Halloween, Permission, and Being Something Else

Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Me, as a forbidding faerie queen

Halloween was always a thrilling time for me, both as a child and as an adult. It’s not that I was that into being scared; scary things were actually way too intense for me when I was little. And candy was nice, but given the weird scares of the 1980s, I wasn’t allowed to eat most of the candy I collected anyway. No: what really drew me was the opportunity to dress up and be someone different.

Costuming has always been powerful for me, especially as an actor. A different set of clothes, hair, makeup, shoes – it can all serve to change how you stand, walk, move, even think. The interaction between the body and the things we wrap it in is a source of constant fascination, changing our relationship to gender, age, place, season, cultural identity, time, and self.

If you think that’s a bit strong, think of how different you feel when you are sitting on the couch at home in your PJs, versus how you feel when you put on a suit, or dress up for church, or go out dancing on a Saturday night, or go to visit an elderly parent, or prepare to work on your car, or go hiking. If you’ve ever worn period clothing, you know how much a corset, or a loose tunic or robe, or a frock coat, or a flapper dress, can change how you stand, move, bend and carry yourself. Cross-dressing or deliberately queering gender through clothing has an effect on the wearer, as well as an effect on the viewer, depending on the culture in which it is done, the level of tolerance of the people involved, and the context. Today, a guy in my office won the costume contest dressed as Princess Leia – not, I think, because he looked silly, but because he looked so good without hiding any of his masculinity, and pulled it off proudly. Were he to show up dressed similarly on any other day, the context would have shifted, and the office would have a different response.

While it may be true that our “true selves” are inside us, what we express outwardly both reflects that internal state, and can shift it in minor and major ways. Halloween and other events like it – Carnival in various parts of the world, Purim in Judaism, and so on – offer people a chance to be something they are not, without any real consequences. As a result, it can offer a rare opportunity for people to explore something that they would like to be, or would like to play with being.

Even if you don’t go out to parties, or trick or treating, take some time this holiday to mess around with your outward appearance. What happens to your state of mind and the feeling in your body when you wear something you wouldn’t ordinarily wear? What becomes possible that wasn’t before?

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.

Weekly sharing series

i_like_you-t2

I’ve been working to use Facebook more reliably, and I’m looking to launch a series for each day of the week where I say a little something, post a little finding, share a song or a story or an exercise, each day of the week. But because it’s cuter if I do it this way, I’m thinking of doing a different theme for each day.

So far I have The Monday Move, in which I share music that moves me, makes me move, or grants me stillness.

Tuesdays are for Trauma – and/or Truth. Here I’ll share things about how trauma works, what it does, how RSM helps you recover, recent studies and science, and so on.

In honor of Joe Weldon, I’m thinking that the next day has to be the Wednesday Sway, dedicated to moves in RSM, the restoration of movement to the body, and all the somatic ways that we do this work.

Thursday and Friday are still a little up in the air, but I know that I want to do something about sexuality, and something about performance. Thespian Thursdays? Fabulous Fridays? I’m sure all the alliterations will come together in time.

Until then, please “like” and follow my page over on Facebook, and if you dig it, tell your friends!

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.

 

Battening down, and fierce gratitude

Those of you on the East Coast – and others who enjoy paying attention to weather in places where they’re not (I’m looking at you, California…) – know that there’s presently a blizzard bearing down on Boston and other cities up and down the coast.  At the moment it’s mostly snowing gently, blowing a little bit, barely even sticking yet.  But we’re told to expect between 1-3 feet of snow.  (Yes, that was feet.)

My household spent yesterday running around like you do before such events: clearing our shopping list, laying in extra supplies, debating over buying a snowblower, running around to three different stores as they all sold out of shovels.  We still have bottles filled with water from Sandy, where they weren’t needed; we have flashlights and batteries and crank radios and candles.

I’m weirdly looking forward to this evening, when we plan to take shoveling shifts, clearing the snow as it falls, taking nips of bourbon in-between.  A blizzard party, with my family.

And I’m incredibly grateful that I can experience a storm like this in this way.  In a warm, sturdy old house, with loved ones, safe and warm and sound.  I’ll probably bake cookies at some point.

Last weekend, I participated in a read/sing-through of a new musical called Fire and Ice, in which the environmental apocalypse happens, the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt stops, and the eastern seaboard freezes over, forcing a typical American family on a Grapes of Wrath-like journey across the continent.  With weather predictors calling Nemo historic, I can’t help but reflect on that play as I look out of my office window, watch the snow intensify, and hear the wind begin its unearthly howling.

I don’t think the world is going to end tonight – neither in fire nor in ice – but it still occurs to me to be thankful.  May everyone reading this be safe and warm tonight, in the company of loved ones.

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.