Relentless Pursuit

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.

June at Little Creek 2017

Improvisation, or The Art of Saying Yes

I keep carrying on about how acting is hard, and takes work, and is therefore just as valid as a Real Job, thank you very much. (You’d be forgiven for thinking that the lady doth protest too much. Fear of inadequacy, anyone?) Well, in my defense, it is work, and I’ll protest that to my dying day, but okay . . . acting is also a lot of fun, and it requires a sense of playfulness that most jobs don’t.

There’s a “say yes” rule built into this profession. The cardinal sin for an actor is to say, “My character wouldn’t do that.” We have to be ready to try anything within the bounds of decency and safety. (Fights and love scenes are always carefully choreographed.)

The “yes” rule means that when a director asks me to try something, I automatically say, “Great!” even if I think it’s a bad idea. The director wants Goneril and Regan to be playing checkers when King Lear asks which of his daughters loves him the most? Great! I’ll try it.

Actors can develop this sense of playfulness by learning improvisation, or improv. This is where we make up a scene on the spot, sometimes with input from the audience. One of the rules of improv is that actors always have to say or imply “yes, and” to keep the action moving forward. The “yes” acknowledges a new reality; the “and” expands on it.

Think about it. If you don’t have a script and you start improvising one, you won’t get very far with a “no.” If one actor says, “Wow, look at that downpour!” and the other says, “It’s not raining,” the scene is over. But if the second actor says, “Perfect day for a game of water polo!” or “Step into my gondola!”, then we’re going somewhere.

“Yes, and” works beautifully for caregiving, as demonstrated in this TEDMED talk by Karen Stobbe & Mondy Carter. Karen and her husband Mondy are improv actors with years of personal experience as family caregivers. I steal from their playbook all the time.

For instance, as I’ve said before, when Mom tells me her clean laundry was stolen – which she does every single day – I don’t say, “No, it wasn’t.”

Oh sure, I used to say that. I used to want to bring her back to “reality.” I used to say, “Let’s look in your closet right now.” But that doesn’t solve anything. Mom doesn’t need to be corrected, she needs to be believed. So, I use the principles of improv to meet her right where she is and agree with her truth. “Yes, and.” I do this over and over again, because like many people with dementia, she repeats herself.

Lucky for me, I’m an actor; I’m used to saying the same lines every night, six nights a week, with the same conviction I had on opening night. When Mom says, “My laundry was stolen”, I can easily say, “Oh, no!” five or six times per visit. She just needs me to jump into the scene with her, to improvise a way to feel better. Once she feels listened to, really heard and accepted, she can usually move on.

Non-actors can play, too. My brilliant sister Juliana improvised a scenario that goes like this:

Juliana: They stole your laundry? Oh no! That’s horrible.

Mom: It’s the fourth or fifth time this has happened! I don’t have anything to wear! I had to pull what I’m wearing out of the dirty clothes! We need to go shopping and replace my wardrobe!

Juliana: Yes, we do. Hang on, though . . .  a few things are in the laundry, so we can’t be sure what we still have and what we need to replace. I know! Why don’t we wait till all your clothes come back from the laundry, then do an inventory and make a shopping list?

Mom: That’s a good idea. We won’t buy me anything till we know what I need. But let’s go shopping anyway and buy you something pretty!

There you have it: problem solved, or at least postponed, which is good enough. Once Mom is shopping, she always forgets about the inventory. And don’t tell me people with dementia can’t learn new things, because Mom has learned to play this scene with very little prompting. It’s not an improv anymore; it’s a bona fide script:

Me: They stole your laundry? Oh no! That’s horrible.

Mom: It’s the fourth or fifth time this has happened! I don’t have anything to wear! I had to pull what I’m wearing out of the dirty clothes! We’ll have to go shopping and replace my wardrobe. But I’m not going to buy anything until we do an inventory and see what I really need.

Me: Okay. That makes sense.

Mom: Let’s go shopping anyway and buy you something pretty!

We’ve been playing this scene for years now, and it never gets old. (Okay, I’m a little tired of it, but it still makes Mom feel better, and that makes our visits much more pleasant.) Professional caregivers call this technique “redirection”. I call it improv. Either way, it works, as long as you stay flexible. Improv is just that – a game, an experiment, something to play with. You never know what’s going to work — which brings me back to Shakespeare and checkers.

If a director wants me to play checkers in scene one of King Lear, I might think it’s a stupid idea, but I’m obligated to try it. My job is to say yes. Who knows what I’ll discover if I’m willing to give it a shot? Maybe it won’t work and we’ll throw out the checkers . . . but maybe, someone on stage will wind up playing chess, and an elaborate chess game will become a metaphor for the play. We won’t know unless we try.

The same applies to caregiving. As my mother’s cognition changes, I need to keep an eye out for new ways to improvise a good life. It’s not always easy, but as long as she’s willing to play, I’ll keep saying yes. Yes, and . . . .

June Shopping December 2017

Shopping for ornaments last Christmas at a local consignment store. 

This post is part of a serious about acting and caregiving. You can find the first post here, the second here, and the third here.

The Act of Caregiving

I like to say that actors are the luckiest people on earth, because we get to play for a living.

I’m not saying my profession is all fun and games. Acting takes a lot of work — learning the craft, mastering technique, using your voice and body effectively, auditioning, getting rejected over and over again, and then — if you’re lucky — getting cast, rehearsing, memorizing lines, crafting a performance, and pouring your heart out for an audience night after night.

This work takes focus, energy, and a willingness to live in the moment. It’s similar to sports or music — you can prepare and practice for years (and you’d better, if you want to be any good), but when you’re in the middle of a performance, you have to turn loose and play. Nothing matters but what’s happening right now. You’re prepared, yet flexible; grounded, yet utterly spontaneous.

Actors never forget how to play. Even as adults, we hold onto our childhood ability to pretend, explore, and experiment. We embrace the full range of human emotions. We don’t judge the characters we play, we relish them — the villains as much as the heroes, the clowns as much as the tragic victims. Our job is to step into someone else’s reality and behave as if it were our own. We imagine what it’s like to live in another person’s skin, to deal with their frustrations and celebrate their joys. We learn to give ourselves over to their truth, while never completely losing sight of our own.

Does that remind you of anything? Maybe dementia caregiving?

If you’re a caregiver, I don’t have to tell you it’s not all fun and games. It’s a lot of hard work — learning about the health care system, dealing with doctor’s appointments and hospital stays, taking care of a loved one’s physical health, struggling to understand their cognitive and emotional needs, feeling rejected over and over again, and pouring your heart out day after day. That’s work.

But I’ll bet most caregivers have a story to tell about a time when caregiving was fun and creative, even playful – when they’ve been able to let go of grown-up concerns and just embrace the joy of being with another human being. As caregivers, we try hard not to judge the people in our care. It’s not always easy, but we try to love them — the villains as much as the heroes, the clowns as much as the tragic victims. We try to step into their reality and respond to it as if it were our own.

Does that remind you of anything? Yeah, I thought so.

I didn’t see the parallels between acting and caregiving at first, but I realize now that being an actor gave me a natural head start on Mom’s dementia journey. I made myself a list of rules for acting that I think apply to caregiving. I’ll elaborate on one today, and the others in future posts, but here’s the whole list if you’re curious:

• Acknowledge the Given Circumstances
• Do Your Homework
• Learn Your Lines
• Improvise
• Take Breaks
• Relentlessly Pursue Your Super-Objective

Acknowledge the Given Circumstances

The famous Russian acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski taught his students to look, first and foremost, at the given circumstances of any play. These are the facts that the playwright has given us to work with: location, century, time of year, time of day, economic, political, and social condition of the characters, etc. An actor ignores these given circumstances at his own risk.

Take Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example. The setting is a royal court. The characters are rich and of high rank. The title character, Lear, is old and tired of governing. He has three grown daughters, two of whom are married to rival lords. The third is being courted by a duke and a king. Lear gathers them all together and announces a plan to divide his kingdom. Stakes are high, because power is on the line.

The actor playing Lear can’t suddenly decide to portray a young, virile commoner without a care in the world. He can’t pretend away the trappings of rank or the ravages of age. He must deal with the circumstances Shakespeare provides. Lear’s wealth, power, rank, age, and emotional unpredictability are essential to the story.

If I’m in a production of Lear (or any other play), I need to deal with the facts on the page. I want to deal with them; they’re going to inform every decision I make about how to move forward.

Same goes for caregiving.

Caregivers need to grapple with given circumstances – lots of them. Who am I caring for? How old is this person? What’s her diagnosis? If she’s 85 and diagnosed with mid-stage dementia, it does me no good to treat her as if she’s 70 and has no symptoms. That’s called denial. If, like my mother, she’s always loved to sew, had a rich volunteer life, played classical violin and hated Bingo, it does me no good to invite her to sporting events and Bingo games. I need to work with the person in front of me, not my idea of who that person is supposed to be.

Then there’s location. Where does my caregiving happen? Act one of my mother’s dementia drama was set in our family home. In act two, she moved to an independent senior-living apartment. Now we’re in act three, which takes place in assisted living. Do I wish she could have grown old and died at home? Absolutely. I know that’s what she wanted. But wishing won’t change the circumstances we’re in now, so I need to understand how her assisted living works and learn to navigate their system.

I also need to be realistic about my own given circumstances. Do I have a job or serious volunteer commitments? Do I still have a child at home? (When Mom moved to assisted living near me, the answer was yes, and my kid’s needs mattered just as much as hers.) Are there things about my mom that get on my nerves? (I plead the fifth!) I can’t ignore my own reality any more than I can avoid my mother’s. It’s not possible for me to suddenly become a saintly, full-time caregiver and still keep up my other obligations. How can I find a balance?

Accepting given circumstances and facing reality can be hard. You have to let go of what used to be true: My mom was so smart, such a good teacher, such a positive person! Why did she have to change? You go through a very understandable period of grief and anger. But even while you’re grieving, it helps to pay attention to given circumstances. Stanislavsky advises actors to write them down and refer to them through the whole rehearsal process. Caregivers can do that too.

When I faced up to Mom’s situation, when I stepped out of denial and acknowledged our new reality, I was able to see a way forward. I realized that her cognitive abilities may have changed, but her soul hasn’t. Armed with that knowledge, I can tackle my caregiving role with more confidence and help her live a more meaningful, less frightening life, right now.

No matter what the circumstances may become.

June on Medlock Path

Mom’s world is different now, but still beautiful.


Sticks and Stones . . .

When I was born my dad was in seminary, which meant he was studying Greek and Latin (and maybe a little Aramaic?) along with theology. For years, whenever I asked Dad what a word meant, he gave me the Latin root first. I rolled my eyes, but despite myself I fell hopelessly in love with language. I had a brief affair with Latin, got married to French, and begged Shakespeare to adopt me into his extended family. He did, and I became an actor.

Language introduced me to my friend Denise, a fellow bilingual performer. We both do voice-over work for an international company (Denise is fluent in Spanish and English). She and I were talking the other day about our moms, both of whom have some form of dementia. We love our moms, and hate watching them slip farther into the disease. It helps to have a friend to commiserate with.

Now, as my father would be quick to note, the word “commiserate” comes from the same Latin source as “misery.” It implies wretchedness, deep distress, and pity. We don’t use it this way most of the time, but that’s the etymology.

Do I really want to think of my mom’s condition – and my relationship with her – as misery? Do the words I use to describe her situation make a difference?

I think they do. I recently had to turn off auto-complete in my word processor, because every time I tried to type the words “hearing aid” in a post about Mom, it gave me “heartbreaking”. Believe me, when a mostly-deaf woman loses her hearing aid for the forty-seventh time, it is heartbreaking, but I don’t want my computer reminding me of that. I want to choose my words.

Life with dementia does have its share of misery and heartbreak. But so does life without dementia.

I believe that, without denying the painful truth, I can find less painful words to describe this chapter of our lives.

For instance: humor. Mom and I were singing goofy songs in the car Sunday morning on the way to church, and she started to laugh.

Mom: Crazy people!

Me: Are you calling me crazy?

Mom: Yes.

Me: Well, thank you.

Mom: You’re welcome. It’s a compliment.

We both dissolved in giggles. This is fun, dammit! This is exactly the way I want to spend time with the people I love – laughing, playing, seizing the moment. So what if I also have to spend time reassuring, comforting, and serving this woman? She’s my mother and, more important, my friend . Wouldn’t I do that for any friend?

I’ve been compiling a list of words to explore in future blog posts: words that might open conversations about life with dementia. They aren’t all happy words; I do have to acknowledge that this is hard. They are simply truthful words, ways of talking about my experience and inviting you to talk about yours, if you’re so inclined. Words like Anger. Compassion. Grief. Creativity. Fear. Companionship. Joy.

My friend Denise suggested Guilt (that’s a big one!) and Balance. Lovely choices, don’t you think? I’ll be diving into the dictionary in the coming weeks to see what I can find. I hope you’ll join me.


Tap Dancing In Cleats

When I was a teenager, I drew a clear distinction between the worlds of art and athletics. My high school excelled at both. We had a championship football team and an award-winning band. We had a chorus that regularly took top honors at competitions, and we excelled in basketball, tennis, and track. We had professional visual artists teaching in the classroom and outstanding coaches for all our athletic teams.

And, lucky for me, we had a serious extracurricular theater program that rivaled any performing arts curriculum in the state.

But arts and sports were separate fiefdoms, and in our sports-obsessed culture, athletics reigned. A few people participated in both (like the football jocks in the spring musical), but mostly we went our separate ways. To excel, we had to specialize. Those football players could never have been in our fall theater production. They practiced at the same time we did, and like us, they still had homework to do when they got home.

Add to that my family’s passion for books, music, and art, and you can understand why I didn’t wind up playing sports. But as an adult, I’ve come to see striking parallels between sport and art, particularly theater. Both require focus, attention to detail, physical stamina, and team work. But the strongest link between sports and theater is grounded deep in the human psyche: the mesmerizing appeal of conflict.

By way of illustration, imagine this: you’re at a professional basketball game, settling into the stands, getting ready to cheer as your team enters the arena. Here they come: a group of top-notch athletes and a couple of referees. They tip off and head down the court to shoot a perfect basket! Score!

Then they all head down to the other end of the court, dribbling and passing flawlessly, and shoot for the opposite basket. Score! And that’s all they do: dribble, pass, shoot, score! Nobody blocks, nobody steals the ball. Nobody loses. Nobody wins.

Now, is that interesting? Of course not. Without opposition, there is no game. Without conflict, there is no drama.

Let’s imagine another scenario. You’re in a gorgeous theater, settling into your plush seat, and silencing your cell phone as the house lights dim for the opening scene of your favorite play, Romeo and Juliet. It’s so romantic; these two young people from feuding families fall in love! Their parents call off the feud, invite all the relatives in from out of town, hire a band, and have a big Italian wedding! End of play.

Oh wait, that’s not how it goes, is it? Of course not. Without opposition, there is no story. Without conflict, there is no drama.

And we need drama. We need to gather in large groups and watch people act out our primitive urge for conflict, struggle, and triumph. Sports arenas, black-box theaters, elegant opera houses . . . these are all places where people come to laugh, cry, gasp and cheer as we experience together “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

My dressing table for Lombardi

My dressing table for Lombardi

I’m currently performing in Lombardi at Aurora Theatre, a play about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi and a perfect example of sport as art. On opening night, I heard Producing Artistic Director Anthony Rodriguez speak about the value of theater, which he discovered in high school. (He was one of those football jocks in the spring musical.) The worlds of art and sport are not so different, he said. They bring us excitement, suspense, and hope. They call out our passions. They bring us onto common ground.

These days I find myself smiling backstage as one of my fellow actors practices a time-step in his cleats, then runs onstage to portray the great Paul Hornung, then stays after the show to work on a Shakespeare monologue. I am living at the intersection of art and sport.

I never expected to find myself here. But as long as I’m in this game, I’m playing to win.

Skeletons in the Closet

Hamlet is, among other things, a ghost story. The protagonist is literally haunted by the ghost of his father, who claims to have been murdered and demands that his son seek revenge.

But that’s not all that haunts young Hamlet. Our hero grapples with questions of loyalty, love, doubt, right action, and the merits of suicide: “To be or not to be” is a pretty haunting question.

Other characters are haunted, if only for a moment, by guilt. Gertrude says to Hamlet, “Thou turns’t mine eyes into my very soul, and there I see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct.” And even the murderer Claudius admits privately that his “offense is rank.”

We’re all haunted, I think. Are our loyalties in the right place? Have we made the best choices in life? What have we left undone? Flannery O’Connor says in her collection Stories and Occasional Prose, “Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature, for it is the business of the artist to reveal what haunts us.”

Shakespeare knew his business well.

Props from the Georgia Shakespeare production of Hamlet

Props from the Georgia Shakespeare production of Hamlet

Game On

We open Hamlet in less than two weeks.

I’m at that awkward midpoint of my rehearsal process, where I’ve figured out a lot about my character and grown undeservedly cocky. This is dangerous. It’s like being up by twenty points at half-time and thinking you don’t have to hustle to win.

You do have to hustle. You can’t let up. You have to stay in the game.

Like playing a sport, acting is a fascinating mix of the intellectual, the emotional, and the physical. I use my mind to understand what my character is after and what’s in her way; I call on my emotions to provide the inner drive she needs to fight for what she wants; and I teach my body to walk her journey in her shoes.

Hamlet Rehearsal, Sept. 2013 045Right now I need to “return to the text” as my friend Bruce Evers puts it, and track Gertrude’s journey through the play, incorporating what I’ve learned about her over the last two weeks. I know so much more than I did when we started. I know what to say and where to stand and when to make my entrances and exits, of course. But I also know who I’m dealing with, because I am seeing a flesh-and-blood Hamlet and a host of other characters come to life in the rehearsal hall.

Now it’s time to make every step of my journey – every interaction with every other character – strong and specific. I need to sit down with my script and find the tiny details that will help me live in the moment, ground my emotions, and connect each scene to the next. I need to sharpen my mental game.

If I do that – and I will – I’ll be ready to throw my body back into the game and play to win.