After “Becky Shaw”….

RWTG presented the play Becky Shaw, by Gina Gionfriddo, at the AGPA Annual Meeting in New Orleans on Saturday morning, March 2, 2013 as an Open Session. 
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 our continuing reflections on that process here. 

Kavita: I always appreciate the energy that performing brings to getting into role. For me, there is a sense of urgency that comes with seeing and feeling an audience that is not accessible at rehearsals in the same way. It makes it ever so important to get in touch with one’s role. As I came into role in New Orleans, I thought of all the “Becky Shaws” I’ve worked with and I reflected on the parts of Becky Shaw that may make up a part of my own experience.

I think every group has a Becky Shaw. The member who comes in who is exasperated and hopeless because he or she can’t seem to get a viable relationship going and yet, when they relay their story, it is so obvious to everyone where they are going wrong. There is a desperation and a naivetee that is heart-breaking and, at the same time, humorous in its own way. Perhaps it’s because so many of us can relate to those times of wanting so much for that one person to like you or wishing to be accepted into some particular group, be it the family group or the cool group at school.

Initially, when “Becky” relays her experiences, group members knowingly exchange glances as the more veteran members gently offer their thoughts and the newer members blurt out what they are thinking, unfiltered. “Becky” usually begins the group with a lot of gripes about those around her and can sometimes

present with a “woe-is-me” attitude. Slowly, she gains awareness about her role in the co-creation of her dysfunctional relationships and, as she listens to other members, realizes she is not so alone. She realizes what she is doing and knows she is on a path to somewhere else. As she feels empowered and develops new skills, she can also develop a sense of lightness and humor. When Susan tells Becky to write up her sob story, for example, and re-apply to Brown, I had a difficult time not laughing out loud each time Rosemary delivered that line. Being able to see one’s life misfortunes as something else, perhaps an opportunity or a lesson learned, is one of the group’s most powerful gifts. When a group of people can share the burden of carrying the suffering of one, it frees up the ribcage to breathe, notice what’s actually going on, and sometimes, laugh.

As I have grown up as a person and a therapist, I’ve learned to curb my own “Beckyness” by coming to the understanding that many things will not go my way try as I might and it can be quite liberating to accept the things that don’t and be open to the possibilities on the paths I would not have necessarily chosen. Becoming too intent on any one outcome can blind us to the many good things inherent in any given moment or circumstance.

This play was a particularly special journey because in the midst of it, I became a mother. Though I knew that the birth of my baby would come close to the conference date, I wanted to continue to be in the play because I knew my life would be turning upside down as I knew it and I wanted to hold on to some aspect of my pre-parent self. When my life began to become immersed in all things prenatal – vitamins, appointments, childbirth classes – and, later about 6 weeks before the conference, all things postpartum – diapers and feeding, diapers and feeding – once a week, that Sunday morning would come where we would munch on Rosemary’s delicious spreads and I would once again be that same old therapist I always was. Chatting with the other therapists, catching up on our practices and lives, reading the play, and talking through what might be going on clinically for each character, was a welcome change from all the baby talk that was happening the rest of the week. It was great and refreshing to hold onto that role that I’ve been playing for so long.

A big, giant thank you to Bob Schulte and the RWTG cast of Becky Shaw for taking care of me during this most important transition.

Rob: For me, this played turned out to be about family. Both the dysfunctional, yet still somehow functioning  family of the play, and the supportive, vibrant family that we have become as the Red Well Theater Group. Playing Andrew was not much of a stretch for me and being comfortable in the role from the beginning allowed me to be less anxious and more present with my fellow actors in their roles. I really enjoyed watching the evolution of the characters as we progressed from rehearsal to rehearsal, deepening our understanding of the complex currents which run beneath the family portrayed in Becky Shaw.

Liz: I often talk about roles in group with my clients. I educate about people’s proclivities towards certain roles and how a predisposition may develop based on the dynamics that were present in our families of origin. At least once a day, I challenge a client to try a different role, whether I use that language or not. Always, I am asking individuals to step out of their comfort zone and experiment with a new behavior, especially with how they relate to others around them.

This group psychotherapy concept, that within groups we get to try on different ways of relating to others, seems particularly relevant to the part of Suzanna in “Becky Shaw” and my experience playing her. Of course, there was a literal role change for me as I attempted to figure out who Suzanna is and how to become someone that is not myself. This was a tricky task. It forced me to explore my relationships to the other members of Redwell as well as parts of Suzanna that were shadow elements of my own character.

Even more so, however, within the action of the play, Suzanna is struggling with her “group” (family) to break out of her role as dependent and own a new identity as “decider” (a title that gets referred to several times throughout the play). Max and Susan benefit from Suzanna have a weaker voice and are complicit in “hobbling” her as she grows up, and even as an adult. Suzanna’s marriage to Andrew constitutes the formation of a new subgroup and an opportunity for Suzanna to experiment with role, the same way that our clients get to try on new ways of being in our psychotherapy groups. Suzanna plays at being more equal in a space where her decisions are respected and honored. Just like our clients, she is then able to bring her new role back to her family and assert herself at the end of the play.

There is a leap of faith that our clients must take when they bring their work (and their new roles) out of the group and into their outside relationships. It is an act of bravery in the face of the unknown. In “Becky Shaw”, we see Suzanna try on a new role, but we don’t get to see how it plays out in the end. For the audience, we are left with that sense of uncertainty. For me as actress, I am left holding hope and anxiety of whether the new Suzanna will be safe and successful.

Leaving our performance at AGPA, I felt unsettled. I wanted another run, more time to practice, or maybe a sequel to understand how it would all play out in the end. With more distance, I see this as a reaction to Suzanna’s role experimentation. Her bravery to stand up for herself with her family left me, as the actress, nervous and feeling exposed. Luckily, I have my Redwell family to hold my anxiety and support me in my new roles (in all sense of the word).

Yavar: It wasn’t until we started reading plays for our next season, that I realized I wasn’t done with Becky Shaw.  I wasn’t ready to put Max’s character aside just as I was beginning to understand what makes him tick.  I wasn’t ready to give up the aggressive, honest, vulgar dialogue that he dispensed onto others whether they wanted to hear his opinion or not.  There was something liberating about being able to dispense “wisdom” in that manner, without a forethought as to how this may affect the other person. A very different feeling from my everyday experience with patients, where I’m waiting for the right intervention at the right time.  By allowing myself to take on different self states in front of an audience it made me feel capable of breaking the boundaries of how people conventionally see me and how I see myself. Although, many of Max’s characteristics are deplorable, I envied his ability to be effective and be a leader.  I wasn’t ready to just brush his character aside and move on to the next one, because how could they possibly express themselves as clearly and directly as he does.     But just like the loss in status that Max experienced in the play, no one character can stay strong throughout.  I have to accept the death of Max and move on to the next play and the next role.

Bob: The dress rehearsal at Rosemary’s Georgetown home boosted my confidence our project was on track. The small audience of family members, colleagues and friends gave us enlightened feedback that the performances were compelling and the play intriguing. I left for AGPA the next day encouraged that we were well prepared.

I also knew there would be one more opportunity to rehearse in New Orleans before the open session. Rather than go to the session ‘cold’, we scheduled an opportunity to connect, run lines and lunch together on Friday. During the rehearsal we discussed the pivotal scene 2, Act II where Max and Suzanna confront the truth of how they truly feel about each other.

As group therapists we know that the ‘last five minutes’ of a session often reveal the deepest of emotions. A similar phenomenon occurs in a rehearsal process. I witnessed the raw power of loss, betrayal and pain beginning to be felt at the dress rehearsal and I wanted to underline the importance of a pivotal scene in revealing the play’s essence. I forever remember the advice of the college dean of the theater department where I studied over 35 years ago: “Find the two minutes in the play that matter the most, and do everything you can to elevate those two minutes”—a theatrical two minute drill. At the performance on Saturday Scene 2, Act II broke my heart—in a good way.

One of the behind-the-scenes methods for preparing the play reading was weekly post-rehearsal consultation sessions with the co-director John Dluhy. John and I have been working together since the beginning of RWTG over 10 years ago. We were able to use the depth of our relationship to examine the complexities of the play and to recognize and reflect on the parallel processes emergent within the acting ensemble’s small group dynamics—and our own. These weekly discussions translated directly into increased clarity in our understanding of the play and instructively guided our work with the actors.

The actor debriefing and audience discussion immediately following the reading is the ‘third act’ of our play

reading format. Mary Dluhy immediately tuned into the affective level of the actor’s experience in the debriefing session and with good effect. This focus helped us begin the process of recognizing that the power of the play was alive in both the actors and in the audience members. The first two comments from male members of the audience were challenging critiques of our work. I silently noted to myself that this sudden

jolt of reality at the start of the audience discussion was also how the play begins, with Susan and Suzanna “making a scene in the lobby” and Max trying to intervene and restore the peace. I resisted my own urge to protest, but silently cheered Rosemary’s in-character retort, replete with her Southern charm, “Sir, I am so sorry we have disappointed you!” I heard this not as a rejection of the commentary, but as confirmation that the spirit of the play was alive and well—in everyone!

I appreciate and respect the artistry and hard work of the therapist/actors, Liz, Yavar, Rob, Kavita and Rosemary and the value deeply the leadership team’s support, containing function and insights. Thank you John, Mary, and Molly.

When I returned home from New Orleans to reengage my therapy practice, I found myself facing the impending departure of a highly esteemed member of my men’s group. The remaining members were struggling to know how they truly felt about this loss. Their efforts to express both their grief and appreciation for what this man meant to them were moving. I felt a deep appreciation for their loss and determination to carry on. The process of working with the RWTG actors exploring the themes of loss, betrayal and resilience through the play Becky Shaw has deepened my empathy for the work we do as group therapists. I am grateful to playwright Gina Gionfriddo for her amazing creation.