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.

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.

AGPA in New Orleans

RWTG will present 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. Following the reading there will be a debriefing of the actors and then a moderated discussion with the audience of training and practicing group therapists.

The cast features Red Well members Rosemary Segalla and Rob Williams along with guest artists Kavita Avula, Liz Marsh and Yavar Moghimi. The understudy for the roles of Suzanna and Becky is Barbara Keezell, PhD from Boston, MA. The leadership team includes co-directors Bob Schulte and John Dluhy and discussion facilitators Mary Dluhy and Molly Donovan.

“In Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, a newlywed couple fixes up two romantically challenged friends: wife’s best friend meets husband’s sexy and strange new co-worker. When an evening intended to bring happiness takes a dark turn, crisis and comedy ensue in this wickedly funny play that asks: What do we owe the people we love and the strangers who land on our doorstep” (Dramatists Play Service).

From a contemporary relational perspective, the play illuminates a fundamental truth about intimate life, as framed by Stephen Mitchell, PhD:

“The central dynamic struggle throughout life is between the powerful need to establish, maintain and protect intimate bonds with others and various efforts to escape the pains and dangers of those bonds—the sense of vulnerability, the threat of disappointment, engulfment, exploitation and loss” (1988).

Becky Shaw is distinctive for its complex characterizations, insight into contemporary challenges to finding love and for its appreciation of our universal need for mutual recognition and self acceptance. 
Rehearsals begin January 6, 2013. The actors will be keeping a blog diary of their preparations for the upcoming event. Stay tuned!
Bob Schulte