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“Dreadfully White” a charming portrayal of a dreadful topic


The statistics surrounding domestic violence in this country are staggering: Every 9 seconds in the US a woman is assaulted or beaten. In fact, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. Studies suggest that up to 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually.

With these and many other heart-wrenching facts, how can a set of Styrofoam heads hope to convey the severity of the situation, and entertain at the same time? With her one-woman show, Dreadfully WhiteSusan Pope captures the attention with an alarming and intelligent attempt to educate and enlighten audiences about the experience of growing up in a violent home.

Describe the show in your own words.
Dreadfully White is a visual experience, and it tells the story through imagery as much as through words. I play a main character at various ages from childhood to adulthood, and the story is seen through her evolving perspective as she grows up. There’s an element of the absurd (and even humor) in the play, which reflects the absurdity of the child’s home environment that she is struggling to make sense of.

What was your inspiration for this project?
The play came out of a workshop on creating original solo work for the stage which I took with an artist named Daniel Stein at the Del’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California. Daniel asked us to bring a prop which had “inherent theatricality,” and I brought a Styrofoam head. Through the very intuitive and improvisational work we did with Daniel, a story began to evolve around the head—a story that related to things I was trying to sort out at the time regarding my own family. At that time, my father was old and blind and going deaf, and he was becoming dependent on the people he had abused. Meanwhile, the rest of us were becoming more healthy, and the question going around in my head was “Are you afraid now that you are dependent on those you abused? Because you should be.” My father had an amazing ability to self-delude, and I wondered whether he had so successfully self-deluded himself that he no longer remembered what he had done or whether deep down, he remembered and was, on some level, afraid of us. And this question became the spine of the play.

Describe the nature of your artistic background.
I really try to study with people who’ve trained with theatre masters, and my performance and applied theatre work has been informed by teachers who studied under Stella Addler, spopedreadfullywhiteEtienne Decroux, Augusto Boal and Keith Johnstone, among others. In particular, my perspective on acting changed dramatically after my study with Daniel Stein, as I began to see myself as an actor/creator and to create original work. I was also privileged to do a three-week intensive with Pig Iron Theatre here in Philadelphia this past summer, doing mask and Lecoq-based clown training.

I live in rural Kentucky with my family. I love that quiet life, but it has required me to focus more on solo work as an artist. Dreadfully White is currently my primary touring production. I also perform at a wonderful historic site called Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, and I work in K-12 schools through the Kentucky Arts Council helping teachers integrate theatre across the curriculum.

Was dealing with domestic violence a factor in your personal or professional life?
The play was certainly inspired by my own personal experience as a child growing up in a violent home, where the abuse was enabled by my family’s religious environment. But as I began to develop the play, I did a great deal of research in order to incorporate other people’s experience as well. Furthermore, the play is abstract enough that people tend to see their own experience in the piece. That’s why the talkbacks are so interesting, as all these imagined stories come together.

How do you think others can begin to eliminate domestic fear within their own lives?
Well, I can only tell you my own experience. I was trained in my family’s system of self-delusion, so that when I went into counseling as an adult, I insisted that there had been no abuse in my family and instead repeated all the justifications that had been repeated over and over in my childhood. And when I perform for college audiences now, I tell them if I had seen this play as a college student, I would have thought it had nothing to do with my life. Furthermore, when I do applied theatre workshops, I find that participants of all ages can jump in and play those self-deluding roles so well. We all seem to know those lines. So it seems to me that becoming aware of and articulating the justifications that everyone uses to rationalize family violence is the first step toward change and healing for a person raised in that environment.

Have you received any backlash from environmental groups regarding your usage of Styrofoam in the show?
Not yet! I think environmentalists have a lot more disturbing things to worry about than Styrofoam heads!

Dreadfully White runs Sept 13, 14, 16, & 17. Times vary. $12. The PlayGround at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street.

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