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Published on 16th February 2017

Actor Jonathon Young explores the unutterable pain of loss in 'Betroffenheit'

An unimaginable personal trauma became the impetus for a remarkable piece of physical theatre, writes Maxim Boon.

The English language is a wondrous thing, but there are some experiences it can't express. Other tongues have evolved to be more precise in capturing those subtler corners of the human condition. Take for example the German word "betroffenheit." It captures in just four syllables an almost inexplicable feeling: the emotional shock of a severe personal trauma, that which is simultaneously deafening yet silent, paralysing yet frantic. It concisely annunciates a human experience at the extremity of our conscious cognition, and yet it is a word very few of us will ever truly understand. It is, however, a feeling that Canadian actor Jonathon Young is intimately acquainted with.

In 2009, his teenage daughter, along with two of her cousins, died in a fire in the family's holiday cabin. The profound bereavement of losing a child was encased by the unshakable horror of the manner of her death, and the involuntary torture of a parent's hardwired empathy for their child's experiences. It's almost a moot point to try and guess how any one person might process something of this magnitude, but in Young's instance, he channelled his grief through the prism of his art. Collaborating with choreographer Crystal Pite, the pair embarked on producing a stage work that navigates some of the complexities of this emotional labyrinth, if not to escape those dark pathways then to at least bear witness to them. The result has been hailed as one of the most viscerally urgent and powerful dance-theatre works produced in recent years.

While the impetus for making the work was specific to Young, the key to Betroffenheit's success is in its universality, he believes. "Crystal and I spent months asking, what are the truly human qualities of this story? What experiences does this relate to that are occurring all over the world, in many different places and in many different forms? How do people respond to a cataclysmic event in their life, where the past has been swept away and now there's a gaping void between the past and future?" Young shares. "Making this piece was certainly the most challenging creative process I've ever been part of, for obvious reasons. Yeah, sure there was a lot of trepidation before we started, and particularly before our first audience had seen it, because I didn't know if what we had captured would mean anything to anyone other than myself. It was really born out my own experience, but people did see themselves reflected back. I am always so grateful when that happens; my faith in art is always renewed when that happens."

Some may ask, what could make a parent, artist or not, want to relive such an agonising moment, but as Young explains, it wasn't a matter of "want" but rather a matter of "need". "I was at the centre of an experience that I didn't know how to process, with memories that I didn't know how to store," he candidly states. Betroffenheit is not explicitly biographical, but rather a physically expressive study of the unutterable emotional and psychological details that language cannot capture, as well as the crutches, including substance addiction, we use to cope.

"The central character [whom Young portrays] begins by trying to talk his way forward from a moment of trauma. He is very wary of any impulsive action or responding to signals he receives because he's in a state of shock, trapped by re-experiencing," Young says. "One of the worst components of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I don't believe I had myself, is that the echo of that event keeps showing up and the whole physical system responds to its as though you're back at the height of that emergency."

For Young, working with internationally acclaimed choreographer Crystal Pite and her dance company, Kidd Pivot, was the key to translating his experience for the stage. "We recognised from the beginning that we didn't want to have language at the foreground and the physicality as a side thought, or vice versa. They needed to both be equal - two halves of one disordered system," Young explains. "Of course, there are different approaches to getting through this kind of emotional terrain. One is to talk your way back from that edge, talking your way through it. But sometimes, that just doesn't work; it's a physical process you need to focus on."

First published 16 Feb 2017, for The Music.