Cody Nickell is Gulfshore Playhouse’s Artistic Associate. He will be blogging every Tuesday throughout the 2014-2015 Season.
There is a right way and a wrong way to live in the world, right? The things our parents and grandparents taught us, the things holy texts or religious leaders tell us, what we learned in philosophy classes, or business ethics classes, or feminist studies, what Oprah or Bill O’Reilly or Jon Stewart or Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, or our favorite website dealing with our favorite subject, or the guiding lights of our political leaders (well maybe someday this will be true again), or the amazing amount of books telling us how to live fuller, deeper, truer, righter, healthier, jazzier lives are all ways we might find out about the correct way to live one’s life.
I am sure it is not lost on you, dear reader, that the above list is full of contradictions, and in fact some of you may be wanting to turn away from the rest of this blog because I invoked the names of the enemy to your view on the correct way to conduct oneself in the world. Alas, the world is complex and full of opposing and conflicting views. What is one to do in the face of that? Wouldn’t it just be easier if everyone accepted our version of the correct path?
These questions, these ideas, are why I love Annie Baker’s play Body Awareness. The family at the center of the play is at a moment of crisis. Each of them is struggling with their own personal demons about the right way to be in the world, the right way to behave, the right way to be seen, the right way to look at others, the right way to ask for what you need, the right way to try to teach others to think the way you do. And part of the beauty of Ms. Baker’s text is that ultimately, there might not really be a correct answer, but the struggle to get there is so full of humor and pathos and a sense that if we can get beyond ourselves, our own struggle, and team up with other people, find connection in this world, the struggle to get to “rightness” might at least be manageable.
This play rings so true to me. And the family at the center of the play couldn’t look more different from mine. I come from a pretty traditional (though certainly weird in our own ways) southern family. There was a divorce, but it was pretty amicable considering. There were remarriages and blending of families, but this all eventually felt normal to me, and the parents always tried (and mostly succeeded) in putting the kids’ best interests first. The family in Body Awareness is so different from that. The young man, Jared, is an only child who is still living at home at 21 years old, and is struggling with the possibility that he might have Asperger’s Syndrome. His mother, a divorcee, is now living with her new girlfriend (or is partner the “right” word; ah dear reader, depends on which character you ask), who is a college professor who is righteously trying to teach the world about self-empowerment and how to get away from the “white male gaze.” So, yeah, this family feels very different from mine.
But let me tell you, I identify with every one of their struggles, hopes, and dreams. This is where beautiful writing and phenomenal acting come into play. They draw us in. They show us human beings, real living human beings with needs and wants and doubts and fears. Directing this play is such a joy, because every time I try to steer the ship a certain way, or plumb the depths of emotion in a scene, or broaden the awareness of an actor about a certain moment, or layer in the comedy that connects it all together, both the script and the actors hold up under this scrutiny. This group of actors is one of the best I have ever worked with. They trust the play, their characters, each other, and me. And they have the skills and technique to dive into these roles and bring them to brilliant life. And this play, it just keeps revealing itself. Every time I try to peel back another layer, it just keeps giving and giving. And it keeps asking, “Is there a right answer?”
Are there right answers to the questions of how best to live one’s life? Of course. Did I learn some from my family? Yes, yes and yes. Have I tried to live by them and failed? Sometimes. Have I had other people try to force their version of right on me? Yes. Do the plays I work on and go see in my constant love affair with theatre as a story telling art from influence the way I think about right and wrong? Yes…and sometimes no. Will this play show you the right way? I don’t know. I don’t think it is trying to do that. Will it show you a set of beautiful people struggling just like we all do to try to figure that out? Yes. And maybe reflecting on that struggle, reflecting on the question “Is there a right answer?” is much more important and powerful than actually knowing what the answers are.