Meet the Playwright Turning Disaster into Dance

Playwright and actor Jonathon Young has collaborated with Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Crystal Pite to create a piece of work inspired by the shock you feel after a disaster. Betroffenheit is a combination of acting, performance and dance set to stun audiences this month. We talk to Young about the production, the arts and grief.

‘Betroffenheit’ is a word to describe the feeling of shock after a disaster, which is something many people can relate to. In what ways does your performance capture this feeling?

Yes, everyone experiences disaster on some level. It’s pretty much unavoidable. Even birth, the experience of being born, is a kind of disaster, isn’t it? The word ‘betroffenheit’ alludes to the speechlessness in the face of something too big or too awful to take in all at once. How do you process an experience that your body wants to reject? Where do you store it? Language can only take on some of it and then the body must take over and do its work on a deeper level.

In our show language and physicality are kind of at odds at first, kind of wary of one another. Then they merge. Then they start fucking with each other. Then language is abandoned altogether. Then it comes to the rescue. In the end, there’s only so much you can say, and there’s only so much you can do, and then you just have to leave it. I’d say that’s how Betroffenheit works: two sides of one disordered system trying to recover.

This piece was influenced by traumatic events in your own life. Was this a cathartic process for you?

My personal catharsis is not the point of this show, and it was never an objective when we were making it. As an artist, I have to work with what’s coming at me. In the case of Betroffenheit I was pretty much consumed by the subject matter: the themes of loss, addiction and recovery, which are central to the show, were very much central to my life. But Crystal and I didn’t make a show to help me cope with distress. We embarked on this project together because we recognised how deep and dark and small the world can become when human beings get ensnared by trauma, and we believed we could head down there, with the best team of creative people we knew, and come back up with something charged with intention and precision and effort and laughter and life.

This piece is recognised for its physical and emotional demands. How do you feel after each performance, when you’re back in your dressing room?

I usually feel a mixture of exhaustion and elation. And an enormous sense of gratitude to my cast mates. And relief that we made it through. It’s a live performance though, so there’s no telling what will happen and how we’ll feel about it afterwards. One thing is certain: we’re all hungry as hell, so we go eat.

How was it working with Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Crystal Pite to capture the physicality of distress?

It was fantastic. Artistically, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done; I was full of dread and doubt a lot of the time. But working with Crystal was a delight. I think we share an affinity for certain theatrical qualities, perhaps a similar way of looking at the stage. We get into a kind of feedback loop where text is affecting choreography is affecting text… Crystal is also an extraordinary editor; she listens intently and has a keen sense of what’s essential to getting a point across. I admire how she can walk into an empty dance studio and start building material out of thin air, sometimes not even knowing where it will fit into the overall structure. That doesn’t happen very often in a writing process. I really couldn’t have made this piece with anyone else.

This performance shows mental anguish, and mental wellbeing is becoming a more popular focus on health. In what ways have you found that creativity and the arts have impacted and influenced your mental wellbeing?

Creativity and the arts are two of my favourite aspects of being alive; without them life would be emptier, duller. If they didn’t exist I suppose we’d have to turn to Nature for poetry, drama, absurdity, madness, beauty, humour, horror – but we wouldn’t be able to make anything of it. Without creativity, we couldn’t interpret, or find meaning in it. I guess this would simplify things, but there’s no doubt it would seriously impact me.

Do you feel that, as a society, we still have ways to go in terms of respecting and understanding grief?

This is so particular to each community, each circle of friends, each family, and ultimately each individual. How we’re raised and who we are genetically determines how sensitive we are: to not only grief but to all the big shit that comes our way. Grief can be devastating, but it can also be profoundly beautiful. Communication is obviously important, as are communal rituals of some kind; sanctioned outpourings, a chance to understand that grief is not in any way a unique experience but ancient and shared. Without that perspective, everything is harder I think.

Betroffenheit by Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite is Sadler’s Wells from 11th -12th April.