Thanks to Valerie Livesay Ph.D., faculty member at National University, for this dynamic technique for self-development called Ensemble of Characters. This method is a creation of Valerie and her colleagues Fredrick Jones, Ed.D. and Michael Berger, M.A. Contact Valerie at vlivesay(at)sandiego.edu for more information.
This is an approach to vertical development that leverages theater as a way to look at the self, performing.
I have coherence and integrity as a person acting as an agent in the world. I also have qualities, in the plural: various parts, characteristics that can combine in a variety of ways to “show up” and behave. There may be patterns to how I show up and behave, but I am not always the same. There are times when it comes together as my best and biggest self, and times when I feel smaller and when it can fairly be said that I am getting in my own way.
This leads to a big question that shapes what is described below: How can I act more fully and congruently with my best intentions in the scenes and acts of my life and work, and over time with my most vital purposes?
With the metaphor of theater, one in which I see me as both the director of an ensemble of characters and the characters themselves, I potentially gain versatility to show up more in ways that I want to. I gain more possibilities for reflection on my performance. Naming my qualities or characteristics as characters provides me some distance from these aspects of self so I can see better and explore. With that distance I can discover more of who I want them—me—to be, especially as I want them to perform with others. I can be an agent in my own learning, my own growth.
That I see myself not only as actor but as director helps me imagine how I might rehearse for what’s coming and how I might improvise while things are happening. I can think about the text of the play, and I can think of myself as a playwright, one who gets an important say in how this drama unfolds.
This approach allows me to move beyond the simple idea of authenticity – one in which I am true to me in a way that can justify any sincere behavior. It allows me to behave—act—in a way more congruent with my intentions, and with the versatility to adapt to what’s happening. It offers me room to grow stronger in my feel for characters that I need, but that I have difficulty accessing or controlling. I can minimize and maximize different parts of me, move them, metaphorically, closer to and farther from others, the audience.
This “directing me” approach incorporates the reality, verified by research on how adults develop, that there are parts of me that cannot not show up. These are called Lead Characters. Lead Characters influence the scene and acts of the play, even if they are not playing prominently. There are other qualities that can serve as Supporting Characters to fulfill my intentions.
The best part: Characters can grow. I can become more comfortable with characters and more readily access them. I can get control over them so that I show up as my best. This involves tapping the experiences that shaped me, as well as getting input from others about how they experience me. It also can mean taking a look at the qualities of me that I don’t like so much (and that show up in ways I regret) and clarify what is good about that character and what scenes might serve this character well. When situations seem to require us playing a set of characters that together feel differently to us, we get to practice even more of our versatility: how to be this character and that character at the same time, rather than just this or that.
This approach leverages a set of tools that support exploration individually or in teams. There are drafted program formats that expand from a focus on presence and authenticity and that can leverage various assessment instruments. There is room to deepen the self understanding—mind, body, emotions, spirit—in relation to characters and in a way that holds all of me together with integrity. Program and coaching formats also can help people make shifts from default ways of “showing up” to new ways, and also to increase access to characters that are important to how individuals fulfill their purposes.