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  • Ellie Harrison

Unfinished Histories

Below is a talk I gave as part of Unfinished Histories on the subject of Theatre and Therapy. It is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently and I still have more questions than answers at this stage. You can find out more about Unfinished Histories here


I am Ellie I am a woman I am a performance maker I am making a seven part body of work about bereavement called The Grief Series. Each part correlates to a different section of a seven stage Grief Model and for each part I collaborate with a different artist working in a different medium. Solo show. One to one performance. Photography project. Installation. I am an orphan. Sometimes I am Ellie The Elephant Sometimes I am Eleanor. I am spending time thinking and talking about death Sometimes people come to me for 50 minutes to talk and think about death. Sometimes they cry Sometimes its therapeutic. I am not a therapist. I am not a counselor I am not a clinician I’m not a hundred percent sure what the difference is. I am not trained in those disciplines and I don’t want to be. I am an artist. I have been a client in counseling.


Today I’m going to talk about the second piece in The Grief Series. The Reservation is a performance installation for one person at a time. It was a collaboration with Jaye Kearney and her warmth and compassion is infectious, I feel. Participants are asked to bring a photograph of ‘someone they have lost or are afraid of losing. I bring pictures of the people I have lost.


If the work is therapeutic the question that keeps me awake at night is: therapeutic for whom? I have a Grief Series manifesto and in it I say “I don’t want the work to be a form of public therapy for me and yet I am not resistant to the possibility of therapeutic by products, as long as the work remains open and relevant.”


But I feel conflicted. Because I wouldn’t ask someone to talk about their experiences if I weren’t prepared to do this myself. And consequently very few people are scratching their heads wondering why I’m making The Grief Series. I’ve been very open about my numerous bereavements. Perhaps this is one of the most instantly recognizable ways that The Reservation differs from therapy…that and the elephant costumes…it’s a two way sharing. The piece has 3 parts, the 3rd of which is a story swap. Participants can pick from a number of prompt cards such as ‘A happy memory I have of this person is’ or ‘If I could say one more thing to them it would be.’ And then we both share a memory of our person. Some of the phrases on the cards I stole from a grief board game that is used for bereaved children and I also talk about continuing bonds. But I’m not a therapist….but I’m also not a client in this context. In the client and counselor relationship, who is the audience and who is the performer? In the Reservation are we both the client or both the counselor?


Perhaps my sharing is partly out of a desire to heal myself but a key reason for my life not being edited out of the work is practical. Quoting Helen Iballs reflection of the work:


“We have inherited a cultural assumption that theatre audience participation is likely to be embarrassing; that someone will be singled out and the entertainment will be at their expense – a dent to their self-esteem.”


As well as many positive experience in counseling I have to admit to feeling the power dynamic between the professional counselor and the client. In The Reservation my autobiography is hopefully “a direct reassurance that the participation won’t fulfill worst fears produced by the stereotypical audience participation… as being picked on, shown up, laughed at.” Something that Helen calls ‘Empathy as a given’ “ i.e. as a core element around which a piece of performance is constructed.” Its personal. Its is also Political. I don’t want to utter the sound bite ‘The personal is political.’ I am self-conscious.


My intention with the Grief Series is closer to consciousness raising than therapy. I see it as political. Our sharing is a reaction to the silence surrounding the subject of death.


A story: This is a teapot.


Peter came to see part one of The Grief Series. A solo show of, Etiquette of Grief. He mentioned when he booked his ticket that his wife was terminally ill. We met briefly before the show and chatted. He saw the show and his interaction felt deeply personal. There were people in the audience who were terminally ill or were caring for the terminally ill. Everyone stayed for the after show talk. Several people cried. Many said thank you like they really meant it.


A week later Peter sent me a long letter telling me about how his wife had died in the early hours, the same night he’d seen Etiquette of Grief. I sent him a card and some tea. He sent me a teapot. Made in the 1950’s by his late wife.


I have lots of stories like this but when people tell me stuff in The Reservation I can’t tell anyone else. It’s a confidential space. From my side anyway.


So just to confirm. It’s not therapy. Ignore The Article in the Guardian called Theatre as Therapy in which Lyn Gardner talks about The Reservation. Ignore the fact that I’ve just name dropped Lyn Gardner. It’s not about me. I don’t get anything out of it…well I get teapots. 2 teapots. But I don’t get anything out of it emotionally. I don’t feel catharsis when in each show of Etiquette of Grief I condemn my Dad (in balloon form) to hell. It isn’t about me...and it is.


I think talking about death is a life skill that shouldn’t be confined to professionals. We acknowledge that just because someone knows first aid, they are not pretending to be a doctor and similarly by talking about death we do not become grief counselors.


If anything I feel that sometimes therapy is used by friends and relatives as a way of silencing bereaved people. “Its awful that your brother died, maybe you should get counseling, after all I have no idea what to say to you.” Something that’s there to take the pressure off those surrounding the bereaved, rather than offering additional support to the grieving person.


I don’t say this to attack counselors or counseling. I have had lots of it and I wouldn’t have if I didn’t believe it to be valuable. But I think there is a different intention to that of my arts practice.


We all need to learn the skill of talking about difficult feelings. I think my work shares many qualities with counseling: a liveness in shared space and time, a sense of really listening, a space for reflection. But I think empathy is a life skill we should all cultivate.

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