I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at what I can learn about healing from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The other night, I had the pleasure of watching another episode of Playing Shakespeare with my husband. We kept pausing it and excitedly discussing our understandings of what the great John Barton – then head of the Royal Shakespeare Company – was doing with his troupe of actors – Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench – in this landmark early-80s series. The episode was concentrating on set speeches and soliloquies: those difficult stretches of poetic text that Shakespeare gives to so many of his characters in moments of narrative importance.
The main point that Barton was focusing on brought me around again to ideas from Rubenfeld Synergy: namely, that emotion is not just a feeling, but an action. Or, to focus on the seeming coincidences in the way we language things in English: in order to move someone emotionally, you have to literally move.
I’ll unpack that a bit. Barton speaks about how, when listening to an actor give a long, complex speech, he tends to drift a bit unless the actor holds him. (There is that languaging again: he even gestures in a way that looks like the actor would literally hold him in the palm of his hand.) So, what does an actor need to do with such a speech in order to make it compelling?
The answer, as it almost always is in art, is specificity. In this instance, what that translates to is always playing the intention, the action, rather than playing the emotion. Probably the most illustrative example of this is the work he does with Patrick Stewart on a speech from Titus Andronicus (shown in the video above). The speech occurs after the character’s daughter has been raped and mutilated, and the character’s own hand cut off – in other words, a moment of such extraordinary physical and emotional anguish that it would be difficult to imagine saying these poetic words in such a moment.
Often, an actor will make the mistake of finding the emotional state, then playing that through the words. Stewart does this first, and it’s definitely arresting, and made me feel some sympathy for his obvious suffering. However, a little way through, I lost track of what he was saying and couldn’t fathom the meaning. Also, he starts at a very high level and has nowhere to go; the speech becomes stuck, and I have a hard time believing it. Stewart is working against the words, in a way, and the speech becomes generalized. All I could see was a wail of pain. I felt bad, but I couldn’t fully connect.
Barton then has him do it again, this time working off of a line earlier in the scene, which is simply, “What now shall we do?” He has Stewart treat the speech as the character’s effort at the impossible task of making sense of what has just happened, and looking for a next course of action. In this iteration of the speech, Stewart seems to discover each line for the first time, to consider each moment, to be grasping desperately for some kernel of meaning. His tone gets much softer and more plaintive, almost hopeful, his affect less anguished and more like someone in shock from a great trauma. By the end of the speech I was crying.
For a highly emotional speech to work, the actor needs to take us with him – to move us in order to move us. Generalizing an emotional state makes the speech static, in the way big emotions aren’t in reality. Emotions are motion; as Titus says in that speech, “I am the sea; hark, how her sighs do blow!…Then must my sea be moved with her sighs.” Titus’ emotion here is compared to natural disasters, movements of air and water and earth that are unstoppable. Only by discovering these moments with the audience, however, can the full weight of emotion be realized and expressed. Otherwise, the speech gets moored on the rocks.
In Rubenfeld Synergy, one of the key skills we learn is openness and continual curiosity. The work of the Synergist is never to jump on a thing and identify it right away, but rather to explore, to stay curious, to maintain an open hand and an open heart. To keep listening. To discover it fully and specifically, with the client. The temptation to label, to believe that you know the whole story from one piece of information, is great, just as the temptation to play the general emotion of a speech is great. A client may say, “It feels like your hands are making a bridge between my shoulders.” I know that for me, my mind goes all over the place. All of the possible literary images and symbolic possibilities frolic through my head. “Ah,” a part of me says, “I know what that is.” But that’s not all that useful to the client: when I think I know what something is, I have closed off the possibility of further exploration. I have learned that the best thing to say at that moment is, “Say more about the bridge.” Or, my favorite go-to, “What’s that like?”
It’s impressive to watch Patrick Stewart rage and blow like Lear’s storm cracking its cheeks; it evinced some feeling in me. But I ultimately didn’t know what he was saying, and I couldn’t relate to the speech. It was unfocused, and didn’t take me anywhere. In the second, much smaller, much more careful exploration of the words, I could feel him discovering the story as if for the first time – and I could discover it with him. At the end of it, I was in a different place from where I started.
When I say to a client, “What’s that like?,” she knows that I am with her. Further, she knows that I haven’t pinned down her image like a butterfly to a board. Instead, we’re watching it together in the wild, studying the colors, seeing how it moves. How it moves us. We’re finding the specificity. We’re discovering rather than diagnosing. We’re moving together.
And this is possibly what RSM is about above all else: movement. Helping our clients to access their emotions in their bodies and allow them to move, so that they can move more freely in their bodies, and move to a place of greater freedom in their lives. If I can keep an attitude of open discovery, if I can help my client follow her story where it leads without deciding that I already know the ending, the places a session can go are surprising and often transformative.