been working on is: taking deep breaths as I read the daunting daily news about the spread of COVID-19, police violence against people of color, and our broken political landscape; performing the impossible balancing act of working and caregiving/homeschooling for my 4 and 6 year old; and praying for the many people who are in far more vulnerable positions than we are. But, to honor the invitation that Dana and Alex extended months ago, back when we could blithely gather for a glass of white wine together at the end of an on-campus workday…  

My research this past year, which I spent on a pre-tenure research leave (up until March when the world turned upside down), has been centered around my second book project, currently titled Post-Dramatic Stress: Theater and Therapy in the Aftermath of War. This book is fueled by my ongoing interests in digital technologies, cultural ethics, and performance-based activism, intersections that were likewise foundational to my first book, Discipline and Desire: Surveillance Technologies in Performance (University of Michigan Press, 2016). Towards the end of Discipline and Desire, I wrote about artist-activist projects that took UAVs, or drones, as their primary medium. At that time, this military technology was becoming rampantly available to consumers in the form of remote-controlled quadcopters, even as the use of U.S. military Predator drones in Iraq and Afghanistan was increasingly intense.  Public facing projects such as James Bridle’s Drone Shadows (2012-) and Wafaa Bilal’s Domestic Tension (2007) worked to performatively shift participants’ orientations towards remotely-controlled weaponry. (I even participated in the drone art craze, as I worked as a dramaturg on a dance theater piece about zoo animals and surveillance that featured live dancers and live drones for FirstWorks, Providence in 2015.) Though my attention at that time was primarily on the surveillance capabilities of drones, that subject carries within the seed of my current focus: The theatricality of technologies of warfare, particularly those technologies that strive to engage in war virtually or from a distance, and the various ways in which these technologies of war ‘perform’ in socio-political and theatrical scenarios.

My opening premise is that theater and war have long shared tools, tactics, and narrative structures: these include simulation, ‘as if’ structures, agonistic relationships, and the construction of temporary socio-political formations in which people take on certain roles, behave according to extra-daily rules, and whose entrances and exits are observed by selected spectators. Not only have stories of war dominated much of the earliest dramatic literature in the Western world (The Iliad, Odyssey, and vast majority of ancient Greek tragedies), phrases such as ‘theater of war’ and ‘combat scenarios’ have been used since the Napoleonic Wars, if not earlier, to describe spaces and acts of warfare. In a trend not unrelated to the recent popularity of immersive theater productions such as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, immersive simulations have become a stalwart of US military training, borrowing not only on theatrical terminology of rehearsal but even employing industry set designers, fight choreographers, and actor-training techniques (see Scott Magelssen’s fascinating essay on Ft. Irwin in TDR, Spring 2009). Such simulations take place increasingly in the virtual realm as well, as illustrated in Harun Farocki’s film installation series Serious Games. Farocki depicts military service members training for combat using VR goggles and video game interfaces, and points out that VR gaming interfaces have also been redeployed to rehabilitate service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) upon returning from combat.

Drone Shadow 006, James Bridle, 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Looking at such partnerships between theatricality and warfare, I ask: How might theater makers more skillfully and ethically bear responsibility for the ways in which the tools of our field contribute to the damaging effects of war and its long aftermath? In particular, what might the screens of contemporary digital warfare be able to do onstage that they do not do in real life? How might theater artists deconstruct and radically expand the singularity of perspective, limited commands, and contained landscapes that tend to dominate mainstream media representations of contemporary war? Rather than reinforce passive spectatorship, might they be used instead to rehearse ethical witnessing (James Phelan), enact dialogic performance (Dwight Conquergood), and strengthen our moral imaginations (John Paul Lederach)?

︎Theater and war have long shared tools, tactics, and narrative structures.

These lines of inquiry have led me to interview theater makers who stage military technologies, such as Virtual Iraq (a VR program employed by the military that uses exposure therapy to treat symptoms of PTSD); visit drama therapy programs in regional Veteran’s Health Administration (VA) hospitals; volunteer as a theater and storytelling coach for refugee support programs in New Haven, such as IRIS and Sanctuary Kitchen; and travel to Hiroshima and Okinawa to interview artist-activists working in the anti-nuclear and demilitarization efforts that have come to characterize those communities in post-WWII Japan. Through this work I have found myself taking a deep dive into learning about various methods of individual and collective healing, whether they are clinically-tested forms of therapy for post-traumatic stress or community arts projects that aim to build support for and recognition of trauma through storytelling.

As a result, what began as clever word play in my title‘post-dramatic stress’has become my working hypothesis about the links between participatory theater-making and the after-effects of war. I observed that the majority of the work I was encounteringwhether it was being staged in a formal theater space under the direction of world renowned theater artists, or in VA hospitals and community centers under the guidance of art therapiststook up strategies of a particular form of theater making known as ‘post-dramatic performance.’ Post-dramatic theatre (a term coined by theater theorist Hans-Thies Lehmann), privileges interactivity between performers and audiences and a multiplicity of narrative perspectives over the principles of realism and Aristotelian narrative structures. Post-dramatic performance thereby fosters the production of co-determined meaning, plurality of subject positions and narratives, and an often porous relationship between reality and representation. Such strategies, I am arguing, are being used within various theaters of war to exert pressurestress, if you willon the narrow narrative perspectives and habits of passive, often ethically immobilized spectatorship that have been induced by sensationalist representations of war in mainstream media and entertainment.

While I am careful not to conflate post-dramatic performance with clinically proven therapeutic treatments for post-war trauma, I have been taken aback by the structural similarities between the dramaturgies of post-dramatic performance and the courses of therapeutic treatments for post-traumatic stress. I am thus experimentally structuring my analysis of post-dramatic performance work with and about different populations affected by war, in relation to various theories of and treatments for post-traumatic stress. For example: I explore shared emphases on storytelling within veteran and refugee-based theater making and evidence-based narrative treatments for PTSD, such as Narrative Exposure Therapy and Prolonged Exposure Therapy, in which patients tell and retell their personal stories in a model of theatrical rehearsal, repetition, and revision. The aim of these talk-based methods of exposure therapy is to repeat the story of a traumatic event until, through a process known as ‘habituation’, the memory and its associated ‘triggers’ lose their overwhelming power to disrupt and disturb the patient’s current physical and psychological reality. Similarly, storytelling-based performance groups such as The Telling Project interview and train groups of veterans and refugees to rehearse and tell their personal stories of war, trauma, displacement, and resilience to their civilian communities, thereby working through layers of stigmatization and shame which can likewise serve as triggers that can maintain isolation and division. While the goal of The Telling Project performances is not therapeutic, the repetitive, communal process of rehearsal builds a supportive community and inter-personal bonding across previously alienated subject positions. This process mirrors clinical group therapy as combat veterans of various ranks share the stage with each other. Or, as seen in The Telling Project production Voices from the Long War, staged in New Haven in 2016, combat veterans shared the stage with refugees from countries in which they fought, modeling for civilian audiences dialogic practices of speaking and listening respectfully and openly across radically different positions.

︎What might the screens of contemporary digital warfare be able to do onstage that they do not do in real life?

In another chapter, I explore the immersive VR environments popular in gaming industries that are also being employed by military psychologists in therapeutic treatments of PTSD known as VR-Exposure Therapy (VRET). Theater artists such as Christine Evans and Jared Mezzochio have staged Virtual Iraq, the predominant VRET program used today, in Evans’s 2017 play Closer Than They Appear. They crack open the singularity of perspective embedded in the first person shooter video games upon which Virtual Iraq is modeled (the interface was built by repurposing virtual art assets from Full Spectrum Warrior) to make space for multi-vocal accounts of war. This includes experiences of Iraqi civilians watching the destruction of their families and cities and military service members suffering traumatic effects of sexual assault. Employing elements of magical realism and glitch aesthetics to exert some ‘post-dramatic stress’ on the VRET interface, they performatively expand the therapeutic capabilities of this interface and create space for ethical witnessing and interaction between the multiplicity of subject positions involved in the theater(s) of war. 

And in the final chapter on peace arts-activism, I explore the PTSD treatment method known as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT, which applies practices of Buddhist mindfulness, sensory awareness of distress, and the acceptance of oppositional thoughts, emotions, and conditions as a means of building ‘distress tolerance’. These aspects of DBT, which are essential components of a patient’s recovery and resilience, likewise structure the work of performance artists and theater makers, such as Okinawan artist Chikako Yamashiro and community-based theater groups in Hiroshima, as they stage stories of trauma with and for intergenerational community groups. Utilizing embodied techniques of bearing witness to and devising performances based on personal testimony of trauma, they seek to remember the devastating effects of nuclear warfare experienced by the now elderly generation, to galvanize participation of younger generations in anti-nuclear and demilitarization activism, and, together, to physically imagine a world structured around peace rather than war.

Returning briefly in conclusion to the ways in which our daily lives have been impacted by COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and the devastating leadership of Trump, my hope is that in the months and years to come we can meet experiences of post-traumatic stress (a certain outcome of these crises) with creative and supportive strategies of post-dramatic performance, resisting singularity of perspective and sealed narratives so that we might instead open to multiplicity of experience, co-created meaning, and interactivity, even across distance. Let us find faith in our individual and communal capabilities for distress tolerance and creative world building, and to commit to listening to and telling diverse stories of suffering and resilience in ways that foster a sense of our interconnectedness and ethical responsiveness.

Elise Morrison is an Assistant Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Yale, where she teaches courses such as Feminist Theater, Theater History, and Digital Media in Performance, and runs the Performance Studies Working Group. She received her PhD in Theater and Performance Studies from Brown University and held a postdoctoral fellowship in Interdisciplinary Performance Studies at Yale from 2012-2015. She has taught at Texas A&M University and at Harvard University, where she served as the Associate Director for Speaking Instruction at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Morrison’s first book, Discipline and Desire: Surveillance Technologies in Performance was published by University of Michigan Press in 2016. Morrison edited a special issue on “Surveillance Technologies in Performance” for the International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media (Routledge, 11.2) and has published on this topic in IJPADM, Theater Magazine, and TDR. Morrison is also a singer-songwriter, theater director, and has created and performed multiple intermedia cabaret performances that focus on gender, surveillance, and mediatized culture.