How an acting class is helping me navigate my grief

My whole life, I have loved to perform.  I was in every show my high school produced, and a few community performances as well.  One of my favorite theater moments was when I auditioned for a classic American play called Our Town, by Thornton Wilder.  It's about a young girl and boy who fall in love, and the girl dies nine years later.  My audition ended with one of the best monologues in theater when the ghost of the dead girl tries to speak to her Mother, and realizes how little humans understand or appreciate life while they live it (here's a pretty good rendition of the monologue from a PBS version of the play starring Paul Newman if you're curious).  While Our Town has much to say about life and death, the reason I love that moment specifically from my audition is because it was the first and only time I ever cried "on cue".  Looking back on it now, I think it's because I hadn't built up walls to my emotions the way I have now, the way many of us do as we grow up, and especially when we grieve.

I mentioned in my last post that after my mom died in March, I auditioned for my first show in eight years and was happily cast in a pretty sizable part. At the start of the summer, I also started my first acting class, through the Actor's Workshop of Ithaca, a remarkable independent acting program that has assisted and trained many amateur and professional actors and entertainers.  AWI teaches the Meisner technique of acting, and when I started to read the book recommended for the class, it blew my mind.  I am embarrassed to admit that it had never occurred to me to study acting formally, or that there were different techniques that actors spend years studying, practicing and implementing.  It was incredibly exciting to me. After eight years of reading medical journals and texts, it was exhilarating to read and think about emotional preparation, "living truthfully in imaginary circumstances", and other concepts that are core to the Meisner technique.

When I started the class, I was, quite simply, petrified.  Meisner's technique is so simple that it's complex, and I am still a novice at it as we approach the end of my first semester (out of a total of five formal semesters).  I can say with certainty that it requires students to be emotionally honest, vulnerable, and connected with classmates, who are initially strangers.  The central tenant as I currently understand it is that you must react truthfully to whatever the circumstance is, so no imposed emotional background, just your honest personal response to a given stimulus.  And there is no script when you're starting out, just sincere observations of your feelings and the feelings and reactions of your partner or partners.  I mean really, what's so difficult about that?  And especially when navigating grief for the death of a beloved parent. Easy, right?

In my first class, my partner and I sat across from each other, and the teacher had us stop talking and communicate silently.  I felt my grief surge to the surface as I saw concern in my partner's eyes.  The instructor asked me what I was feeling from this communication.  I replied, "Sadness," and started to cry.  I was shocked.  I can't remember the last time I cried in public.  It was embarrassing and uncomfortable.  And even more frustrating was that it happened again at the next class.  Then the instructor advised me to focus on my partner.  To feel my emotions and give space to them, but then to look at my partner and to focus on them.  It felt like someone threw me a rope as I was drowning in my own emotional waters.  And not bad advice overall when we are struggling with our own pain, to eventually refocus on the people around us and be present with them.

Emotional restraint is an important part of social function, and we all have walls of varying heights and strengths.  But grief often causes us to further wall off our emotions, as does the prolonged, brutal, chronic illness of someone we love, especially when that person is stoic and "strong" all the time.  Really, any intense challenge can cause this.  As my AWI classes progressed, and the rehearsals for my show also moved forward, I realized that the walls I had, my protective numbness, had to start coming down.  You simply cannot be fully present on stage, fully feeling and showing emotions as a character, if half of your emotions have been turned off.  It was frustrating because I could feel that I was limited by banging against my own walls.  I thought back to my audition in high school, to how available and ready my emotions were all those years ago, and it made me sad.  The emotions of high school are certainly extreme, and I have no desire to return to that roller coaster, but the openness I had to my emotions, well that seems like a state worth finding again.

I started to let go a little in my class.  And I could feel the difference.  The breakthrough came during my first time with more than one partner, when I was again, terrified.  One guy walked up to me on stage and said "You look like you're trying so hard to just hold everything together.  I want you to relax, I want you to ahhh!" and he shook his arms and legs to demonstrate.  I felt a flood of relief and agreed, wiggling my arms and legs around, suddenly embracing the fact that I didn't have to hold everything together here, in this space.  What a new concept!  I was able to react and feel and respond, and instead of crying, what I felt was excitement.  This translated into my performance on stage that weekend, where I finally started to have fun, enjoying my character, the audience and the other actors, and all the magic of theater.  My final performance was by far my best, and it felt amazing.  For a few hours, I let go of the tightly gathered reigns I usually hold so tightly to control myself, and instead gave in to fun and vulnerability, trusting myself.  What.  A.  Rush.

Me as Hedy Larue in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  Serious question: Do I look like Marilyn Monroe, or more Rose Nylund from Golden Girls? Photo credit: Katie Bowers.

Unfortunately, this is not The End, because grieving is not a straight path. We don't just make progress and never look back.  It feels more like two steps forward, five steps back, a leap to the left and then stand on my head crying for awhile before I can take another smaller step forward.  New potholes await, new sadnesses I didn't expect, new walls pop up. Last weekend, during our second to last class, my teacher said something profound to me.  She said, "I think you spend too much time breathing away your emotions.  You have to figure out how to let yourself feel them, and give space to have them."  Funny and frustrating that after feeling like I fell apart so quickly in the first few classes, I had swung too far in the other direction.  

Not so surprisingly, the psychologist I had been seeing a year ago told me the same thing in almost every session.  In fact, that was the big project we were working on together: getting me to actually feel the emotions I could label that I had.  See, I've learned that I'm great at identifying and naming my emotions.  I can write, talk about and describe my feelings in detail, and do that for other people's emotions as well.  I am what you might call emotionally intelligent.  But it turns out, I suck at actually feeling my emotions.  That's a whole different ball game.  I haven't always been that way, but after nine years of intense pain with Mom's illness and the deaths of many other loved ones, I think it was part of how I protected myself.  It turns out grief has made this at least one hundred times worse. 

For this instructor to identify that in me so clearly and in the span of ten classes impressed me.  Acting, good acting, forces you to be truthful in your emotions.  You have to let yourself go to dark, scary places, both alone and with others.  It's important, and it can be healing.  It is not a substitute for therapy (unless it's through drama therapy, something I just learned exists), but it is a tool for tackling some of the same issues.  And there is something frighteningly freeing about it, especially with this technique. I get on stage and have space to feel what I feel, and show my feelings to others, without having to worry about whether it's right or wrong.  If I can just let myself actually do it.  I have found it to be both challenging and helpful during grief.

In between the horrible twists and turns of grieving, there are occasional glimpses of normalcy slowly returning to my life.  Moments where I can appreciate the green of a plant, or the beauty of a song, or the peace in silence.  Acting is helping me open myself up.  It's not always pretty and it still scares the crap out of me, but I can see the potential of where it may lead, and I'm starting to be able to occasionally even look forward to whatever comes next.

Zelda, my first sugar snap pea, mid-June.  Isn't she beautiful?