I Just Can’t Help Myself: 1988

 

Wrote the following story while generating potential material for You Are Reminded That Your Safety is Your Own Responsibility–but it didn’t make it into the final script (which ended up going in a different direction). It’s actually three stories: one, about the transformative time I spent at the National Shakespeare Conservatory; one, about the importance (in theatre, and in life) of understanding status… and one, about the relationship between perfectionism and anxiety.

The thing about panic was, it happened when I least expected it, when everything was going great.

The first time, I was fast asleep after a day of stretching, sword-fighting, ports-de-bras and scene study at the National Shakespeare Conservatory. I woke up in the little studio apartment I sublet with my boyfriend, Greg, in the East Village, and I thought I was having a heart attack. A wee-hours trip to the ER at Beth Israel confirmed that nothing life-threatening was happening; it was “just anxiety.” I’d never had a problem with anxiety. The word “just” felt reassuring. By the time we got back home, around dawn, I felt fine- and I soon forgot all about it. Panic would come after me again in a few months, at the Conservatory’s summer retreat in the Catskills, when its appearance, duration and severity would be disabling.

Now— to provide a little context— I loved NSC. Loved my teachers; loved my new friends; loved the life Greg and I had made; loved being in a rehearsal studio all day long. Day after day. Discovering. Performing scenes. And having my work critiqued by a master.

Teacher: Good god. Why are you moving that way?

Me: I’m exploring my character.

Teacher: Well, STOP IT.

Or— a classic:

Teacher: What is it you think you’re doing up there?

Me: Acting. Acting?

Teacher: No— no, that’s not it.

And my all-time favorite,

Teacher: Your pussy’s not in the ring, Dear. THROW YOUR PUSSY IN THE RING.

Janna at NSCI tell people about this time in my life, and about how much it meant to me— to have teachers who had sufficient confidence in my robustness to shove me out of my comfort zone. Treat me not like a delicate peony—but, the way a coach treats a boxer who shows promise. I responded really well to that. “Rigor” was my favorite word. I took with endless curiosity and joy to the task of becoming a better and better performer.

I’m always surprised when non-theatre friends don’t get it— when I tell them about, for example, playing Miss Julie in a scene from the the eponymous play by Strindberg. And here, I must briefly digress. I’ll get back to the panic in a bit.

Miss Julie is the wretched, gender-misfit daughter of an aristocrat, who has an affair with her father’s household servant, John. At the climax, no pun intended— in a reversal of their usual relationship (which involves Julie demeaning John) now filled with shame, she now begs him to command her to commit suicide.

So—it was a scene study class; we were not doing the entire play. For simplicity’s sake, I will just refer to the actor playing John as “John” although that wasn’t his name. Julie and  John are in the kitchen alone together. This is near the end of the play. My line was: “Help me now! Give me orders and I’ll obey like a dog. Do me this last service! Save my honor— save my name! You know what I ought to will, but don’t will. Do you will it and order me to accomplish it.”

I was performing, you know, badly, my clueless, 20-something self, gamely attempting to take on language and ideas that were way beyond me— and my teacher, Casey Kizziah, was directing. The class was watching. Casey wanted me to put to use what we had been learning in his workshops. To wit: a the Conservatory, the approach to acting was behavioral— you don’t pretend to “feel” what the character’s supposedly feeling (because first of all, acting’s not about pretending, and second— we don’t even know what we’re feeling, most of the time) –but you do what the character does— physically and observably— to manage face and status and social roles in the context of the narrative.

If you do it well, then, from the outside in, you start to get an honest, raw sense of what the character might be experiencing and trying to effect. (By the way, every character worth watching is trying to effect something!) And, you also make visible— to the audience— all the strategic moves— what Stanislavski calls “actions”— that produce recognizable human behavior.

A few typical actions— things people do (and therefore that actors do, when enacting believable human behavior) in service to larger goals or schemes— are, for example, “to intrigue;” “to bewitch;” “to bait,” “to seduce,” or “to crush.” And, how the actor accomplishes intriguing, bewitching, baiting, seducing or crushing involves deploying various strategies and tactics. When she discovers which tactics achieve the desired response in the other actor/character— when she has changed them or changed herself— she has succeeded.

If you are an actor rehearsing or performing a scene, one basic strategy for getting what you want is to raise or lower your status vis a vis the other person. That works to demonstrate dominance, or to signal submission, or to maintain equality (and gives the other actor something to respond to besides just words). Basic tactics you use to…let’s say dominate… might be to stand up straight; speak too softly (to force the other to lean in to hear you) or speak loudly (to claim aural space). You might sustain eye contact; wear a blasé expression or hold your head still. Submissive tactics include lowering the eyes; biting the lip; picking at your ear or your fingernails; nodding, smiling and so on.

To play equal status, the actor matches the moves made by the other— not like copycatting, exactly, but— if I touch my face, then you touch yours. If you lean back in your chair and expand yourself physically, I do, too.

Okay? And this play—Miss Julie—takes on all these dynamics. Social roles, status, face, conscious and unconscious strategies we deploy to get what we want (even if what we want is really messed up) and the alternately thrilling, sexy, dangerous and destructive ways that we dominate and submit. So, it’s a good, challenging piece for young actors to work on when they’re learning craft.

“Give me orders, and I’ll obey like a dog.” That is one difficult moment to pull off believably, and I was nowhere near succeeding.

Casey, coaching the scene, wanted me (Miss Julie) to be simultaneously controlling yet abject and humiliated—and he just could not get me there.

“Lower your status,” he suggested.

I whined my line: “Give me orders and I’ll obey like a dog,” (This particular scene is like the kind of sex where you help the other person get it just right: “Okay, now slap my ass— hard! Harder!— OW! Don’t stop! Now, turn me upside down and call me Piggy! Louder!”) I was a naïve, Lutheran girl from Wyoming, and the subtle complexities of the human psyche— and all the pleasures of S&M— were alien; I didn’t even have a vague concept to work with. Plus, I just wasn’t a very good actor. Flummoxed, I tried whimpering.

And, Casey was like, “Oh, please.”

He was getting exasperated. He wanted me to elicit a real response from my acting partner. By which I mean that, if Janna/Miss Julie wants John/John to just roll his eyes, then she should whimper pathetically. But, if she wants John to make her kill herself— she’d better get him to feel so disgusted by her that he wants to kill her himself. And, the audience had also better feel that contempt— cause, if they don’t— well, they might get what the play’s about, on an intellectual level— but you’ve failed, as a theatre artist, to make it visceral.

I tried getting on my knees to beg. “Give me orders and I’ll obey like a dog. Do me this last service! Save my honor –“

“Like a dog.”

I got down on all fours (that is if knees count as feet). “Do you will it and order me to accomplish it— “

“Lower your status.”

I lay on my stomach.

This didn’t feel good. By enacting abasement, I started to be abased. Here I am, in front of the whole class, willingly responding to orders from my teacher that seem to require me to perform the next, degrading move. I (Janna) want to please Casey even more than I (Julie) want to get John to despise me.

So, I touch, and then caress, the boot of John, then, I rest my my head on the boot— which is gross, cause, it’s just this dude’s regular shoe in which he walks around New York everyday— the sidewalk, the street, the subway— and Casey goes: “Lower!”

I can’t get lower than the floor and it seems that bringing my face into contact with the boot is about as far as I can go—but I realize that I can feel even worse if I do this: I raise my ass and lower my chin annnd…I kiss the boot.

John’s foot squirms in revulsion. For sure he wants to kick me in the teeth and run out of the room. The class watches, no doubt repulsed. Now, I’ve got shoe taste in my mouth, along with some kind of schmutz—and I feel like I’ve still failed Casey—and, to my utter humiliation, I start sobbing.

Or, to be more exact, I don’t stop myself from sobbing, without reservation, in front of everybody. When I sob, I cling to John’s pantleg to support me, and without thinking press my face into his leg—there are real tears and snot—and now I’m shouting, crying, begging Casey as much as John, with Miss Julie’s line: “You know what I ought to will, but don’t will. Do you will it and order me to accomplish it.”

And surprise! There is some part of me, in my core, that’s going, “Oh my god, this is so cool! Hot damn!” I am aware of being enormously powerful even as I descend into a genuinely anguished heap. In my mind, John, Casey and my classmates must be gaping at the utter devastation of Miss Julie—though quite possibly, they were all just thinking, “Ew; she put her mouth on that boot.” At any rate, it was exhilarating and exhausting, and I unforgettably learned that day something about playing status and actions, about aligning with the character, about genuinely playing the scene.

So, as I said, everything was going great at the Conservatory. I was learning what it took to do well this thing I’d decided I wanted to do for a living—and, even though the peak moments were hard won, few and far between, it was deeply rewarding.

And then–that one night in the East Village– I woke up with the dread that something very bad was happening to me. The second I had that thought, it was like wind on a wildfire. Other analogies: a panic attack is as disorienting as gettin’ hit in the head with a snowball you didn’t see coming. It’s as self-alienating as sleepwalking, and unstoppable as a hurricane— or menopausal hot flashes.

The joke of it is, you (and I, and all of us) actually ARE going to die—just not at this particular moment or because of this sensation. For no reason, you’re suddenly “Wait- wait- what? What? NO! What’s happening? What’s happening! I can’t breathe even though I actually seem to be breathing perfectly fine!”

It starts with a kind of oxygen deprivation and a sense of weakness or tingling, and then your tongue geth numb and thick. That Pink Floyd song

“My hands felt just like two balloons!

Now, I’ve got that feeling once again,

I can’t explain, you would not understand,

This is not how I am!”

Well, it’s like that— and the scalp, and the encroaching, the impending, the– and I have to, have to, HAVE to walk, OR IT WILL CATCH UP. That, my friends—as many of you know— is a panic attack.

A few weeks after that first episode in the city, we were all— so, okay, NSC had a summer program up at Kerhonkson, in the Catskills, and the whole class had gone up there for the month of July. There were cottage dormitories, a bunkhouse, a dining hall, and a big open rehearsal space all on the site of a former borscht belt resort. It had this timeless, hot, wet, woodsy, grassy, campy feeling that was magical: the waterfalls; the tree frogs; the crickets; the wild turkey my friend, Sheila, and I named “Kerhonk.”

Every morning, we had a warm-up at I don’t know, 8:00? Went through with classes til 4 p.m. with some breaks to study lines, practice skills or cool off in the pool. Then, dinner, clean-up, sitting out under the stars, singing, bonfires… I cannot say how special it was to be there, or how much I had finally found my tribe and my avocation and my place: I wanted to never leave.

I was alive with happiness—so, it made NO SENSE when I had another panic attack, this time, in the middle of a— well, I don’t know how to describe what it was in the middle of. Give me a second.

It was Lilith, Betty and I. We were in the studio, exploring the connection between breathing, spines, movement, resistance provided by the floor and by contact with other bodies— and the production of vocal sound—including glossolalia, which for us had absolutely no mystical or religious connotations, only tonal and muscular— aw, screw it: I’ll just show you what we were doing. Okay, I can’t, not in writing: but think about the weirdest combination of screeching, ululating, groaning and singing possible, like an orgasm on opera.

Don’t judge me and please, don’t be alarmed. That’s fairly normal activity at an acting conservatory. And, we were having so much fun— improvising all the stuff we could do with our voices— not that any of us would ever have an occasion to put these newfound skills to much use, unless, I guess, we were cast in a musical comedy version of The Exorcist.

But, you don’t get to… to, just, lie on the floor making very loud, very weird noises for hours at a time— not in this life, not without freakin’ everybody out and gettin’ yourself committed— and so, doing it is therefore thrilling.

Gnghshaafine-TH!-manorjkasamadalynnotaaaaaaaa……

All of a sudden, I— just stood up and took off walking, away from the studio, very, very fast.

I could feel the weakness, and the shallow breathing and the tongue— all of it— and I don’t know, maybe felt like I could outrun it.

Betty— dear friend Betty, bless her good heart— at my insistence—followed me around the big lawn. I was going, “ Please, stay with me! Just walk with me! I don’t know what’s happening— !” –and, into the woods – “Stay with me, Betty— stay with me!” and she’s like, “Where are we going?” and I’m like, “I don’t know!”— and down a dirt road, and back to the lawn, and around the lawn again.

I knew that if I stopped moving forward, whatever “it” was— was gonna overtake me.

You’re like, “Yeah, right: I recognize a histrionic personality when I see one,” –but I’m not. Unless I’m literally onstage in the context of a performance that I’ve rehearsed, I frankly hate being the center of attention (which yes, makes acting an odd choice of career, but what can I say? I love being part of a professional ensemble, I love rehearsing, I love knowing that I know what I’m doing onstage). What I don’t like is looking weak, and I don’t want to be the source of anybody’s concern, ever; in fact, I have little patience with people who DO. So, I wasn’t “being dramatic.” I just wanted the feeling to stop and never happen again.

When Betty at last tackled me to the ground (Betty may remember this differently) and put her hand on my head— the pressure of that kind, human touch sent a wave of tingling and numbness from the point of contact down my neck, into my fingers, stomach and down my legs.

I couldn’t move. I don’t mean I was lazy or didn’t want to move: I felt locked like the rusted Tin Man. I rested in her lap for what felt like hours, and then— when I could stand— we went and told the program’s director, Albert, that I had to go to the emergency room. In Poughkeepsie.

Where they found nothing wrong, and where it was gently suggested to me that anxiety may have had something to do with the experience.

I rejected this explanation. It made no sense. I was NOT anxious! I was at the top of my game! I was having the time of my life! Never felt better! And— I explained this to the doctor very clearly— this didn’t feel at all like anxiety! It felt like something terrible was about to happen to me.

I had another “event” a few days later, after which I finally went to see a therapist in the nearby village. It was a one-off, by mutual agreement, because I was only upstate for another week or two.

And, there, in that unassuming little office talking to the nice lady, I found out— by hearing myself say it out loud— that I had—since I was a little kid—operated under the unexamined, unspoken premise that I wasn’t like everybody else: I was supposed to be special. I absolve my parents of any responsibility: they loved me unconditionally, and I did not grow up feeling pressured to be the best. This was something I had concocted all on my own: I was supposed to be exceptional.

When I said that and heard it, I was stunned— both by the audacity, and by the revelation that what I most feared was mediocrity.

Plain, old ordinariness— being just a human— was my abyss.

The therapist recommended Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth to help me get a handle my own perfectionism. I read it. Horney gave me insight and a whole, new vocabulary— but I continued to experience panic attacks for another year before I learned to stop them— always when I had forgotten all about them and had begun to feel, again, that everything was just going extraordinarily well.

Reminders: 1) To control and to relinquish all control is the tension between the impossible and the inevitable; between longing and acquiescence; between being and nothingness 2) That’s pretentious. 3) You’re pretentious. 9) No, you are.

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