Teya Sepinuck is a visionary artist who has worked at the intersections of art/social change/spirituality/education and peacemaking in creating and producing Theatre of Witness for the past 30 years. Drawing on her dance and counseling backgrounds, she founded this unique form of performance that has tapped the deepest stories from people whose stories had never been heard before.
In prisons she worked with men serving life sentences, having them perform their stories of accountability, sorrow and healing for victims of crime, legislators, judges and the general public. In the inner-city of Philadelphia, she brought mothers whose children were murdered by violence, mothers whose children committed violence and ex-prisoners together to create ‘Beyond the Walls’, a production dedicated to all those killed in the city of Philadelphia. The healing and deep camaraderie and support that was modeled by the cast was a balm for audiences throughout the city. In Northern Ireland she brought enemies together – ex-paramilitaries from both sides, members of the security forces and victims of the Troubles to perform together, once again modeling the possibilities of peace and healing. Throughout her career, Teya has drawn on her capacity to listen to what has been unspoken, lead people into emotional and performative territory they never could have imagined, and sought to always ‘find the medicine’ in stories of suffering, transformation and peace while upholding the highest artistic standards.
Teya’s greatest achievement has been to open people’s hearts to see ‘the other’ as self. Her work shines light on some of the darkest aspects of society and brings hope and the possibility of transformation, forgiveness and peace to people. The ripple effects from her productions have gone on for years, forging new and unlikely friendships across boundaries of difference, challenging audiences to get involved in political issues such as prison reform, refugee resettlement, domestic abuse, and peace building, and she has inspired a new generation of practitioners who want to learn her methodology. But perhaps her greatest accomplishment has been to bring out the ‘gold’ in people’s stories – gold that the performers themselves often hadn’t themselves seen amidst the trauma and or shame of their personal journeys.
Teya Sepinuck is the founder and director of the Theatre of Witness model of performance, that gives voice to those whose stories haven’t been heard in society. For the past thirty years, she has been creating and producing Theatre of Witness projects with prisoners and their families, survivors and perpetrators of abuse and violence, refugees, immigrants, elders, and those who have lived through war in the USA, Poland and Northern Ireland. The stories of the performers are performed by the people themselves and woven together with music, film and poetic imagery as a way for audiences to bear witness to stories of suffering, transformation and peace.
In 1991, she founded ‘TOVA –Artistic Projects for Social Change’ based in Philadelphia, through which she created and directed more than 30 original productions. From 2009-2014 she was based at The Playhouse in Derry – Londonderry Northern Ireland where she was the artistic director of The Playhouse Theatre of Witness Programme. There, she has created and produced four original ToW productions with ex-combatants, members of the security forces, witnesses and victims of the Troubles as well as those seeking safe haven and sanctuary. A documentary film by filmmaker Margo Harkin about her work on ‘I Once Knew a Girl’ was recently aired on BBC Northern Ireland.
Teya holds a BA in Dance from Bennington College and an MS in Community Counseling from Villanova University. She was an adjunct faculty at Swarthmore College from 1974-1991 in dance, where she also taught “The Arts as Community Service, Social Change” through 2006. She is the recipient of the Philadelphia Human Rights Award for Arts and Culture from The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, a Local Hero Award from the Bank of America, as well as the Cultural Arts Award from Women’s Way and the Mayor’s Commission on Women. She was just named the Chair of Theatrical Innovation by Holywell Trust, an organization in Northern Ireland devoted to peace and reconciliation. She has a long time meditation practice which informs all of her work and life. Teya’s book, ‘Theatre of Witness – Finding the Medicine in Stories of Suffering, Transformation and Peace’ was published in February 2013 by Jessica Kingsley Press.