The Art of Healing

People participate in one of UM Professor Jillian Campana’s rehabilitation programs at the Neurolinje center in Piteå, Sweden. (Images courtesy of Jillian Campana)

Professor uses drama and movement
to help people worldwide find renewal

Jillian Campana always wanted to be a theater actor, immersed in the romance of bright stage lights, dramatic monologues, delirious opening nights and lively cast parties. But in her mid-20s, that dream took an unexpected turn. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in theater from California Institute of the Arts, Campana took a job in Egypt teaching drama and English as a second language. Her classes at the American University of Cairo were made up of refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia –people whose real-life narratives seemed open to theater’s transformative nature. For Campana, the idea that the stage could alter someone’s life in a practical way suddenly added another layer to her passion. It offered a scope far beyond herself.

“It was kind of the first glimpse where I saw theater and drama as really powerful tools,” says Campana, who now runs the theater performance programs at UM’s School of Theatre & Dance. “For one, it was good for language acquisition, but also for community and identity building. And so that intrigued me.”

But it was a few years later, when she ended up teaching in Brazil, that Campana found full-blown inspiration in the idea of theater and drama as a means to social change. There she met Augusto Boal, a famous applied-theater practitioner who used theater to address citizen and cultural oppression. Boal’s work wasn’t just an abstract gesture: He had a long history with the intersection of theater and politics. His teachings were so controversial that, in 1971, he was kidnapped by the government, tortured and exiled to Argentina and then France. After that, he traveled the world using theater to empower the impoverished. He finally returned to Rio de Janeiro to start the Center for the Theater of the Oppressed, which is where Campana learned from him when she arrived in the mid-1990s.

“His work deals with those issues where people who are oppressed by either their government or by family or basic societal norms are unable to live the life they need to in order to be prosperous and happy,” she says. “Working with him opened my mind to all of the different ways that drama and theater can be used. I run the acting and directing program here at UM, and I direct, but my real interest is in working with people who find themselves in a difficult position for whatever reason.”

What Campana couldn’t have expected was that in 2000, just after she graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and was hired at UM, she would find herself in her own difficult position. That year at age 30, she suffered a stroke, and she lost almost all of her movement. Over the next few years, she struggled to find her way back from it, and eventually through rehabilitation, she did. But it changed her forever.

Jillian Campana, head of UM’s theater performance programs, leads a rehabilitation program for injured people in Sweden.“It was an incredible experience to have my body taken away,” she says. “I had to learn to walk again and do everything again. When I recovered I decided I was going to do something with this.”

Campana is a glowing, happy person who speaks exuberantly about her work like someone always on the cusp of a new adventure. Inside her McGill Hall office hangs an assortment of colorful theater masks and art that give away her worldly inspirations and love for the stage.

At UM, her job as a theater educator falls in line with her early love for the fine arts. But all the twists and turns of her life also have kept her with one foot on the path inspired by Boal. After recovering from the stroke, she earned her doctorate in theater for social justice at UM, and she spent time working with a traumatic brain injury support group, helping participants use theater and drama to embrace their new selves. It’s a different focus from Boal’s political work, but Campana uses the same approach for empowering people who need it.

With the help of Campana, the group created a play called “The Puzzle Club,” which demonstrated their individual struggles and triumphs. Shortly after PBS did a documentary on the making of the play, Campana started hearing from other people around the world looking for cutting-edge rehabilitation methods. One in particular was a rehabilitation center in Sweden that asked her to come work with their traumatic brain injury patients.

Each year for the past 10 years, she has traveled to Piteå, Sweden, to work in a rehabilitation center called Framnäs Folkhögskola, a place that includes an educational facility, music conservatory, art space and neurological center for people who have been released from the hospital but are not yet ready to live on their own. The program is called Neurolinje, and it has ties with Luleå University of Technology, where Campana’s research partner Asa Gardelli works.

“It’s unlike anything we have here,” Campana says. “The whole program is about getting them ready to re-enter a world – not the world that existed before. It’s about a new life.”

Conventional rehabilitation focuses on survival – getting a person’s body back to functioning level. But the philosophy at Framnäs Folkhögskola insists it’s equally important to address the emotional aspects of a person dealing with a major life change.

“I found drama was very profound for the individual,” she says. “Once they feel empowered enough to be able to know who they are and how they want to be perceived, oftentimes they are able to then embark upon a more aggressive physical or occupational rehabilitation campaign.”

In 2007, a few years after she started venturing to Sweden, Campana got another opportunity when she was invited to be a visiting professor at the University of Mumbai in India. During her four years there, she created Studio Three Theatre, which focuses on social and cross-cultural theater. She put her skills to work at St. Catherine’s Home for Girls in Mumbai, developing a drama therapy program for survivors of human trafficking and prostitution.

The young women, all rescued but still healing, had been living together in close quarters, but they rarely spoke of their ordeals. They were learning how to train for jobs and get their feet on the ground, but the pain and abuse they’d gone through was buried deep.

“Once they got to that point where they could share what happened to them, absolutely everything changed,” Campana says. “They became tighter. They trusted me, they trusted the experience and then we set about writing a play, and they performed it for people in that residential setting and for a lot of the aid workers helping them.”

In one part of the play, a girl sells clothing at a shop. She shows good posture, makes eye contact, practices engaging with customers. It allows her to rehearse her new self without consequences, so that later when she gets out into the world she can feel confident.

Campana has spent a lot of time using her applied theater tools in places far away from home. But recently, she turned her focus back to the Missoula Valley. She gathered a group of war veterans together, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, to work with her UM students. Together, the students and vets co-wrote dramatic monologues. In the lobby of the PAR/TV Center, audiences could put on headphones and listen to recorded versions of the monologues. The museum theater piece served as a prologue to UM’s spring production of “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” which told the story of a war veteran returning home. The monologue project not only served to give the veterans a new outlet, but it provided education for nonmilitary audiences.

Campana hopes to continue using theater and drama for a wide range of populations. To her, trauma comes in all shapes and sizes, but the tool box for how to understand that trauma can look very much the same. And, in her experience, the outcome is well worth the work.

“In all the areas I’ve worked in, many people refer to it as a waking up or a rebirth or a coming back to life,” she says. “A lot of what I do is, first, coming to terms with what happened, whatever it is. Then, coming to terms with the present, naming the new self and looking toward the future – and through drama imagining the possibilities.”

— By Erika Fredrickson