Thursday, October 28, 2010

Teya Sepinuck, author/contributor to "Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre"

a report from Northern Ireland

Retrieved 10-28-2010 from

Teya Sepinuck/Theatre of Witness


A groundbreaking Derry theatre project that brings healing from the Troubles

We_Carried_Your_Secrets_13-(1).JPGTwelve months have passed since the Theatre of Witness programme made their public debut, when Derry hosted the most powerful night of theatre anyone present could recall.

Many memorable dramas have been written over the last 30 years dealing with the Troubles, some even based on the experiences of those who have suffered during them, but unlike most others, this had real people taking to the stage to tell their own story in a dramatised context. We Carried Your Secrets, which premiered at the Playhouse on October 22nd 2009 before touring the Northwest, broke the mould and made a profound impact on our understanding of what theatre can achieve in healing too.

A voice for the voiceless

The concept behind Theatre of Witness was first developed by dancer, choreographer and trained counsellor Teya Sepinuck in Philadelphia 25 years ago. Often dealing with people who had been alienated from society and who had suffered deeply, the concept has given a form of expression to people who would otherwise have remained voiceless, allowing them to communicate their story in the most direct and powerful way. Non-judgemental and collaborative, people are given space, freedom and permission to express deeply rooted feelings, memories and ideas within the dramatic form. Perfecting the technique over many different productions, Teya has adapted the concept for refugees, survivors and perpetrators of domestic abuse, the homeless, those affected by violence and prisoners and their families, among others.

Time is right

While the vast majority of Theatre of Witness Productions have been in the US, it was Pauline Ross, Director of the Playhouse, who encouraged Teya to come to the city, having been hugely impressed by the DVDs she had seen of previous productions. “Pauline felt that Northern Ireland was ready for this concept”, Teya says, “and I came over for six weeks two years ago to conduct some initial interviews. It was an intensive period as I talked to over 40 people, some several times, from ex-combatants in the Troubles to parents whose children had committed suicide.” Having gained a wider perspective of the kinds of issues involved, Teya then chose seven performers she felt would work, both individually and collectively.

Daunting challenge

For thirty years, the people of Northern Ireland suffered terribly during the Troubles and the legacy of that conflict has impacted even on a generation barely old enough to remember it. It must have been a daunting challenge for Teya, coming in from the outside, but she believes there were positives as well as negatives to being an outsider. “My background is Jewish and Buddhist, with no Irish roots at all”, she says. “So I was able to listen to people’s stories without preconceptions. Pauline said she believed this would have been much more difficult for an insider, though it’s important to say I had great help from local people like Pauline, Eamonn Deane, and Nicky Harley who co-ordinated the project here”.

Bringing people together

The seven performers included the daughter of a former RUC officer who struggled with what it meant to grow up holding that secret, ex-Republican and ex-Loyalist combatants, a former RUC officer who’d been on the body recovery team at the Omagh bomb, a young man whose life had threatened to go off the rails and the son of a Sinn Fein councillor struggling to make sense of his life after his father’s assassination. Simply to bring people together in one group who would never normally have met would be considered an achievement but Teya also had to draw their stories out, give them confidence in the process and help them interact as a group. It was, as always, a painstaking business. “There were many interviews,” Teya says, “and I would take endless notes. Then we would bring the group together and they would share stories with each other. I would go away and write the script but would always go back to them and make sure they were happy with what was written. Nothing was kept that they weren’t happy with”.

Graphically honest

More a series of vignettes and experiences with a common theme than a conventional plot the play also uses music (from the Ulster Orchestra’s Director Brian Irvine), imagery (provided by filmmaker John McIlduff) and movement. One of the most important aspects is the way others in the group help tell the individual’s story, recreating their experiences so generational and religious divisions become blurred in the audience’s mind. In this way the audience is presented with graphically honest accounts of violence, inflicted and received, and of deeply entrenched collective traumas like Bloody Sunday and Omagh, in a way that is without judgement.

Overcoming division

There were powerful moments within the development of the play too. 23-year-old Fionnbharr, whose Sinn Fein father was murdered when he was five, initially found it difficult to interact with Robin, a serving PSNI officer, whose contribution was portrayed on film as his presence live on stage would have created a security risk. By the time they had worked together enough to form a relationship, Robin asked the young man to shake his hand, a symbolic moment. Instead Fionnbharr embraced him. By the night of the premiere, Teya recalls, laughing, they were close enough to construct a plan together to torment her.

Supporting each other

Teya saw bonds forming during the production that would not have been possible before. “The inter-generational bonds were particularly strong”, she says “and lots of contacts have grown out of this. They had to support each other on stage, each playing a part in the other’s stories, so they came to rely on each other and work with each other. They were nervous, they’re not actors, and the emotion was obvious. But they had ownership of their own experiences. Offstage, you see friendships grow and the sharing of emotion. It’s very moving.”

Open heart surgery

For anyone who has witnessed the deep divisions and trauma of Northern Ireland during the Troubles it is an extraordinary experience to see such honesty, courage and, ultimately healing, come from an evening of drama. But just as remarkable has been the response from the audience. One by one, after the performance, they got up and shared their deeply felt emotion. Many felt their own lives had been transformed by the event. Some talked of being overwhelmed to witness so much unbearable pain, of the power of the emotion they had felt, but perhaps it was best summed up by the member of the audience who declared its impact to be like that of open heart surgery on the wounds of Derry.

A hub of healing

For the future (the Peace funded programme is a two-year one), Teya hopes that one consequence of the city’s success in the UK City of Culture Contest will be to see Derry become a hub of such groundbreaking work, where people’s true stories can be developed in drama. “I think this would be the ideal place for such work, a centre of expertise to deal in all kinds of ideas and issues that arise from conflict where drama can help lead towards understanding”.


Having premiered at the Playhouse Theatre last week, Theatre of Witness’, second production, I Once Knew A Girl, which explores the Troubles through the often forgotten perspective of women, this week embarked on a 10-date tour. The tour began in Strabane on Tuesday and continues with dates in Omagh, Letterkenny, Armagh, Coleraine, Enniskillen, Ballymena and takes in a home town performance in the Waterside Theatre on November 16th, before finishing in Belfast on November 24.

For more details check out the Theatre of Witness website at

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