Behind My Back
In February of 2016, I took a 2-week intensive, focused on creating devised theatre. This class was specifically looking at creating a group piece out of several individual, or solo, pieces.
Devised works are often created by a group of people, and the story comes together based on the collective contributions of all members. Often one or more people bring ideas to the table, and the group uses improvisation games and movement exercises to drill down and find the story the group wants to tell and how they want to tell it. A script, per se, does not exist until the collaborative team creates it.
Prior to the first day of class, we were instructed to prepare 1-2 minutes of material to show. I didn’t have anything written or that I was working on, so I created something using text from newspaper articles, stories I found on the internet, and interviews.
Day one, we all performed what we had prepared. The instructors then paired us up in groups of 2-3. We had never met one another before and had to create a new five-minute piece, using material from everyone’s prepared work.
As the class continued, this basic framework continued. More people added together with requirements and a time limit given. We had to keep combining everyone’s work together to make something new.
This was very stressful.
The more people in a group, the more ideas and opinions. The class was only two weeks in total, so we often had short periods of time in which to combine ideas. Tensions were high. I don’t know if anyone survived the two weeks without crying at least once.
Toward the end of the two weeks, I woke up in the middle of the night and had an idea. I saw my group’s ideas coming together in a very specific physical structure. I got out of bed and typed out my whole idea. I kind of had to, in order to fall back to sleep.
I decided to send the email to my group. In it, I acknowledged that in no way was I suggesting we put in motion my full idea, but I hoped that by sharing it, it would spark some ideas we could use in our piece.
I didn’t sleep much that night, and we had an early rehearsal the next morning.
When we arrived, no one mentioned my email. It was likely no one had had time to read it yet.
As the morning wore on, and my fatigue set in, I started to wonder if they had read it but hated it so much, they didn’t know what to say. Or maybe they thought I was trying to take over the piece and force my own agenda.
I was too tired and emotional to even bring it up to the group.
We had another rehearsal after class, with a short break in between. As I walked toward the rehearsal room, I passed two of my group members, sequestered in a corner, whispering. There was a tension and confidential nature to their body language and volume.
A seed of fear lodged in the pit of my stomach.
Were they talking about me? Were they trying to figure out how to address the email I sent? Were they mad at me? Did my email upset them?
I didn’t stop as I passed them. I walked into the rehearsal room to find it empty.
Alone in the room, I was able to let my guard down a little. My feelings were hurt at the idea they were talking about me. If they were upset by my email, I hoped they would talk to me about it instead of each other. I had tried to be clear about my intentions in the email, but maybe they didn’t think I was serious.
The more I was able to work through my emotions and the stories in my mind, the further away from the intensity of my emotions I was able to get. I was able to see the big picture, instead of just my slice, and I could even put myself in their shoes.
What if they were talking about me? If I were them, what might I need to say? If I had been offended by the email, I might need to talk it out with someone else who had also read the email. I might want to address how I had understood the email but not in an attacking manner. I would likely have intense feelings that I needed to get out, so my brain could function properly and focus on the issue at hand. Not simply how it made me feel.
I actually really value the ability to externalize my emotions. I often need to talk something out, and then I no longer have the deep feelings I originally had. So often when I am triggered by someone, it isn’t about the other person. They may have done or said something and therefore are the catalyst, but something about how their actions or words have landed in me is the spark that started the fire.
It’s sticky. I need to talk through the situation so I can understand what caused my emotional response. But in order to talk about it, I have to discuss the circumstances and people that led to my emotions. If someone were to overhear part of my processing, they might think I’m trash-talking someone involved.
It was clear: I value having the space to talk through my thoughts, perceptions, and emotions, to “talk about people” in a way that could be misunderstood as “behind their backs”, in an effort to work through my own issues. If I want that for myself, I also want it for others.
This process happened in a matter of minutes. As I stood alone in the rehearsal room, my perspective and attitude changed. I found myself actually hoping they were talking about me. I wanted them to have the space to process their emotions if that’s what they needed. And I hoped that when they entered the room, we could have a productive conversation about our work as a result.
The feeling in the pit of my stomach did not go away simply because I had this shift in perspective. I still didn’t like the idea of them saying negative things about me. If I’m honest, I don’t want anyone to think negative thoughts about me, ever. But I do fundamentally believe we all need the space and freedom to process our own emotions.
When the rehearsal started, one of the whispering girls shared her thoughts about my email. No one seemed hostile or upset. We discussed what resonated for people and what ideas we might want to use in our collective piece. There was also some push-back on some of my ideas. I needed to clarify some of what I had written. Overall, it was a productive conversation.
It has not traditionally been my first instinct to hope people were talking about me behind my back, but I am so thankful for this experience. It has changed how I respond to the punch-in-the-gut feeling when I think someone is bad-mouthing me. Maybe they aren’t talking about me at all. Maybe they are talking about their response to something I did or said. They are entitled to feel their feelings. Maybe they are working on their part of the situation and not actually talking “about me” at all.
Ironically, the day after this experience, one of the whispering girls told me that she was having a hard time with one of the other girls in our group. That is what the girls had been talking about. It hadn’t been me at all!
I learned two valuable lessons: I want people to be able to talk about me “behind my back” as a means of processing, and just because someone is whispering doesn’t mean it’s about me at all.
Strange. Not everyone’s world revolves around me.