Domestic Violence: Talking About a Taboo Topic

By Beacon Staff

Jesse Culp has her work cut out for her. A recent arrival to the Flathead, she has scheduled the performance of her new theater production to premiere in the fall of 2008 at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish. But she has yet to assemble a cast, script, set, music or just about anything else required to stage a dramatic work.

She has, however, decided on a subject: domestic violence in the Flathead Valley. And she plans to spend the next year gathering as much material as she can from those who have been exposed to domestic violence, so that when audiences sit down to the show next year what they will see is a reflection of their own community.

Culp, 32, teaches theater at Summit Preparatory School in Kalispell and Flathead Valley Community College. She holds an advanced degree in Devising Theater, a relatively new style of performance in which an original script is crafted from months or years of testimony and submissions gathered through interviews and workshops. The material, Culp said, may take the form of written words, as well as poetry, songs and visual art.

“I do believe in the power of Devising Theater; it’s not about grandiose sets, it’s about the words of the people interviewed,” Culp said. “You may not leave humming a tune like with traditional theater, but the hope is that you leave, perhaps, inspired to do something.”

Culp’s call for submissions began with remarks she made last week at a candlelight vigil organized by the Flathead Violence Free Crisis line, which is collaborating with Culp on her project. She plans to hold ten “Conversation Nights” in the coming year, inviting those exposed to domestic violence to share their experiences in a safe atmosphere, as well as those who have not been touched by domestic violence, but simply want to listen and learn. For safety reasons, everyone who attends a Conversation Night will have to sign a waiver that protects the anonymity of those who attend.

“I cannot do this on my own,” Culp said. “I need the community to share their perspectives.”

It’s still too early to tell what the finished dramatic work will be, Culp said, and the final script could change as early as a few days before the initial performance, depending on the stories she is able to gather. But a key part – both of the production and the Conversation Nights – is to dispel the myth that domestic violence is a problem of the poor, and does not afflict the wealthy and middle-class.

“I hope to interview the full spectrum of society, because domestic violence affects the full spectrum of society,” Culp said, citing statistics that domestic violence is the single greatest cause of injury to women between ages 15 to 44 and affects one in four women.

Culp spent four years gathering material for her previous Devising Theater work at Vermont College, where she received her master’s degree after staging a production that grappled with the difficulties facing teenagers in rural Vermont. That performance evolved out of 15,000 submissions, Culp said, on topics ranging from anorexia to communication between parents and teens. Because Culp’s dramatic pieces focus on potentially controversial topics, she does not use the names of the performance’s contributors, to protect their anonymity.

Devising Theater productions are not meant to tell a story that ends after two hours in a satisfying resolution, she added, but to raise awareness about a given issue and foster communication.

“It won’t be tied up in a little bow,” Culp said, but intends her production “to generate questions, to generate dialogue, to get the community talking about what I perceive is a taboo topic in society.”

Culp and the Violence Free Crisis Line are holding the first event to gather material for the production, titled “A Meeting of the Minds: Conversations on Domestic Violence,” Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. in the United Way Conference Center at the Gateway West Mall. Culp invites anyone interested in submitting to e-mail her at: jculp@fvcc.edu.

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