Is theater a metaphor for life? Dale Decker shows how useful it can be sometimes to rewrite a rehearsed behavior.
When people learn that I’m involved with community theater, I often hear, “Oh, I can’t act at all.” While it’s true that not everyone is cut out for the stage, we all use our acting skills everyday. Learning lines and picking up cues allow us to interact smoothly with others without constantly considering what to say next. We all have thousands of scripts ready to play out whenever we need them. We’ve rehearsed them for so long they’ve become second nature.
Consider this example:
Bob: Jack, this is Jill. Jill, this is Jack.
Jack: [extending hand] Pleased to meet you.
Jill: [accepting the handshake] Likewise. How are you today?
Jack and Jill: —Insert discussion of the weather or other non-threatening topic here—
Jack and Jill already know their lines and hit their marks flawlessly. There will be some variation but we’ve all learned how to perform this script without thought. Introductions are very simple and usually free of any important social implications. However, for queer people, even this script can get complicated. When I first meet people, I’m often standing next to my husband whom I in turn introduce. My old script would have been, “This is my partner.” This script typically stopped the conversation cold, resulted in an abrupt change of subject, or prompted a stumbling attempt to look politically correct. Annoying for sure, but I was very comfortable with those reactions.
With the recent political fight for marriage equality, I decided to change my script to, “This is my husband.” This causes me a lot of anxiety because it’s not easy to predict what the other person will do. I’ve stepped outside the usual script, forcing the other party to adjust quickly to my new line. Some people launch into a discussion of whether my marriage is legal or not, other people look offended, and yet others congratulate me. Well-worn scripts are like plays—smooth and easy to watch. New scripts are like improv theater—exciting but the potential disaster creates anxiety.
Imagine all the scripts you learned while growing up, and it’s easy to see how things get complicated quickly. Unless all the people around you had a very similar childhood, you are bound to use scripts that others don’t understand or that are inappropriate for the situation. A very common difficulty with couples is the “fight” script. One person opts for the Moonstruck script (yell and scream until everyone bursts into tears and the issue resolves) while the other person uses the Remains of the Day script (give very subtle hints about the problem but never speak it out loud). One person will feel ignored and disrespected while the other will feel attacked and offended. To be successful, this couple has to make a new script that fits with both of their styles.
Mismatched scripts might seem easy to identify, but it’s very difficult to monitor your own performance. The services of a good director can pinpoint problem areas and provide suggestions to make the scene flow. You can recruit a good friend or family member if your problem is relatively simple, or find a counselor if things are more complex. Since the counselor has never been a player in your scripts, they can be more objective in identifying problem areas.
After you’ve consulted with your new director and have identified any problems, you’ll need some rehearsal time. A classic way to practice new scripts is the empty chair exercise. Simply get yourself an empty chair and pretend your loved one is sitting in it. Then go ahead and discuss your issue with the imaginary person. Yes, I know this sounds foolish but it really works. The empty chair conversation increases your confidence and allows you to become familiar with your thoughts before you take things up with the real person. You’ll be more relaxed and better able to focus on the issue rather than your performance.
The final step in the process is to put your new skills to work. Remember, though, that you aren’t alone on the stage of life. Your fellow actors will be expecting the old performance and will instinctively pull you back toward your previous habits. Be prepared for reactions of confusion, anxiety or even anger when you start down a new path. Be patient and allow your loved ones to adapt. Better yet, practice together.