ANNE MURRAY writes about the experience of performing in THE MASTER BUILDER by in situ:

Anne Murray joined in situ: in 2022 and was one of the actors in our July 2023 performance of The Master Builder. She is also an adult psychotherapist and member of the Cambridge Society for Psychotherapy.

Anne wrote the following piece for the Society’s newsletter Outfit, describing her experience acting with in situ: and linking psychotherapy with theatre, in particular with dramatic conflict in The Master Builder. Anne has kindly agreed to allow in situ: to feature her piece here on our website.

Last October, my psychotherapy training completed, my Monday evenings now my own, I decided to join in situ:’s workshops run by Richard Spaul, where I met 12 other previously-unknown fellow players. I had seen in situ:’s production of The Odyssey shortly before, and I was drawn into everything that in situ: did and how they did it. I could not get The Odyssey out of my mind, and more to the point, out of my body! I walked into a church hall in Chesterton Cambridge not daring to hope for anything, and yet in the grip of a belief that I absolutely needed to be there. Right there. Right then. Embodied.

Nine months later, sitting on a hard old wooden chair in the nave of the Cambridge Leper Chapel, flanked on each side by a fellow player, hearing their breathing, and feeling their energy just like mine, pent-up and in a dread-ful terrible limbo, moments before surrendering to the play. Feeling the audience drifting in noisily, gaily and then suddenly hushed by the sense of finding themselves in the unmistakeable static energy of action suspended. I had forgotten what it was like to even want to act, to go through the most awful terror for three evenings in a row.

Why am I doing this? My heart is going to jump out of my rib cage. I have forgotten what I am supposed to say. I should have gone for another pee when I had the chance. My mouth is going to dry up and my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth. I won’t be able to speak. What was I thinking? I had lost my mind.

Then, like an animal who does not have to think, I did what I needed to do. I completely let my mind go for a moment, plunged into my body and let its desire to move into space with other bodies be all that mattered. Mind gone, worries disappeared. Really! Only one mindless long intake of breath held for a few seconds around the heart and slowly released, the first of countless repetitions of the same performance fuel.

All the technicalities had been checked over and over (the French call rehearsals ‘repetitions’), and words had been memorised so that they were no longer even remembered as such but found between the actors through our glances over the air (God help us if we are looking for the words now still!). And limbs taking positions and dying to just start. A kind of supernatural attunement of bodies in space, trusting each other joyfully as well as with trepidation in this extremely risky endeavour begun now and needing us all to keep it alive and filling and spilling into the whole space of the Chapel and its audience for the full 90 minutes.

This performance is like nothing else! Oh perhaps it is, but its language, theatre, is unique. Someone writes the words and then releases them to be read – yes, fine, but really to be played (with). When the actors and the metteur en scene (pardon my French but it’s such a better word than ‘director’) take a text, they do not seek to “tell” it like it is because they do not know what it is! They are not learning the parts or the words or the meaning; they are learning the play. They have learned their exercises, their scales and now they can play the piece. And the piece is played with and in and through the tools of the actors until they have played with it in so many different ways in different positions and, in this case, with so many different people playing all the different parts that, if they have been honest and authentic and respectful and not narcissistically-seduced (or not too often!), they can continue to play the play until rehearsal time runs out and the curtains must rise and the work be given a public performance.

Now very few of us want to do this to begin with, if ever. We want to do what we already know and make it as good as we can. But the whole problem with that way of doing things is that we only ever repeat. A metteur en scene has an idea of what they want, but they don’t get it by asking players to do this or that. They get it by setting the players up with a frame which keeps them safe and able to trust in their acquired and developing skills of theatre as discovery, applied to text. And this frame, which is constantly tended, helps the actors to use their own imaginations, their own bodies, their own stories, their loss and joy and frustration and needs and all that stuff of life histories – to use their ‘all’ to make something full of vitality, of life, which divests itself of the assumptions and the cliches.

It is scary as hell and it is hard as hell. But there is no point in doing it any other way! If, as Van der Kolk1* says “the body keeps the score”, the actor reads that score in order to play that text! And the metteur en scene keeps the actors safe and on track when they get seduced by their inevitable flights of omnipotence and all that jazz! And sometimes the actors do the same if the metteur en scene too is getting momentarily seduced. And somehow we make the magical appearing act, the theatrical act of channelling a character who is not ‘me’ but who is made from bits of ‘me’.

I am not a writer but I wanted to put something out there about the power of the kind of experimental theatre which in situ: supports and creates. I also wanted to share that terror and joy of acting, both sides of the same experience. Some of the kind of experiences that go into performing a play make me think of the times I feel alive as a therapist ‘in the room’ when the troubled person working with me starts to feel they can trust their body (often as much as if not more than their memory) to be telling them important stories. And in some cases this unfolds as an ability to trust themselves just enough to live their life more joyfully even for just a short time, hopefully for many years!

Winnicott2, unsurprisingly, loved the theatre. And I will finish on my favourite quote of his. “God let me be alive when I die”

Sat there on that hard church chair at the start of the performance, I felt utterly scared to death and completely alive and then I didn’t care because what a way to die!

I want to say how wonderful if was to share one of the three performances we gave at the end of June 2023 with four of the student group who were able to attend. It meant so much to me, and many of the other actors were so happy to see the students’ enthusiasm too.

Don’t stop coming! Don’t stop going to the theatre as part of your “professional development” (it is much more fun than that expression makes it sound!)

  1. Bessell van der Kolk (1943-) is a psychiatrist, trauma researcher and best-selling author; his book The Body Keeps the Score aims to educate readers on how trauma shapes the body and the brain. ↩︎
  2. Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) was a paediatrician specialising in developmental psychology and a very distinguished and much-loved psychoanalytic theorist and clinician. Studying these authors’ work forms part of the psychotherapy training which Anne studied through the Cambridge Society for Psychotherapy. ↩︎