There should be some 1 – 2 – 3 instructions for what to do when someone is a jerk. Or when things don’t go your way. Or when you say — with complete conviction — that you are going to do one thing and then, mystifyingly, you go and do the utter opposite.
There are bits and pieces from various disciplines offering up general guidelines or outlining specific techniques, but I have never found anything that puts you in a contextual framework that brings it all together in a play-by-play sort of way. So I took a stab.
Here’s how the structure works:
There is a stage. It’s oriented from the perspective of looking out at the audience as opposed to the audience looking in.
And there is a director. The director sits in the back where she (or he, as the case may be) can keep a good eye on things. The director is well-positioned to do so because directors’ chairs are higher than regular chairs. This director’s chair also happens to be “the seat of awareness,” which this director is going to need for the job.
The director consciousness behind my play is mine; the consciousness behind your play, of course, is yours. The mechanics of this structure are entirely geared toward the development of the director’s sense of awareness. The orientation of the stage looks outward because we are seeing the action from the perspective of the director, not the audience.
Of course there is a cast of primary characters. In my case, there are five. More about them later. The number of cast members in your play may be an unknown at this point, but if you are reading this, there is a good chance you won’t be able to help but begin thinking about who is inside of you.*
There is a set design, very minimalist with nothing at all in the front part of the stage. This is where the primary action that we think of as life happens — all the minute-by-minute events of the day, in addition to over-arching realities in our lives such as pressing work deadlines, the current dearth of good babysitters, a chronically achy hip. Whatever the reality of our life is at the moment is what is going on up front.
The front of the stage is also where the stage left entrance and the stage right exit are located. All action passes across the stage, entering from the left and exiting on the right. How long the actions/events/circumstances hang around on stage is entirely variable. Some circumstances like the achy hip hang around for a while. Other events or circumstances come and go more quickly — the dearth of good babysitters and work deadlines, for example. Hopefully the dearth of good babysitters and work deadlines exit quickly.
The back of the stage is raised up on a platform about 10 feet high to provide a good place to observe what’s going on in the front where our lives are playing out. Running the width of the stage up on the platform is a rock wall about waist-high, just the right height to sit on and observe the action.
From the director’s chair, you will know that there is also a matching rock wall parallel to the front one, creating a comfortable 3-foot-wide enclosure where the cast members hang out.
There are also 4 cornerstone pillars demarcating the perimeter of the stage. The columns are beautiful, in a Grecian style. There are two at the front of the stage with the remaining two at the back.
There are some furnishings, again very minimal. Just the director’s chair which you have already been introduced to, and a large grid which could be thought of as a rug, marked in chalk on the stage floor positioned directly in front of the director’s chair. It takes up most of the space between the director’s chair and the back side of the rock wall.
That’s it for staging. There is an openness to the whole feel, reinforced by the fact that this is an outdoor amphitheater, as you can see by the beautiful trees in the diagram.
As for the wardrobe, it’s also very minimal. The 5 cast members all wear the same thing with the exception of one who insists on also wearing a beret, a ridiculous affectation since he’s not French. On occasion he throws on a scarf, clearly an expensive one. I don’t know where he gets it (probably Amazon), but leave it to him to do so. He’s the one into image.
No props are necessary on this stage.
That’s it for the set up.
Now that I’ve laid it all out, it makes sense doesn’t it? The whole play/stage metaphor? It’s not such a stretch, the stage as the context that will allow us to clearly see ourselves and see all the various players involved in the events we experience as our life plays out? A context that naturally operates according to a script as the action unfolds, instantly providing the cues as to what we are to do with ourselves and all those feelings so that we no longer operate according to the wild, unregulated improvisation that has been our unwitting default performance? In fact, it’s kind of cliche how obvious it is. Not very original of me, but it works.
Before we get to the actual process, there is more to know about the cast. We all have an original set of cast members with certain qualities who came with us into this lifetime — a creative spirit, for instance, or an innate understanding of mechanics. These are the qualities that appear to have been with us from the beginning and that just naturally come out of us, whether they be aptitudes or sensibilities or tendencies.
If only we stopped there. However, as our stories took their twists and turns, our cast members also developed additional qualities. These added-on dimensions of our character development stretch all the way back to childhood and may continue to accumulate, possibility even for the rest of our lives, as life knocks us around. However, the more aware we become, the parts getting added on slow down. As is probably perfectly clear, the added-on parts are those that cause us the trouble, which explains why this add-on action begins to slow the more aware we become.
Right now I’m 56 years old. While it feels like I’m pretty familiar at this point with the original members of my cast and their particular dimensions since I’ve been at this deliberate discovery for quite a while now, it’s entirely possible that there are nuances I will continue to find out about them as I develop more awareness. Or maybe there is a whole additional cast member I came into this world with originally whom I just haven’t clued into yet. Who knows. At this point, however, there are five I know about within the limits of my current awareness to go along with my five add-ons hanging out at the rock wall.
The same could hold true for these troubled add-ons I developed along the way. Maybe there are more there and I just haven’t put my finger on them, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like I now know who I came with originally and who got added on.
So that’s how it goes according to this structure: our cast members make up who we are — the dimensions of our personality that have been with us originally and the parts that developed in response to some challenging aspect of life or some trauma. This challenge or trauma could be a specific event — such as a molestation, for example, or the death of a family member. Or it could be a general climate, culture, situation or circumstance in our lives which carried on for some length of time — a harsh upbringing, for example, or ongoing sexual abuse or an illness. It could be anything at all, any situation, event, or circumstance in which we felt powerless, out of control, untaken care of, threatened, etc.
It goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway since I like to double up on what I say, that how we respond to an event or circumstance isn’t how someone else would, which makes sense because our add-ons are ultimately a reflection of our original nature. Say, for example, you grew up with a mother who told you she’d poisoned your food. In response you became deeply fearful and unable to trust. Or, conversely, maybe instead of fear you came to trust your own reasoning in consideration of the fact that your mother had been claiming to poison you for a very long time and yet you hadn’t died. This happens to be a true story from back in the 80’s about a brother and sister in Chicago whose mother was schizophrenic. The sister’s inherent nature tipped her over to the fearful side; the brother’s inherent leaning for reason over emotion tipped him over to the pragmatic.
Taking it down a notch, a more relate-able example of how add-ons get added on is how we might develop a hyper awareness of our body and get into a big diet loop in response to society’s value for being thin. (Check.) As a result, we now have developed a deep-seated preoccupation or un-ease with our physical form which becomes integrated into our behavior. If this behavior persists long enough, it becomes part of our personality.
Another example might be the hard time we had in school so we became ultra driven to succeed at the exclusion of all else, creating enormous imbalance in our lives by working all the time and monitoring our achievements in comparison to everyone else. Or, conversely, we absorbed the identity of failure and didn’t venture beyond the limiting boundaries of that sense of our own inadequacy.
At any rate, we’ve all got at least a handful of well-developed sub-personalities who contribute to our whole being. These sub-personalities show up regularly on our stage, identifiable for their trademark behaviors. In fact, these guys probably make an appearance everyday, if not on center stage, then whispering from the sidelines. Here comes the show-off again. Or the bully. Or the baby. Or the very angry one. The scaredy cat. The ditherer. The one who can’t shut up.
Some sub-personalities are probably standard in all of us. The critic, for example, though the critic is clearly a lot more developed and prominent in some than in others.
As I worked on identifying these parts in me and they started to sort and organize and take on their distinct personalities and signature characteristics, it became necessary to find a way to differentiate and visualize them in some way so as to keep them straight. Trying to see them was a problem, though. It was too creepy to full-out visualize these separate sub-people in me looking a certain way, complete with hairdos and clothing styles and names. That was way too Sybil/multiple personality for me.
However, I had already long been looking at my nervous system in a very visual, personified way. I could see it clearly and it looked like a rabbit and was as twitchy as a rabbit. So while the idea of having a population of real-looking little people milling around inside creeped me out, animals were a different thing — enough separate from any level of reality while also being so very easy to anthropomorphize. Animals, I thought, could really work. So I set about the project of figuring out which animals captured the distinct characteristics of each of the five cast members I’d identified.
Holding tryouts was so much fun, auditioning and auditioning until I found the ones who held up to every single quality I knew to be present in each of my 5 sub-personalities. I consulted the internet to confirm animal behaviors. I brainstormed with Gary, my partner. I cornered friends. I talked about it incessantly. And of course it was the primary topic of conversation with Jonette, my therapist, who guided the Internal Family Systems process I used to get to know these parts.*
In the end, the animals who ultimately got cast were highly disappointing at first. I wanted my cast to be on the exotic side — was so sure they would be — and even tried forcing some more extravagant creatures to take a few of the roles, but it didn’t work. My animals are ordinary, entirely ordinary. That was just the truth and this structure is based on the truth. Otherwise, nothing holds up.
So that’s how the inner cast works.
It’s almost time to bring my animals on out for introductions, but before doing so I need to explain just one final thing, something that started to concern me as I was figuring out who all I had holed up inside, and which might concern or at least depress you on my behalf if I don’t clear this up. The problem was, in developing this structure my attention at first was exclusively directed toward identifying the aspects of my being which gave me trouble — the added-on parts of my personality. They, after all, were the reason I was trying to devise a framework in the first place. However, as I dove down to discover who was there, it began to seem like I was comprised entirely of a cast of losers! A gathering of problematic inner parts who just couldn’t get it together! No wonder I had my hands full. No wonder I struggled so much. Look who I had to work with!
I started to feel a little panicky and discouraged on an existential level. But on a deeper level I knew this couldn’t be so. The very fact that there was something so strong in me driving this work made it clear that there was a depth in me — a strength, a soulfulness, an understanding that there was something profoundly valuable within insisting upon being discovered. And even on the more surface level, I also knew I had a decent share of talents, skills, accomplishments and admirable qualities. I knew I was highly functional and, for what it’s worth, I didn’t even actually present as a messed up person. For the most part anyway. And I knew that despite my pockets of struggle and darkness, there was also a lot of light and love in me which added something good to the people in my life. In general, I didn’t have the sense I was a bummer to be around, though I’m hardly the expert witness on that.
So just know that we’ll get to the “good” parts and that things will balance out. But first, my messed up little zoo. I’ll start with Sissy. Sissy the cat.
Sissy was one our family pets — the only animal cast member I had a real-life relationship with. We brought her home from the Humane Society along with her brother, Tom, after losing our precious Mrs. Parker to an owl — the pet I loved the most out of all our pets over the years. Mrs. Parker was a long-haired calico with a black beauty mark on her cheek. She was so beautiful and smelled impossibly of perfume, the mystery of which conferred an almost other-worldly quality to her.
Mrs. Parker was going to be a hard act to follow, but I made the situation a little better by naming Tom and Sissy after my father and his sister for no reason other than it made me laugh.** While Tom earned his keep by being pleasingly fat, smart, respectably self-sufficient, and a beautiful color of gray I’d want to paint on a wall, Sissy was another story. Sissy was no Mrs. Parker. She was plain, ordinary and short-haired, playing directly into my deeply held automatic negative bias toward animals who are plain, ordinary and short-haired.
But worst of all she was needy, unacceptably needy. She needed to be with someone all the time and she begged constantly for love. I had no respect for her overwhelming neediness and felt suffocated by the constant reminder of how unattractive it is to be so transparent in your neediness. Have a little self-control, why don’t you! For god’s sake, keep that weakness under wraps. Do not impose yourself on others and reveal how incomplete you are!
In the end I simply couldn’t tolerate Sissy in my space. The insecurity leaking out of her and her constant longing for attention and affirmation and love….ugh. In the end, I drove her two hours away to a no-kill shelter in Cherryfield and surrendered her. In the end, I took a member of our family and I put her out.
But, oh, Sissy…you managed to have the last word, after all. You never really left, did you? Here you are, back on my stage.
Next up: Stage 2 — Bug, Owl, Guard Dog and Rabbit.
This installment is story #3 in the Stage series. Setting the Stage 1 and Setting the Stage 2 came first — both narratives describing a couple of mortifying events just humiliating enough to push me to discover the final crucial element missing from my framework, which I had been working on for 12 years.
*Identifying the different parts of ourselves is an approach called Internal Family Systems. The internal “family members” identified within have nothing to do with our actual external family, though our external family quite possibly had a role in triggering the development of some of the added on parts. Richard Schwartz pioneered this method, a method influenced by others before him, including Carl Jung and Jean Piaget.
**While Tom, amusingly enough, turned out to overlap with Dad in a couple of qualities, I need to emphatically clarify that Sissy is nothing like Aunt Sissy! (aka Martha Ann.) Martha Ann is delightful, smart, beautiful, entirely self-composed and perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Surrendering her namesake only added to the terribleness.
Note: The metaphoric structure of the stage and accompanying process involved in this work is based on principles, techniques and strategies from neuroscience, psychology, art, philosophy, spirituality, religion, self-help, yoga, the imagination — whatever I encountered containing a wisdom that rang true and tested out in the search for how we can come to know ourselves, honor ourselves, heal ourselves, and find our way back to the beauty of who we really are. To live well, in other words, and more at ease.
Credit: Diagrams and illustration by Gary Robinson.