'Burden Of Proof' play in Penang lifts the lid on effects of sexual violence

Actor Sofea Lee in a scene from 'Burden Of Proof', which is set to play in George Town, Penang this weekend. Photo: Dabble Dabble Jer Collective

Burden Of Proof, the debut theatre production by the Dabble Dabble Jer Collective (DDJC) at Jetty 35 in George Town, Penang, is a groundbreaking exploration of sexual violence in Malaysia.

This multi-disciplinary performance – set to play this weekend – combines dramatic monologue, movement and original music to shed light on the harsh realities of sexual violence, drawing inspiration from real-life accounts.

Crafted as a response to submissions from victim-survivors during a nationwide open call in early 2023, Burden Of Proof is not just a play; it’s a creative tapestry that has taken two-and-a-half years to come to life, woven from the diverse narratives of those affected.

The Penang-based cast, featuring talents Darynn Wee, Khoo Jen Leon, Roshini Chandran, Sofea Lee, Villmett Thanakody and Ysabel Loh, is set to deliver a powerful and emotive performance.

Co-directed by Charity Yong and Loh, who also co-wrote the production alongside Miriam Devaprasana, the team has seamlessly blended various art forms to tell these important stories.

Wee, also the production manager, sheds light on the collective’s unique approach. In developing Burden Of Proof, it initiated a nationwide open call, providing a safe space for individuals to share their experiences in any form they felt comfortable – through interviews, voice notes, written work, poetry, or online/physical meetings. The result is a compelling and deeply human portrayal of a sensitive and prevalent issue in society.

“These stories are made up of the evidential challenges victim-survivors have faced in seeking justice and acknowledgment of their experiences,” says Wee, a drama teacher.

“As we moved into the devising process, we had to be mindful of the responsibility that comes with handling such narratives. Throughout our creative journey, we scrutinised every aspect of the performance, from the words, movements and music, to our own personal journeys of understanding and emotions towards these stories, to ensure that we were aligned with our core intention of creating this whole performance.”

Gathering the stories

Miriam, who also acts as creative director of the production, adds that before they published the open call, the group was met with some cynicism – that no one, or very few, would respond to something of this nature.

“Nonetheless we went ahead, and as soon as we published the call, people started engaging with us,” she says.

A scene from the 'Burden Of Proof' show, the debut theatre performance from the Dabble Dabble Jer Collective in George Town. Photo: Dabble Dabble Jer CollectiveA scene from the 'Burden Of Proof' show, the debut theatre performance from the Dabble Dabble Jer Collective in George Town. Photo: Dabble Dabble Jer Collective

“Some wrote in their stories, others opted for interviews. We collected 15 accounts all together – most of these stories will be told and heard in public for the first time through this production. I suppose what’s bittersweet is that these are our friends. Somehow or rather, it was people one of us knew, who came forward to share their stories. Some of these friendships had been built for over a decade, so to know this part of our friends’ lives added to the necessity of handling their stories with care and sensitivity.”

“There is a sense of solidarity that goes beyond the typical. There’s a weight to being present with our survivor-friends. That’s the kind of emotional depth that has been birthed through this process,” says Miriam who also works as a writer and digital heritage producer and is a PhD candidate.

She notes that some have found it curious that a legal term is being used as the name of the production. The burden of proof is a legal standard that requires parties to provide evidence to demonstrate that a claim is valid.

“In many cases, where physical evidence is not there or attainable, the truth is the only evidence a victim-survivor has against the perpetrator. So the idea of us using this term is to say that your truth is enough – we are listening, we will believe,” says Miriam.

In Burden Of The Proof, the arts collective invites audience members to delve deep into what it means to be a survivor of sexual violence. Through this work, it is hoped that audiences will journey into a collective awareness and responsibility towards the global fight against sexual and gender-based violence.

“It is our responsibility to translate the same kind of weight and depth the survivors have felt to the audience. How do we facilitate this transfer, so you can share the burden, not needing to know the victim and being aware that this can happen to anyone at any time?” says Miriam.

She reflects on the collective’s journey (DDJC was formed last December), emphasising the profound lessons they have learned about the importance of creating safe spaces. The manner in which individuals approached them, entrusting the collective with their stories, highlighted a critical realisation – that survivors primarily seek a safe and supportive environment.

DDJC envisions the transformative impact of expanding such safe spaces. The idea is that by fostering more environments where sharing and listening are encouraged, a ripple effect of healing can be experienced and shared among survivors and the community at large. This perspective underscores the potential for profound positive change through the simple yet powerful acts of sharing and listening.

The members of Dabble Dabble Jer Collective (back row, from left): Darynn Wee, Bernardine Jeanne Abeysekra, Miriam Devaprasana, Justin Khaw, front row: Charity Yong and Ysabel Loh. Photo: Dabble Dabble Jer CollectiveThe members of Dabble Dabble Jer Collective (back row, from left): Darynn Wee, Bernardine Jeanne Abeysekra, Miriam Devaprasana, Justin Khaw, front row: Charity Yong and Ysabel Loh. Photo: Dabble Dabble Jer Collective

When it came to the well-being of the production team, DDJC practised holding each other with grace.

“If one of us needed to take a break, or if the production was affecting us, then we practised honest conversations, active listening, and we helped each other carry the weight, especially if one of us needed to take a week off to just breathe a little. Because a subject and theme like this can be a lot to carry. With the cast, one of the things the directors have actively practised is ‘in this room, you are this character, but when you leave this space, you are your own being’, essentially encouraging the actors not to carry the survivors’ weight all the time,” says Yong.

Powerful truths

In a multi-disciplinary theatre production such as this, intertwining dramatic monologue, movement, and original music, the creative team faced the challenge of ensuring a seamless and impactful storytelling experience.

According to Loh – who is a VR artist, social media manager and screenplay consultant – the essence of being able to do this effectively lay in the stories themselves.

“These are real, lived experiences, and we did not want to deter too much away from the raw truth. Thus, we constantly went back and forth during the devising process to tackle the challenge of preserving authenticity, safeguarding the victim-survivor’s information, and creating a cohesive storyline so that the audience could fully immerse in the impactful journey of each narrative. The collaborative process of amending the scripts happened between the director, writer, performer, and, in some cases, the victim-survivor themselves,” says Loh.

Yong, who is a teacher at a ballet school by day, adds that they also had two preview sessions with an audience of third parties that were not part of the creative team.

“This preview element of the process was crucial for the creative team as it gave us a chance to evaluate what the audience’s perspective would be like,” says Yong.

The immersive nature of the performance also invites the audience to participate.

The cast from the 'Burden Of Proof' theatre show are mostly based in George Town, Penang. Photo: Dabble Dabble Jer CollectiveThe cast from the 'Burden Of Proof' theatre show are mostly based in George Town, Penang. Photo: Dabble Dabble Jer Collective

“To be with us, feel with us, question, rethink, unlearn certain things and be jerked through the tapestry of storytelling, movements, music, visuals and the art installations. Presenting the stories of survivors humanises the experiences, and we want the audience to see and feel the weight and the burden of how one thing which may seem small could affect someone in such an enormous way," says Wee.

"We want the audience to question societal norms and expectations. It’s about shifting the burden of proof back to society, as to why survivors are often met with scepticism, casualness, or disbelief.”

The Burden Of Proof performance will include on-site mental health support from digital mental health service providers Skybi and a designated area called “The Quiet Space” for those who may find the content distressing.

In this space, additional stories will be featured, and audience participation is encouraged through prompt cards. The collective recognises the diverse and prevalent nature of these experiences, aiming to provide a platform for individuals to freely express their thoughts in a supportive and creative environment, fostering healing and understanding.

Through engagement, storytelling, emotion and societal critique in its play, DDJC aims to contribute to a broader cultural shift from the comfort of ignorance towards empathy, understanding and action.

Set and graphic designer/installation artist Justin K hopes that this production will spark more conversations.

“We want audiences to understand what’s actually happening around them and to be brave to have and engage with these conversations. We also want audiences, especially those who are survivors, to find a sense of support with us – that they do not need to go through this alone,” says Justin.

Music director and composer Bernardine Jeanne Abeysekra adds that the collective also hopes that audiences gain a heightened awareness of the prevalence and impact of gender-based violence.

“Hopefully after watching the show, the audience will be inspired to take concrete actions in their own lives and communities. This could include advocating for policy changes, supporting organisations that combat gender-based violence, or simply fostering a culture of respect and equality,” she concludes.

There are limited tickets available for Burden Of Proof at Jetty 35 in George Town, Penang on Nov 25 and 26 at 8pm. More info here.

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