Untriggering life and the memories of trauma

Actor Keith Mascoll digs into the issue of childhood sexual abuse in his solo show "Triggered Life," streaming live from Portland Playhouse

“WE’RE OPENING UP A CONVERSATION FOR EVERYBODY TO HAVE. We need to keep our girls safe. We need to keep our boys safe.”

It was mid-afternoon on Wednesday, and the actor Keith Mascoll was on the phone, fresh from a run-through of his show Triggered Life: A Requiem of Healing, which has preview performances Thursday and Friday evenings at Portland Playhouse and on Saturday opens a twelve-show run, through April 4. The performances are being taped in real time, and can be watched on video.

Keith Mascoll in “Triggered Life: A Requiem of Healing.” Photo: Crosby Tatum

Triggered Life is a one-actor, two character play that goes to places theater rarely goes – into the world of sexual abuse of children, and the struggles to overcome its emotional cost. It’s based partly on Mascoll’s own experiences, and partly on his conversations with other people who’ve been abused. And as we’ve passed the one-year mark in social isolation, during which incidences of domestic abuse have spiked, it seems a show that’s more than met its time. Mascoll’s director and longtime working partner, John Oluwole ADEkoje, wrote the script, collaborating with Mascoll on the scenes that include Mascoll’s own experiences. Though it’s rooted in actual memories and events, Mascoll says, it’s true theater, with a human story to tell: “Definitely storytelling.”

Mascoll performs alone onstage, filmed by two cameras that can sometimes edit and sometimes be seen together on split screens, and striving for a balance between theatrical and film acting styles. When theater actors perform on film, he notes, they can play everything big for the sake of being big; film calls for a more nuanced approach. “It’s the challenge of doing it, to be perfectly honest,” he says. The story’s told through two characters: Keith, and a man named Ishmael. “Ishmael’s a composite,” Mascoll says,  built from interviews with psychotherapists “and people who have represented to me. He represents for folks who haven’t spoken and can’t speak.”

Keith Mascoll onstage at Portland Playhouse in “Triggered Life.” Photo: Jesse Rowell, Jr. 

The inability to speak about trauma is very real, he adds, in any community, and particularly, in his experience, among Black men: “It’s a conversation that the community hasn’t had.” For that reason, several performances have been set aside for Black and Brown audiences. But the story is universal, he stresses: “The question of sexual abuse is always on the table. Sexual abuse doesn’t have a color. Trauma doesn’t have a color. It’s a story about two Black men, but the story is relatable. The pain is relatable.”

Mascoll and his wife, Roxann Mascoll, a psychotherapist and social worker, are based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but have been spending time in Portland to visit mutual friends. One of those friends is Ramona Lisa Alexander, Portland Playhouse’s associate artistic director, and that’s how Triggered Life and the Playhouse linked up. Roxann plays a key role in the show, conducting after-show talks via Zoom with the audience to encourage at least tentative resolution: As Keith puts it, “It’s important as we open people up that we also close them up again.” The talkback is so crucial, he adds, that they refer to it as the show’s “Act Two.” It’s interactive, and lasts a quick half-hour or so: “We understand that we can’t drag this out. We’re all about how to use art as a learning tool.”

That includes another project with director ADEkoje, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in nearby Boston. Standing in front of the empty seventeenth century frame that had once held Rembrandt’s painting Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which was famously stolen from the museum along with several other masterworks, Mascoll “refills” the frame with his monologue. You can see a museum-produced video about it here.

About the author

Bob Hicks is a Senior Editor and writer at Oregon ArtsWatch. He's been writing about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, first as arts editor and movie critic at the Oregon Journal, then for 25 years at The Oregonian as a writer and editor covering the performing, visual, and literary arts. His most recent art books include "Kazuyuki Ohtsu" (Pomegranate), "James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time" (Hallie Ford Museum of Art), and "Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora" (Pomegranate). His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Prologue, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series “Today I Am.”

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