The Story and the Self

My recovery is a practice of self-discovery.
So is my college major.

I consider my college the “Disney World” of schools. It’s a School of Individualized Study. Keep in mind, as you read this, that I speak for myself. I do not represent the school.

At this school, each student designs their own major with their own curriculum. Each student owns their intelligence. Each student makes their own choices. This freedom lets me integrate my recovery into my academia.

This year, I had to write a document called The Intellectual Autobiography and Plan for Concentration. I called it, The Story and the Self. Enjoy.

The Story and the Self

It’s July, 2018.
I’m producing my first full-length show.
Not only am I producing it, but I’ve written it, as well.
I’m also directing it.
I’m also acting in it.
It’s called O Negative.

I am simultaneously enriched and challenged.
With the exception of a 6-year-old girl, I am the youngest actor in a cast of six, and far less experienced that those I am directing.

Additionally, my script keeps evolving.

And evolving.
And evolving.
And evolving.

I did not anticipate how many changes I would make going in.

It’s October, 2018.
I am working on my major.
I am dedicating much of it to theatre.
I am given roots and wings by my academic program.
I am free to design my own course.

I have drafted a syllabus.
It is called “Works of Williams.”
Williams, as in, Tennessee.

I am reading Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The 2004 edition.
I am reading an introduction.
An introduction by Edward Albee.

Albee mentions another playwright.
He mentions George Bernard Shaw.
As Shaw moved into his nineties, he began to question his old work.
He began to question their complexities.
He began to distrust the complexities of the work that had launched him into world-renown.

“These complexities troubled him for, to his mind, they indicated that the plays were too complex—too recondite, perhaps—for proper absorption and that he’d best simplify them: better late than never.”

Williams, Tennessee. Introduction. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Edward Albee, New Directions,     2004.

While rehearsing O Negative, I too felt troubled by its complexities, tempted to simplify the story.

I guess you could say it’s wild.

I guess I could say it’s wild.

O Negative follows the Palmer family: Helen, Jason, Callie, Dustin, and six-year-old Charlotte, as well surgeon Beth Fowler. When Helen and Jason attempt to get pregnant, Helen learns that she had grown infertile with age and decides to take gametes from her own children. Callie and Dustin, thirteen and fifteen at the time, provide her with egg and sperm, and Helen impregnates herself with her grandchild.

Having recently fled an abusive marriage, Helen convinces her children that this is “routine procedure” for victims of child abuse. It should be noted that Helen also suffers from schizoaffective disorder, exacerbated by the trauma she endured.

The baby is born seemingly healthy, but on her sixth birthday she suffers a head wound that results in death. She bleeds out quickly during surgery and we learn that she had hemophilia, hemophilia that resulted from incest. At the end of the play, the truth of Charlotte’s birth comes out, and Jason has Helen arrested.

Every time I told friends and family the story, I received shocked reactions. “How did you come up with that?” they’d ask. I began to fear the story was too extreme, too unrealistic, to put before an audience, and what began as “revision” quickly turned into a process of “sanitization.”

We rehearsed for six weeks, and after three weeks of edits, I produced my final draft. Some changes were fruitful, producing more nuanced characters; some were counterproductive, adding unnecessary exposition; and others fundamentally transformed the plot.

For instance: in the original version, Jason seeks advice from Dr. Fowler as to how he should address Helen’s actions, asking if he should have her institutionalized: “You’re a pastor, right? A man of God?” Fowler asks. “Then I know you’ll do the right thing.” With that, Jason sends Helen to prison.

In the new version, Jason asks Fowler point blank if he should have Helen arrested, to which she responds as follows: “I have a colleague who works at a private psychiatric institution. Admission is steep, but I can get you a deal.” I was certain I’d nailed it, producing a script with an easily-digestible end. The cast, however, had doubts.

“You made some changes,” one actor said, “that changed the play for me.”

“New plays are imperfect,” said another, “but they come straight from the heart. When I first read this play, I thought wow, this is special. But now it feels…spoon-fed.”

“What makes this play so great,” went a third, “is that it makes you think about when we make someone a criminal. What is our responsibility when a loved one commits a crime? This new ending sends a different message; in this version, privilege wins.”

I stood before my actors, all decades my senior, wracking my brain for justification.
I stood before them terrified.
I stood before them hurt.
I also stood before them, though, knowing they were right.

I though of Albee. I though of Shaw.

“It did not occur to Shaw,” Albee writes, “that the problem was with him and not the plays. His publishers had to take the work away from him before he reduced them all to a fodder suitable to someone in their first or second childhood.”

The problem was with him and not the plays.

Williams, Tennessee. Introduction. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Edward Albee, New Directions,     2004.

This is what my cast did for me.
And thank [g-d] they did.

I swallowed my pride and got honest.
I had made these changes from fear.
I restored the original ending.
I was true to the play and the story.
And our play was stronger for it.

It is September, 2017.
O Negative has not yet happened.
I am learning to Dramatize History.

I am reading Jose Rivera’s “36 Assumptions About Writing Plays.” One of these states that the playwright must engage in dialogue with their various points of view:

“Good playwriting is a collaboration between your many selves. The more multiple your personalities, the further, wider, deeper you will be able to go.”

Rivera, Jose. 36 Assumptions about Writing Plays. References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot     and Other Plays. Theatre Communications Group, New York, 2003. 

Aha, I realize.
Playwriting is an opportunity to grapple with your inner demons.
Playwriting asks us to be bold.

It is July, 2018 again.
I am working on O Negative.
I have just admitted authorial defeat before myself and cast.

I realize, then, that each character is me. Callie, Helen, Jason, Dustin: each one is myself. O Negative is precisely what Rivera describes: a dialogue between my selves.

I hadn’t known this while writing it.
I didn’t think it was autobiographical.
But now I see how it is.
I may not relate to the details – to sexual abuse or incest – but I do relate to the themes – to mental illness and dysfunction.

This show was me; in the form of fiction, it was my truth.

I love Neil Gaiman.
Do you know Neil Gaiman?
Check him out.
I love Neil Gaiman.

In his 2013 lecture, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming,” he states:

We writers—and especially writers for children, but all writers—have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were—to understand that truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.”

Gaiman, Neil. Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming. The View from the Cheap Seats. Harper Collins, 2016.

“Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.”

Truth lies not in what happened, but in how what happened makes us feel.
It is the principle, not the personality, that matters.

This is my mission as a writer and theatre artist: to tell my truth authentically and boldly.
That is my work here on Destination Recovery, and my mission in all my affairs.

My greatest accomplishment is, and always will be, my recovery from anorexia. I could produce a thousand plays, and that would still be the case. I spent the first half of my senior year of high school in an inpatient rehab facility. It was there that I completed my college applications and learned of my acceptances.

In March of 2017, two months after I discharged, I began this blog. The catharsis, accountability, and connection this fostered revealed the power of voicing one’s truth and affirmed my purpose, which is to tell stories. In the spirit of Jose Rivera, I use this blog to grapple with my many selves, especially in Self VS Self.

Some of the content no longer held true. My friends laugh at the line from my healthy voice, “You have a boyfriend now,” as I came out as a lesbian a month after writing. However, that line was true for me at the time, and this piece honors who I was in that moment.

I am affirmed by Edward Albee.

In that same 2004 Tin Roof introduction, he writes that when asked by scholars if he would ever revise earlier work, he tells them no:

“The person who wrote The American Dream, say, back in 1959, is not exactly the same person 40-some years later, that the errors (be they such) in that play are enthusiasms of youth, and that while a sober reexamining may make one cringe a bit at excesses (again, be they such) these two “people” are not, while friendly, in useful contact.”

Williams, Tennessee. Introduction. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Edward Albee, New Directions,     2004.

Stories make us infinite.
They eternalize our multiple selves.
Editing, in excess, runs the risk of erasing aspects of who we are.
Eighteen-year-old Bella still exists, albeit in a different moment, and “Self VS Self” lets me bring her into the present.

Besides theatre and storytelling, I’m passionate about yoga and meditation, which I discovered in rehab. This discovery put me in dialogue with my body, which has bolstered my work as a performer.

It is January, 2018.
I’m in a class called on voicing text.
I’m consistently asked how text feels in my body.

I learn that, as a performer, my body brings text to life.
My body and voice are vessels.
If my mind any body are disconnected, I cannot play my role.
That said, in addition to pursuing writing and theatre, I am training become a yoga instructor.

I had a conversation with a school peer and licensed yoga instructor last week in which she told me that her role as a teacher is to facilitate space. This resonated with my definition of the role of theatre director. The yoga teacher creates a space for individuals to tune into their bodies and explore their mental and physical state; the theatre director creates a space for actors to explore and discover the meaning of a text.

My yoga peer told me that she hates when teachers tell students, now you’re going to feel safe. “I can’t impose safety on a person,” she said. “All I can do is create conditions for safety. They’ll feel how they feel.” 

My voicing text teacher often spoke of the danger interpretation.
Imposing one’s own meaning on a text prematurely can prevent the true meaning from coming out.

For instance: actors often choose their “objective” for a piece or “decide how their character feels” after one quick skim of the text. This interpretation defines their delivery, preventing them from making discoveries that fall outside of that.

Telling an actor, now you’re going to feel happy is like telling a yoga student, now you’re going to feel safe.

Neither a yoga teacher nor a theatre director can impose an interpretation, be it on one’s body or on a text. All they can do is meet the individual or text, respectively, where they are and work with what they bring to the table.

Here is a clear connection between the two art forms, and thus a connection between my healing and my craft. 

Why is it necessary to share this post, which relates more to my studies that it does to my eating disorder?

When I entered treatment, a recovery coach asked me what I love to do.

“Theatre,” I said.

“And why aren’t you doing it now?” she asked.

“Because I’m here,” I said.

It is my recovery that allows me to examine the themes I have examined in this essay.

My recovery is a flow.
My studies are a flow.
Both my recovery and my studies are an exploration of myself.
As I continue to flow through all aspects of my life, I live by the mantra which is my site’s new tagline:

Speak from the heart, and you will be fine.

Love,
Bella.

Pictured: O Negative. July, 2018.

In closing, I would like to say that the opinions expressed here are entirely my own; take what you like and leave the rest. If this post spoke to you, I invite you to share it, as Recovery is for all.

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