I spent the day working with Bennita who is here this week for two days
Bennita is 77
We were given a task to present some sort of map, list, chronology of Bennita’s life
We were given a chronological sheet of female archetypes to use as a stimulus; Infant, child, adolescent, mother, warrior, lover, crone, queen
We read them through, we found these a useful trigger but also felt contradictions and restrictions within them
I invited Bennitta to start mapping her life
I took notes and labelled each sheet with one of the archetypes
We talked for about two hours
Some of Bennita’s stories were hard for her to tell
Some were descriptions of a being a women in a time I can’t recognise and appalled me
Some made me cry
Some made Bennita freeze
Some brought up fear
Some made Bennita want to give up working with me
Some made Bennita question the whole task
Some made Bennita ask ‘what do we do with material what’s the point’
Some made Bennita tired
Some brought up fear
Bennita realised she’d not told many stories about happier times.
We kept going – I kept making notes and putting titles at the top of the sheet.
The blank page gave us a frame of duration – once we’d filled one page with one archetype/life stage we tended to move on even though there were many more stories to be told in each era.
We found ourselves mostly in the landscape of childhood, adolescance, mother...
Bennita at one point wished she hadn’t started at the beginning
We had lunch
We worked for about two more hours trying to navigate how we would present the material. Bennita was caught in a dilemma that was with us for most of the afternoon. She had decided not to pour out her life story anymore to people, that she had dealt with these memories, let them go, wasn’t defined by them any more and didn’t really want to re- visit them or talk about them. But she also felt a responsibility and pull to talk of an era, a time for women that is so different from now. Bennita also wanted to show and demonstrate her skill as a perfomer.
We nearly gave up several times. I started feeding in possible ideas for presentation; just showing images from the stories, reducing text to 7/8 lines, showing just one image or moment, talking about not telling her story, me interviewing her. None of these felt right. We sat close to each other, we tussled, we got frustrated, we sat and waited.
As a throw away remark Bennita she’d just sit in an armchair and talk.
So we started there but it was difficult, didn’t feel right for Bennita. I joined in. I started describing the images. ‘I am a baby, I’m fat because I’m covered in cotton wool because I’m covered with olive oil and the cotton wool is to stop my clothes getting stained’.
We had found a key and telling the story as if we were in the present tense through describing a series of images sat well with us both. Bennita asked me to tell the more painful stories of her life so she could honour her decision not to talk about some of these more difficult memories.
We presented Bennita’s life story to the group using this method. I tried to stay within the structure of talking only in the present tense describing images vocally and mapping them in front of us with no commentary. Bennita used this structure and at times added commentary, description, interjection. correction. I knew that some of the images described were horrific, painful, full of grief, longing, loss, missing and that they were also revealing a tracking of female history from 1934- now. My own practice is to work with peoples personal stories and Im really interested in this holding of the very personal and the contextual at the same time the micro and the macro.
Between us we negotiated the telling of Bennitas 77 years in front of the group.
Ruth Ben-Tovim, Dramaturg