Breathing Lessons for People Who Hate Being Told How to Breathe is not a linear show, and the performer tells the audience up front that the events depicted may or may not have actually occurred. But what happens in the next hour does not feel like it’s being reported by an unreliable narrator. Stephanie Woods pairs repetitive motions with certain words and people (mother, father, horcrux) in what first seems like an obsessive-compulsive ritual. However, the consistent motions throughout the play and Woods’ deliberate pauses and repetitions of certain statements crystalize into what feels like a very sane person telling a story with more dimensions audiences may be used to hearing – or seeing on stage.
Woods portrays an addict who is trying to get clean. The looping narrative draws a parallel between the process of building a show and the cycle of recovery. In both, one must repeat the same motions and revisit the same story, hopefully taking it further each time. The revisiting can be painful, as seen in breakups and rehab check-ins scenes. As a counterpoint, an alter ego pops up at stage left with a teacher’s flipboard, trying to diagram and explain the tangents of thought that scamper into the script as she works to stay clean and to build this show while she is writing and performing. That’s one interpretation of it, anyway. The teacher figure is adorable and amusing, in thick, red-framed glasses and a cartoonishly nasal voice. Woods excels at voicing characters. The rehab nurse’s repeated “Hand it over” gets funnier each time she says it.
This show “uses storytelling and object/movement mapping in an attempt to categorize potentially arbitrary things.” The object and movement mapping are a narrative thread on which the story hangs. For example, Woods uses different pairs of shoes to tell different stories. The shoes are displayed on pedestals on stage. She puts them on to symbolize different episodes and time periods. It’s a clever device, particularly to convey the difference in personality between herself and her mother: they wear the same size, but her mother’s shoes always look a bit smaller and much cleaner. The one place where the shoe metaphor lost focus was in the Blundstones that Woods bought in Europe and wore all over the Pacific Northwest. The actual shoes she puts on in the show are not what I picture when I think of classic Blundstones, and that detail jolted me out of the story in a way that made me rethink the authenticity of all of the shoes and all of the stories. Not a huge problem, especially since Woods presented the whole play as things that might not have actually happened but possibly something for the performer to consider.
As an experimental play, Breathing Lessons is enigmatic but quite successful. It tells the stories it sets out to, and Woods’ writing, humor, and vulnerable performance are delightful. It will be exciting to see what she does next.
"Breathing Lessons for People Who Hate Being Told How to Breathe"
Written, performed and directed by Stephanie Woods
March 16, 2023
The Spring 2023 United Solo Festival
March 7th - March 26th, 2023
410 West 42nd (btw 9th and 10th Avenue)
STEPHANIE EAGAN is a professional writer based in NJ. A fan of every type of live performance imaginable, from taiko drumming to political performance art, she travels the tri-state area and beyond in search of music, art, theater, and excellent coffee.