How To Be Well In A World That Is Sick
At New Pathways, we’re proud supporters of promoting recovery from trauma through the creative arts. Creativity can create meaning and connection, and create awareness and conversations around taboo subjects. We have had the privilege over the last few years of supporting Bethan Dear and her theatre company Jackdaw Theatre, and more recently Bethan has been working with our Service User Group to inform her latest theatre piece about sexual violence.
Bethan is performing ‘How to be Well in a World that is Sick’ – “a stark, beautiful, visceral, hopeful and bold performance, drawing on Bethan’s own lived experiences of trying to heal deep trauma” – during April, both online and in person in Aberystwyth. So, to get an insight into Bethan, the journey and creative process, and the play itself, Jennie interviewed Bethan to ask the crucial questions!
Thank you so much Bethan for taking time out of your rehearsals to talk to me today. First of all, would you mind talking just a little bit about Jackdaw Theatre, and who you are and what you do?
When I graduated from university in 2009, three of us formed as a group of young emerging artists and creatives wanting to make space and produce our own work. We did a number of different kinds of projects, from new writing to classic texts, learning our craft.
A few years ago, we all parted ways to do our own thing as freelance artists, and the orginal company passed to me. The company is essentially me as artistic director and the people who are employed project by project. The company becomes and embodies whoever is working on that particular project.
We have increasingly been working on theatre that has an interest in some kind of social change. The forms have all been very different, but we are trying to tell stories that help us all to understand each other and make positive change in the world, one way or another.
So, if your company is made up of different people, is every project different?
Definitely. Some companies have a very clear aesthetic to what they do but we do whatever excites us at the time. Every one of our productions historically, including up to now, has a very different vibe. Some have been big productions with ten professional actors, some of them have been one person shows, and some have involved the community.
It means you have fewer boundaries?
Yeah, it keeps us on our toes. There’s fluidity.
That’s really interesting, thank you. So, your current play is called How to Be Well in a World That Is Sick. What motivated you to take on the hard-hitting the topic of sexual violence? And how has it been received?
This project actually started seven years ago, so it’s been a long time. Initially the project was called Ten Women, and it was an exploration of the relationship we have to our bodies, specifically through the lens of being a woman. At the beginning, it was my intention to discuss body image and how that relates to our culture and the way women are portrayed in the media, in advertising etc. What happened is I got 16 women in a room, and we started working on that subject, and there was an enormous amount of conversation around lived experiences of sexual violence which I hadn’t anticipated. I hadn’t pre-planned working on a piece about sexual violence. But in the process of talking about body image and how we felt about our bodies, the way we saw ourselves, there were so many varied experiences of being catcalled in the street or work, and experiences of assault or more extreme violence. I realised that the two are a lot more interlinked than I had considered before. I was thinking about body image as a separate thing.; but I started thinking about the way women are portrayed, the way women are treated, the experiences that women have, how that then relates to how they think about themselves.
Then, as we were working on it, I realised what I wanted to do was tell my own story, as I realised that I hadn’t. So it was a really interesting journey; I had invited people into a space to make a piece about their stories, and as a result of that, I realised that there was a part of me that wanted to tell my story. It was a completely unexpected outcome of that process. This led to me exploring my own journey and my own relationship with my lived experiences of sexual violence and domestic violence, which I have a number of. That was about three years ago, and the Ten Women process made me realise I had a lot of stuff I maybe needed to address. It was the beginning of me seeking help and seeking support via therapists and groups. I was trying to make something to give voice to other people’s experiences, and wow, I needed to look at my own experiences.
So after a couple of years of therapy, I started to work on the show as it’s titled now, How to be Well in a World that is Sick. I was thinking more about why I had the relationship I had with my body and what that related to. Then for the last four years it’s had various scratch performances where I’ve tested it out – and this is technically the finished version. It’s the most terrifying, exciting, liberating, beautiful, scary, intense thing I’ve ever tried to do. I think artistically and personally, the only thing that has been harder for me was the healing journey and the recovery process from my experiences. But artistically, making this work about that journey, is the most challenging thing I’ve taken on yet.
As you say, you’ve gone through a long journey to get to this point, and your in-person performance is yet to come. What has the reception been like so far? How has it been received and has anything surprised you about people’s reactions to it?
So the very first version we did was a 20 minute experiment at a small festival in Yorkshire, at a festival about women’s experiences of the world. I was surprised at how many people came up to me afterwards telling me I had to keep working on this piece, and quite a few people shared their own experiences of their own stories. That was the moment that I realised there was a need for this. Then, when we did it in London, we sold out all of our shows, and people told me that we needed more spaces in the arts to share these topics and talk about these things. Right from the beginning, I was surprised, and had underestimated how much people would want or need this.
I’ve been surprised by the impact of this work. It’s hard to know what you’re making sometimes when you’re in it. We’ve had people quite visibly moved by it, and men who came to see it also relating to it and being moved by it. Some shared their stories with me. I was surprised by this, as I was trying to work out who this work is for. When I set out on this trajectory, I was very much making this as a woman for other women. That has very much shifted and I am now making it for anyone who has a relationship with this subject matter in any large or small way. It still comes from my lens, which is that of a cis white female, and I can’t speak to other people’s perspective, but there are a lot of scenes in the show now that speak to the more general experience of being human in the world. And being human in respect to experiencing sexual or domestic violence.
That leads me on quite nicely to my next question. For the last 18 months or so, you’ve been working with New Pathways and conducting workshops with our Service User Group around their experiences. What has that process been like and how has it informed your piece?
It’s been amazing. When I did a community production of The Vagina Monologues a couple of years ago, I wanted to fundraise for organizations supporting people with domestic abuse or sexual violence. I stumbled across New Pathways and got in touch to ask if it was ok to donate money from the show. In the process of that, I got to learn what you do, and I signed myself up with therapy with New Pathways. Even though I’d had therapy before, I felt like I hadn’t really found the right fit in terms of what I needed for my experiences. So, I firstly donated to you guys, and then secondly I felt like I needed more support. So out of that, I started to think about how I could link in with New Pathways to engage with other people that might have the same experiences and it organically evolved. I was starting to realise I wanted to broaden the reach, wanted to hear about other people’s experiences.
I’ve been working with a focus group of some of New Pathways’ ex-clients, and it’s been amazing and challenging. I opened a space to listen to other people and got so many ideas, thoughts, hopes and experiences. There was a moment when I had so much, that I didn’t know what I was making. But that was also what was great about it; it massively shaped the journey of the show. I thought it may lead to a piece of work that directly included lots of people’s experiences. Actually, their conversations with me gave me the courage and strength and validation to feel like I can make this show about my journey, when it was something I was constantly trying to get away from. They really supported me and validated my own journey and the importance of my own experiences. So it went full circle, where I thought it would take me in one direction and it’s actually taken me in another. I thought at one point that there might be some quotes directly from the conversations I’d had, and I explored that. But they’re in the show in a very different way; every time I think I might cancel, which comes into my head sometimes, they’re willing me not to. So they contributed most in the support they gave me.
They’re also in there indirectly; some of the conversations I had with them directly inspired a couple of scenes. The first scene of the show is very much inspired by one of the focus group sessions we had, and some questions I asked them around what they wanted and needed from society. It’s a direct response to the collective voice that we need to be heard, we need to be seen and witnessed and believed. A lot of the content of the show has bounced from those conversations. It’s a very, very different piece now, than it would have been without them.
It sounds like, through your personal experience as a conduit, you’ve got the power of the collective experience behind you like a chorus?
It makes me really emotional talking about it, because it is. It’s a thing that I didn’t have. It’s something that I felt was missing for me personally and artistically.
So, how has this creative process affected you personally? And what do you feel are the benefits of the creative process for trauma?
It’s affected me in lots of ways. Ultimately, it’s positive. I’m a big believer in, and I’ve done a lot of work artistically and personally around different ways of, working with trauma through the body. Whether it’s somatic movement therapy, or dance therapy, or through play; I’ve done a lot of exploration around different ways we can process and release trauma through embodied practices. I have direct experience of this being positive for supporting people to rebuild themselves and rebuild confidence, to rediscover joy and playfulness and reform a different relationship with your physical body. Obviously any experience with physical or sexual violence is something directly related to your physical body, and finding ways of working with your body feels really powerful and has definitely helped me to heal.
With regards to making the show, I’ve been treading the edge between making a piece of work that is helping me to heal versus making a piece that might retraumatise me. And there has been a bit of both. After the last show, I felt like I had overexposed myself with some of the choices of material I shared. And although the audience’s response was a powerful one, and people were moved and said they were honoured to have heard it, internally it took me to some difficult places and I took one step backwards in term of my own healing. So that was really important learning for me. So making work around my personal, lived experiences, I have to really balance something that is moving and powerful and making sure I am taking care of myself. It’s been a real baptism of fire. I’m a big believer in learning by doing, and it’s very much part of the creative process too; you can’t think your way through it, you have to try it and see if it works. There is a lot of crossover between the creative process and process of healing from trauma.
So what are the key messages that you’d like people to take away from How to be Well in a World that is Sick? And what can people expect if they’re coming along or watching online?
People should expect it to be intense. One of my key messages is that healing is not easy and it’s not pretty and it’s not always easy. The show is trying to make space for sharing the candid and honest experience what it is to live with the effects of trauma and violence. I feel we have a culture where we talk a lot and we can name something as a sexual assault, but I’m not sure we have the space to talk about what is actually feels or looks like, or the things that you then live with, such as PTSD or flashbacks or insomnia. The show tries to shed a bit of light on the reality of what those experiences leave a person with.
Some of it is quite hard hitting. One of the big messages is that we can’t only make space in the world for the nice, pretty things. If we want to change things, if we want to heal, we also have to make space for looking at what’s difficult and uncomfortable, dark and taboo and messy. And that was a big thing that came up with my own journey, but also strongly within the focus groups, that it’s difficult to talk about challenging topics when there’s a cultural narrative that we don’t want to know your struggles, we’d rather hear about the things you’ve done that are good. It can become very imprisoning and detrimental, and can potentially lead to suicide when there is no space to take the ugly. Where do we take the stuff that is not pretty and not palatable? How do we hold space for that?
Then on the flip side of the coin is the message that we’re all connected. We’re all part of one extended family of humanity. And if we’re going to address this violence in the world, we need to find ways to take care of each other and ourselves, have more compassion and love, and more forgiveness and awareness. To end the spirals of violence and abuse and pain, the only way we are going to change that is being more kind to one another. You can’t separate the individual from the collective, you can’t separate individual experience from cultural experiences. Sexual violence is not the individual’s problem, it’s part of a bigger, wider context of cultural messaging and acceptability.
So, there’s plenty of difficult and hard hitting stuff, and some hope and light. Healing and trauma takes us to dark places, and if we can go through that, we can find joy again – but with bumps along the way! Recovery is not linear.
It’s a story about falling into the dark and finding the light.
(Please note: due to the nature of the content of this show, there is a lot of potentially triggering material. Please attend if you feel it is safe for you to do so within your own self-care).
You can book to watch How to be Well in a World that is Sick in person:
Aberystwyth Arts Centre live show: https://www.aberystwythartscentre.co.uk/theatre/how-be-well-world-sick-18
And you can follow Bethan’s blog here: https://www.jackdawtheatre.com/blog
If you have been affected by sexual violence and you need support, or you would like to find out more information about our services, please contact us by phone (01685 379310), email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact us via our website or social media.