Zen and the art of facing the Demons
Friday 27 August 2010
Three men with explosive back-stories take the stage and find their lives clashing as they confront each other’s realities and their own. That’s the premise of "Ambush on T Street," a new play written and performed by Court Dorsey, Al Miller and John Sheldon, which unwraps the traumas of war, of abuse and, to some extent, the myths of everyday life.
The play, directed by Dorsey, will be performed Sept. 10 through Sept. 12 at the Northampton Center for the Arts; on Sept. 24 and 25 at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls; and at the House of One People in Montague on Oct. 8 and 9.
Dorsey plays the trauma counselor Cody Villardi, who is treating Hatch, a war veteran played by Miller. Dorsey says the work was originally conceived of as an adaptation of Homer’s "Odyssey." But after the two men began conversations while taking a writer’s workshop together — they were later joined by Sheldon — they drew deeply from their own lives to write a play that’s at times humorous, at times intense and, ultimately, healing.
"There’s an awful lot of autobiographical stuff in this," said Dorsey, who has had a long professional career as an actor, director, playwright and musician. He and his two fellow actors discovered their own life’s stories as they began shaping the play.
Sheldon, whose work as a guitarist and songwriter included playing as Van Morrison’s lead guitarist and writing songs that have been recorded by James Taylor, plays Jack, a street musician haunted by his failed career and his years as a mental patient.
Sheldon said he grew up in a family where his father, in part suffering from inner demons left by his World War II military service, seemed in danger of killing himself. So, he began acting out his own suicidal gestures to change the paradigm. As a result, Sheldon found himself, beginning at age 15, trapped in a psychiatric hospital for more than a year and a half.
"I had to create a person that appeared normal," said Sheldon, who in the role of Jack provides music for "Ambush" and performs onstage with the cynical humor that he has used in real life to keep people at a distance.
"These are all survival strategies," Sheldon said, "but when you get to be 30 or 40 years old, they don’t work for you anymore. They stand in the way of you becoming yourself."
Miller, a Vietnam veteran who has turned to Buddhism and working with the Veterans Education Project as a way to heal trauma from his own past, said he didn’t begin unraveling his own early story until he was confronted by the two other actors in writing "Ambush."
At first, he resisted. "By time I got to the military, I had no idea how I felt," Miller said. "I never saw my parents argue in my life or express any emotion toward each other."
"They had 10 kids but never even changed clothes in the same room. My eldest sister had been killed by my father in an accident, but I didn’t know about that from them until I was 18 years old."
"The last time I really worked intimately with a group of men, we were killing people and we were threatening to kill each other. It was huge for me to work exposed with other men, because I don’t have trust that way."
Dorsey, who’s also worked as a mediator and a peer-mediation trainer, recalls growing up with an alcoholic mother and a frustrated father who was abusive to her. At age 7 or 8, he tried to help her cope and to keep her from being totally isolated.
"What happened was I gained a heightened sense of self, but a false self," he recalled. "I can solve the problems my father can’t solve."
"That gives me a very superhuman kind of false self-image, but I really know I’m powerless. I’m not able to help the drinking stop, I’m not able to stop the beatings, so I blame myself for that, and it a creates a situation where I’m totally invested in making myself believe, and everyone else believe, I’m an exceptional artist, or this or that, to cover up the fact there’s no true sense of self there."
The myths that these real-life actors have inhabited — as super performers, as a 20-year military squad leader strapped with extra bandoliers of ammunition for his platoon — help them escape "the helplessness, powerlessness and the hurt," said Dorsey.
Those myths, which serve to keep at bay the trauma and the isolation it creates, are in some ways generalized in our society, he said — the exceptional belief that "we’re number one," the too-pretty-to-be-real stars, onto whom we transfer much of our sense of self, the jobs in which we identify with "the things we do, to compensate for things we don’t think we are."
Dorsey said that often when a relationship ends, or when we hit bottom, or something else blow’s the whistle on us — that’s the ’Ambush on T Street.’
For men, who are traditionally raised to avoid feeling vulnerable or confronting feelings, the ambush can come particularly hard, said Sheldon. And the barriers that we tend to impose among populations — veterans, victims of domestic abuse, substance abusers and so on — only adds to the sense of isolation we need to break through.
"When you realize how closely connected you are to everybody else, you can become traumatized by this general trauma of things that happen — like an oil spill, or a war that doesn’t end," Sheldon said. "You can actually be collectively traumatized, even if you weren’t involved in it, as soon as you become aware of how connected you are to everybody, or to the earth."
That’s why groups sponsoring "Ambush on T Street" include the Men’s Resource Center, Veteran’s Education Project and the Western Massachusetts EMDR Association, which practices a therapeutic approach used to treat trauma victims. The play is also co-sponsored by Amherst Writers and Artists and the Zen Peacemakers.
Through the collapse of their mythic self-deceptions, the characters Villardi, Hatch and Jack are plunged into the state of "not knowing" — a requisite tenet of Zen Buddhism, along with bearing witness and compassionate action.
"They don’t know where they are, their props have fallen down, they bear witness to each other and to themselves with help from the others," said Dorsey. "Out of that comes compassionate action".
"Zen is very much about gaining insight into who you are, letting all those things you see begin to dissolve, so you begin to see the commonality of everything because the distinctions begin to fall away. What you’re left with is the connections we share."
Source: Amherst Bulletin