Rehearsal Reflections on “Becky Shaw”

In Becky Shaw a family has recently lost its patriarch and is in the process of working out a new dynamic equilibrium amongst its members. A new member officially joins the family and the arrival of a stranger contributes to the small group process in unpredictable ways.

An aspect of our rehearsal preparation has been to consider the impact of the play’s subtext on the small group dynamics of the acting ensemble and the subjective experience of being ‘in character’.

We share with you some of our reflections on that process here. We’ll also update our posts after we return from our Open Session at the AGPA Annual Meeting.

In researching the play, we discovered an interview conducted with playwright Gina Gionfriddo in which she describes her appreciation for the unique contributions of the actors and audience to the creative process:

“I am very turned on by… the process by which actors and audiences show the writer what their play is and isn’t… I feel like there are subtexts kind of bubbling under the surfaces in my plays and a lot of times actors see them when I do not.”

John Dluhy: This is my attempt to learn a directorial method, my first attempt to learn failed because at age seventeen I would get too angry with my fellow actors. The process of directing requires me to understand the whole play and all the parts so in some sense it is similar to the challenge of understanding a family when doing family therapy. I always felt this as the most basic of psychotherapy to go to the group that gave birth to the pathology.

As I work with the co-director, I feel that we are doing co-therapy as we discuss with the actors–a nuclear family and one outsider, their dynamics and the meanings of the words spoken. I find each rehearsal and each private discussion with the co-director extends my understanding of the play, enabling me to give better instructions to the actors. I have discovered when I try some intervention before discussing it with the co-director I often have poorly timed the offering. I feel each session with the cast and/or director lead to learning. I find this more satisfying than the pleasurable role of actor. I am no where near deciding which role I like better!

Rosemary Segalla: With AGPA quickly approaching I have been contemplating our play presentation, Becky Shaw. As with so many of our productions, I find the more I read the play, the more complex it becomes. This has had me thinking about the difference between going to see a play, processing the experience with friends and then moving on to my next theatrical experience. I am now exploring how much is lost when we simply see a play, discuss it and soon forget it, perhaps with a few lingering thoughts or feelings.

When I first read Becky Shaw, I was not feeling very excited. The characters and the plot seemed thin. The more we rehearsed, contemplating the potential subplots, what may have preceded for the characters, and what will happen next, the more interesting it has become. The characters are dimensional now and the interacting systems more complex. It has me thinking that going to a good play several times is bound to enhance the depth of experiences we can enjoy.

Yavar Moghimi: “Unless you’re Gandhi or Jesus, you have a limited sphere of responsibility. You have a plot of land and the definition of a moral life is tending that plot.” – Max Garrett

For the past two months, on every Sunday morning, I attempt to look at the world through the eyes of Max Garrett in the play “Becky Shaw”.  He is the adopted son of the Slater family whose social role begins to shift with the death of the patriarch, Richard. Max has questionable ethics, to say the least, but that is a blind spot more apparent through the eyes of others.  The challenge in identifying with his world view was looking at myself and the parts that wholly agreed with him.  His quote above felt emblematic to me of how Max’s worldview shapes his actions.  At it’s essence, it’s a very pragmatic statement that I can easily identify with. How much of myself can I give to people that are outside of my plot of land (i.e. family, friends patients)?  Where do I draw the line?  How do I decide whether I include someone in the plot or not?  Where Max’s rules of morality show a failing is the rigidity with which he holds to that rule in all situations and the impermeability of letting that plot of land expand.

It helped me to understand his inflexibility when I framed it as an adaptive response to the abandonment and transactional nature of his early childhood.  The other parts of Max that I not only identify with, but aspire to is the decisiveness and assuredness that he has as a leader.  People are drawn to him and trust him to manage their money/lives and make the important decisions when they count, because they know he will tell them the brutal truth, whether they want to hear it or not.  As a therapist, Max’s style of confrontation may not work with all patients, but there are moments when channeling Max has felt appropriate.  I could keep going on about other aspects of Max’s character that we discovered during our rehearsals, which speaks to the power of theater as a tool for building empathy.  This is especially true in the complex characters in “Becky Shaw” that feel like they jump right off the page and into our offices, or not in Max’s case.

Kavita Avula: I remember the first time we read Becky Shaw as a group and how much we laughed throughout the reading.  The quick wit, compelling characters, and cutting sarcasm struck us as hilarious the first time around.  As time went on and the underlying trauma of each character became more apparent, we were struck by the complexity of each character and, in particular, the sad and painful stories that emerged.   Though characters had shared experiences of rejection, abandonment, and a degraded sense of self, the way in which they each organized around these early painful experiences was varied, making some more enticing and others more repellent.

Becky Shaw is less able to conceal her desperation for connectedness than a character like Max even though their core insecurities are not all that different.  Her urgency to form close bonds overrides logic, reason, and common sense.  In place of quick wit is neediness and instead of coming across as badass, she can seem pathetic.  She is that group member that makes everyone cringe as she relays her story because her behavior is so outrageous and desperate, everyone knows in which direction the story is headed well before it’s over.  On the other hand, it’s this same member whose progress is so gratifying when it finally happens, if she remains in group, that is.  At so many junctures in the play, I would shake my head to myself and think, Ohhh, Becky.  It’s a tricky balance to give members like Becky the candid feedback they need without inducing yet another shame-filled experience of themselves-in-relation.

Rob Williams: Preparation for this play has been more intense than any previous Red Well production that I have been a part of. Discovering the history of the Slater family that has taken place in the years before our play has been an invigorating process that has helped flesh out the characters and revealed motivations beneath the surface that has made being a part of this production a very rich experience.

In this production, I play the part of Andrew Porter, a character very much like me, who reveals to me an earlier version of myself with more clarity than typically afforded me in one of our productions. This Andrew and the younger Rob are very much the same in the way that they are attracted to others who need them and easily take on their burdens. They are uncertain that they are lovable as they are and attempt to adapt their lives to fit the needs of others and lose sight of their own priorities in life. Over the course of the play, Andrew learns this about himself and has to face the truth of his actions. Much like a novice therapist, Andrew learns that he can be swayed emotionally more than he realizes and that boundaries protect both the client and the therapist, the lover and his beloved.

Liz Marsh: In this play, Suzanna is trying to figure out a new role in her family of origin, now that her father has died, and in her chosen family, as she moves away from Max and joins with Andrew. As the audience, we see her grabble with “decision making”, rather than being dependent on the men around her.

As I get more intimate with Suzanna, I realize that this play has entered my life during a similar time of role transition. During the time since we first read Becky Shaw, I have started a private practice and pursued my post-graduate education in a way that has changed my understanding of what I am capable of as a clinician. I am working on claiming my authority and shedding my role as student, much as Suzanna is finding her voice in the play.

During our second-to-last play rehearsal, John Dluhy commented that Suzanna is the main character in the play. He reflected that she is in almost every scene and that her hubris in many ways drives the plot. I did not see Suzanna that way. I saw her as moving in and out of relationships with equally “main” characters and I see her as often being blind to the dynamics being presented to her.

Just as I am solidifying my identity as a clinician, I am also negotiating my role in the Redwell theater group. As the youngest member of the group and a relatively inexperienced therapist, I have seen myself as an outsider, sometimes at the whim of group decisions. I have often been aware of my desire to prove myself and gain membership. As much as it feels novel for me to recognize that I am capable to practice independently, I have been wary of accepting that I am part of Redwell, even as a guest artist. Maybe this is part of why it is hard for me to see Suzanna (me) as having as central a role in this play (ensemble) as John proposed.

Perhaps Becky is not the only outsider wishing to be an insider. As Suzanna reconciles her desire for Andrew with her need to be included in the ongoing drama of her family of origin and I stand firmly as a solid member of Redwell and as a therapist in private practice, I realize that we are always looking for recognition and acceptance of our hard sought “decisions”. And for recognition and acceptance of who we are.

Barbara Keezell: Becky Shaw is the character after whom the play is named. I see her as very vulnerable at first, desperate to be liked and accepted, continually laying herself bare, asking what she’s doing wrong. However, there’s also a calculating aspect to her. She twists words and manipulates to get what she wants, albeit with mixed success.

As an understudy to the role and a first time actor, with Redwell or elsewhere, and also being from a different geographic location than the rest of the actors for this play, I related to Becky in a number of ways. Just as Becky was unsure if Max & the others would accept her, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be “included” in the play, literally. So I identified with Becky’s feeling excluded or uncertain of her status. I too wondered what this group, like Max’s family, might think of me as an actor or as an intruder.

I, however, was thrilled to be included in this project, even as an understudy and am hoping to get a similar
dramatic reading group going in Boston. I have also decided to take an acting class.

Bob Schulte: Becky Shaw seems uniquely suited to revealing some fundamental principles of dynamic group therapy. Just as a savvy group therapist might inquire of a group, “So, what isn’t being said in the group today?”, I have found myself keenly interested in the silent ‘play beneath the play’ in Becky Shaw. The unspoken, hidden elements of the ‘back story’ of the characters lives have become a pathway to understanding better the nature of attachment trauma and its impact on our selves and our intimate relationships. Becky Shaw is a comedy on the surface, but ‘something else’ in its depths. I appreciate the actors courage, talents and insights in exploring the ‘something else’, for their own benefit and for our audience of colleagues in New Orleans.