June 9, 2014
Inside Bliss Point with Michelle Farivar: Cast Member & Scholar
I walk into the vault that is Bliss Point rehearsal headquarters and a sea of new faces greets me. The towering large room buzzes with excitement and so much potential and bundled up enthusiasm that the space almost quivers. Fragments of chitter-chatter—‘pleasure to meechou’s, bubbling laughter, intermingled with familiar schmoozing and dry administrative tidbits like ‘how are we doing on time’ —swirl and reverberate in that tall room with cold floors and high ceilings. The aroma of fresh brewed coffee mingles with new connections; granola bars sit alone on a side table, neglected as most feed off of the human connection.
I hesitantly make my way further into the space and take notice as hugs spring up intermittently around the room like miniature land mines of love and unconditional acceptance. I choose a seat. Walking into this production is the first “coming out” of my identity as a hybrid: actor and scholar. I am currently working on my doctorate in clinical psychology and I am serving as Cornerstone’s scholar for this production, meaning I will be writing about the process from a psychological perspective. I will also be rehearsing and performing as an actor in the very process that I will be writing about. Until now, these two worlds of academia and performance have coexisted peacefully in separate realms of my life, but now anxiety ignites as I watch the two jealous passions meet face to face for the first time. Can you imagine? While so much love goes on around me in this first meeting, an internal wrestling match between my loves ensues.
“She must be recognized and respected as a scholar!”
“To hell with your science! She is an actress and must focus on the art, the humanity of it all!”
Carrying the weight of these two worlds on my shoulders, I try to catch my balance and almost break sweat overthinking and deliberating how to fashion the simple introduction of myself.
Hugs with strangers? The chair seems safer right about now as I am steadily losing my mind. No one seems to be sitting in this one. I settle down and begin to make myself comfortable when an actress sitting nearby vivaciously turns to me, and beaming, introduces herself. My anxiety eases as I forget about myself. I fall into the connection with the beautiful person in front of me and that nervous energy is channeled into excitement, aroused by conversation about our involvement in the play and production process. I don’t ask where she comes from and she doesn’t ask me. We know that Bliss Point will integrate professional actors with individuals directly from the world of addiction recovery and yet the distinctions between us lie there, irrelevant. The pertinent matter is that we are in one place with one purpose: to make art.
Those unfamiliar faces are now my fellow artists, colleagues, and family. We have accomplished a feat, climbed a great mountain: to be able to look at one other and see more than a label. Addict, actor, scholar. Who cares, when there is a fully-fledged human being standing in front of you? The hugs are our consecrated tradition of love, connection, and support, and the play is our ceremony- a torrent of life that we plunge into together each time we perform.
Our conversation is interrupted by the sound of clapping coaxing us to look up. Ash Nichols, the stage manager identified by the funky hairstyle and beautiful vintage vests (I later find out that she is also the giver of best hugs), claps and asks us to clap back. It’s time to get started. We begin with introductions. The usual bit: we go around the room and everyone says something about themselves. I mumble something meekly about being cast as Celina and writing as well. We all express some personal calling to this work- some point of view, affliction, pain, or hope regarding addiction and slowly, I warm up to the “flava” in the room (my character, Celina’s interjection). And as we proceed to read through the play together for the first time, the mutual trust and commitment become apparent as our guts and wounds spill freely, summoned by the words on the page.
Ash is nurturing, strong, and sharp: “My soul belongs to this production, and to you guys”. And she isn’t just whistling Dixie[*] here. Ash sets the tone for rehearsals, and enhances the free floating, effervescent, and unbridled titillation of the cast members with a strong and loving structure: “Please don’t use drugs or alcohol when at rehearsal because we need to depend on each other”, she says firmly. “We are your theatrical production- not your therapist or your addiction counselor. We are not policing you—We are all artists here.” The insistence and emphasis on art reminds us that we share a responsibility to serve a greater goal and are accountable to each other to make this happen. Director Juliette Carrillo drives this notion home: “This is a mutual mentorship”, she says, “some of you are experts in the area of addiction and recovery—we are experts in theatre. We coach each other”. We definitely rely on each other’s contributions to bring the production to fruition. Throughout the rehearsal process Juliette dialogues and consults with community members regarding arcane character nuances accessible only to those privy to the world of substance abuse and rehabilitation. She uses these expert insights as a launching pad for questions, discussions, and exercises that help the actors find and nurture our organic truths, and then gives directions that help to sculpt and vivify them on stage.
[*] This is language used from Bliss Point by Shishir Kurup. When you watch the show, see if you can catch the character the line belongs to!
Indeed, Bliss Point has developed a life of its own. Every run through, every rehearsal is resplendently fresh and painfully alive. I have become familiar with my Bliss Point family; I know who they are off-stage and so, think that I may be less likely to be able to suspend disbelief. I wonder, “Why does it seem like I am overcome with amnesia every time I watch my cast members perform? What keeps me from recognizing that Seamus James Cochran is really Austin Tidwell, that handsome guy from Georgia with a beautiful Baritone voice?” Earl’s “yearning for the solace of God’s caress”[†] is so real, I forget it is a yearning generated by our very own David Bard. When I watch Arif, the ferocious musician with a fire inside, I forget all of my insightful and uplifting backstage conversations with JoDyRaY. And the list goes on! Each artist in the ensemble cast of Bliss Point suspends my disbelief and transports me time and time again to this world of fervor and aching struggle for something more: the deep hunger that is addiction.
[†] Language used from Bliss Point by Shishir Kurup.
Bliss Point leaves the audience asking, “Is this real or fiction?” The profound connections we share to these stories blur the lines. Something, perhaps the synergy of the director, playwright, stage managers and their theatrical expertise, fused with the lived experience and expertise of the community members, allows us to truly release our inhibitions in performance. As a result, the performance becomes electrifyingly real. Each moment of raw, honest connection experienced by an actor serves as a regenerating charge of life that affects us all, on stage and off.
Playwright Shishir Kurup has spent two years swimming in this world, conducting extensive interviews with people who have fallen to addiction and with those who have come out the other side, truly alive. From real people and their stories he designed a creative world in the form of a stage play. And from words on a page to the stage, the cast of Bliss Point erects a whole new dimension of authentic life before the eyes. The kinetic energy in the Odyssey Theatre is undeniable as personal and collective truths come to play and interact in a dazzlingly grand and deeply intimate dance on stage…Bliss.
Join us for Bliss Point, our collaboration with the addiction and recovery communities in LA.