On the Exhale

On The Exhale: Trauma and the Brain

Posted on: March 17th, 2017 by Roundabout


Trauma is the Greek word for “wound.” In ancient time it referred to a physical wound, but today trauma is also understood as an emotional wound.

Experiencing a traumatic event changes the chemistry of our body and brain. These changes can remain long after the event has ended.

There are two types of traumatic events. In an acute traumatic event, someone experiences a serious injury or the injury or death of another person, or the threat of death or serious injury. Violations of personal physical integrity, like rape or sexual assault, are also acute traumatic events. Chronic traumatic situations happen repeatedly over longer periods of time and include being exposed to domestic violence, living through a war, and some bullying.

The human brain is the most complex system known. It has three main parts.

  • The brainstem, the most primitive part of the brain, controls the basics like breathing, eating, sleeping, and survival instincts.
  • The limbic or midbrain processes emotions and controls how we perceive the world around us. The amygdala, which controls our sense of danger and safety and triggers the release of stress hormones, is part of the limbic brain.
  • The cortex, the frontal and outer parts of our brain, is sometimes called the rational or cognitive brain. It controls language, empathy, learning, organization, and inhibition of inappropriate behaviors.

Fight of flight.

During a traumatic event, the limbic brain takes in sensory information from the body and sends it in two directions, to both the amygdala and to the frontal lobes of the cortex. The amygdala receives the information sooner and makes a snap judgement as to whether or not a situation is dangerous. In a potentially dangerous situation, the amygdala tells the hypothalamus and brainstem to secrete stress hormones. These hormones prepare the body for fight or flight: bronchial tubes and pupils dilate, digestion slows, muscles contract, heart and respiration rates increase. If fight or flight is impossible, the brainstem will trigger a freeze or collapse response. Processes not necessary for survival shut down. The cortex, the thinking brain, is disconnected from the limbic brain and essentially turned off.

Because of this disconnect, the human brain struggles to consolidate memories and emotions into a coherent narrative after a traumatic situation, which is necessary for working through a trauma. The areas of the brain responsible for understanding time and place are bypassed, explaining the woman in On the Exhale’s inability to process what happened in her son’s classroom. Trauma is remembered as disconnected images and sensations.

In some cases individuals experience flashbacks of the trauma, or dissociate completely, unable to connect with either their emotions or their everyday life. The woman in On the Exhale seeks the rush of firing the gun, suggesting that she may be having a dissociating response.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

After trauma, the amygdala, which warns of danger, can go into overdrive and trigger release of stress hormones in non-threatening situations. This can cause emotional and psychological problems, as well as physical symptoms like high blood pressure and digestive issues. In recent years, scientists have shown that trauma symptoms lessen if treatment includes a somatic, or body-based, component. Movement and breathing exercises like yoga, or group rhythm activities like dance or choral singing, send information from the body back to brain, signaling safety and calm. Over time, these practices can help create new patterns and physical responses in individuals who have experienced trauma.



On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage

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Marin Ireland

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Where did you get your training?
Marin Ireland: I was born in Camarillo, California, where the state mental hospital used to be. Now the mental hospital is closed and there’s a giant outlet mall. I was super shy as a kid, but my school, which was a progressive Southern California style elementary school, involved everyone in doing two plays a year, and when I started playing bigger parts in those, it was completely transformative for me. I ended up choosing to go to Idyllwild Arts Academy, an arts boarding school, for the last two years of high school, which was absolutely thrilling, a deeply joyful and rigorous experience. I chose to be part of the first class of the theatre division of The Hartt School at the University of Hartford. We were sharing teachers with Juilliard and Yale. We had a semester in England, a semester of new plays. Probably one of the most potent elements of that time was simply being on a bus ride to and from New York City. I saw so many incredible shows, bought so many rush tickets. I saw Julie Harris and Charles Durning in The Gin Game from the very last row of the balcony. It is etched in my brain forever! I did a ton of summer stock while I was in school, so I was lucky enough to have my Equity card by the time I graduated. I threw all my belongings in my little Honda Accord and drove around to all the theatres in the northeast. I'd call a theatre up, like a maniac, ask to speak to their casting person or associate artistic director and just say, "Hi, I'm an Equity actor! When can I audition for you?" And sometimes it worked. I went to the Equity open call for ART and got cast in Adam Rapp's first professional production, Nocturne. I had no lines, but that show moved to The New York Theatre Workshop, which is what led to me being cast in Caryl Churchill's Far Away. That show changed so much for me.

TS: Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
MI: When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a novelist because all I ever did was read books. I don’t remember ever making the decision to become an actor. Once I started, there was never anything else. I went after it with every cell in my body.

TS: I have to say your journey as a working actress is fascinating. I don’t think people realize how much energy and tenacity it takes.
MI: That’s the thing. The few times I've taught, I've tried to talk about how many times I failed, what it feels like getting bad reviews and being rejected. I feel like that’s important. I remember when I would watch interviews or go to talkbacks with actors and they would talk about their first big job and I was wondering, how did you even get a meeting with an agent? How did that happen? I didn’t have an agent until I got cast in Far Away, which was two years in, and I thought I was already a failure. It is a hard, hard road becoming a working actor, and there is no arrival point where the struggle goes away entirely.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: Why did you choose to do this role in Martín Zimmerman’s On the Exhale? What do you think the play is about?
MI: When I did a reading of this play in February of 2016, the world was already in a dangerous place, and it’s even worse now. To be able to use my voice as an interpreter for something that is not only beautiful, but relevant to a broader political conversation — to feel useful in some way while also having the privilege to deliver these exquisite words — is a great honor. I feel enormously grateful. It's really unlike anything I've ever read. It's a new place for me as an artist in many ways: it's surprising and challenging and I love that. I gravitate towards big challenges for sure; I try to push myself to lean into the fear, to step into the unknown. Something that is new and surprising and also meaningful is the holy trifecta for me. It's sacred, special work.

TS: What kind of preparation or research do you have to do before rehearsals begin, in order to play this role?
MI: I usually try to research the writer as much as possible to try to get inside his or her brain. I usually read other plays they’ve written and try to talk to that writer a lot. Whatever ideas continue to come up as I work on a piece, I always get sparks from that, and that leads to more research. I have been looking at sleepy suburban college campus towns, places affected by gun violence, other specifics that I don't want to give away here. I’m thinking a lot about the fact that this play is written in second person — which speaks to the fact that Martín takes us inside my character’s mind. It is such a rare experience to read something in that voice. I’ve been thinking a lot about that grammatical choice and thinking about other things written in that voice and what that means. I try, at this particular phase, to let the text speak to me.

Marin Ireland in ON THE EXHALE.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: What do you look for in a director when doing a one-person play?
MI: This is a very scary situation. It’s never been just me onstage, so I really was looking for a director who I already trusted. I knew I would be scared to death every day. I didn’t want to feel like I had to build trust with anyone new. Leigh Silverman and I worked together on The Beebo Brinker Chronicles — we did that twice — and then we worked together on In the Wake — which was a very challenging show in many ways. It was an incredible exercise in emotional, psychological, and intellectual stamina because I never left the stage for nearly three hours and I almost never shut up. I just kept talking and had to navigate these really immense intellectual arguments. Leigh is someone who can challenge me from the jump. We’ve been having conversations since she first read it. We are asking ourselves: How do we attack this? Where is this? Where is the drama in a one-person play like this? How do I dramatize it as an actor? These are questions we both have. Leigh will push me and catch me when I jump off cliffs, which will hopefully happen every day.

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? What advice would you give young people who say they want to act?
MI: When I’m not working, those are the hardest times for me. I try to see a ton of theatre or film that makes me happy and that makes me want to act. I try to educate myself in terms of the work that is being done by my colleagues. I seek out people who are just starting, new writers who inspire me. I think of this job as devotional, in service of the writing, because the writing is bigger than me. I read a lot. My actor friends like Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, and Deirdre O’Connell, who have been doing this longer than me, are the ones I look to, onstage and off, for support and inspiration. As far as advice to actors goes, I find myself telling people who want to be involved in this business that it is a long game. It’s a lifelong pursuit. While I have had some big-break moments, I haven’t had the one thing that has catapulted me into a place where you no longer have to worry about rejection or fear of failure. You will always have to deal with fear and rejection. It might be on a different level, but it always exists. The life of an actor is hard; success doesn’t happen overnight. The more I do it, the more vulnerable I feel. I hope that it's because that's what I'm striving for: more openness and clarity within the work. There is great value in vulnerability. I think that as artists, we have to push ourselves to explore that. We have to constantly ask ourselves, why am I doing this? That answer will change and evolve as the artist does. Ultimately, I do think about it as a life of service. Being in service to the writer’s ideas. And to the larger idea of connecting all of us together, cultivating empathy among strangers. We can change the world as artists, I do believe that. That is how we begin and how we continue.

On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage

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On The Exhale: Guns on Campus

Posted on: February 28th, 2017 by Roundabout


“Based on current trends, the problem is likely to become much graver over the next decade. It is imperative that lawmakers, policymakers, college administrators, law enforcement and others begin to have a serious dialogue and enact meaningful reforms to address this epidemic and make America’s colleges safe again.” — Citizens Crime Commission of New York City

Spotlight on Virginia Tech
On April 16, 2007, one of America’s deadliest mass shooting incidents occurred on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. Student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks, before killing himself. Cho was found to have a troubled history of mental health that had not been adequately addressed or disclosed by the University.

The official review panel survey, known as the Massengill Report, included in-depth inquiry of the shooter’s mental health and mistakes made by both the college and the state that allowed this event to happen. It described “major gaps” in the mental health system that “prevent individuals from getting the psychiatric help when they are getting ill, during the need for acute stabilization, and when they need therapy and medication management during recovery.” The Massengill Report offered recommendations to universities about their responsibility to identify and address mental illness and protect the wider student body from troubled individuals.

One year after the shooting, a study of U.S. campuses found that 64% of schools were paying “greater attention and respect” to the needs of security and safety. Mental health of the campus community became a higher priority for college administrators. Research by psychologists demonstrated that campus shootings result in post-traumatic stress disorder for school personnel, including teachers and administrators, in addition to students, and recommended that everyone impacted by such events receive counseling or treatment.

The Virginia Tech shootings ignited a national debate about the right to carry weapons on college and other school campuses. Gun control proponents pointed at the ease with which a mentally unsound individual was able to purchase two semi-automatic pistols, despite state laws that should have prevented such purchase.

The Massengill Report recommended state legislation to allow college campuses to regulate the possession of firearms and went on to recommend campus gun bans, "unless mandated by law." The report also recommended wider gun control measures such as stronger background check requirements for all private firearms sales, including those at gun shows. In 2008, Governor Tim Kaine attempted to enact a law requiring background checks. Less than a year after the tragedy, despite passionate support from survivors of the event, the bill was defeated by a bipartisan committee of Virginia’s State Senate. However, Kaine did work with the legislature to close a loophole that had allowed the shooter to buy a gun even though a judge had declared him mentally ill two years earlier.

Opponents of gun control asserted that the school’s gun-free "safe zone" policy prevented students and faculty from being armed and able to defend themselves or stop the killer. In addition to increased advocacy for guns on campuses by the National Rifle Association, the event spurred student gun advocates to organize. A nationwide group, Students for Concealed Carry, started on Facebook and has grown to over 36,000 members today. The student-run group advocates for legal concealed carry on college campuses, as a means of self-defense in incidents like Virginia Tech. Today, SCC works to “push state legislators and school administrators to grant concealed handgun license holders the same rights on college campuses that those licensees currently enjoy in most other unsecured locations.”

In 2008, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, Inc. (IACLEA) issued a statement declaring their belief that allowing concealed guns would not make campuses safer, but rather would have the potential to dramatically increase violence on college and university campuses.

Virginia Tech shooting candlelight vigil.

The Big Picture: An Increase in Campus Shootings.
A recent study of campus shootings nationwide looked at 190 incidents at 142 colleges between 2001 and 2016, which demonstrated an increasing percentage of campus shootings over time.

Sept 2001 - June 2006: 40 recorded shootings on or near college campuses.
Sept 2006 - June 2011: 49 incidents (including Virginia Tech)
Sept 2011 - June 2015: 101 incidents (153% increase)

The victims:
290 students
5 former students
40 college employees
77 not associated with the college
25 with undetermined relationship to school

167 people were killed
270 people were wounded

Who were the shooters?
59% not associated with the school
28% students
9% former students
4% employees

12 states experienced more than 5 shooting incidents on or near college campuses. States with the most incidents were Tennessee (14), California (14), Virginia (13), Georgia (13), North Carolina (11) and Florida (11). The increase in incidents was most profound for colleges in states with increased access to guns.

The study conducted by the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, recommends:

Real reforms must be enacted in order to make America’s students safer.
The Clery Act (requiring colleges that receive federal funding to report criminal offenses) should be amended to require reporting of all shooting incidents occurring on college campuses and incidents involving students near college campuses.
State legislators should enact common-sense gun laws that make it harder for guns to get into the hands of so many people on or near college campuses (including one-gun-a-month law, training and license requirements, universal background checks, and strict carrying guidelines).
Closer collaboration between colleges and local law enforcement is needed.
Increased education for students and parents on the issues.
U.S. News & World Report and other college-raters should include gun violence statistics in their college rankings to better inform the public.

GUNS ON CAMPUS: State-by-state
Among the many controversies about guns in U.S. society, the right to carry concealed weapons on school campuses emerged as a point of debate after 2007. While the majority of U.S. public colleges still prohibit guns, the states of Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin have passed laws allowing the carrying of firearms on campus premises, including classrooms, dormitories, or parking lots.

Across these states, colleges have differing authority to determine gun policies. For example, Texas still allows each school to determine sensitive areas and buildings where concealed weapons will continue to be prohibited. But the Attorney General of Kansas recently denied a request by the University of Kansas to ban guns on certain parts of campus, such as high security areas containing dangerous materials.

Learn more about campus guns on a state-by-state basis here:

Moms Demand Action
In 2015, in response to the devastating school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Moms Demand Action was founded by Shannon Watts. The grassroots organization quickly grew, with chapters in all 50 states. The group supports the 2nd Amendment but advocates for common-sense solutions to decrease gun violence. Through its efforts, the group helped keep guns out of schools in Virginia, North Dakota, Kentucky, Florida, and Alaska. The organization also reaches out to educators, to work on opposition to gun proliferation in schools.

Learn more about Moms Demand Action here:

On the Exhale is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, On the Exhale, Roundabout Underground, Upstage

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