When I put together my list of acting tips that apply to caregiving, I wanted to include the concept of motivation, or intention, or what Russian acting guru Stansislavsky called the “objective.” Characters in plays (like people in life) do things for a reason, and Stansislavsky chose the term “objective” for what drives a character’s actions at any given moment. He called the larger motivation for all of a character’s actions the “super-objective”, which is just a fancy name for an over-arching goal or purpose. The super-objective drives everything a character does . . . consciously or unconsciously.
Thus, the final item on my list of tips (yes, we’re wrapping up here) is:
- Relentlessly pursue your super-objective
Let’s look back at Shakespeare’s King Lear. What’s driving our tragic hero? What’s his super-objective? It might be a number of things (I’ve never played Lear), but I tend to think King Lear wants to prove that he is loved. He certainly starts out asking for proof from his daughters, and over the course of the play, he learns through bitter experience who truly loves him — and who never did.
Remember Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, the faithful one? She does love her father, but her love is complex and nuanced. When Lear asks which of his daughters loves him best, she refuses to flatter him:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.
[ . . . ] Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
Cordelia has boundaries.
She also has a super-objective. What is it? I’ve never played her either (and I’m too old now), but I believe she’s driven by a need to love with integrity. This integrity infuriates her father and gets her banished in the first act. But Lear and Cordelia reunite later in the play, and he sees the error of his ways. Of course, this is a tragedy, so – spoiler alert – they both die. (Almost everybody dies. Sorry.)
If you look closely, you will find that every character in every play has a super-objective. Caregivers have them too, consciously or unconsciously. I find it helps to be conscious about this, so I came up one of my own.
My super-objective with Mom is to have no regrets – to carry neither guilt nor resentment with me after she dies. I don’t want to feel guilty because I didn’t give her enough of my time, and I don’t want to resent her for taking me away from other things that matter deeply to me.
That’s my goal, every day: to love her, to care for her, but also to maintain my own work life and my other relationships. This is what she modeled for me with her mother, and it’s what I want to model for my child. I make daily choices based on that super-objective – when to visit, when to take breaks, when to give myself over completely to her needs. That way, I know I’ll be able to live with myself when her dementia journey is over.
And there you have it — a simple list of tips for caregiving, gleaned from my life as an actor. I hope it helps. Adapt it as you will. Or seek your own creative path. Theatre works for me, but your path might lead you through music, poetry, painting, glass blowing, basket weaving, writing (obviously I use that too), or a host of other creative ventures.
Art goes deep. My life as a theatre artist has enriched me and kept me connected to other people throughout my mom’s dementia. It’s allowed me to express strong emotions and acknowledge both the joys and agonies of human life. It’s given me a way to speak the truth about things that really matter, and to give some dignity to suffering.
For example . . .
As hard as it was for me to perform King Lear in front of my mother, I still love the play. I have done two productions, and I could do it again and again. It speaks powerfully about the need to care for those who are fragile, confused, or lost. There are noble characters in the play who do prevail, even though many others die.
One of those noble characters is the duke of Albany, Goneril’s husband. When war breaks out, he takes the side of Lear, and though he can’t save the king’s life, he honors him in death.
I’ll end with his simple speech, which helps me keep my own feelings and my mom’s courage in perspective:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.