(Editor's Note: The video documentary about domestic violence and the play, Surviving the Cycle, which was researched and produced by BSW student Maria Xiong and originally accompanied this article, is no longer available.)
Abusive relationships and their origins were examined in a play staged in April 2014 by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare (HBSSW). The Milwaukee premiere of Surviving the Cycle was performed by 17 college students and community members. It was written and directed by Milwaukeean Richard Gustin, a theater professor at UW-Fond du Lac.
Surviving the Cycle captures one abused wife’s story, her husband’s story, the couple’s interactions, the children’s repetition of the cycle, and a missed opportunity to perhaps break the cycle. “It has a profound effect on audience members,” Gustin says. “They recognize elements of their own stories portrayed on stage, and when that happens, there can be a shift of awareness, the potential for change. Theater is meant to be a transformative experience. That’s always the goal—the better society.”
Roberta Hanus, clinical associate professor of social work, worked with Gustin to bring the play to UWM. Hanus teaches coursework dealing with issues of domestic abuse. “Many people are abused, humiliated, put down, bullied, or marginalized,” she says. “In the play, characters’ internal and external dialogs expose individual and cultural belief systems and how they play out in life choices, especially in regard to self worth and self esteem.”
Hanus led talkbacks after each performance. During one talkback, audience member Cherie Griffin, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center, Racine, pointed out how far we’ve come as a society in our discussions about domestic abuse since the beginning of the movement in the 1970s. “Domestic violence in the ’70s was a family problem that no one talked about. It was a family secret. Today the issue is being performed on a stage. That’s progress that can make a difference for the next generation,” she says.
As the lead female, Eileen Newsome, HBSSW social work master’s student, had a difficult part. “It was uncomfortable for me to do it. But that is why this matters,” she says. “I’m a survivor myself and walked on eggshells at my house.” The experience, she adds, was irreplaceable. She gained a lot of empathy for people in abusive situations and gained insight into why it takes a person an average of seven times to leave such a situation. Surviving the Cycle was first performed in Fond du Lac as part of St. Agnus Hospital’s domestic violence awareness program.
At UWM, the cast was composed of UWM students from various areas of study (social work, criminal justice, acting, business, education, film, music, education, and communications), Marquette University’s theater students, and community members.