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The Sistah Tribe-Phoenix Project: Giving Creative Expression to Childhood Trauma

Vanessa Verduga, The Producer’s Club Performance 2011The Sistah Tribe-Phoenix Project’s mission is to inspire marginalized, traumatized, and culturally under-served women and girls in the public sector of New York City, to give creative expression to their traumatic histories, and to find creative solutions to life’s conflicts by using the play “Let the Phoenix Rise” as a catalyst and reference for healing and self-reclamation. The Phoenix is a glorious mythological bird symbolizing death and rebirth. She is propelled by the element of fire to burn away all that is insubstantial and illusory. The Phoenix tells us that it is only through our descent into the fire that we can discover our essence, with all our beautiful defects and strengths. Only then can we soar like the Phoenix towards our soul’s longing. To emulate the Phoenix is to walk into the proverbial fire of immense challenges, so that one’s worth and potential can be realized. It is the Phoenix archetype that propelled me towards discovering the beauty in the ugliness and giving it form as therapeutic theater.

On Sunday Sept. 16, 2008, I implemented a full day therapeutic workshop for women with extensive histories of childhood abuse and trauma. This workshop concerned the plight of the archetypal orphan child, with the intent of mobilizing her to face her core injuries and fears of surviving alone in this world, so as to connect from a place of discernment, compassion, maturity and acceptance. This rite of passage was enacted in the workshop through writing, dance, hypnosis, improvisation, and ritual. What resulted was a deeper sense of purpose and connection to our worth and power. We continued to meet regularly to explore and examine the most feared, dormant parts of ourselves, as well as our deepest aspirations. Eventually fairytale became a vehicle for infusing our personal stories with mythical imagery. As the process unfolded it became evident that further growth and development required stepping beyond the personal to the transpersonal. Accordingly, Laura Gosheff and I committed to extending ourselves through creating “Let the Phoenix Rise,” a play inspired by the creative process and writings from these workshops.

Statistics from The Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse state that a report of child abuse in the United States occurs every 10 seconds. The same statistics cite that the majority of the time the perpetrators are the child’s parents. The primary goal of the Phoenix Project is to express the fundamental message that altering systemic conditions, be it on a familial or a community level, emanates from the individual quest to persevere through hardship and oppression, so asto better oneself. Since art transcends class, gender, and race barriers and has the potential to teach, inspire and catalyze insight and action, dramatizing the lives of four teenage girls beset by abuse and neglect in LTPR carries tremendous impact, identification, and hope for women and girls suffering from the repercussions of childhood abuse and trauma.

The impetus fueling my commitment to the Sistah-Tribe Phoenix Project resides in a personal history of childhood trauma, and a challenging journey of recovery and reclamation. Through staged readings and work-shopping “Let the Phoenix Rise”, I came to know those parts of me, through my adolescent character, that were previously shunned, denied, and feared. My teenage self emerged, and I was challenged to embrace her, and all her angst, vulnerability, bravado, terror, self destructiveness, self loathing, and despair. I discovered how alive and irreverent and bold she was, and came to perceive her beauty and strength in the face of desperately difficult odds. Anguish and darkness is a common element in fairytale, as well as in life. As I unearthed the memories of my difficult past, my inner truth spoke to me in the metaphorical language of fairytale. It is through elevating my story and struggles through fairytale, and discovering the wisdom inherent in metaphorical interpretations, that freed up potentials could be expressed. I felt more able to connect beyond the wounded self and engage in life from a place of Divine creativity. I felt more willingness to love beyond the personality and extend myself through empathy and service. Rather than struggle with resisting loneliness, fear, powerlessness and myriad forms of suffering, I became more open to and accepting of all that life contains. The lessons towards growth are many. Our innocence is reclaimed when we accept our responsibility to fully be who we are, with the knowledge that in so doing we offer up our unique gifts to Grace and the unfolding of the Universe.

Rahima Wachuku & Laura Gosheff, The Producer’s Club Performance 2011

Guided by the artistic direction of Pamela Scott “Let the Phoenix Rise” was presented in two staged readings by Aching Dogs Theater Company on Sept. 13, 2009, at Shetler Studios in NYC, and actors from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts on December 12, 2009 at Shetler Studios in NYC. As of December 2010, Let the Phoenix Rise/A Sistah Tribe Production became a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization, thus affording us 501(c)(3) status. In January 2011, Sistah Tribe presented “Let the Phoenix Rise” for girls from Phoenix House Substance Abuse Residential Program and girls in foster care from Represent Magazine /Youth.com, at the Center Stage Theater in NYC. “Let the Phoenix Rise” was presented in April 2011 at the Producers Club Grand Theater in NYC, introducing music and lyrics written by Laura Gosheff and Daniel Neiden. The Producers Club performance took place with the endorsement from the organization GEMS, allowing us to share “Let the Phoenix Rise” with the girls they mentor. At the invitation of Dr. Tina Maschi, Asst. Professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service, The Sistah Tribe Theater Group presented excerpts of LTPR at their Sept. 24, 2011 “Be the Evidence Project” forum on the use of arts for individual and social change. On going artistic direction is currently being picked up by composer/actor/director Daniel Neiden. The recent partnering with art educator Rebecca Goyette from MoMA and their community organizations program, has resulted in the development of an intensive workshop which begins with a staged reading of LTPR, and utilizes LTPR as a reference and a catalyst for young women in recovery to tell their own stories via poetry, fairytale, mask work, dramatization, and through a variety of fine art mediums that will morph their ideas and words into visual form. By the end of the process we hope to create an event showcasing these women’s visual and theatrical body of work at their agency or in a modest 45-seat black box theater. With the intention of pitching the Phoenix Projects collaboration with MoMA, we are inviting organizations in the social services and creative arts in NYC to a staged reading of “Let the Phoenix Rise”, followed by an Q & A on Monday evening 4/16/12. A full production of “Let the Phoenix Rise” is projected for the summer of 2012.

Sheri Heller, The Producer’s Club Performance 2011

It is my highest hope that the Phoenix Project will be used as an instrument of healing within the social services community, inspiring at risk women and girls, as well as traditional audiences. Bridging the creative arts with psychological and spiritual healing in the form of therapeutic theater can potentially offer culturally under-served, traumatized women and girls a positive sense of identification, and inspire them to give creative expression to their own journeys towards healing and self-realization. Morphing suffering into art has been a reparative journey. The epilogue in “Let the Phoenix Rise” has the four adolescent girls emerging as adults in their present day lives. Here they succinctly reflect on their past, and emphatically affirm that the wounds incurred began to heal within the context of a therapeutic relationship. One of the life-affirming messages I hope to send to traumatized individuals who attend “Let the Phoenix Rise”, and who will workshop the material, is the necessity of allowing the healing properties of the therapeutic bond to occur. It is only a safe holding environment, replicated within the client-therapist dyad that can encourage the emergence of the true self for the trauma survivor. For the four women whose lives are presented in “Let the Phoenix Rise” it was that step that led to their beginning.

If you would like to attend a performance, visit The Phoenix Project’s website. If anyone in the public sector is interested in having The Phoenix Project bring the workshop process to the women or girls you serve, contact Sheri directly through her website as well.

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Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW is a New York State licensed clinical social worker, certified addiction specialist, Ericksonian hypnotist, and interfaith minister. Her love of, and involvement in the arts pre-disposes her to effectively process creative blocks and stagnation. It also lends itself to perceiving healing as a creative process, and accordingly, to access the creative resources within all of us that lead to actualization. She is the founder of the Sistah Tribe-Phoenix Project, and has co-authored the play "Let the Phoenix Rise" which has been performed for mainstream audiences and marginalized, traumatized, and culturally under-served women and girls in the public sector. For more information, visit Sheri at her site and The Phoenix Project site.
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