Episode 240: 40th Birthday Trials and Triumphs


I spent my 40th birthday with people I had only just gotten to know during my few weeks at the Shakespeare & Company intensive (listen to the previous 2 episodes to hear the whole story). The day involved learning some stage combat techniques and this proved to be a very scary place for a lot of people. It was a day of wild ups and downs in many ways. The Intensive ended with marvelous performances from everyone involved, and I left there feeling like I wanted to do this work for the rest of my life.

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Hello, thank you for being here. Thank you for joining me, my friends. 

I am sitting in the sunshine, but it is going to be clouding over soon. I can see the clouds, all kind of circling and getting ready to throw a pall over my day. Before they do that, I’m going to go out and have a beautiful countryside lunch somewhere, but I wanted to finish up this story of Shakespeare and Company and our last few experiences there that were profound and exciting and disturbing, all at the same time. 

So we had turned the corner into June of 2001. And that was going to be the month of my 40th birthday, which I was going to spend among these people that I had gotten to know over the last couple of weeks. I had gotten in and out of having crushes on various ones of them, and also realizing that I was among the older people in the group and having a lot of frustration and anger about why I didn’t I discover this process so much sooner. Why had I not gone to college for theater? Why had I missed all those opportunities? So that it was bittersweet. I was finding so much joy in the work that we were doing every day, and just my heart was light. I was skipping, I was singing, I was dancing. I was so energized by so much of what we did, but in this underlayer there was the undercurrent of regret about past decisions that I had made, in terms of not choosing with my heart. 

And there was the more immediate regret of having left my children, but I knew that they were well cared for, you know, but I still missed them every day because it was so strange to be apart from them for so long. So I was in these wild swings, having big, big emotions, and they played into everything I was doing there. So after having a terrible experience with my Nurse and Juliet scene, the benevolent spirits in the teacher community of Shakespeare and Company, gave me a whole different scene. It was from a play called The Winter’s Tale that I had never read and never done. So that was exciting, because it was a brand new experience for me in terms of Shakespeare. I was still in my very early days of only knowing the plays that I had done as a child really well. Other than that, I had not experienced a lot of Shakespeare’s work, and so much of it was new and exciting and different for me.

So I got this scene that was between a gentlewoman who was bringing a baby in to show to the king, and trying to convince the king that it was his child. And meanwhile, the king had thought that his wife had been having an adulterous affair, and that therefore the child was a bastard. So it was a really difficult and painful scene to be in in some ways, but I also had to really keep my cool head, because I was trying to save this child’s life. So there were some wild things happening with that. But the dropping-in experience that I had for that scene, where I sat across from my new partner, Scott, and we learned about the scene from word to word to word, was an incredible experience, because he was so generous in sharing his eye contact and sharing his energy and sharing his experience and his tears with me. We just hit the ground running with a powerful first visiting into this scene. 

After that, we had some other experiences that were supposed to build on all of that momentum, as we were learning how to embody our characters. One of them was called authentic movement, where for two or maybe three hours, we had to keep our eyes closed, and just react to the world with our other senses. For me, that was kind of terrifying. I think that I get so much information in through my eyes that I can’t conceive of not having that input. So I was scared to do it to begin with. But then I realized that if I just moved gently, that it was okay, and that I could really pay attention with the rest of my senses. And that was – I was gonna say an eye-opener, which is, you know, ironic (eye-ronic!), but it truly was an eye-opener for me. They were trying to teach us that your eyes are not the only thing that are going to help you learn about how to become that character. 

The next thing that we learned, that was something that I fell in love with so much and wanted to do so much more of as I moved forward in my Shakespeare training, was stage combat. I loved stage combat!! We learned how to do punches, and kicks and slaps at first, and we learned how to do them in a safe and contained way that they would look really realistic and effective, but where nobody would get hurt. Stage combat class came on the the actual day of my 40th birthday, so I had this exciting new experience and things that I was learning, and I also was preparing for the evening, because I wanted all these new friends to come and celebrate with me that night. I had gone out and gotten all the supplies, you know, like snacks and chips and such. I got beers, and I wanted to have Cosmos for my 40th birthday as they were my yummy drink of choice at the time. But I knew that we would be coming late from our last classes, which usually didn’t end until like 10:00, so I wanted everything in place and ready in the group meeting hall, where there was a fridge and kitchen and stuff. So I pre-mixed the Cosmos. I don’t know if this is always a thing, but premixed Cosmos get stronger by the minute as they sit in that pitcher. By the time we came to drink them, they were Whoppers. 

The last experience of stage combat for that day of teaching was to learn how to do strangle holds. Now those are dangerous, right, and they bring up a lot of scary things for people. I mean, for me, if you just touch the base of my throat, I have an immediate gagging reflex. I jerk away and I won’t let people touch me there, even in romantic situations. I was trepidatious about studying this at all. But there were some people who were in much worse shape in terms of having that experience than I was. There were people who started to scream and break down because they felt unsafe because things like this had happened to them in their lives where they’d gotten choked by someone. That was horrible to behold: people weeping and not able to continue. And then, you know, some people had to actually sit out of this experience and couldn’t do it. But then when we learned how to use the techniques carefully, we then added on text pieces of the words that we were learning for our scenes. Now we could apply some of these stage combat techniques to our scenes. Like what would it do to the scene if you rehearsed it as a fight? Not that you would do it as a fight, ultimately, but just how does it inform the scene to create a fight out of the text words? I had this line: “Let him that makes but trifles of his eyes first hand me,” that really helped me out. It meant whoever wants to lose their eyeballs, go ahead, come at me! Right? So I really enjoyed the experience of using the powerful words to keep people off me and not let them be able to strangle me. This was a journal entry that I did about that:

In my life I do not imagine myself as the aggressor. I am none. But by adrenaline I have been compelled to be an advocate and a defender. I fume at injustice and rush to the aid of the defeated without thinking if the situation is unsafe. Fortunately, in the instances that I think back on, emotions were diffused before things got out of hand. And in fact, Shakespeare said, violence happens when words fail. So you’ll notice – anyone who is a Shakespeare fan and sees lots of Shakespeare – that most scenes of violence have a huge precursor of words leading up to them where one or another character is trying to talk the duo out of fighting, and only when it’s escalated beyond the capability of words, do they come to blows. 

So that was a very tough day. And when everyone came finally in the evening to my party, they were actually subdued, and it took a while to get everyone feeling more relaxed. I was so nervous about that that I drank far too much, and the evening turned into a fiasco for me. I was so horrifyingly drunk on my 40th birthday, that I went out into the garden and vomited. I had not had that experience in a very long time. I ended up very, very horribly hungover the next day, along with my good friend, Karen, who had also helped organize the party with me. The two of us were in very bad shape, hurting so bad the next day. 

The next day, we had a second half of the authentic movement class, so I had to lay on the floor with my eyes closed, and try to listen to my body and see where it wanted to move without looking. It was a crazy experience. I just followed my ears, and I would like slither over to something, touch something that I wanted to touch because it was warm. I found a sunspot in the middle of the room, because there was a skylight that was shining down, and I just basked in that sunspot. It was truly authentic, because my body was like, “Dude, you hurt me, man, you abused me. This is all I want to do now.” So that was pretty funny. It was wild. 

At Shakespeare and Company, the whole experience after all of our prepping ended, of course, with a performance day. It was just a performance for the community of people that had been there for the whole month, so it was the teachers and the other students who were not involved in getting ready to perform who would watch a scene. It was very minimal in terms of costume and  props, you know, whatever we had brought with us. But it was so exciting. Because after all of that work, we saw some magnificent scenes, people who had really discovered their connection to these characters, and the deep meaning that these words brought out for them personally. Every scene was incredibly compelling. I loved mine, I loved performing it. And I wanted to just keep doing it again and again. And I just wanted to be part of this world so much. It fostered a long passion for this work that I brought home, to Palisades to my children, to the group of children that was massing and growing around me and learning to love Shakespeare with me. And I’m grateful to this day for that experience and for what Shakespeare has meant in my life. 

So I hope you enjoyed this series and learning about my origins with this work. It will dip in and out of my life as I go forward because it was what everything revolved around. Thank you for being here. Thank you for trusting me to tell you these stories. And I hope that you are learning and remembering things for yourself that were essential guideposts for you in your life. I’ll speak to you next time. I look forward to it. Bye.

Published by dianathebard

Podcasting about growing up in the Hudson Valley in the 60s and 70s, falling in love, raising kids, getting divorced and being a free and creative world traveler!

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