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

No Comments

If I Forget: Designer Statements

Posted on: March 13th, 2017 by Roundabout


Set models for IF I FORGET.

When I first read Steven Levenson’s If I Forget, my brain started to figure out the ground plan or the geometry of this particular house. Basically, my job is to figure out how to solve the requirements of the text scenically. It was very perplexing for me for a while. My ideas kept changing with each new draft of the play. At one point, there was a draft that required a fully equipped and working kitchen. There was another draft where a scene took place on a subway. All that is gone now. The challenge of designing the set for this show is that the text requires that we see various rooms of a two-story house simultaneously. Basically, the locations are a dining room and a living room and upstairs there is a bedroom connected to the rooms downstairs by a staircase. I finally came upon something rather simple and logical. When the action is in the dining room, we will see the living room upstage through an arch and when the action switches to the living room or the bedroom, the whole house will rotate as the various rooms come into focus. The play takes place during the years 2000 and 2001 and the matriarch of the family has passed away—so I decided that the last time there was any substantial remodeling done to the house was sometime around 1975. The décor will reflect solid middle-class taste and the architecture of the house will be reminiscent of houses built in the Bethesda, Maryland area during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Another challenge for me was keeping sight lines in mind. When you design a two-level set, you have to make sure that the audience can see all the action, especially from the side sections in the Pels Theatre at the Steinberg Center


Costume research for the character

There are many projects that require a good deal of research and preparation for a costume designer, certainly anything that is set in an historical period. However, most plays that are set in modern times are usually more about getting to know the actors who will be creating the characters they play and providing them with clothes that help them become the characters. Of course, with period costumes, a costume designer is also designing and choosing clothes that define the character and help tell the story of the play. In this case, the actor is often not familiar with the look of the period, and the more knowledgeable costume designer will take charge in establishing it. Contrary to this process, in a contemporary play, because the actor will usually be wearing costumes not unlike their everyday clothes, actors are more invested in offering opinions, and the design process becomes far more collaborative. Usually, all of the clothes are shopped and it's always appreciated when the designer provides several options for each look the actor will wear. The actor tries on the various choices with the designer's advice, and sometimes with the director's input, and the final look is chosen together. If I Forget is set in the year 2000, 16 years ago. What I find interesting is that until about 30 years ago there would have been a much bigger difference in 16 years of fashion history. For example, people generally dressed very differently in 1986 than they did in 1970. But in the last few decades fashion has become far less rigid and more individualized, and all kinds of shapes and silhouettes prevail. There are differences year to year, but they're far more subtle. The clothes the characters will wear in the play, summer casual in Act I and winter casual in Act II, are not appreciably different from what we wear today. The one exception is the teenage character Joey. Teenage fads in clothing do still change rapidly, and we are likely to see the biggest differences in his costumes.


When I first read If I Forget, I was very struck by how deeply the theme of honesty and truth in the context of sibling relationships kept bubbling to the top. There is a careful dance we do to manipulate our competing agendas within a family, all under the premise that we have what’s best in mind for everyone concerned. The strongest voice in the room wins the argument, but that voice can change and be influenced by outside forces, in this case the spouses of Lou’s children. The lighting reflects the undertone of each scene. In Act I, we meet the family in the hot muggy summer of 2000. Lou’s house is sealed tightly to keep in the air-conditioned cold, and the sunlight penetrates the house through blinds or sheer covered windows. The light is warm, revealing, and inviting. In Act II, as we delve deeper into the family's issues and secrets, the frozen winter morning light carves out the house in a more angular way, creating high contrast and longer shadows. Six months have passed, and the family is once again forced to come together to deal with their father who has suffered a stroke. It’s in Act II that we learn the secret agendas of each of the siblings and watch as the family unravels and the reality of the situation takes hold on them. Finally, as the play comes to its conclusion, Lou delivers his final speech, and the house takes on a surreal and expressionistic quality in complete contrast to the naturalistic light that has defined the space and story up until this point.

The primary challenge with designing the lighting for If I Forget is how to achieve these effects with a low ceiling height. To address this, I have collaborated with Derek McLane to create places throughout the set to hide very small lights to help carve out the rooms. The household lighting fixtures are all thoughtfully chosen and positioned to maximize the drama, as well as providing the major source of light for each of the scenes.


When Daniel Sullivan asked me to compose music for If I Forget, the first question that I asked him was should the music look forward to the character Abby, the granddaughter, who is on a birthright tour of Israel in 2000, or look backward to Lou, the grandfather, who helped liberate the concentration camp at Dachau in 1945. I will be researching contemporary Israeli folk music in the year 2000 and will also look at traditional Jewish melodies of Eastern Europe as the basis for music I will be composing for the production. The character of Abby is never seen in the play, but there are times when the music can work as a symbol of her role in the production. The character Lou has important monologue at the end of the play where music can underscore the framing of that moment.

As for the sound design, a key “character” in the play is the television set that is heard in the background during many of the scenes. There will be times where that content of what is playing on the television will be important. Bernard Shaw, who was a news anchor for CNN, is mentioned in the play. There are also reference to the second “intifada.” These are keys to beginning to build the sound design for the play.

If I Forget is now playing at the Laura Pels 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, If I Forget, Upstage

No Comments


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

No Comments