by Reginald Hall Jr
As Jennifer Schelter, 44, prepares for the re-opening of her critically acclaimed one-woman performance piece at the InterAct Theatre, “Love Lessons from Abu Ghraib,” she recalls that a few years ago she could not possibly have predicted the course of events that would dramatically change her life.
In 2006, Schelter — a Chestnut Hill native, Germantown Friends School alumna and owner of the Yoga Schelter studio in East Falls — was offered the Lierman Trust for Humanitarian Law’s invitation to join lawyer Susan Burke in Istanbul, Turkey. The pair were interviewing Iraqis who had been tortured by U.S. Army personnel at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison. In 2004, the prison was a topic of international controversy after details emerged proving several U.S. Army members had intentionally abused the prisoners.
The U.S Senate Armed Services Committee, headed by Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking Republican Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), released a bi-partisan report in 2008 following two years of investigation, concluding that U.S Secretary of Defense Donald H Rumsfield had authorized such techniques as those used in the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal, where Iraqi prisoners were subject to punishments that were undoubtedly cruel and unusual.
“I had no idea 99.9% of the population of prisoners were just random,” Schelter said last week. “There was very little reason why they should have been tortured. I was so naïve. I thought the U.S. gave up torture a long time ago. Am I flaming liberal? Absolutely not, and I’m not trying to preach. There just have to be other ways of getting information.”
The primary reason Schelter was asked to go to Istanbul was to teach former Iraqi detainees how to heal and also serve as a reminder that many Americans did not condone the Army’s torture techniques. As a 500-hour Yoga Alliance-certified, experienced yoga teacher and a teacher training facilitator, Schelter knew she could use her skills to help others.
“My eyes were wide open, but I did not know where this was going to go,” Schelter said. “I just knew that in a world that’s as chaotic and violent and finger-pointing — just insanity — I thought it was a time for me to test out my sense of limitation.”
Slowly, as the former prisoners became emotionally unguarded, Schelter realized some methods designed to establish healing worked better than others. Genuinely welcoming the prisoners and acknowledging their courage to speak about their experiences were two critical components towards establishing trust. With the presence of mutual trust, Schelter realized she was in unique company.
“I was lucky the prisoners never told me to leave the room,” Schelter said.” They didn’t come from a culture of therapeutics. Being able to release their stories and share the burden of those stories was important. Most prisoners actually said, ‘I’m terribly sorry to burden you with this; thank you for listening.’”
Although Schelter initially journeyed to Istanbul with the intent of giving, she surprisingly received something — a new perspective on the human capacity to love. Following her return to Philadelphia, Schelter created the play, “Love Lessons from Abu Ghraib,” as a way to express her experience and also help others. The play originally was performed during 2007’s Philadelphia Fringe Festive to critical acclaim.
Now, Schelter is preparing to perform the play again, Jan. 29 through Feb. 13, at the InterAct Theatre Company. The performance explores the themes of love, forgiveness, fearlessness and transformation. As an actress who shared in receiving a Tony Award at the Denver Center Theatre Company and a member of Actors’ Equity and the Screen Actors Guild, Schelter brings experience along with her passion.
“To me, it’s like eating a big courage sandwich,” Schelter said. “It’s all about overcoming fear and depression and transcending through personal and universal faith to find out what’s possible. Everyone makes a difference; witnessing other people makes a huge difference. Not passing judgment makes a huge difference. “
For a play approaching serious themes, Love Lessons from Abu Ghraib surprisingly presents them with a sense of humor. Using life’s hilarity to teach represents one of Schelter’s core values. In addition to play writing, acting and teaching yoga, Schelter also offers workshops to those interested in healing, health and wellness, and creativity. Humor provides an excellent starting point to connect with her students and offers a sense of fun with potentially dreary themes.
Schelter and “Yoga Unites” provide a free panel discussion on “The Importance of Creativity for Healing and Empowerment” following the Sunday, Feb. 6, performance of “Love Lessons.” Ultimately, Schelter hopes “Love Lessons,” despite its subject of torture, leaves viewers with something positive.
“I want people to believe in themselves in a new way,” Schelter explained. “That they are inspired to take things on. They can say, ‘Oh my God,’ but they can also say to themselves, ‘I can invoke my creativity and my happiness. I can go for it.’ Whatever ‘it’ is. And I hope it inspires people to write, to do yoga and meditation, and inspire people to take care of themselves. I hope people are inspired to do whatever they need to do to feel great about themselves.”
(One could say the apple does not fall far from the tree. Jennifer’s mother, Kitsie Converse, 69, is currently serving as a volunteer teacher and unofficial social worker in the remote village of Bududa in Uganda, East Africa.)
“Love Lessons from Abu Ghraib” runs at InterAct Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., for six performances on Saturdays and Sundays, Jan. 29 to Feb. 13. Tickets are $25. For more information about Jennifer Schelter, visit www.YogaSchelter.com. For more information about “Love Lessons,” visit www.interacttheatre.org or call 215-568-8079.
(On InterAct’s main stage, also playing until Feb. 13, is “Lidless,” a new play about a retired Guantánamo Bay interrogator who is confronted by a former detainee who asks for part of her liver as compensation for his suffering, blurring the lines between revenge and redemption.)