COLUMBIA – Emily Rollie sits in back of Starbucks on Ninth Street, a pile of books beside her.
“Look around,” she instructs.
Troubling Violence Performance Project
For more information or to schedule the troupe for a performance, contact Emily Rollie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources for sexual assault victims
MU Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center
Address: G210 MU Student Center
The Shelter for Victims of Violence and Sexual Assault
Hotline: 875-1370 or 800-548-2480
Address: P.O. Box 1367, Columbia, MO 65205
Three women are near the front window. Three are standing in line. Four are talking around a table in the middle of the shop. Two more are walking into the store.
Rollie throws out a statistic from the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence: One in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.
Statistically, then, at least three women in the coffeehouse that day could encounter domestic violence during their lifetimes, if they haven’t already.
But it isn’t about statistics. Statistics don’t reveal any stories about domestic violence — the fear and feeling of powerlessness, the loss of self-esteem and confidence, the anxiety, or even the depression.
But Emily Rollie and a group of fellow volunteers do.
They are part of MU's Troubling Violence Performance Project, a troupe of actors who share stories about domestic and sexual violence with Columbia audiences and prompt discussion afterward.
In so many cases, Rollie said, these subjects are taboo. There may be embarrassment or shame on the part of victims, fear that an abuser might retaliate, or a sense that others are uncomfortable talking about it.
Members of the Troubling Violence Performance Project not only bring up these issues, but they encourage the conversation.
During the performance, narratives are told in first person, and all of them are true. Nothing is fabricated or exaggerated, Rollie said. Each story is someone’s actual experience.
Rollie has been at the helm of the troupe for the past four years, acting as the associate director. She leads the conversations that comprise the second half of the performance and serves as the coordinator for scheduling and performance logistics.
The troupe began at MU under the direction of Heather Carver, an associate professor in theater, and Elaine Lawless, an English professor. Lawless’ book, "Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment through Narrative," was the original cornerstone for the troupe's performances, which began in 2003.
Lawless wrote her book as an ethnography of a shelter for battered woman, and Carver adapted the stories for performance.
Originally, all of the material came from Lawless’ book, with a pool of three or four stories presented during each performance. As new members joined, they added their own stories, and gradually, the project reflected the voices of MU students and community members.
Performers can share their own experiences or choose ones that resonate with them. The point is that every narrative is "somebody’s truth," Carver said.
Each performance begins with two chairs on stage — one for the speaker and the other as a symbolic seat for narrators of untold stories.
No lights are dimmed; no curtains rise or fall. There is no backstage area where performers can prepare.
Rollie introduces the troupe and someone from the audience rises to walk toward the chairs. Though it appears to be an audience member, it's the first performer.
One evening earlier this winter, the performer took her seat and began her story. She had been a "good girl" and attended church regularly, the all-American cheerleader.
She met a boy, and although her parents didn’t approve, she went out with him anyway. There was initial infatuation and excitement, but then pressure for sex.
The situation eventually turned grim. She was riding in his car one day when he twisted her arm and pushed her face against the door.
Name calling and physical abuse led to a night of violence when she was certain he would kill her. He held her face under a bathtub faucet, with the water running. She said she couldn’t breathe.
Most of the youth in the audience were sitting on the floor, and several of the girls pulled their knees to their chests. They watched with wide eyes as the performer abruptly ended the story.
"No one ever talked about it," the speaker said and walked back into the audience.
The mood in the room had changed. It became still, more serious. Another performer, Jordan Talbott, calls it "reflective silence."
"People are thinking, 'Wow, it could really be the person sitting next to me.'"
Courtney Bandeko, an MU senior and troupe member since her freshman year, said it’s an interesting experience to return to the audience.
"They sit up a little straighter because it’s right next to them," she said.
The next performer that evening talked about witnessing his father’s abuse of his mother as a child. One night, he saw him throw plates at his mother in a fit of anger.
He thought it happened in everyone’s house. He wondered if he would repeat the cycle of violence.
"Someday, I worry that it will be me throwing plates."
The next performer had suffered abuse from her family — her parents and then her sister. Her voice quaked as she remembered being afraid of the people who were supposed to care for her.
The final performer shook visibly as she walked toward the stage. She steadied herself by placing her hand on the back of the chair and faced away from the audience.
She took a deep breath. This was only her second time sharing this particular narrative. It was her own, but the audience had no way of knowing this.
She turned toward the audience and began talking about her ex-boyfriend, how much time they spent together, and how it became too much time together.
Eventually she felt isolated and cut off from her previous life. The boyfriend began overwhelming her with suspicions about what she was doing, and the emotional abuse escalated.
The performer paused to take a breath, then continued.
"I said 'no' to something big that happened anyway," she said, and left the audience to surmise the rest of the story.
"I want to make sure that people understand that even though I was never slapped around or beaten up, sometimes emotional control is just as bad," she said.
'What did you hear?'
After the performances, Rollie stands in front of the audience and asks, "So, what did you hear?"
Reactions vary, depending on the audience where the troupe is performing.
"We sit until someone says something," Rollie explained.
When the audience processes the performances, there is always the possibility that some might reject or misunderstand the point, she said.
"To some people it seems really simple: He hit you, why don’t you just leave? But it’s more complicated," she said.
During the performance, it's often apparent to the performers which stories resonate most with audience members, Bandeko said.
"You can see it in their eyes, and you can see that it hasn't been talked about around them." she said. "These are the people who need it."
Rollie and her troupe gather to debrief after every performance and make sure that everyone is all right. Talking about intense issues can take a mental toll, Rollie said, but knowing the work can be inspiring keeps it from becoming overwhelming.
Even after the discussion ends, audience members will approach members of the troupe, sometimes to thank them, sometimes to share their own experiences.
"We had a woman burst into tears because it had hit her so hard," Rollie said. "And we’ve had kids in middle school come up to us and say, 'This is happening to me.'"
For some, it's about saying something out loud and having the courage to admit that it happened, Talbott said.
"And sometimes that’s enough for people," she said.
The troupe travels with a counselor who can offer professional help when needed.
Lately, the troupe has been working with Teen Relationship Education and Empowerment. It provides faith-based groups with "resources to educate and empower youth for nonviolent, healthy relationships," according to its website.
The coordinator, Kim Gage Ryan, often fills the role of counselor for performances, after serving as a congregational pastor for 25 years.
In the end, the possibility that people can acknowledge that these issues exist in the community motivates the troupe.
"They want to challenge what society is telling you," Carver said.
"It’s not, 'You make your bed and you have to lie in it' — you can get away. It’s not easy, and no one here is going to say that it was easy, but you can do it."