by Tatiana Chaterji
This is a #ThrowbackThursday post detailing some of the theater-based healing work lead by Tatiana Chaterji as a Cal Shakes artist-investigator in 2017-2018.
“Remember that we are now entering the magical world of theater,” I say as I push away imaginary curtains and take a step forward. “When you copy me, you’re not mimicking or mocking me—you’re acting as my mirror, so that I know that you see me, you hear me, and I matter.” I coax the group to do exactly what I do after I’ve done it: the same words, movements, tone of voice, volume, quality. The same mannerisms, how I carry my weight, what I do with my hands, where my eyes focus or wander. I explain that unlike in the real world where I might take offense, here I am surrounded by multiple mirrors, each one reflecting my truth, however beautiful or damaged.
I use theater to teach empathy, and then create a space for all of us to flex our empathy muscle and get stronger in our ability to listen and love. It is a circular process: learn, practice, heal, re-learn, practice, heal. By listening to someone else, we recognize that they have more in common with us than we may have originally thought. In holding their vulnerability, we may be able to forgive them for their faults, and thus forgive ourselves.
I grew up with the repetition of a particular Buddhist sutra from the incarnation of the Buddha as Avalokiteshwara, considered to embody compassion in all of its forms:
In the Garden of Indra
Shine a million pearls
Reflecting and caught in a web
Each pearl, by reflecting its neighbor
Reflects the infinity of all the others and their images
Working in prisons, I grapple with my own trauma and that of others. I take solace in these ancient words of faith in a caring, interconnected universe. To me, this is the answer to our broken universe. To see each other as the sides of a multi-faceted mirror. In fact, it is the only way I have been able to recover from past violence against me, the violation of my body and spirit. To understand that even at our furthest, we are bound together in a cosmic circle. The moment where we collide is fateful entrapment, the glue that binds us. We’re stuck together, floating orbs in co-rotation, the arcs of our orbits dependent on one another. It’s up to us to thrive within these circumstances: to find joy, humor, and peace. To harmonize and unite.
Below, I have outlined a sample sequence of my workshops within prison to integrate dramatic arts and healing. This list is far from comprehensive—just a glimpse of the techniques that I pull and coalesce from the disciplines of Drama Therapy, Theatre of the Oppressed, Playback Theater, Restorative Justice, and Verbatim Theater. The needs of each group are distinct, but my priority is to meet the individuals where they are and support them as they reframe, redefine, and transform heavy personal content.
In the first two classes, we establish the ritual of Circle from indigenous peacemaking practices. Our guidelines are to respect the talking piece and person with it, speak and listen from the heart, speak and listen with respect, remain in circle, honor privacy. The discussion topics range from messages we learn about gender, what mood states we notice that we get into, our coping strategies for stress/anger, the parts of ourselves we want to celebrate versus the parts we want to let go or forget, items we would include on an altar to our resilience, how we’re doing physically-emotionally-spiritually, our values and when we realized we valued them, our identity and the roles we play.
We introduce ourselves through Three-Part Emotional Sculptures. You select three people and sculpt each of them to symbolize an aspect of yourself. This could be a vision of yourself from the past, the present, and the future; three hobbies or passions; three emotions or dimensions of your personality—there’s no wrong way to do this, and on any given day, you will inevitably highlight different things. After you have finished sculpting, I ask you to present your sculpture to the group and explain what each part signifies. I then ask you to give each person a line that captures the meaning behind the shape that they’re holding. I invite you to step back and watch, as this is a gift for you to see yourself outside of yourself, externalized and held by members of the group. I conduct the sculptures to speak their line, one at a time, repeating, overlapping, and gradually growing in speed and volume. I allow the voices to wash over you until it is almost too much—and this is the point, to simulate a trance, to surrender to the dissonance and madness that is yourself, and in so doing, reach clarity. It is a gift for you, and also a creative method of introducing ourselves that brings immediate meaning and depth.
Whenever we host a performance for the other prisoners, we do Fluid Sculptures. This has become a cherished rite. I invite an audience member to join me on stage and share a story inspired by the theme of the evening’s performance: Identity, Forgiveness, Empowerment/Having a Voice/Speaking Up. As I interview the volunteer, the actors stand at one side of the stage, attentive and with a neutral stance. When the conversation is over, the actors come forward, one at a time, offering a repetitive gesture, image, movement with a few words that capture what they’ve heard. I ask the storyteller what resonates with her, and then ask the actors to share why they chose to depict her story in the way they did. Sometimes the actors may know the storyteller and be able to bring forth some relevant knowledge that we otherwise wouldn’t see. But more often, it is the actors’ intuition and compassion that drive the creative offering. They pull from within their own histories, and render a version of themselves in playing back the storytellers’ words.
To get to this point, I lead the group in a “compassion workout”: flexing our muscles to listen, hold, embody, perform, and connect. Before we can perform someone else’s story in front of an audience, we have to perform our stories internally, give of ourselves to each other, and believe in the magic of these gifts. We need to experience it in our bones—as participants—before facilitating the experience for anyone else. My task is to give my students the experience: to relax into it, enjoy, feel the power, and then turn it around for the benefit of their peers.
First and foremost, I must create a safe container for exploration and revelation. The women must trust me, and they must trust themselves, all in an environment which is often dangerous. I riff on the following activities and take my time to establish trust through the slow introduction and repetition of the concepts underlying theater-based healing.
Partner Mirror Sync: Start in pairs with one person as the leader and the other as the follower. The leader brings her hands up, palms facing her partner, who does the same to reflect the leader’s image. The leader moves spontaneously and the follower matches her movements. After a couple minutes, switch roles without dropping your hands. The facilitator continues to cue when to switch, shrinking the time down to a minute, 30 seconds, a 15 seconds, 5 seconds (etc) until, finally, both people are leading and following at the same time, finding the next movement together, sharing power, engaging in a game of give-and-take.
Group Mirror/Voice Mirror: Standing in a circle, one person moves and speaks in a stream-of-consciousness while everyone else tries to follow as precisely as they can, without waiting to comprehend the specific words but instead matching the leader’s pitch and affect so that the group moves as one. This exercise challenges participants to be spontaneous and un-self-conscious: no matter what you do, everyone is right alongside you, acting a fool, being ridiculous and impulsive and free.
Story Exchange: Find a partner and take turns sharing about the following prompt. While listening, pay attention to your partner’s intonation, eye contact, physical habits. Try to remember their choice of words. Take a couple minutes by yourself to rehearse: you are about to present your partner’s story as your partner , from the first person. You may miss some of the details, but you will still honor their spirit, motivated by the place where your hearts meet. If you panic, rely on your intuition. This is a gift for your partner to see herself reflected through you.
- What is a turning point in your life, when you had to make a tough decision?
- What is your proudest moment?
- What is a community that is truly inclusive and validating of who you are?
With this exercise, I have witnessed profound synergy. When Tia performed Elizabeth’s story about her husband’s passing, she began to cry. The tears were Tia’s tears, from feeling Elizabeth’s pain while embodying Elizabeth. Many of us watching also began to cry, moved by the tenderness and intimacy of how Tia was inhabiting Elizabeth’s story.
Simultaneous Story & Movement: In pairs, one person narrates while the other person moves, mimes, and acts it out in real-time.
Essence & Metaphor: In pairs, one person shares a story based on the prompt. The other person listens, and then reflects it back in three words (the essence), and three images (the abstraction or metaphor or feeling behind what they heard).
P.S. Letter & Doubling: Think about someone with whom you have unfinished business. Someone who has wronged you and who you do not want, or have not been able, to forgive. One volunteer sits in front of the group, and mimes writing a letter to this person (pretending to type on a computer, or with a pen and paper). Speak as you write, getting everything off your chest about what you can say to this person. When you are finished, we (in the audience or witnessing circle) will come forward to add P.S. statements to the letter. Because we do not know the person you are addressing, we do not carry the same hatred, resentment, fear, bitterness, or sense of betrayal against them. We can, therefore, channel some of their humanity to you, the letter-writer. We can perhaps understand the other person’s perspective, and offer suggestions that will help ease your pain. One by one, we step forward and place a hand on your shoulder. We begin by saying, “P.S.” and propose lines about what else is true about the situation, other ways to see it, and what might be happening for the offender/perpetrator. Our aim is to show solidarity with you while also not demonizing or vilifying the other person who is not in the room. After we finish speaking, it is up to you to type it into the letter. You can change what you heard to make it close to your own sentiment. You can adjust the wording, delete or embellish parts of what we suggested. We are acting as your “double” and are tapping into our intuition about what you need to experience closure or affirmation. Our words are not real until you say them. Ultimately, our P.S. statements may advance you in your journey of healing or forgiveness.
what is love
i took you
hind my eyes
and saw me.
— Sonia Sanchez
Tatiana Chaterji is a restorative justice practitioner, liberation arts educator and storyteller working across the borders of incarceration, intergenerational trauma and structural violence. A frequent speaker on victims’ advocacy, reconciliation, and alternatives to the criminalization of wrongdoing, she has initiated several programs at correctional facilities and re-entry, integrating the arts with healing and victim-offender dialogue. She learned theater in the movement and on the streets of her community, inspired by rich traditions of Bengali cultural resistance. She trains with performance collectives in Kolkata, and agitates through Theatre of the Oppressed, youth leadership, and guerilla arts interventions for social change.