Talking With Moriah Ella Mason About Debut of New Movement Piece at Off The Wall Theater

off the WALL Productions debuts a new piece of movement theater later this month. Kimono ‘explores the theme of social justice through the experience of victims, the evil of predation, and the culpability of predators

With the help of a woman who appears on his doorstep, a traumatized man, an artist, reconstitutes his life through the transformational work of creating beautiful kimonos. The result is that together they discover the will and courage to do what remains to be done — to call out, expose, and symbolically drive back the predator.

Now I’ve had a very strong reaction to this premis – predation and victimization. So I spoke with one of the performers and a licensed massage therapist specializing in trauma recovery, Moriah Ella Mason.

What exactly is movement theater?

Movement theater is a play that is performed with little or no dialogue from the characters.  Instead the narrative is communicated through the performers’ bodies.  There are many styles of movement theater from all over the world with different systems of training and movement analysis.  Often though, many of these systems or movement theater schools have significant overlap with one another and with other forms of movement performance like dance and mime.

How does movement and the arts related to your work with trauma?

It really arises from my personal experience as a dancer and artist who also has PTSD.  I have lived through sexual abuse as a child, through years of homophobic and anti-Semitic  bullying and ostracism in my small southwest PA hometown, through a sexual assault in college, and an abusive romantic relationship of several years.  Throughout those years, a great part of how I found resilience and the strength to survive was through dance and artwork.  I wasn’t formally diagnosed with PTSD until after college, but as I’ve learned more through my healing process I’ve come to realize that the symptoms of trauma have been a part of my life for nearly as long as I can remember.

After completing my undergraduate degree I decided to go to school for massage therapy.  I wanted to pursue a trade and massage seemed a natural fit with my studies as a dancer.  Honestly when I began my training I had no idea exactly how powerful bodywork can be.  What I discovered that both receiving and giving massage on a regular basis became a vital healing practice for my own trauma.  I began to do more research into the physiology of trauma and how embodied practices like massage, meditation, yoga, and dance can be used as effective therapies for PTSD.

There are a few reasons that body-based therapies are so effective for treating trauma.  One reason is that a common coping mechanism, both during a traumatic event and afterwards, is dissociation from the body.  Part of healing is finding ways to re-engage with the body and all its’ senses.  Another reason is that traumatic memories, as they are stored and re-experienced through flashbacks or other experiences of being “triggered”, are non-verbal – that is, when the memory is being recalled, the language centers of the brain are for those moments off-line.  This is why it is not truly possible to verbally reason your way out of a flashback.  Engaging with non-verbal senses of the body is a way that we can learn to ground even when verbalizing or understanding our experience from a “rational” perspective isn’t available to us.

Because of both my own personal experience using movement and bodywork to heal from trauma, and the research that others have been doing for years into the efficacy of these therapies, I am now doing what I can to add to this work.  My massage therapy practice EveryBody Integrative Massage offers sliding scale and subsidized massage therapy sessions for people in the Pittsburgh region.  I see clients for all kinds of reasons, but healing from trauma is one frequent reason clients find me.  This past January and February I did a month-long pop-up clinic at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater as part of their Penn Avenue Creative residency program.  During that time I piloted some workshops for trauma survivors in which I detail the physiology of trauma symptoms and teach methods for managing symptoms – things like breathwork, moving meditations, acupressure, self-massage techniques, and aromatherapy.  Hans and Ginny read about these workshops online and asked if I would offer them in Carnegie in conjunction with Kimono and my hope is to continue to offer them to any interested venues and groups I can find.

Photo: off the WALL
Photo: off the WALL

I’ve read the description of ‘The Kimono’ and the phrase that caught my eye was the thing ‘that should be done’. Should is a powerful word, especially as it related to survival and healing. Why should? (Note that this term has since been removed from the program description.)

I think what Mark means by that phrase is that we (as in all people whether victims or witnesses) should call out, expose, and stop predation in all the forms it occurs in.  Something we’ve talked a lot about in the development of the piece is the way in which a sort of “predator mindset” is often celebrated in our culture.  People who exercise power over others and victimize others seem to win in social and economic terms.  We also talked about how the way we support victims usually stops short of actually confronting the offenders who victimized them in the first place.  I think the should isn’t directed at the victims themselves per se (though of course some people who have been victimized by an individual or even a government or state find incredible meaning and necessity in challenging those predators) but for all of us.

Cultural appropriation of Eastern traditions for Western consumption is an ongoing challenge, especially in terms of using spiritual practices for our own healing purposes. It seems to me that incorporating the art of making kimonos into a Western theatrical piece may face similar concerns. Help me understand if and how that is addressed in the work?

This work has been interesting in that though we have tried to be incredibly specific as to the some details of the story – for example the emotional process of recovery and healing – in other ways the goal of the story is to be as general and non-specific as possible – to stand as much outside any one specific culture as it can in a sort of fable-listic way.  The work is stating that there is something common to predation and victimization, and to recovery and the pursuit of justice  in every society and every circumstance.  The story was inspired by time Mark spent with a Chilean dissident who was disappeared and tortured, by the story of a Japanese fiber artist, and by the story of an American survivor of sexual abuse and incest.  The aesthetic has been informed by Polish and French physical theater traditions, by Japanese butoh dance, by the works of a Colombian painter, and by Italian commedia d’ell arte.   The decision to make one of the artists a Kimono maker was largely due to wanting to have symbolic artworks that could double as costume pieces and metaphorically communicate the characters’ growth throughout the show.  Kimonos are able to perform that service in a manner no other wardrobe choice could. The characters are not meant to be any specific ethnicity. While this cast is white, this work could be cast with no specific requirements of race or gender. Hopefully as the company grows we’ll be able to attract more diversity of actors both in terms of age as well as race.

 

I’m a trauma survivor. I’m concerned the production may be triggering for me. How does this piece invite survivors like me, perhaps with similar concerns, to engage?

I honestly can’t say if the production is likely to be triggering for you or not. My experiences have shown me that triggers can be so individual that it is difficult to predict for another person. The best I can do is offer some  information that might be helpful.  I can say that it is an emotional piece and that there are some scenes of violence.  I can also say there are no scenes of rape. My hope would be that trauma survivors who do come and watch the work will find resonance in the story in a way that could feel supportive and important.  But it’s certainly not something that can be guaranteed and I imagine will vary from person to person.

Why is it necessary that ‘The Kimono’ be produced?

(Response from Hans Gruenert, from off the WALL)

producing plays like KIMONO is part of our mission.  It is a new play, it has been developed by a Pittsburgh artist and it is very challenging artistically. In addition, it deals with a timeless social subject matter that’s not commonly addressed in theater.  It fits perfectly with our current season that started with Tunnel Vison (a new play, female playwright/director/cast/ LGBTQ theme)

Sacred of Sarah (female playwright/director/addressing autism, eugenics, abortion, millennial privilege) Mother Lode (a new play, female playwright/director/cast – racism/dementia/mother- daughter relationships).

Are you engaging in any training with the production team and/or theater staff around trauma?

I’m hoping they will come to my workshops.

What is your experience with Off The Wall/Carnegie Stage? Why would you invite LGBTQ neighbors to visit and attend a performance?

This production is the first time I’ve been involved with Off The Wall/Carnegie Stage.  I’ve had a great experience – the staff here is incredibly supportive.  They also consistently support female playwrights and show work by and about LGBTQ folks.  It’s especially heartening to see that in a borough outside of Pittsburgh.  I would really encourage LGBTQ yinzers to come out to the theater for that reason.


Performances: March 18-19, 24-26 @ 8:00 pm; March 20 @ 3:00pm

A New Work, developed and choreographed by Mark C. Thompson

Featuring Mark C. Thompson, Moriah Ella Mason, Alexandra Bodnarchuk, and Ryan Bergman

Mature Audiences only. Kimono features adult themes and female and male nudity.

Tickets: $ 5.00 – $ 30.00

Online: http://www.insideoffthewall. com/archives/5720

Phone: 724-873-3576

In conjunction with the performances of Kimono, off the WALL and Moriah Ella Mason, a Licensed Massage Therapist and interdisciplinary artist, offer a workshop addressing the issues raised by the play.
Healing the Body from Physical and Emotional Trauma

In this two hour workshop, participants will learn about the physiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and how the often confusing symptoms of trauma come to be.  Together we will learn about and practice a range of body-based self-care strategies for managing the symptoms of trauma and chronic stress including meditation, self-massage and acupressure, and aromatherapy.

The workshop is free to the community and is scheduled for March 23 at 7:00 pm andMarch 27 at 2:00 pm.