Activista: Julianna Bloodgood

Activista: Julianna Bloodgood

You know that saying, “To wear your heart on your sleeve?” There really should be one about wearing your baggage on your sleeve, too.

This is the altered truism Julianna Bloodgood inspired in me when I first saw her perform three years ago.

When I saw Bloodgood, a CCM-trained actress and artist, she was performing during the 2008 Cincinnati Fringe Festival in a play called Body Language by the True Body Project (The True Body Project is a Cincinnati-based international organization working to empower females to connect to their bodies, their voices, and the health and safety of women). In one particular monologue, she assumed the role of a doctor, describing all of the sad maladies of the woman before her. Armed with a harsh pointer stick and a generous amount of sticky notes to mark her patient, Bloodgood mapped out her patient’s problems.

What started out as a clinical diagnostic, though, quickly became a personal and deep-rooted story. Bloodgood describes the day the patient fell on the playground, leaving the scar on her knee (Wham! Green sticky note); there’s that time her father hit her here on the arm (Bam! Hit ya again); she fell in love for the first time, these lips learned how to kiss and desire (Whoosh! Pink sticky); for two years she didn’t eat much, (Slap!) her stomach rumbled; she worked too hard, tried to do too much, (Thud!) just look at these hunched shoulders, she wears it on her sleeves.

When I talked to Bloodgood recently she explained that this performance was a healing experience for herself, as well as a truism-making one for others. As an actress turned activist-actress, Bloodgood believes, above all, in the healing power of theater. She believes that when you give air to a thought or an issue, or when you hold space for the expression and reception of a feeling, a transformation occurs. Put an idea out into the world and it is no longer entirely yours. It looses some of its sting. Or it brings the sting to bear. It becomes both more personal and more universal. It is your story to have and tell, but it is everyone’s for the taking, to know and share, and ultimately learn and grow from it. (It is yours to experience, and mine to make a truism of.)

It may seem counter-intuitive to lump activism and theater onto the same stage, but what is activism about if not transformation?

With that in mind, this year, Bloodgood traveled to a place acutely in need of healing: the Dadaab Refugee camp in Kenya. It is the largest of its kind in the world—a quasi-city at nearly 500,000 people (almost a veritable one if it had any of the public works perks of a functioning city). Here, with friend and colleague Michael Littig, Bloodgood assembled a theater group composed of the residents of the camp. The point was not just to put on a show. Bloodgood and Littig wanted to explore what happens when you create a space for people who have had serious trauma and stress and invite them to tell a story publicly.

The hardest part, Bloodgood explained, was simply finding “a group of people that were willing to take this journey with us, and then try to set up the right circumstances for people to feel safe and creative.” After that, the healing process took care of itself. Well, mostly.

Healing takes care of itself, but not without a few bumps in the road. Being that Kenya is a contentious, foreign country, many people were not welcoming to Americans coming in to the camp; being that Dadaab is a sub-developed “city” of little infrastructure and means, efforts easily went unfulfilled. “I would have dreams all the time that I was going into war. The odds were always against us… things would end up just unraveling at the seams all the time,” she says.

Bloodgood and Littig were in Dadaab for five months. In that time, they created an arts education curriculum in one of the most survival-mode areas in the world, started an exchange program between students in the United States and students of Dadaab, and saw transformations on the voices and faces of their theater participants.

“The majority of our participants weren’t able to express how they felt. That wasn’t really a part of their human vocabulary. Either it wasn’t a cultural norm, or because of trauma, that voice had been stopped,” Bloodgood says. By the end, they had a show. In the process of working with other people, Bloodgood experienced her own transformation. It was a radical personal activism, of sorts.

In the midst of her humanitarian work, she realized the supreme importance of maintaining personal health. “My relationship to my body and my psychological health has been a huge priority for me. The most important thing in my life, truly, is my own well being. It has to come first.”

That’s quite a statement coming from someone who is so driven outside of herself to do humanitarian work. It reinforces the importance of the giver to give to herself. “Woman all over the world celebrate themselves and they adorn their bodies and they decorate their bodies. That kind of celebration or decoration occurs across the board,” Bloodgood observes. “The body will naturally heal itself, if you give it the right environment.”

In whatever way we choose to nourish ourselves—whatever gives us a sense of fullness—it is necessary to stay acutely aware of the codependency of internal and external change. Just think about psychological gestures, Bloodgood says, “The way we hold our body says so much. If we put our body in certain positions, it will evoke certain emotions.”

Wear your heart on your sleeve—no doubt, that’s wonderful—but dare to acknowledge, to speak, the baggage on your sleeve, and you may find yourself a transformed person.

For more information about the True Body Project visit ACTIVISTA is a True Body Project initiative pairing True Body alums with activist mentors.

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