Theater as a Rhetorical Social Intervention: Using Trauma Responsive Rhetoric with Military and Veteran Communities

Michelle Ruehl

Advisor: Michelle LaFrance, PhD, Department of English

Committee Members: Heidi Lawrence, Marc Napolitano

Horizon Hall, #4225,
April 15, 2024, 12:30 PM to 02:00 PM


Trauma is pervasive in military culture; twenty years of war has led many in my community to face a breakdown in identity, agency, meaning and integrity. Cases of military sexual trauma, suicide, and interpersonal violence are on the rise and traditional interventions – like slide shows and lectures - do not drive much needed social change. As a military suicide prevention trainer and sexual assault victim advocate, I have witnessed the devastation of trauma firsthand, but as a theater director and rhetorician, I have also seen how theater brings people together, which helps ease the pain a little. In this dissertation, I take a transrhetorical approach (Wang) to demonstrate how trauma and theater work as Rhetorical Social Interventions (Opt and Gring) that restore hope and healing in three case studies, Social Impact Theater Project, Theater of War, and Depth of Our Souls. I build on Fallot and Harris’ original definition of trauma-informed care to introduce two new terms, Trauma-Responsive Rhetoric (TRR) and Trauma-Responsive Theater (TRT). TRR goes beyond simply being trauma-informed (TI); TRR calls on theater directors and community advocates to desperately believe broken identity, agency, meaning and integrity can be restored; relentlessly find ways to use TI to create social change; and wholeheartedly commit to integrating safety, trust, peer support, collaboration, empowerment, cultural competency, and post-traumatic growth into our rhetorical interventions. In the end, I identify twenty trauma-responsive techniques for theater programs and recommend a new model of collective healing. By sharing these findings with other communities outside the Department of Defense, I hope this project is a continued act of service to help people – military or not – feel a little less alone in our trauma response and recovery.