Shakespeare helps restore the body's story to prisoners

At the recent conference of INARS, the professional organization around Rubenfeld Synergy, we talked a great deal about the restoration of movement to the body, and how restoring movement can give us our sense of soul back. In an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, he spoke of how in trauma, the body gets stuck in the experience, and the brain is unable to make narrative out of it – the story we have about our lives that helps us process and synthesize intense experience.

So when I also heard in that interview about a Shakespeare program as an alternative to prison for juvenile delinquents (van der Kolk joked about them being “condemned to be a Shakespeare actor”), I started thinking about the ways that theatre can help restore people to themselves. I had heard a This American Life episode called simply “Act V,” about a group of maximum-security prisoners performing a portion of Hamlet, and I was transfixed by the ways in which working with Shakespeare’s text and embodying his characters helped these men to reflect on their crimes, to know themselves better, and to heal.

It turns out that this idea has some traction, and a simple search on “shakespeare in prisons” turns up Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Shakespeare in Prisons conference, an Atlantic article and an NPR article on the topic, covering instances of this practice in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, and at Notre Dame.  What is it that makes the Bard so compelling as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation?

I cannot overstate the power of narrative to make sense of emotion, of difficult experiences, of our very lives. Human beings are meant to tell stories; it is something we have done in one way or another since there were people we can recognize as human. And making stories – whether with spoken word, ritual, theatre, writing, art, music, dance, or games – is the most powerful tool we have for freeing our bodies from the “thousand slings and arrows that flesh is heir to,” and making the things that hurt and scare us most manageable. In acting Shakespeare, what has been trapped inside literally becomes expression, emotion and story that happens outside the body, even as it is generated by the body – the limbs and heart and face and vibrating vocal cords of a human being trying to make sense of the world.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we combine talk and touch in order to help people not just access the stories that are held within their bodies, but to tell them in words – to make narrative out of the body’s sometimes incoherent signals, responses, pains and tensions. By going inward we find how the mind makes associations with sensations as we pay close attention to them. But the next and vitally important step is to express outward – to tell that story so that we may better understand ourselves.

These prisoners, then, in my view, are using the Bard’s words to help them in their journey of self-knowledge, and in acting those words, are moving emotions through their bodies that are similar to ones they know from their previous lives: jealousy, love, anger, guilt, shame, the thirst for revenge, the possibility of redemption.

I work with text as well as the body. If you are a performer, a storyteller, or just someone who wants to make sense of your life – contact me.

Shakespeare helps restore the body’s story to prisoners

At the recent conference of INARS, the professional organization around Rubenfeld Synergy, we talked a great deal about the restoration of movement to the body, and how restoring movement can give us our sense of soul back. In an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, he spoke of how in trauma, the body gets stuck in the experience, and the brain is unable to make narrative out of it – the story we have about our lives that helps us process and synthesize intense experience.

So when I also heard in that interview about a Shakespeare program as an alternative to prison for juvenile delinquents (van der Kolk joked about them being “condemned to be a Shakespeare actor”), I started thinking about the ways that theatre can help restore people to themselves. I had heard a This American Life episode called simply “Act V,” about a group of maximum-security prisoners performing a portion of Hamlet, and I was transfixed by the ways in which working with Shakespeare’s text and embodying his characters helped these men to reflect on their crimes, to know themselves better, and to heal.

It turns out that this idea has some traction, and a simple search on “shakespeare in prisons” turns up Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Shakespeare in Prisons conference, an Atlantic article and an NPR article on the topic, covering instances of this practice in Kentucky, Indiana, New York, and at Notre Dame.  What is it that makes the Bard so compelling as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation?

I cannot overstate the power of narrative to make sense of emotion, of difficult experiences, of our very lives. Human beings are meant to tell stories; it is something we have done in one way or another since there were people we can recognize as human. And making stories – whether with spoken word, ritual, theatre, writing, art, music, dance, or games – is the most powerful tool we have for freeing our bodies from the “thousand slings and arrows that flesh is heir to,” and making the things that hurt and scare us most manageable. In acting Shakespeare, what has been trapped inside literally becomes expression, emotion and story that happens outside the body, even as it is generated by the body – the limbs and heart and face and vibrating vocal cords of a human being trying to make sense of the world.

In Rubenfeld Synergy, we combine talk and touch in order to help people not just access the stories that are held within their bodies, but to tell them in words – to make narrative out of the body’s sometimes incoherent signals, responses, pains and tensions. By going inward we find how the mind makes associations with sensations as we pay close attention to them. But the next and vitally important step is to express outward – to tell that story so that we may better understand ourselves.

These prisoners, then, in my view, are using the Bard’s words to help them in their journey of self-knowledge, and in acting those words, are moving emotions through their bodies that are similar to ones they know from their previous lives: jealousy, love, anger, guilt, shame, the thirst for revenge, the possibility of redemption.

I work with text as well as the body. If you are a performer, a storyteller, or just someone who wants to make sense of your life – contact me.

Great fun getting actors into their bodies at Theatre @ First

knight_of_burning_pestle_logoThe other night I had the opportunity to work with a large cast of actors in a crazy, little-known Elizabethan play called The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The play is a satire on Elizabethan theatre, written in the same time period. A couple of rowdy “audience members” interrupt the action constantly, insert their own apprentice as an actor into the proceedings, and in general spin the whole thing into chaos. It’s great fun.

Because the actors are all playing, well, actors, who are in turn playing broad stock characters, it’s a great opportunity to find larger-than-life physicality and use it to develop the character. I find that when you connect an actor to their breath, and then through their breath, to their bodies, the movement becomes very intuitive and clear – and the body connects to the voice, as well, creating the projection and voice you want.

We loosened up, moved all our joints around, found our feet under us. We walked around the room and moved our awareness to different parts of ourselves, seeing what it felt like to be pulled around by the head, chest, belly, hips, knees, toes. We explored gait: how far apart are the character’s feet? Do they walk heavily or lightly, on their toes or their heels, with big steps or little ones?

Then we put on some music and they walked around in the body-characters they’d found, stopping when the music stopped in a still posture that they could use when they were onstage and not moving. It was hilarious, and also helped them figure out how to be onstage: so much of acting is knowing what to do when you’re not doing anything.

I love working with actors and seeing them discover things, open up to possibilities, and stretch themselves. Getting them to connect with their bodies is such a rapid and excellent way to make it happen, too, and I love watching them light up as they get it.

If you want to work with me as an actor, check out my Body-Centered Performance Coaching page, and get in touch.

And go see Knight of the Burning Pestle at Theatre @ First in Somerville, April 23 – May 2!

Double Edge, again: becoming one with presence

Yesterday, I spent more time with the wonderful folks at Double Edge Theatre, out in Ashfield, MA.  Their highly physical Open Trainings, as I’ve described here before, are rigorous, inspirational, and transformative, and I would encourage anyone who is not mobility-challenged to try one.

Here are some moments from this one, particularly as they relate to the mind-body connection, my own emotional/physical journey, and my practice of Rubenfeld Synergy:

…I am in a clutch of people; the training has broken up into two groups.  My group is making a tighter and tighter bunch, closing in, breathing hard, urgent, while the other group circles us.  I feel an unmistakable sense of menace and danger from the outside group, while in my group I feel the huddling together as fearful.  Soon we are packed together, hunched with our heads close, and I feel as if I will cry from the fear.  Just as suddenly, we break away and go running joyfully through the circle that surrounds us, and the mood is over.  A simple change from one type of physicality to another shifts my emotional state instantly.

…Our group is making its way up the side of a large wooden see-saw.  Our leader – Matthew Glassman – has me by the arm and we are working our way toward the middle of it.  The grade is steep and the wood is old and smooth, slippery under my bare feet in the sun.  My heart is pounding and I feel with every step I will fall.  And then we go over the balance point and slide down…and I learn, as I do again and again here, how closely fear and joy are related.  Facing fear, moving through it, I learn what triumphant rewards are on the other side.

…Doing this training, surrounded by many beautiful, lithe, graceful people who have clearly been doing this for some time, I feel the struggles of my size, my flexibility, my strength.  It taps me directly in to the feelings of exclusion I had as a child: cautious, quiet, brainy and physically awkward, I spent most of my childhood excluded from friendship and peer groups, either by my own choice or active ostracizing.  Even though I’m now fitter than I’ve ever been, the activity still touches those old wounds: I feel slower, more awkward, less beautiful than everyone else.  A constant voice in my head says, “Am I doing it right?  Am I responding quickly enough?  Will they see that I’m not really one of them?”  And then someone grabs me by the hand and pulls me onward as we run, or someone puts their arm around me in the group, or someone sees that I’m not as tightly into a cluster of people as I could be, loops my arm, and draws me in.  Over and over, I’m included, embraced, held.  I belong here.

Theatre is a place where I’m often reminded – or re-bodied, if you will – of how these connections work.  And Double Edge is a place where I find, not only the things above, but a place of total presence: when it gets physically demanding enough, and when I’m able to let go, those persistent, insecure thoughts are silenced, and I am no longer a shy, awkward girl alone, but rather a shining body and spirit in community.

I encourage anyone in the performing arts to come and see me if you want to enhance presence, body confidence, or any other aspect of performance.

 

Blog Year's Eve – My Top 15

Birthday candle, Downpatrick, July 2010 

Tomorrow is the 1st anniversary of the start of this blog.  When I began, I wanted a place to talk about this amazing work, to explain some of its principles, and tell client stories.  What it’s become is far more comprehensive, and, as might have been predicted, more holistic.  I’ve enjoyed talking about the arts here, and how they relate to this work, as well as sharing the various things that move me throughout my days.

Right now, though, in a kind of celebration, I’d like to do a round-up of those posts I think have been most crucial in making this work clear.  I hope that those of you who haven’t been reading from the beginning will take a look at this retrospective, and thanks to all of you who have joined me over the past year.

Posts About How Rubenfeld Synergy Works

1. The Principles of Rubenfeld Synergy – An Introduction.  This post introduces, and links to, all 18 of my writings on the 18 principles.  For a really comprehensive look at the fundamentals of this work, check it out.

2. Moving From Habit to Choice.  A post on one of the touted benefits of this work.

3. Make a Move, Change A Thought.  What can fear teach us?

4. Just What Does a Rubenfeld Synergy Session Look Like, Anyway?  In two parts, a description of how a typical session goes.

Posts About the Science Related To Our Work

5. Toward a New Theory of Depression

6. How Love, Trust and Empathy Can Be Contagious

7. Treating the Whole Person: Autism, Science and Skepticism

8. How Music Brings People Back to Life

Rubenfeld Synergy and The Arts

9. Fail Better: The Joys of Gentle and Respectful Leadership. On the Back Bay Chorale and our fearless leader, Scott Allen Jarett.

10. Moving and Being Moved: Rubenfeld and Performing Shakespeare.  What Patrick Stewart has to teach me about this work.

11. Fearless, Together, and Free: An Afternoon at Double Edge Theatre.  The experience of movement based theatre and its relationship to the work.

The Spiritual Side

12. The Spirit Part of Rubenfeld Synergy.  What do we mean by “spirit”?

13. And What Is “Energy” Anyway?  Grappling with the notion of energy, chi, prana…

Personal Journeys

14. Rock Climbing for Body, Mind, Emotions and Spirit.  How rock climbing helped me get over feeling like an un-athletic schlub, and how holistic an experience it is.

15. The Things That Shift Me.  A catalogue of little things, and getting through the hard days.

 

Blog Year’s Eve – My Top 15

Birthday candle, Downpatrick, July 2010 

Tomorrow is the 1st anniversary of the start of this blog.  When I began, I wanted a place to talk about this amazing work, to explain some of its principles, and tell client stories.  What it’s become is far more comprehensive, and, as might have been predicted, more holistic.  I’ve enjoyed talking about the arts here, and how they relate to this work, as well as sharing the various things that move me throughout my days.

Right now, though, in a kind of celebration, I’d like to do a round-up of those posts I think have been most crucial in making this work clear.  I hope that those of you who haven’t been reading from the beginning will take a look at this retrospective, and thanks to all of you who have joined me over the past year.

Posts About How Rubenfeld Synergy Works

1. The Principles of Rubenfeld Synergy – An Introduction.  This post introduces, and links to, all 18 of my writings on the 18 principles.  For a really comprehensive look at the fundamentals of this work, check it out.

2. Moving From Habit to Choice.  A post on one of the touted benefits of this work.

3. Make a Move, Change A Thought.  What can fear teach us?

4. Just What Does a Rubenfeld Synergy Session Look Like, Anyway?  In two parts, a description of how a typical session goes.

Posts About the Science Related To Our Work

5. Toward a New Theory of Depression

6. How Love, Trust and Empathy Can Be Contagious

7. Treating the Whole Person: Autism, Science and Skepticism

8. How Music Brings People Back to Life

Rubenfeld Synergy and The Arts

9. Fail Better: The Joys of Gentle and Respectful Leadership. On the Back Bay Chorale and our fearless leader, Scott Allen Jarett.

10. Moving and Being Moved: Rubenfeld and Performing Shakespeare.  What Patrick Stewart has to teach me about this work.

11. Fearless, Together, and Free: An Afternoon at Double Edge Theatre.  The experience of movement based theatre and its relationship to the work.

The Spiritual Side

12. The Spirit Part of Rubenfeld Synergy.  What do we mean by “spirit”?

13. And What Is “Energy” Anyway?  Grappling with the notion of energy, chi, prana…

Personal Journeys

14. Rock Climbing for Body, Mind, Emotions and Spirit.  How rock climbing helped me get over feeling like an un-athletic schlub, and how holistic an experience it is.

15. The Things That Shift Me.  A catalogue of little things, and getting through the hard days.

 

How Rubenfeld Synergy helped me work with actors

Back in 2009, I worked on a production of The Winter’s Tale that was my first full-length production in years.  I was 34 years old, and I found out two things that were amazingly helpful.  One was that I still had a sense of all the technical skills needed to do the job of directing: my training from undergrad days hadn’t left me, even though I hadn’t used it in a long time.  The other was that in the intervening time, I had learned a hell of a lot more than I knew when I was 21 about talking to people, working with emotions, establishing authority, and other adult stuff that I really think can only be learned with life experience.

What I didn’t expect would come in so handy was the fact that I was at that moment in my first year of RSM training.  When I entered rehearsals, I’d just finished up my third week-long intensive, and found that I had a ton to bring to actors.

Many actors are no doubt familiar with the idea of moving a ball of energy around in your body, and seeing what it feels like to walk around as if being pulled by that ball, placed at different body locations.  I.e., leading from your head, or your chest, or your pelvis, or your knees.  This wasn’t a new concept to me.  But in that training, we were also seeing what it was like to inhabit different parts of ourselves and try to listen to someone else tell a story.  And what happens when we embody the physical characteristics of our clients, and how much someone who doesn’t even know the client can learn about that client just by following us and walking in the same way.

More specifically: we did an exercise in which we paired up, then one of the pair told a story about something important to them, and the other listened.  The listener started by organizing ourselves in our shoulders – leading from them, holding energy in them.  It made me feel aggressive, forceful.  It made me lean forward in my chair, in the way that many people think “listening carefully” looks.  And two things happened: I couldn’t really hear what the other person was saying.  And the other person didn’t feel like I was listening.

When we instead organized from our hips – sat relaxed in our chairs, settled into our seats, had our feet on the ground – I felt at once more receptive.  I could not only clearly hear what the other person was saying, but was more interested in it.  She, responding, told her story more animatedly and with greater comfort.  A simple shift in body position – and all of the mental and emotional shifts that come with that – changed the entire interaction radically, and for the better.

In the other exercise, one of the pair adopted body postures of a practice client that they were seeing at home.  They would walk around the room, and the other half of the pair walked behind them and imitated what they did.  Then, the person in front – embodying the client – would call back to the other person, asking questions about his or her life.  Incredible revelations came with this.  One person spontaneously knew that their partner’s client’s father had recently died.  Many of us, while followers, answered questions in similar words to what our partners’ clients had said in sessions.  The body, we were learning over and over again, holds such deep truths that even just imitating someone third-hand, we can learn astounding things about their lives.

Needless to say, this was amazingly useful when I got to rehearsals.  The actor playing King Leontes figured out that the insanely jealous king leads from the head, and he found that it helped Leontes make more sense to him: why he doesn’t listen to his most trusted counselors, why he is so dedicated to his consuming idea, is because his heart is buried and his head is so far out in front he’s in danger of falling forward.  Just try and listen, to be receptive, to trust yourself or anyone, when you’re letting your forehead lead you like an arrow.

Hermione – the Queen – is pregnant at the start of the show, and the actress easily found herself leading with her belly.  The combination of pride and vulnerability that this brought to her physicality did more than just make her convincing as a pregnant woman: it allowed her first to blossom as the gentle and patient mother that the character is, and then to feel the full weight of the betrayal as it nearly literally punches her in the gut.

More than even most theatrical training, RSM has given me insights into how to shortcut emotional truth through physicality.  I watch some actors work so very hard to get themselves into an emotional state, and burn themselves out doing it.  What I’ve learned is that there are ways of accessing those feelings through simple body posture and movement.  It’s been an incredibly useful set of tools that I didn’t fully expect would be transferable, and I’m terribly grateful for it, especially now that I’ve gotten as interested as I have in movement-based theatre.

 

Out of my comfort zone

Last week was something of a process of getting out of my comfort zone and doing things I’d long wanted to, but never quite had the nerve.  In particular, I applied for a theatrical directing slot at a local respected theatre company, proposing a couple of really classic shows.

I write a bit about the arts here, particularly theatre, but I haven’t previously shared my background: I majored in theatre arts in my undergraduate years, and found my voice there much more as a director than as an actor.  After the end of my time there, I faced some discouragement, in particular a shakedown by a local artistic director at a theatre where I was applying for an internship.  She – seemingly deliberately – made me feel as if I were completely incompetent, and shouldn’t even bother pursuing directing, based on what she had observed of my work at the university level.

Now, being 21 at the time, I could only be crushed; I couldn’t have the perspective that hey, I was only 21, and if I had made some mistakes and not been utterly brilliant as a director at 20, perhaps some life experience and training would help with that.  I did go on to apply to a couple of directing MFAs, but I set myself up for defeat: I was 22, applying to Columbia and NYU and other top programs, and everybody basically said, “That’s very nice, dear, but what exactly have you done?”

It was ten years, a creative writing MFA and a totally different life later that I once again stepped into the director’s chair, and as soon as I did it, I remembered what was so wonderful about it, and why I should be doing it all the time.  Actors told me they wanted to work with me again; after I did The Winter’s Tale at Theatre@First, people kept telling me it was the best thing they’d ever seen there.

But the trauma of that college experience was still – is still – deep enough within me that it’s hard for me to believe that this is something I’m good at.  And the idea of moving from the small pond of my local community theatre into larger waters – other theatres in my area, or even local MFA programs! – is frightening, and makes me feel like an impostor.

But it finally dawned on me that I have nothing to lose by trying.  Last week: applied to some directing jobs.  Saturday: a trip to Amherst to check out their MFA program.  Today: a proposal for a staged reading.

It’s never too late to move forward.

Fearless, together and free: an afternoon at Double Edge Theatre

Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of participating in Double Edge Theatre’s Open Training, out in the wilds of Ashfield, MA.  The Berkshires are lovely this time of year, of course, but what I got to experience was far more than the usual New England leaf-peep.  Rather, I had my body worked, my mind expanded, and my spirit uplifted.  (Also, my toes blood-blistered.  But that’s another part of this tale.)

Double Edge is what I can only call a holistic theatre company.  They are housed on an old dairy farm in Western MA, where they have extensive gardens and some chickens and pigs.  Much of their 100 acres is protected agricultural land, and the artists in residence are doing their best to run the place in a sustainable way, including switching to wood heating and getting their water from an artesian well.  More importantly, though, they create amazing performative art, large, highly physical pieces that take years of development and tend to be based on well-known stories like Don Quixote, The Firebird, and The Odyssey.  Their latest touring piece, currently in development, is called The Grand Parade of the Twentieth Century, and I for one can’t wait to see it.

I wasn’t clear what I expected when I went into the afternoon workshop.  I went because an actress I respect told me about it, and since seeing Transcontinental Love Affair in Minneapolis, I’ve wanted to do more with physical theatre.  I knew it was going to be physical; I didn’t know exactly how or to what degree.  I thought at least some things might be explained, or discussed.  No: this was to be entirely experiential.  Strenuous, ecstatic, playful, and almost entirely without words.

When my friend and I entered, there were probably about 40 people there.  Many looked like they’d attended one of these before; I’m sure many were new.  Everyone was stretching out, so we followed their leads.

This turned out to be a good plan, since the next nearly two hours were to be an extended, complex, and beautiful game of follow-the-leader, where the leader keeps changing, and then there are several, and tribes and groups and bands form, fighting, cooperating, dancing, strutting, cowering, and carrying each other through an organically evolving, entirely improvised story.

But it started with a jog.

The magnificent Matthew Glassman – though we didn’t know who he was yet – entered, said something like, “Okay, let’s start,” and began to lightly run around the room – a medium-sized community hall with benches around the sides and a low stage at the front.  At first it felt like a martial arts class warmup: we all began to jog around the room.  But soon it became clear that we weren’t all jogging in the same direction.  Then we weren’t just running in different directions but trying to avoid collisions.  We began to encounter each other, dodge, confront, play.  It became clear in a short time that we were meant to follow Matthew’s other movements, too, and he eventually guided us into a large circle, skipping sideways around it.  Soon another leader emerged: Carlos Uriona, another core member of the group, and he and Matthew split the group between them without much preamble.  Before the end there were at least four groups that I could count.  The group I was a part of ended up running out of the hall – barefoot – our hands behind our backs, and running along the street and the sidewalk of the little town, into a church yard, through the leaves and mud and puddles, sitting on a rock wall, looking at the sky, peering about suspiciously at the spirits of Puritans looking disdainfully at us.  When we came back in, some people were wearing vests and hats, and a large cable spool had been rolled into the center of the room.  People were taking turns balancing and walking on it.  A smaller one was introduced.  Then long lengths of sheer fabric, which groups of us moved with, hid under, swept into the air and down again.  The hall became like an organized chaos of circusness.  Every one of us was soaked in sweat.

In the midst of all of this, a number of things happened.  I’ve felt this kind of thing before, most notably in ritual space and at times in less organized dance events.  First, the physical activity, which was intense, thrust all of us out of our heads.  When you’re working that hard, committing that passionately to movement, and making sure that you and others aren’t getting hurt, there’s no space for doubt, or fear, or wondering what you’re going to do next.  You do it, and that’s all there is to it.

I noticed almost immediately how easy it was to invoke an emotional state using my body and others’ bodies.  I could tiptoe around and not just appear, but feel, sneaky and mysterious.  I jumped back and changed direction in fear and alarm.  I leapt into the the air with elation.  I flung myself to the ground in despair.  All of this at the physical prompting of the leaders, and I felt how my heart changed as my body changed, how much I could change my state at will.

Once I was thoroughly warmed up, and so enmeshed in the physicality of it all that I forgot to be self-conscious, I also began to feel the powerful connection that forms between people who are doing something intense together.  There’s a trust that forms almost instantly, and the energy of the group – in this case, both the larger group and the smaller subgroups – becomes its own thing, an organism outside of the individual.  The movement becomes collaborative, the breath becomes a thing that you are moving together.  Touch becomes easier, and a kind of radical intimacy develops.  The sense of safety, of co-creation, of togetherness, becomes intensely moving – to the extent that you can process it in the moment.  In the moment, it’s really just something that’s happening to you: an ecstasy of change.  And for me, a reminder of what human interaction can truly be like, even between strangers.

It’s hard to say what exactly happened.  We moved: we ran, crawled, knelt, reached, jumped, pushed and pulled, leapt and twirled, balanced and twisted, held each other.  We draped the fabric over another group of fallen comrades and either tucked them in for a nap or mourned the dead.  We touched and were touched.  We moved and were moved.

At the end, we stretched out and breathed, rested and reflected.  I wasn’t sure what we had created but it felt profound and important and true, and yet ephemeral, an ongoing work, the work of a lifetime.

I know I will return.

"Bent," and nearly shattered

For the past month or so, I’ve been helping out on a production of Bent, a Martin Sherman play about gays in the Holocaust.  Theatre@First, my local community theatre, is performing it, and the director asked me to assist.  In rehearsals, I once again found myself in one of my favorite activities: working with talented actors, helping them to discover moments of connection and truth through a sublime text; Bent is as close to a perfect play that I’ve read in a long time.  The material, as the subject matter suggests, is far from easy, and the demands on the actors are great.  Still, working on it was a joy, and it was especially rewarding to see the performers blossom under my guidance.

So I wasn’t quite prepared last night, when I went to see the third performance of the run, for it to unnerve and shatter me the way it did.  I’ve gotten to know the play well, and have seen the performers work on all of the scenes.  I’ve even seen a full run of the show.  But being in the audience, with the actors warmed up from several nights of performances, gave the play new resonance.  By the end I found that I’d been tensed up all over my body, curled into myself, for the past hour and a half at least.  I didn’t cry, but I felt enervated, sorrow and anger and fear all coiled up in my muscles.  I kept shaking out my hands, trying to rid myself of some of it.  Afterwards the only thing that worked was going out for drinks with the cast and talking about it, hugging each other and sharing the triumph.  Still, I had nightmares, scored in part by a smoke alarm in my house that picked last night to chirp its low-battery signal through my dreams.

I was struck once again by the way our bodies hold our emotional experiences, and how profoundly art can affect us.  On days like this it even occurs to me to wonder, after a lifetime of loving art, music, theatre and writing, why we put ourselves through some of these experiences – stories that feel so real that they hurt us physically and haunt our hearts.  is it Aristotle’s catharsis that we seek, or the cleansing feeling of someone else’s problems being more profound than our own?  Is it the response to that historic exhortation, “Never forget”?  Or just a need to soak in beauty, even if it is the strange and terrible beauty of the horrors humanity is capable of?

Whatever the case, in spite of everything, Bent leaves me filled with hope, even given its treatment of the darkest of subjects.  If you have the chance to see it next week – it plays Thursday and Friday nights and Saturday afternoon, at Unity Church in Somerville, MA – do so.  Just make sure you have someone to talk to afterwards, someone to hug, and if you do such things, something strong to drink.