Student performances highlight therapeutic value of storytelling

Kat McGreevy, a performer, reads Danny’s monologue from War Words, a doc-play. Warning: cuss words.

OSWEGO, N.Y. – On Feb. 23, two storytelling performances highlighted the work of students in the expressive arts therapy minor at SUNY Oswego, while demonstrating the therapeutic value of storytelling.

The performance occurred inside the current Tyler Art Gallery showcase called “Fire For Effect” by Paul Pearce, a local artist, combat veteran, and SUNY Oswego graduate. The exhibit showcases themes of recovery, rebuilding, and healing after wartime. 

Jonal Langenfeld-Rial, theatre professor and expressive arts therapy minor advisor at SUNY Oswego, is familiar with the effects of war because her father and other family members were active-duty soldiers.

“I don’t know anyone who has come back from the military, especially active duty, and doesn’t have PTSD,” Langenfeld-Rial said. “It’s not just about war…let’s look at the survival part. Let’s look at how we can move forward.”

The storytelling performances were organized by Langenfeld-Rial, and performed by a group of students in the special topics course “Storytelling in Performances: Storytelling for Culture, Ethnicity, and Social Justice.” 

Public student-led performances of “Storytelling as Therapy: Healing after Trauma,” took place in the Tyler Art Gallery in Tyler Hall, where the class explored how to move on after war and violence.

The performers created an immersive storytelling experience, alongside the artwork, to further help express the artist’s work and provide students with a hands-on expressive arts therapy experience. 

The class selected monologues from the play War Word, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated docu-play composed of the heroic and heartbreaking stories of those who served in the U.S. military during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. 

Sydney Lawton, a junior at SUNY Oswego majoring in children’s education with a minor in expressive arts therapy minor, said that the weeks leading up to the performances were nerve-racking.

“I practiced a lot because I was nervous… I’ve never done performances or theatre until I had Jonel last year,” Lawton said. “But it was a good nervous…because I knew it was going to be an impactful and powerful performance.” 

Storytelling is a medium that can be used in therapy. Still, for a long time, storytelling wasn’t considered to have the capacity to further help individuals suffering from trauma by allowing them to express themselves. 

“I love using real stories because it resonates so much with people,” Langenfeld-Rial said. “[And] as actors, we have to analyze and deconstruct who these people are and one of the most important things I’ve said is that you need to learn to analyze and listen objectively. And work really hard not to judge,” Langenfeld-Rial said. 

Lawton composed photographs for her performance of relics from a time when her grandfather guarded Rudolph Heff’s, Aldof Hitler’s right-hand man, prison cell. He brought back flags, posters, letters, beer bottles, and more. 

“I took these photographs to show a different perspective and view of military documents and soldiers’ possessions,” Lawton said. “To show how he kept [them] and how it must’ve had an impact on them…for them to keep [these items].”

Selena Allen, a senior at SUNY Oswego who majors in studio art with an expressive arts therapy minor, composed digital artwork that shows a raw and destructive depiction of war with no support and disconnection from civilians. 

The storytelling performances also touched on bringing awareness of the aftermath of war to bring about an understanding within the community. 

“I strongly believe that rebuilding a community starts at home or with people closest to you,” Allen said. “With a healthy foundation, we can find it in ourselves to start the change.” 

Langenfeld-Rial holds hope that more of these events will occur years down the line at SUNY Oswego, bringing attention to storytelling and the expressive arts therapy minor while also entertaining the public. (615)