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Domestic abuse play transformative experience

  • Written by Steve Wideman, Special to your Catholic Herald
  • Category: Local
Working for the Milwaukee Archdiocese vocations office, Richard Gustin enjoyed putting on a one-man play for elementary and secondary school students aimed at heightening awareness of priestly and other religious vocations.University of Wisconsin Fond du Lac students Shellie Rushing and Nate Zimdars portray a couple whose courtship and then marriage is racked by domestic abuse in the Richard Gustin play “Surviving the Cycle.” (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)
Now, as a playwright and professor of theater arts at the University of Wisconsin - Fond du Lac, Gustin recently wrote and directed “Surviving the Cycle,” a play aimed at heightening awareness within the Fond du Lac community about domestic abuse.

Unlike the one-man play directed at school children, the domestic abuse play was laced dramatically and shockingly throughout with profanity never heard in the sanctuary of a church.

The two plays, while as different as God and Satan, nonetheless have one thing in common – both aimed to provide a transformative experience for audiences and, in the case of “Surviving the Cycle,” for the play’s student actors.

Offering a transformative experience through theater is a key concept with Gustin, who also worked for the archdiocesan office of prayer and worship, taught theology at the Sacred Heart School of Theology and took courses in the Master of Arts and Pastoral Studies program at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary. He earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Wayne State University and entered the secular world as a theater professor in the UW system.

“I believe theater is an art form important to society because it can tell a story and help people face their fears and aspirations,” said Gustin, who lives in Milwaukee and is a member of St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish on North 76th Place.

Prior to coming to UW-Fond du Lac in 1994, Gustin worked professionally as an actor at regional theaters, including the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Chamber Theater in Milwaukee, First Stage Milwaukee and theaters in: Kansas City, Mo.; Cleveland, Ohio; Richmond, Va.; Philadelphia and Chicago.

In addition to his teaching duties, Gustin has directed more than 30 main stage theater productions at UW colleges.
“Theater is a mystical experience, plain and simple. A group of people come together to have a transformative experience, to listen to and become part of something truthful about the human experience,” Gustin said.

God is part of the human experience, he said.

“Over the years, I’ve had a strong interest in working with prayer and worship,” Gustin said, adding his one-man, vocations oriented play, written by his wife, Glenna, was aimed at heightening a person’s awareness “that they have a calling, that God is involved in their calling and that they can be involved in salvation.”

Gustin wrote and directed “Surviving the Cycle” at the request of Fond du Lac’s Agnesian HealthCare Domestic Violence Program as part of the program’s annual “Light up the Night” domestic violence awareness event on Oct. 11.The cast of the play, “Surviving the Cycle” warns the audience of the dangers of domestic abuse. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)
“Surviving the Cycle,” at this point scheduled as a one-time-only-performance for the Agnesian event, tells the story of a couple whose abusive behavior of the husband toward the wife began while the pair were dating; how, importantly, their abusive relationship fostered abusive behavior in the adult life of the couple’s two sons and how friends may be frozen in their reaction to pleas for help from abuse victims.

Gustin said in his archdiocesan life he was a cantor during Mass and spoke the language of the church, “but here in the UW system I use a different language.”

“There is pretty strong language in the play, but it’s just language. It’s just words,” Gustin said. “In order for the piece to have artistic integrity, it was important to use words people use in domestic violence.”

The play was performed by students in Gustin’s UW-Fond du Lac acting class, including some who had experienced domestic violence themselves.

“The students spent six weeks working on that play,” Gustin said, adding that during the weeks of rehearsals students went through a transformative experience encouraging them to pay greater attention to their own relationships and when to say no to potential abuse.

As part of the play, Gustin formed an interdisciplinary faculty group on campus whose classes viewed the play and received domestic abuse awareness training, as did his acting students, from St. Agnes Hospital staff.

“I certainly wrote ‘Surviving the Cycle’ as a teaching tool and as an awareness builder of domestic violence,” Gustin said. “The fundamental thing I wanted people to walk away with from the play was for them to see how easy it is to hurt another person’s heart and mind, and how parents can easily injure the spirit of their children without intending under the guise of discipline or tough love.”  Steve Wideman

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