Cowan Palace: Survival’s Chrysalis

When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote her book On Death and Dying over forty years ago the subject of grief wasn’t something that had been formally investigated with the general public. Sure, death wasn’t a surprise to those living in the seventies, but after working with the terminally ill, Kübler-Ross saw a need to address the subject to the medical community and ultimately opened up her findings to the world.

 She created a model that has come to be known as The Five Stages of Grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are the leading actors in this play and each wait in the wings for their shining moment when someone experiences a life changing devastation. Kübler-Ross believed that death was a distinctive experience to anyone living through it and therefor the stages could be unpredictable and in various orders. Through her research mapping emotional responses, our culture shifted their perceptions surrounding death and the dying process.

This month Theater Pub explores the subject in a new and unique fashion. CHRYSALIS, written and performed by Evangeline Crittenden, balances ideals of hope and loss; the piece originates from Crittenden’s life experiences and uses artistic medians including: puppetry, storytelling, movement, and music to travel the path of grief into understanding. I had the opportunity to learn a bit more about the work by asking Evangeline a few questions regarding her process.

Q: Kübler-Ross outlined what she believed were the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. After experiencing your own understanding of grief, would you say that her stages are accurate and/or relatable to what you felt?

A: One thing I’ve actually worked to avoid in this show is making it too much about my own grieving process. Obviously it is rooted in my own experience, and of course that experience is extremely personal and specific. But the show is not meant to invite audiences into my world of grief as much as it is to open doors to theirs. So, while I used my own experience as a starting point in developing this piece, it is not meant to really be about my story but grief as a whole. 

Q: How do you think the stages were used in developing your piece? Did any particular moments in the grieving process lend them selves easier to the artistic process? 

A: Julia Heitner, who helped me to develop the piece, said it’s almost mask work in its avoidance of direct self-exposure. I use puppetry, song, hyperbole, clowning and comedy as ways to consider different elements of grief, so in the show it’s almost never just me, speaking directly to the audience as myself. That’s my way of addressing the paradox of using a public medium to explore something private. I will say, though, the structure of the piece uses the idea of grieving phases, and each segment of the piece relates to them in some way. The astute audience member may be able to connect the segments of the show with the stages of grief.

Q: Have you adapted the piece since its initial performance?

A: The show has changed a lot since its initial performance. Every performance reveals more nuances or improvements to be made. Sometimes I’ve added or removed entire characters or scenes, sometimes I’ve discovered something in a live performance I decide to repeat and keep. There are several sections that are only loosely scripted, and those I improvise based on the energy of the audience, so they’re a little different each time.

Q: And lastly, what words of wisdom would you give to someone experiencing a loss in their grieving? 

A: If I had words of wisdom about grief, I wouldn’t need to do this show. 

Evolutionary speaking, grief may not be an emotion linked to our immediate survival but rather the result of strengthening our definition of what it is to be human. When our bodies experience loss, stress hormones are released as they resort to primal instincts, reinforcing the importance of relationships and their role in survival. When we are divided from those we trust and love, stress hormones are freed in an attempt to reunite us and return to that sense of protection and safety. And as the separation continues, so do the stress hormones, which overtime, are transformed into something else. The reality is, one must be willing to accept grief as the cost of partaking in a relationship. 

Ashley Cowan is a writer, director, actress, and general theater maker in the Bay Area. She’s got lots of stuff to say, most of it pretty entertaining, so follow her here at https://twitter.com/AshCows.

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