Julie Salverson: Storytelling and social justice

Q&A with Julie Slaverson about the links between clowning and social justice.

Adam Lazarus in a workshop
Shelter, producer
Tapestry New Opera.

Julie Salverson is a playwright, librettist and scholar who has worked in community-engaged theatre since 1981. A 2008 finalist in the CBC’s Literary Competition for Creative Non-Fiction and associate professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Julie focuses on the ethics and practice of tackling difficult topics in storytelling.

She will address these topics and more in a reading on April 8, at SFU’s Harbour Centre. At the event, she’ll read from three works: Shelter, an atomic bomb-themed clown opera; a play about landmines commissioned by the Red Cross called Boom; and The Haunting of Sophie Scholl, a play about a German student activist executed in 1943.

Live Reading by Julie Salverson

Hear Julie read for free in Room 1600 at SFU Harbour’s Centre Wednesday, April 8, at 7 p.m.

Julie is also currently writing two books: The Secrets of Others: Atomic Memoir; and Witnessing a Tragic World: Theatre, Testimony and the Courage to Be Happy.

In the following Q&A, Julie explains some of the ethics involved in telling stories about difficult topics and some of the links between clowning and social justice:

Much of your work has focused on participatory, socially motivated theatre. Yet you note some problems with this form of theatre as commonly practiced—for example the “aesthetic of injury” and how that representation of trauma closes off opportunities for transformation of trauma to healing. Can you explain?

There is a quote I love from philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “The problem with tragedy is, it isn’t tragic enough.” I’m not going to talk about healing, or even transformation, because I think this is a huge topic of its own, and rather dodgy, rather loaded… I am more interested in talking about how we live with courage and joy in the midst of loss, how to live fully in a tragic world, if you like.

The limits I see to representations of trauma include: an almost erotic attachment to the pain in the story and a fixation on that, reducing the subject of the story to their pain; the resulting performance of spectacle that adorns trauma with a kind of panache, if you like; the resulting reduction of the subject to a victim.

To “break out” of this configuration, your work applies clowning techniques to issues of tragedy and trauma. But some readers might have a preconceived notion of clowning as comedy – that it might not be “appropriate” to covering traumatic material. Can you explain: how is clowning a tool in helping represent traumatic events?

I think clown does a number of things. For participants, people trying to find language to speak their stories, it offers an alternative to the very familiar tragic tellings that we are surrounded with. I’d say the absurdity inside clown is a helpful element when it comes to speaking about something that is, in fact, absurd. For example, BOOM, the play I wrote with Patti Fraser (developed with UBC students, helped by clown work with Steve Hill) is about land mines. It is absurd that they exist. Hence, the form speaks to this absurdity. We should not be able to accept these things as normal, as a given… we need to be woken up, startled into seeing their absurdity…
There is joy, pleasure, and thus energy in the encounter with tragedy when we can also laugh. This is not the laugh at the expense of another, it is not mockery, it is the sweet pleasure to see the humanity that can’t be extinguished, no matter what… In what I call sentimental tragic approaches, often the violent event is presented in an iconic way… it is larger than life, the victims are huge, the oppressors are huge, and so an audience member is made somewhat passive by that. There is, I think, very little relationship with the audience. Clown exists to be in relationship with the audience.
Linked to this, I like the point you raise that “questions of form and its relationship to content are in fact ethical and political questions.” In part, this highlights a shift from an ethical focus on content to one on process. Do you think when writing about trauma, people get too hung up on ethics of content and not enough on process?
I think people get hung up on both. Re: process, I have written recently about paralyzed witnesses. I see a lot of this in academic writing and in political work, and this paralysis is largely about process. Meaning, what is and is not ok to do depending on your identity, the extent of your knowledge, and even more dangerously—I think—an infantilizing approach to others that assumes I will hurt you if I dare to encounter your story… But I think paralysis is an excuse to not act. Ultimately, it is not about others, it is about ourselves. It is safer to be “ethical” and not get our hands messy, not take the risk of relationship…
The main point, for me, is that how we interact and develop a project; the aesthetics of our performance, or our writing, these are ingredients in communication, and these are ethical questions.
Another point you raise in your writings is the Western world’s tendency to separate “art” from “life”—life as serious; the absurd as frivolous. Can you speak to how this dichotomy restricts opportunities for transformation/reconciliation (for example through clowning), if indeed it does?

This does remind me of a famous debate between British critic Kenneth Tynan and Romanian absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco. Tynan accused Ionesco of wasting his talent because he didn’t tell people how to fix society. Ionesco told Tynan that bad art—or, didactic art—was bad politics. In other words, art does not need to be about “fixing water pipes” (to paraphrase Honor Ford-Smith, co-founder of Sistren in Jamaica) to be serious and about life. I’d add, art does not need to be somber to be serious. Or, to take life seriously.
What is your perspective on nostalgia as a form of memory? Is it dangerous or important? (Or neither/both?)
…I think there is something interesting in nostalgia—if it is not simply sentiment, or completely unconscious—because it is about our relationship to home. This is very important, so I’m curious how forms like melodrama and clowning can honour and also examine this.
Hear Julie read for free in Room 1600 at SFU Harbour’s Centre this Wednesday, April 8, at 7 p.m.