Similar to most therapy group schedules, we rehearse just one time each week. This past Sunday’s rehearsal posed a number of challenges. Three actors were absent—illness, out of the area, and meeting an editor’s deadline, respectively. The musician was joining us to begin the process of cueing the music segments. Most notably, we were in an alternative rehearsal space for the first time. Our regular rehearsal space was unavailable.
Group therapists are skilled at managing disruptions to emotionally complex group processes. Specifically we know how to work empathically to understand their meaning and recognize their impact on the group’s members and their collaborative work.Preparing a play for presentation poses the extra theatrical challenge of understanding how the disruption may also be linked to the dramatic action of the play.
Group therapists know that a location change has impact. If a group member so much as chooses to sit in a chair different from the one typically chosen, the domino effect on everyone else can cause quite a stir. Themes such as competition, sibling rivalry, privilege, past losses, accountability, entitlement, seeking new perspectives, aversion to change, thrill seeking and sexual attraction may emerge in the process of exploring the group members’ experience of such a ‘small’ occurrence. The impact of moving to a whole new group room could take months to fully comprehend! Ideally, the process of reflective thought and introspection has the potential of leading to a deeper understanding of relational and small group dynamics.
So I took seriously the possibility of negative consequences resulting from my decision to conduct the second-to-last rehearsal in a new and foreign space.In an effort to ameliorate the impact of the disruption, I gave weeks of notice to the one-time location change, offered reminders along the way, provided directions and my cellphone number for late-arrival access, had the room set up in advance, brought bottled water, and stood guard at the door on the lookout for arriving actors. But still… every move was nonetheless unfamiliar—and uncomfortable. “Where is the bathroom? The room is too small. Oh, shit, I forgot to bring coffee. What, no coffee cake? There are three entrances to the building!Which one will people use? Did we just get locked out? I don’t have a key, do you? Where are the others? Where do I sit?”
Group members understandably felt some increased level of anxiety and thus an increased dependence on the leadership to create safety and familiarity. We were ‘forced to make’ countless micro-recalculations, consciously and unconsciously, all of which took precious brain and heart power that we did not really have to spare, on a snowy, cold Sunday morning.
Name the Beast/Stay Positive
Once all the actors were finally in place, I offered, “Last week we had a very organized, planned, scene-by-scene rehearsal—with coffee and cake provided. I am making an effort to repeat that approach again this week, but I can already tell we’re going to have to improvise our way through much of this morning, as best as we can manage. Without coffee.” Name the beast. Stay positive.I hoped that would be enough. But I wished I had brought coffee!!
Three Group Dynamic Adjustments
Firstly, I found myself involving the actors more actively in giving feedback to the musician about what worked best from their perspective, which I supported whenever possible. I also found myself soliciting the actors’ guidance in how to proceed with the scene study. “I have some new thoughts about this scene since our rehearsal last week, I’m sure you do too. Would you like to share first, or would you like to hear from me first?” “Are you ready to try the scene again?” While these are not untypical statements for a director to make, in retrospect, I think I felt a stronger need than usual to keep the actors involved and focused on the immediacy of the task. The task was a dependable source of familiarity and comfort. I similarly gave the musician ‘center stage’, sitting next to him, extending as much encouragement and space as I could to allow him to take the lead in cueing the music. He is a gifted professional, but human like the rest of us. His skill and familiarity with the collaborative process of working with actors helped put us all at ease.
The second noteworthy dynamic emerged in the debriefing segment. The demands of the rehearsal left us with only 15 minutes to check in with each other about the mornings’ work.Barely minutes into the debriefing, I found myself reactively protesting a facilitator comment that I felt went beyond the boundary of his role and function, and, I felt, ran the risk of shutting down the lead actor emotionally. On another day I may have let the comment pass, (and have), but today the myriad of other disruptions activated me to take a more protective stance. My gut reaction to openly challenge the facilitator in front of the actors was risky business, but saying nothing felt ever more fraught. The experience left me unsettled for the rest of the day, and it was not until the next morning, after a night of frenzied dreaming, that I realized the parallel to the “dangers” dramatized in the play, The Great God Pan. I felt some relief, and frankly a bit of vindication, by making the connection between our experience and the play.
In one of the scenes we rehearsed on Sunday, Doug, the father of adult son Jamie, confesses a family secret to his son. When Jamie was 4, his parents (Doug and Cathy) had sent him to stay for two weeks in the home of Dennis Lawrence, an acquaintance who was the father of a 4 year-old playmate of Jamie’s. As the play opens, grown-up Jamie learns from his childhood playmate, (now grown up Frank), that Mr. Lawrence is, and has been since their childhood, an alleged child molester. Frank was a victim. Jamie may have been a victim too.
The parallel of sending the actor playing Jamie (and the rest of us!) to an unfamiliar ‘home’ to rehearse put me squarely in the symbolic position of Doug. I had made the decision to send us to this strange place, and it was a risky one.When the facilitator ‘took liberties’ by making comments that I felt were ‘out of bounds’, I reacted by protesting. As I reported in an earlier blog posting, the play inevitably ‘gets inside us’, and begins to emerge as we react to the contingencies of rehearsal. This was one such occasion when the trauma of the play and the contingencies of the rehearsal converged.
Group Therapeutic Goals
Making these kinds of connections between the play and our small group dynamics is a central part of our work together as an ensemble, uncomfortable as it might be at times. One of our primary learning goals is to understand the dynamics of the play through the emergent “parallel processes”arising out of the dynamics of the acting ensemble. Today we furthered both the theatrical goal of preparing a quality performance and the educational goal of recognizing the links between the play and our work. It was a good day.
The third noteworthy dynamic has yet to be recognized and fully explored. I will meet with the consultant/process observer (John Dluhy) Friday, when we will have a first chance to compare notes about the rehearsal in our weekly consultation. Bearing witness to these kinds of group processes is very demanding work, emotionally and intellectually. Without an acting part or directorial responsibilities to discharge some of his own activated emotional response to the rehearsal experience, the consultant is left ‘sitting with the experience’, and at some emotional risk. Our weekly consultations provide each of us with a chance to ventilate, expand our clinical and theatrical perspective and offer support and guidance. John’s vast experience and gifts as both a group therapist and an actor makes him uniquely suited for this demanding assignment. I am grateful for his perseverance and commitment to our project.
Upon further reflection, one other interesting—even disturbing—feature of Sunday’s rehearsal now stands out in my mind. One of the actors brought his camera, fitted with a telescopic lens, to take pictures of the rehearsal, some of which are included in this blog posting. The request to take pictures was made a few weeks ago and seemed ‘innocent enough’ at the time. But in the small, windowless, unfamiliar rehearsal room that we don’t usually ‘reside in’, and having some guy silently, but intently taking pictures ‘from the shadows’, felt a little creepy. But it didn’t quite register at the conscious level at the time, so I didn’t think to say anything. Looking back, I feel differently. When I associate to the camera’s intimate relationship with child pornography, I get chills. My empathy deepens for the parental characters Doug, Cathy and nanny Polly. The awesome responsibility of real life parents for noticing what dangers lurk around their children, often visible before their very eyes, is humbling to consider.
A Telephone Rehearsal
The next day, Monday, I conducted a telephone rehearsal with the actors playing Jamie (YavarMoghimi) and his mother Cathy (Barbara Keezell). The scene they share is actually played ‘on the phone’, so the cellphone conference call format was eerily “in vivo”. Still sensitive from the day before, we spent most of the time facilitating a shared discussion about the scene. Their one reading of the actual scene brought us all to tears. Poignantly, we each had to ‘admit’ this to one another, as the opaqueness of the telephone allowed us the option of keeping this emotional fact to ourselves, if we chose.
So much transpires in so many different and interesting ways through this experience of preparing a play for performance. My respect, admiration and gratitude for the talent and sensitivity of the playwright, Amy Herzog, the actors and our consultant grow week to week.
Next week we have our final dress rehearsal before heading off to Boston.
On Monday afternoon I conducted an individual therapy session with a successful lawyer and businessman with whom I’ve been working for a few months. Late in the session, he paused, and then abruptly revealed that on a shopping trip to a local mall with his ten-year-old son over the weekend, they had both witnessed a mother kick her small child in anger. Hard. She was with her husband and two other children. “Did you see that Dad?” asked the son. “Just keep walking”, the father protectively replied, upset by what he saw, but not wanting to get involved. When the two got home, the son told his older sister and mother what happened, clearly upset. The father overheard their conversation, but said nothing. In our ‘unpacking’ of the experience, the father told me, “I didn’t want to confront the woman. And I looked at her husband. That could escalate into a mess. But frankly I really wanted to do something. The woman assaulted her child, and nobody did anything”.
We explored other options, most notably calling security or the police, and remaining available as a witness. I was surprised that this option was both a relief and “a novel idea” to the father. Upon reflection I understand that his fight-flight response had overtaken him, leaving only a risky confrontation with a stranger or a “just keeping walking” escape. When I suggested he could also revisit the situation with his son, he was again relieved and surprised. It hadn’t occurred to him. I told him he could share with his son what they might have done differently. He could invite his son to talk about his thoughts and feelings about the incident, and then just listen. “Maybe I should wait until he brings it up”, suggested his father. “That’s a very thoughtful idea, and often a good strategy”, I replied. “But in this case you already know from his conversation with his sister that the incident is on his mind. Your “keep on walking” might have sent him a message you don’t want to talk about it. You did feel a need to talk about it today. He might too”. “Good point”, he acknowledged.
Life imitating art… Art imitating life…