Dr. Lisa: In the studio with us today, we have Cathy Plourde, who was the founder and director of Addverb Productions. Just now associated with the University of New England but has been a free-standing nonprofit for many years up until 2011. I first learned about Cathy through TEDx a year ago and I am very pleased to have her coming in to talk to me today. Thanks for being here.
Cathy: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Lisa: Cathy, you have a lot of different very important social issues that you’ve addressed over time. The reason you got into all of this is an interesting story. Talk about that.
Cathy: I used to teach high school and was an ombudsman for youth that were struggling with a list of issues. Some of them dealing with their rights in the administration and some of it dealing with health stuff that people weren’t paying attention to. Some of it dealing with safety, sexual assault, things like that.
I was working with a group of people that were creating a conference for girls. A friend of mine in the group, “You know what, this conference needs is a play to start the day. Why don’t you write one?” I said, “Okay.” One year when conference led to another conference and another year which led to other groups around the state creating conferences for girls, commissioning place from me or asking me to work with groups of youths to create their own play commissions and came from groups like the Maine Women’s Fund.
Then strange things like the Knox County Coalition Against Tobacco, a commission plan tobacco cessation. Financial literacy to sexuality to all over is that where it started.
Dr. Lisa: You spend some time before getting really into Addverb. Going back in exploring your roots in the rating world, you were at Bread Loaf in Vermont. It’s a big detour.
Cathy: Not really because I had gone to Bread Loaf on a special institute. It was an NIH summer institute in theaters specifically which is why I went there and did playwriting and directing and some acting and performing there. Was introduced by some of the folks there, Carol Mcvey, Allen Mcvey, couple of other folks whose names I’m not remember about using theater and pedagogue and using it specifically as a tool for teaching and using that to breakthrough.
Whether you’re teaching science and the circulation system and the body or if you’re trying to teach a social issue or a new one, theaters are really amazing tool regardless of the age. It’s where it started for me was in Bread Loaf.
Dr. Lisa: Playwrights traditionally have run the gamut from people who are providing something that’s simply entertaining to people who really are approaching social causes. You could have gone for easy but you chose to go for more challenging.
Cathy: Yes, somebody went to ask me when I was workshopping the play You’re the Man, why I did this instead of real plays. When I tucked myself back into my chair, I explained that in fact these were shows that were not sitting in a drawer wishing someone else would produce them. This was a DIY situation where people were not dealing with issues.
To be fair, it’s just people want to avoid talking about sexual assault with young people or dating violence or eating disorders with young people. We don’t know how. We don’t know what our resources are. Since Addverb began and even before these works are beginning before Addverbs inception in 2000. The idea here was to not only give people information, valuable, clear, accurate information and to bust through myths and things like that but to give people an opportunity to think about what they can do.
I was workshopping the Thin Line back in, it must have been 1998. A group had asked me if I would remount one of the conference shows from the spring. I said, “No,” because that was 10 teenagers in the middle of July in Camden. “They’re busy. It’s not going to happen. How about a workshop in my new play?” I said. They said, “Oh, great.” Of course I hadn’t written it yet. This is really fantastic for me having a deadline, an audience in advance. That’s very much of my amuse in that regard.
The workshop is a piece on eating disorders. A young woman was in the audience. Her friend was the actor I’d roped into being the performer in that situation. She gave me a gift. Her gift was, “So what? We know our friends are dealing with this but we do not know is what to do about it.” That really became the litmus test for all of the work.
I’m not saying we’ve hit that mark everytime but that’s been the goal. It’s not enough to know that you need to create … it’s hard for youth who are struggling with their gender identity or families who are struggling with their gender identity. They’re perfectly fine with it. How do we get people to a place where they know what to do or what to say? Things aren’t simply prescriptive or they’re often unique to an individual or situation. How do we give people the tools to even begin communicating about it?
That’s what I love about theater is that you and I, let’s say I’m your kid and you’re my mom. We go to a play and we see this thing about dating violence together. We can talk about that. “That what happened in the play, does that happen to your friends? Do you think that was realistic? Are you seeing any of that?” You can have that conversation with me in a way that it’s not as threatening. “What are you doing on Saturday night? What are your friends doing?”
It’s a softer approach and paradoxically because the approach you get closer and it gets more personal and deeper quite quickly. It’s an effective emotional experience that is shared. That’s what we want. We don’t want to leave people in a puddle. We want people to really think about, “Wow, I understand this in a new way,” and “Wow, I see I need to do something,” and “Wow, I actually know where my resources are.”
Dr. Lisa: This is in fact what you or someone has written on the back of this book, Out and Allied: An Anthology of Performance Pieces written by LGBTQ Youth and Allies. This comes out of Addverb Productions. You’ve written, “It is not enough to just raise awareness, we have to do something and we need others around us to join in.” What is this interactive piece as joining in that you’re discussing? Some people think about play just I watch, you do. There it goes. Wait.
Cathy: Most of the time, anybody that comes to see an Addverb production or if young people are using the scripts from Out and Allied, the people in the audience have not purchased a ticket. Most of the time, they’re what I call a captive audience. For some reason, they are compelled to be there. They probably would not have chosen to do that on that particular moment in time.
There’s respect for the people in the room. There are people in the room who are connected to the issues. Whether we’re talking again eating disorders or dating violence, sexual assault or gender spectrum issues, there are people who know the issue way too well and personally and have a connection to it. To propose that a play is going to have the answers and to solve it all and make it perfect and we’re all going to walk away feeling moved and happy. That’s not how it works.
I want the play to be a starting point. There’s a sense of having respect for the people in the room. Respect for their difficulty in approaching the issue. Respect for in every room when “You’re the Man” is performed, there are survivors. It may not be dating violence but it might have been childhood sexual abuse or it may have been dating … the person who’s abusive to them or who has sexually assaulted them might be in the room.
How do we have this conversation as a community and create safety in the room as well as in the individual seats for everyone. That’s what we want to do at Addverbs is think through a large process of engaging a community, galvanizing local resources. The play is a play. The actors are actors. They are going away. I don’t put either myself or the actors or the play itself ahead of what’s really important and that people’s lives need to be saved.
Dr. Lisa: In Out and Allied, there is a piece called What Makes a Man? This person writes, “I am not gay but because I stand up for equality, people will assume I’m gay. That’s just how society is these days. It just seems as if everyone’s chief here is being accused at being gay as if it were some sort of Salem Witch trial. The difference here is that being gay isn’t a bad thing and neither are supporting gay friends and family.” Why are straight men so afraid of being called gay?
Is that part of it that people don’t want to be … they don’t want to stand up because they don’t want to somehow be associated with a group that has been marginalized.
Cathy: You’re tapping into that issue of voice really clearly. People are afraid to use their voice. There’s a list of reasons why we’re afraid. It might not be safe. There might be something lose. There might be some consequences whether it be resistance from their own family or their own cultural norm. If they’re in a locker room and someone’s making noise, it might not be the right time to interject. We have to honor that.
With this writing, this young man actually lives here in Portland. He was an intern with us and help with the manuscript together for the book, Michael Melafont. With this, we’re offering an opportunity for people to voice. The play is not going to give everybody story but they’re going to give that opportunity for us to hear the other stories.
If we’ve made it safe in a community to talk about sexual identity or orientation or sexual assault or dating violence or eating disorders, we’ve made it safe to talk about lots of things. It’s partly, this idea of empowering people to use voice is in part empowering a community to support hearing and meeting people who are using their voice and have things that they need to say.
Does that make sense?
Dr. Lisa: Yes, it makes a lot of sense. I’m glad that you’re also bringing the work that you’re doing to the medical community. I understand that you’re working with the University of New England in their Medical School.
Cathy: That was really a lovely match made in heaven. I’ve actually had board members over the years who were UNE employees. At the end of Addverbs’ existence as a nonprofit, I told my board, “Look, I’ve got about two more years here. That it’s hard. It’s a peel.” Frankly, we never recovered from the recession in 2008. So much of our funding was fee for service. We’ve been relying on grants and donor support. I can keep doing this for two more years or there’s an opportunity.
One of our board members worked at the University of New England. He’s an associate dean at the Westbrook College of Health Professions. He said, “You know, we’ve been working together all along.” I had gone into his classes numerous times. “If you look at your mission of theater for health and wellness education and you look at the University of New England’s mission of health and wellness education, there’s a beautiful fate here.”
It’s been wonderful to take on, it sounds so strange, to take on domestic violence issues with the medical community or the folks who are training to be our health professionals with these issues that are not easy for them. They’re just like anybody else.
Why would it be easier for a doctor or a nurse or somebody to take on and start talking about domestic violence? How many times have I heard the story of, “Yeah, yeah. A nurse screened and she said, “Well, oh, we have to ask. You’re not in a violent situation home, are you?” They have communicated in a way that clearly says, “This is how you’re supposed to answer this question?” I’m not willing to hear yes.
Dr. Lisa: What is that healthcare professional afraid of?
Cathy: In the yes. They’re afraid that they won’t know what to do. They’re afraid they won’t know how to fix it. They’re afraid that in the lovely restrictive healthcare system we have right now that in the eight and a half minutes they have to talk to somebody. They can’t really serve the person. If you can’t serve them, let’s not open them.
The other issue here is that people are coming to health professions like anybody else with their own histories and own stories. Part of what may get in the way of them wanting to hear yes is they haven’t dealt with their own stuff on this. We have found that when we’ve presented the work on domestic violence to the students training as health professionals, that there’s been surprise, surprise and uptake in the counseling services and their notation of reason for seeking services: history with violence.
With this, we’re educating our staff and faculty at UNE that if a student is having some problems, you don’t just nod your head empathetically. You do something about it. You offer to listen to them. You offer to connect them to the resources on campus.
There’s this whole shift in helping people understand we’ve got to deal with this issue. What is amazing is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study which was the study by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente, 18,000 people. The idea here is that, “Huh, there is a correlation between adverse childhood experiences such as abuse and long term health effects.”
It’s a no-brainer if you think about it. They’ve also found that the higher the cluster, higher the number of these adverse experiences; the higher the incidence of chronic illness and long term health effects. If you know as a healthcare provider that your patient has some issues with depression and if you know that they are someone who has a history of violence or has it going on in their life right now, you need to really take a closer ear to this.
We’ve moved from and I don’t mean to be dismissive by this but a garden variety depression to higher incidence of suicidal outbreak and suicidal ideation. You’ve got to step in in a whole new way.
Dr. Lisa: It does seem interesting to me as we’re talking that a lot of these topics are interwoven where if you’re somebody who has a history and not always but if there is someone who has a history of violence in the home or dating violence, it’s possible that they’re more likely to have an eating disorder or …
Cathy: Absolutely, yeah.
Dr. Lisa: Just a lot of these things that are adverse childhood events and even adult events. They’re all interconnected.
Cathy: Very much.
Dr. Lisa: When you open this Pandora’s box and you see that all of these things are crawling around, what happens next?
Cathy: Naming it is often the first step, being seen, having your voice heard. It comes right back to it, the voice. We’ve got to consider the “So what?” Like that young woman said to me many years ago, “So what are we going to do about it?” In fact, there is a social and even a moral accountability here to not turn a blind eye.
Even just naming it and telling somebody, “I see this.” is … There’s a woman for example who I worked with for many, many years who does domestic violence work. She shared with me not too long ago a story of having been in the ER for injuries brought on by abuse and nobody in the hospital said a thing. Then as she was leaving, she was out almost at the parking lot, this guy ran out and said, “Here’s a number. I want you to call him if you would, please because he saw it.” That she said was the beginning of her being able to take a step for herself for her to find her own voice.
That there’s this interesting connection between what does it mean to empower somebody. What does it mean to allow voice? A part of it is just being witness and letting people know that. A wonderful thing, another woman from the Domestic Violence Community said to me once is that, “If you say nothing, you have actually chosen to stand with the abuser or the bully,” or the whatever here. That in fact there’s a complicity in silence.
That’s really what’s behind Addverbs’ work is to break that silence, A but B, to add if you will the verb, to add the action. What are we going to do about it because it’s really, really not enough to just raise awareness.
Dr. Lisa: You and I had a conversation about perhaps art or plays that somehow opened up a wound but then leave their nowhere to go. People can be deeply impacted by something that they see or they hear and really shaking. It’s not really a safe way of having these feelings because when they leave, say they leave the play and what do you do with that?
Cathy: An artist is an artist. They have whatever creative reign and license they wish to have. Addverbs’ work is almost exclusively captive audience. In that case, I feel I have more of a responsibility to respect the fact that they may not have had a choice to be there. I don’t wish to dump on them. Sometimes people use theater and arts in a magical, wonderful way to move them through an issue.
They are giving voice to that abuse or that story or that … however big or small it may seem to anybody else, it doesn’t matter. It’s their own journey and their own story. Honestly, some of that probably should either stay in your diary or stay with your therapist or invite a close group of friends who are confronting and are okay holding witness in that space. There is stuff that sometimes abusive on audience. I’m uncomfortable with that as an artist myself.
Dr. Lisa: Cathy, how can people find out about Addverb?
Cathy: Addverb is spelled with two Ds. You should know that because it’s adding the verb. We’re at the University of New England. We’re at the une.edu quick link page. I’ve got a blog that I’m keeping up with right now which chronicling our translation of the play “You’re the Man” into Australian. It’s about to be used down under in a statewide initiative in Victoria which is very, very exciting. Yes, it meant I had to go there.
Online is a great place to find us. You’ll find some great book trailers that students have created about Out and Allied and they’ve got lots of resources. Please come find us, volunteer, get on our mailing list, send us money, whatever you like.
Dr. Lisa: They can also watch the TEDx that you go talk.
Cathy: Yes. That’s kind of embarrassing but yes you could.
Dr. Lisa: I’ve watched it. I think it’s worth paying attention to. I know you have your talk and then you also have a bit of I guess it’s a portion of one of the plays that you do.
Cathy: Yeah, two plays are featured in there. It’s embarrassing because that work is meant to be without me. I’m not used to putting myself front and center. I stand at the side of the work and monitor it. It’s really not about me.
Dr. Lisa: We thank you for joining us today because today it is about you and it is about the work that you’ve done with Addverb. Like I said, I appreciate the spotlight that you’ve been able to shine on issues such as domestic violence and eating disorders.
Dr. Lisa: I encourage people to go take a look at what you’re doing.
Cathy: Thanks. We’d love to take a show to anybody’s community. Let us know.