Nelson Fringe Festival: No Comfort Zones Beyond This Point
In fourth grade, I was in my local high school's production of The Music Man. I must have enjoyed my theater experience because that year I also coerced some classmates into starring an American Girl play directed by yours truly. (I was a bossy kid, says my mom and lack of childhood friends). What happened to me!? I lost confidence as I got older. Or maybe I simply accumulated a reservoir of shame that collectively drowned any self confidence I had at age 10. Eh, it's probably both.
Nowadays, I really struggle having attention on me. It's not debilitating per se but I avoid it like weird guys at church. I don't like being in big groups. I don't like being seen. I am afraid of looking stupid and sounding stupid. I want to blend in so that I won't be deemed weird or flawed and then excluded. You could say I read like a pathetic protagonist in a YA novel. Vulnerability issues? What? Me?
Fast forward to my first job out of college, working with teenage girls as a mental health therapist. Each week, I led several group therapy sessions with as many as 30 teenage girls per group. I had dreams of helping wayward souls and having some real Goodwill Hunting moments. Instead, this job became my worst nightmare. I was no Robin Williams. The dynamic at times was so turbulent, and I felt a lot of pressure to control the group and magically get them to self actualize... and think it was their idea. I mean, no biggie, right? But my supervisor (to this day) is one of the best group therapists I have seen. He was the Batman of our Gotham, only better. In his presence, I swear Penguin would talk about the pain of being bullied as a child and the Joker would draw deep metaphors about masking his intimacy issues. Then I would lead the group and the Joker would emotionally head slam Penguin's face into a pencil. And there I was, eyes wide, not knowing what to say or what to do. Except I was SUPPOSED to know! I was getting paid to know! I had a degree that said I SHOULD know-- a masters degree in the knowing! Ugh, forget Robin Williams, I wasn't even cut out to be Batman's sidekick Robin! I felt frozen, inept, and helpless. I felt like the biggest failure. Obviously, we can see I maaaayyyybeeee had some unrealistic expectations of myself. Still, vulnerability issues? Oooooo yeah.
These days, I am all about challenging myself to get out of my comfort zone to conquer my fears, right? And by "all about" that I mean I am herding my reluctant ass out of my comfort zone by simultaneous bribery and cattle prodding. But seriously, I have come to value experiences like riding my bike across NZ because they have helped me face hard things to see how capable I actually am. It's enormously confidence boosting. I'm tired of feeling frozen and afraid of failure. I want to feel at home with myself. I want to feel connected to my body and to other people. I want to like myself (or at least lose the self contempt). I want to stop numbing and avoiding. I want to feel confident in my abilities to navigate life and novel situations. I know that I won't be having any of this without getting in the arena and getting uncomfortable. Thus, in the face of deep wells of resistance, I am trying new things.
I recently read a book called The Body Keeps the Score. I won't go into all of it now other than saying it's an AMAZING book about the neuroscience of trauma and corresponding evidence-based mind-body treatments. One of the chapters discusses theater and improv. This piqued my curiosity. I could imagine how these methods would engage the body and provide the space to face some very real feels and fears (cue performance anxiety and perfectionism!). I wanted to try it for myself. How fortuitous is it that a theater festival just happened to be coincide with my time in Nelson?! The Nelson Fringe Festival not only boasts over 30 original plays/performances but also a variety of workshops. With the lure of a bulk discount, I bought tickets to several workshops and geared up for theatrical, vulnerable, full-on immersion. I decided on Making Yourself Human, The Improv Bootcamp, and Physical Theatre.
Making a Human of Yourself
This workshop focused on what it means to be vulnerable and how we connect to others. The teacher referenced Brene Brown and there was a lot of processing our experiences. The group was small which is nice in some ways since smaller groups are more intimate. However...anonymity is difficult with smaller groups too (I want to be vulnerable but also....I don't).
This was a three-hour, active workshop. There were twenty people so we had a chance to switch partners often (anonymity!) and there was a wide range of activities geared to develop spontaneity and creativity. It was pretty full-on, but was a great exposure to improv methods.
Oh man, I woke up DREADING this workshop. The dread was unexpected but not really surprising. I really struggle with my body. Sometimes we are on speaking terms and other times, I hate everything about it. I knew that if this involved things that made my boobs bounce and my stomach jiggle, I was in for some real "practice” in sitting with discomfort. The workshop started with jogging and jumping.....yeah, I’m surprised I didn’t bail too. Luckily it got better. The teacher focused on the Suzuki method (rather martial artsy) and another theater method called Viewpoints. Both are designed to get actors in tune with their bodies and to help them trust themselves, their space, and each other.
My goal in going into this was to participate as fully as I could and to be mindful of my own experience. I firmly believe that activities like these are an excellent mirror for how I tackle every day life-- there’s no intellectualizing myself into denial.
Overall, I noticed my anxiety often surfaced around doing the "right" thing. I often doubted my own evaluation of situations and looked to others for permission or to confirm what I thought saw. I also noticed how often I compared myself to others and judged myself lacking. I had to remind myself that this was practice and there was no “failing.” Activities that required quick decisions and responses or multitasking have always been challenging for me so I usually avoid them. I couldn’t avoid them here so I had to sit with a lot of discomfort and frustration. I wanted to be done and/or give up when I wasn’t “good” at something (aka felt struggle). During the physical activities, my body image issues also surfaced. When I was physically uncomfortable and/or couldn’t sustain a pose, I felt a wash of shame rush over me. I felt embarrassment, weak, fat, and inferior. I felt so foolish and like I didn’t belong there. I felt like all of my flaws were magnified and everyone was going to see just how disgusting I was. I normally just pretend all of that isn’t sitting beneath the surface and avoid the hell out of any situation that triggers those emotions. The problem is, when I avoid those situations and emotions (aka...life), I miss out on a lot of really cool experiences and growth as well.
See, of any mind-body practice I’ve tried (and enjoyed) in the past seven months (yoga, meditation, conscious dance), these theater workshops have left me feeling most connected to others and the most...alive. In the midst of all of the hard, I also had a lot of fun and was very playful. Can you remember the last time you felt like you were playing? Like, playing playing? Trying new things and being imaginative? It’s been too long since I’ve nourished my inner child. Because all of this was novel for me, my mind was also very stimulated. I had the thrill of a new challenge, new movements, new ways of thing, being, and connecting. I might dislike a lot about my body, but I liked having a chance to feel alive in it too.
In addition, there is an inherent intimacy that develops from interacting with others in ways I never would otherwise. It’s hard to put into words, but it is powerful to make an offering to someone and have them accept it. To be vulnerable and be held. In particular, I loved one of the last activities in the physical theater workshop. In this exercise, four of us were on stage and we were allowed four different positions (sitting, standing, laying down, fetal position). We weren’t to “think” about our next move but in the moment decide when to move, where to move, and what position to take. We were to trust ourselves and go with the first action that entered our mind. The instructor played an instrumental song over the speakers. It sounds weird as I am writing this but it was the first time where I felt in the spot light but not afraid of doing something “wrong.” And it was strangely comforting and really beautiful to move intuitively with a group of people. We were independent individuals but in harmony with one another. I felt belonging and part of something bigger than myself. I felt like I was enough exactly as I was. It was soothing to my soul.
If you are still reading this, I applaud you and thank you for joining me on my existential and at times nebulous ponderings. I'd love to hear your thoughts on anything in here that resonated with you. Write a comment, send me a message. Let's talk!