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How we made Dry Room? -- Explore Childhood Trauma

This article was originally published on Oxfordshire Guardian 2018, as an interview

For many people, the word ‘MSSB’ or MacArthur Story Stem Battery doesn’t look like anything to them. However, in the field of psychology, it is actually a quite powerful tool to help us understand a child's inner world. It elicits information about the child's relationship with family through storytelling and doll play and is often used on children who have gone through some traumatic experiences in life.

When I read about MSSB, I knew I have stumbled on something that was both intriguing and horrifying. Any of these children’s tales could have been the story plot of Mrożek, Kafka, or even Orwell. They are brilliant combinations of dark fantasy, symbolism, humour, and sharp observation of morality. And this is where the director Zi Ling (who is also a visual artist) and I started.

The story of Dry Room begins with three children, Natalie, Jackie and Christopher, who are the survivors of childhood trauma. Following their journey of self-discovery, each scene is created with a title, which represents different obstacles that characters encounter.Three’s A Crowd illustrates social exclusion in children;The Lady of Shalott is about the long-term effects of child sexual abuse.

The show is to present the impact of trauma on individuals’ later life, not just the trauma itself. Topics like domestic violence are hard to swallow, but we have been trying to avoid cliché or melodrama. The themes of the piece are friendship, empowerment and redemption, and we want the audience find something hopeful in it.

Symbolism is also the essential part of our visuals. Ling was captured by Magritte’s very unsympathetic-sometimes sinister-view of women, and his way of incorporating everyday objects. She integrated these elements in the installation design, which helped me to reshape my narrative.

The rehearsal process was very demanding. As some people said to me, this show is an ambitious project, which I felt is not necessarily a bad thing. Most of the choreography and live music was devised by Ling and the company (Jemma Gould, James Kay, Joe Garbett, and Anastasia Kostner) within 4 weeks’ time. And the show has kept developing since its premiere at the World Stage Design Quadrennial – we even revised two entire scenes. It was not an easy decision to make! Music has brought the soul to this piece. We used a mixture of recorded and live music to create a cinematic effect. This includes two new recordings by pianist Belle Chen. The musical most became a character. For me, Giovanni Solima's Alone is the best piece of music that depicts desperation and isolation. Carolina (Bartumeu, the cellist) has the incredible ability to play by ear and somehow learned this music quickly. It is such an extraordinary and intense piece to listen to.

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