Speechless

On March 24th and 25th, the first workshop performances of Frederick Johntz’s new play, SPEECHLESS, was presented at the Lucid Body House, preceding the March For Our Lives. Directed by Fay Simpson, and played by actor Jonathan Bock, this play is a one man show about a young man who picks up a gun as a way to handle his rage. Looking at this country’s epidemic of young people shooting their peers, Fred and Fay wanted to try and get underneath the psychological aspects of a person who can carry out a mass murder, before even being out of puberty. Artist Ali Kashfi drew pictures that were projected on the wall, to reveal deeper layers of the character’s psyche. Projection designer, BP Houle and sound designer Josh Samuels, creating an aural and visual landscape surrounding our character who is stuck at the shrink’s office. Viewing the therapist as an authority figure and therefore a threat, the young man challenges the therapist by refusing to speak, hence Speechless, but chooses to tell the audience, his confidante, the disturbing and troubled details of his life.

The performance was aptly book ended by a short piece written and performed by Suzanne Smith, “Men Who Love Women”, a portrait of a southern woman in love with men who love guns.

Sunday’s performance was followed by a panel of psychologists (see bios below), in dialogue about how to see the signs in troubled kids. What are the causes leading up to this? Are there any patterns that emerge? The panel stimulated a lively discussion with audience members who seem deeply concerned about this very important and controversial issue.

Dialogue

Dr. Shervin Ravan
Such a pleasure to receive and read both of your messages. Yesterdays event was, as Joanna pointed out, a really wonderful example of the power of art, and especially of theatre, and I feel very blessed to have been a part of it. Thank you, June, for your role in putting this together and for being such a wonderful moderator – I thought you did a really beautiful job of keeping the discussion on topic and containing, for the good of the group, the strong affects yesterdays performance and conversation brought into the room.

It was also a real treat to hear both Frederick and Jonathon speak of their experiences in writing and performing, respectively, the play. Like Joanna, I’m very curious to hear what the next steps will be. If this is performed more formally, I’d really (really) love to be there!

Regarding the issues of trauma, guns, and violence, I really do believe, and I think the evidence supports this, that we need to take a strong look (and this is where funding becomes critical) at how certain cultural phenomena – gun control, poverty, workaholism, breakdown of community, lack of funding for the arts (where so much aggression, pain and trauma can be worked through), materialism, debt, war, racism, sexism/patriarchy, xenophobia, imperialism, war, mass incarceration, etc – impact violence in our communities and in our country at large. Study after study shows that suicide (the leading cause of gun related deaths in the US) is intimately linked to multiple socioeconomic factors that are then, in turn, inextricable from the overall form of economic relations in this country – a web of connections that is often reduced to guns and guns alone. Clearly though, gun control, and even complete disarmament, would be a huge step in the right direction.

Dr. Joanna Symeou
Thank you June for this message, and for the opportunity to participate yesterday. It was a very meaningful experience. Shervin it was great to meet you!

Indeed the problem is a multifaceted one. Gun control could potentially change the landscape over time, by legally restricting how extreme forms of aggression are expressed. We still have to look at the aggression, and understand the pain and experience behind it, in order to promote healing. Otherwise it will always find other ways to express itself!

Speaking about our life experiences, to others, our family, friends, a therapist, is imperative to not perpetuating trauma, not living a life ruled by raw, unprocessed emotions that can easily get out of control. The listeners must also be open to hear. Therapists are basically professional listeners, we spend our lives studying/practicing how to listen, hear and respond to the said and unsaid! As members of the audience said, connection/community, empathy, and kindness are necessary for dialogue and healing to occur. The event yesterday I think was a powerful example of art as a vehicle for exactly this.

Dr. Theo Tsaousides
Playwright Frederick Johntz, director Fay Simpson, and actor Jonathan Bock gave us an artful and intimate glimpse into a topic mired in controversy, darkness, and shock, making us think deeply about gun violence and violence of any kind and shift our focus from the horror of the crime to the multiple factors that lead up to it.

We tend to think of instances of mass shootings as isolated and aberrant events, and fail to notice the cultural, socioeconomic, and political context within which they are created and which facilitates their relentless spread. Easy access to guns, the inadvertent normalization of violence and antisocial behaviors, the mass propagation of detrimental ideas through social media, and enduring feelings of distress and isolation at a global level can become the tinder that allows such wildfires to spread.

At the end of the play and following the panelists’ discussion with the audience we were all left with more questions than answers. And that’s a good step forward. Finding solutions is not going to be easy but it is essential. It will require confronting our demons, our biases, our fears, and our privileges. It will require asking our leaders to face the facts, not just offer their condolences after the fact. It will require admitting that we may have gotten it wrong but it’s not impossible to make it better.

Panelist Bios

Moderator: June Ballinger is an actor and former Artistic Director of Passage Theatre in NJ which has for the past 22 years focused on developing and producing topically relevant plays. She has produced Fixed addressing young people and mental health by David Lee White; Teen violence ( Bang Bang You’re Dead by William Mastrosimone), and The Gun Show by EM Lewis.

Dr. Shervin Ravan is a Columbia University trained integrative psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and trauma. Originally from Iran, he practices with a focus on race, identity, and cross-cultural dynamics, and is a member of the American Psychoanalytic Associations committee on diversity. In addition to private practice, Dr. Ravan is the medical director of Greene Clinic, a community based psychotherapy and acupuncture clinic in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn.

Dr. Joanna Symeou is a licensed clinical psychologist living in New York. She is of Greek-Cypriot origin, and has lived in both England and Cyprus. Joanna has experience in psychotherapy, assessment, teaching, consultation, supervision, and training non-mental health professionals in psychological perspectives. She has worked in a variety of settings including college counseling, substance abuse treatment, and the Greek Cypriot National Guard. Her professional interests include trauma, the mind/body connection, and psychoanalysis. Joanna works primarily with young adults and is committed to serving clients of immigrant, minority, and marginalized backgrounds.

Dr. Theo Tsaousides is a neuropsychologist, assistant professor at Mount Sinai, and author of the book “Brainblocks: Overcoming the 7 Hidden Barriers to Success.” He is an internationally renowned expert in brain injury rehabilitation. He also runs workshops using principles and techniques from psychology, neuroscience, and brain training, to help people, teams, and organizations become better problem solvers, so they can reach bigger goals.