Choreographer and director Rhiannon Faith’s show Smack That is giving a voice to domestic abuse survivors and throwing a party to celebrate their strength and resilience. She says theatres can become safe spaces for victims
Smack That (A Conversation) is a performance piece that has surpassed all my expectations. What started as discussions with domestic abuse survivors – with no anticipated plans for the next step – has now toured the UK and sold out the Barbican Centre.
But more than that: it was mega for me, and them, because of the courage I’ve witnessed as these women stand up in front of strangers and talk about their real experiences of abuse. Doing that has helped others open up about this devastating issue. They are superwomen. And on stage they finally have a voice.
I’m a choreographer who makes activist art using devised and autobiographical dance theatre. I grew up in a massive family. I was skint, worked hard and was lucky enough to be encouraged by loving parents. They taught me it was okay to be different and that it was important to make a difference. I try to do that in my work.
Creating a piece like Smack That (A Conversation) is unlike anything I’ve done before. I met the women through the charity Safer Places in Essex and listened to their stories. Those stories shocked me and their strength moved me.
I asked them if they wanted to talk about it on a stage and four of them said yes. They wanted to contribute to stopping this national crisis. According to the Office for National Statistics, about 1.3 million women and 600,000 men were victims of domestic abuse in the past year.
Part of me started this show because of the friends and family I’ve seen suffer and the unhealthy relationships in my past. Things I’ve had to lock away to cope. Part of me did this because I couldn’t quite believe that women still have to suffer in this way.
Perpetrators often find ways to destroy celebrations, so we are taking our party back
Smack That (A Conversation) is set at a party with balloons and presents. The audience gets party bags and plays games while listening to stories from women who have survived emotional, sexual, psychological and financial abuse. It’s at a party because it’s a celebration of their strength and resilience. It’s at a party because perpetrators often find ways to destroy celebrations, so we are taking our party back.
The dance professionals involved, alongside the non-performers, had also experienced abuse in their lives. We put out an audition call for the work and had more than 250 applications. Each of their cover letters detailed first or second-hand experiences of domestic abuse. We were devastated, if I’d had enough money they, would all have been in the show.
Together we chose the text that would be spoken, after voice recording their experiences during the research process. Dance was created and used as a physical response to the recordings – also as visual metaphors and in the shattering moments where we just didn’t have the words. The games are used to give space to the stories, they are difficult to hear. We also use the games to highlight statistics and offer support.
To perform Smack That (A Conversation) safely, the capacity has to be small so the performers can manage care for the audience and their own experiences. With a show like this, it is crucial that people coming to watch, as well as the performers, are protected.
There are going to be people triggered by the material and it is important to offer break-out spaces and qualified therapists – as we did on our last show. Therapist Joy Griffiths has worked with the women from the beginning of the process and continues to offer support. And to ensure the participants could be involved and access the arts, the show’s budget included childcare throughout the tour.
Safeguarding costs money and we were encouraged by venues to have safeguarding in place. So it was sometimes upsetting when certain venues questioned the high cost of the show versus the small capacity. I know money is tight, but when it is something everyone values, why does the responsibility always fall on the artist?
Beyond that, the important thing was for the show to leave a legacy – something tangible to support the venues and their audiences after we had left – that was to turn theatres into J9 venues. Named after Janine Mundy who was killed by her estranged husband while he was on police bail, the J9 Domestic Abuse Initiative was started by her family and Safer Places.
The tour started in 2017 and went to seven venues. Harlow Playhouse was the first venue I have worked in that recognised the impact a show could have on an audience after leaving the building. So we worked together to implement the J9 legacy to continue to support its staff and the local community.
Theatres and dance venues are good places to become J9 venues, because abusive and controlling partners may not necessarily think women would go there for refuge or be able to get support. They are a neutral safe space where children can play and staff are welcoming. The staff will offer you a telephone and numbers of their local refuge or service. The J9 status is ongoing and training can be accessed at any point.
We have since trained seven arts venues across the UK, recently the Barbican Centre in London, which employs more than 600 staff. There has been a domino effect. After seeing the show at the Barbican, Owen Calvert-Lyons of London’s Ovalhouse said he wanted the show for his community, and for it to become a J9 venue.
Sometimes that’s all it takes: someone – in this case the head of theatre and artists’ development – knowing what they want their venue to be. Theatres are funded to serve their communities. This work serves the community, we can do it together.
One of our women in the show was trained and now delivers J9 training to the venue’s staff to recognise anyone experiencing domestic abuse and to connect them with a local service that can help.
I have applied for funding to measure the impact the J9 legacy has had on arts venues and their audiences since we started touring in 2017. The audience responses have already affirmed that we are doing something good.
As the show embarks on its 2019 tour, we are working on a live stream – though it depends on funding – for victims who can’t get to venues because of a controlling partner, as the show itself provides safe and practical ways to get help and find support.
Financially, putting this show on is hard. It is expensive and finding the help with the 50% match funding needed from Arts Council England is proving really tough. This is a show that needs subsidy. I want to keep this going, for the women involved and for the work to reach as many communities as possible, it might actually be a lifeline. But we need help, we need funding.
This is what activist theatre can do. It might make a change in our world. It’s where people can see their stories on stage, it’s where they can be part of the conversation, it’s where they can find trained help and it’s where they can seek refuge. Let’s keep it going.