Barbara Hort Ph.D. — Consulting To the Theatre Community

What Psychodramaturgy is NOT…

Before I talk about what psychodramaturgy is intended to be, let me tell you what it most definitely is NOT. I do this because I consider every venue of theatrical creation to be a sacred space, a place where the tenets of respect, compassion, and integrity should prevail, as they should prevail in the sacred domains of reverence and healing. Unfortunately, I once observed an excruciating post-performance talkback, in which a member of my own profession violated all these sacred guidelines. It was a ghastly experience. So before I make any declarations about what psychodramaturgy should be, I would like to do what I can to ensure that such a travesty will never happen again. Much of the advice I give below about what NOT to do as a psychodramaturg is based on what this psychologist did in her talkback.

In addition, I worry that you, either as a prospective psychodramaturg or a potential collaborator with one, will assume what a psychologist does in a therapy room is what a psychodramaturg will do in a rehearsal hall. This is not true!  Much of what a psychologist does in a therapy room is not at all appropriate to the rehearsal hall.  So I want to make that distinction clear, both for the psychologists who undertake acts of psychodramaturgy, and for the theatre professionals who work with them. Hence the following list of cautionary rules:

A psychodramaturg can only speak to “What many real people feel or do under circumstances like the ones in this play.”  And accompanying this information, the psychodramaturg must continually repeat the proviso that “What you, as the artist, may choose as the best path for your character or story may not be what many real people would feel or do.”  Finally, on the assumption that psychodramaturgy will most likely be practiced by a psychological professional (because who else would have access to this information?), it is crucial for everyone to remember that a psychologist’s professional authority must never be misconstrued as some kind of mandate in the rehearsal hall. Overemphasizing the psychodramaturg’s information could easily abuse the creative process, to the grievous detriment of the production and its participants. What the psychodramaturg offers is only a resource, to be used by the artists only if it feels appropriate to their creative process. 

That being said, there have been exceptional moments in which I have touched upon my psychotherapeutic skills in the run of a rehearsal. Specifically, there have been instances in which a member of the company has approached me with a personal issue that has been triggered by the material of the play. In these cases, I am extremely careful to 1) place that information in the same “cone of silence” that I reserve for my clients’ information, 2) to ask a few questions that seek to clarify what has been triggered in the person, so that I can sense the inner material the person needs to engage, and 3) to offer specific referrals to psychological resources that will help the person work through the issue s/he has encountered. I am not the on-site therapist, neither for the actors, nor for their characters (which can become much the same thing, and very quickly). But I recognize that theatrical creativity is deeply personal, especially for gifted actors, so even the most experienced theatre professional can be caught unaware by a lump of inner material that s/he encounters in a character or story. I want all people to receive the help they need, and I am happy to help them find it, either through my own referral list or, when it is more appropriate, through collaboration with the hosting theatre’s human resource department. I, however, am never that therapeutic resource.

There are some disciplines of psychology that adhere more closely than others to the medical model of pathology. These psychological disciplines tend to be the same ones that cast the psychologist as an Absolute Authority in the therapy room or lecture hall. Practitioners of such psychological disciplines will make very poor psychodramaturgs, because the theatrical arts (and indeed, all the arts) rely upon the honed curiosity, deft experimentation, and raw courage of their artists. The psychodramaturg must be able, therefore, to describe all patterns of human behavior with a maximum of detached compassion. 

Actors are often required to climb into characters who are deemed by society to be distasteful, even “evil.”  But the actors who play those characters must believe as much in the character’s right to live as the characters themselves would believe. Compassionate psychodramaturgy about characters who display distasteful behavior is helpful to actors, whereas judgmental pronouncements about those characters are very unhelpful, both to the actor and to the creative process. 

I cherish a memory of the actor Gavin Hoffman, who played Iago in Chris Coleman’s 2014 production of Othello, when he was approached by a high school student after a post-performance talkback. “Mr. Hoffman,” the young man asked timidly, “what advice do you have for an actor who plays a villain, because I’m playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in my high school’s production of Robin Hood?”  To which Gavin gently replied, “Always remember that no character thinks of themselves as a villain. Everyone — flesh or character — is just trying to live a life.”  Gavin’s maxim is crucial for psychodramaturgs to respect in their practice. 

It is also crucial for the psychodramaturg to remember that glorifying a character can do a similar kind of damage, because glorifying constricts the character (and the actor) into something less than fully human complexity.

I have found that it is helpful (well, essential) to read the script of the play before rehearsals begin. However, I have found it oddly counterproductive to think about the psychological elements that are at work in that play until I am in the rehearsal hall and the production is coming alive. We all know that one story can be told in many different ways, with emphases and interpretations that vary accordingly. Therefore, it is much more helpful to follow the psychological themes and energies of a production as it comes to life, rather than trying to identify them in advance. 

To return to the production of Othello that I mentioned above, everyone’s initial inclination was to read Iago as he is often (well, nearly always) read — a despicable engine of mischief and murder. But the character that Gavin Hoffman (with Chris Coleman’s support) found in their Iago was something of a charming anti-hero, delivering what might be construed as justifiable devastation to a variety of bullheaded bumblers. Even the reviewers reported being disconcerted by their delight at Iago’s success in his machinations. It was a greatly admired production with an unconventional interpretation of the characters…and it was certainly not an interpretation that I would have predicted before the company brought their version of Othello to life. 

Preconceptions are the enemy of authenticity in the practice of psychodramaturgy…as I imagine they are in much theatrical artistry.

The more we learn about the brain, the more we understand that one symbol or story is worth a ream of references. I’m breaking my own rule here by using so many abstract words to describe psychodramaturgy, but this is not a rehearsal hall. In the rehearsal hall, the less academic explaining, the better.

More effective are metaphors that convey the emotional and behavioral shapes of the phenomena that the actors are wrestling with — grief, trauma, passion, rage, madness, and so forth. I have always written some short essays for the actors about the psychological dynamics that are emerging in a production. But I believe that the most important resource I offer is what I communicate in the room — personally and briefly, with stories and symbols. 

For example, I have learned that actors (and their characters) can become energetically scorched, even burned out, by the emotional and vocal volume of rage. Chris has often called on me to deliver the following bit of psychodramaturgy to the actors when they can’t seem to find their way toward more nuance in the midst of their angry conflagrations:  

“Contrary to what most people believe, anger is not technically a pure emotion. Anger is more like a response to the five pure emotions, which are:  1) Fear/terror, 2) shame/disgust, 3) sadness/grief, 4) love/passion, and 5) surprise/shock. These pure emotions are feeling states that do not immediately lend themselves to action. But when our emotions feel overwhelming, action is often what we desire or need — or what we simply reach for as a way to do something. So you might think of anger as a fire that ignites action, and the five emotions are five different kinds of fuel for the fire. When real people get stuck in their anger, the question that can allow something new to enter the story is this — Which of the five pure emotions are fueling this anger?  It could be any or all of them. Identify all the fuels for this anger and you will know more about it. Identifying the fuels of pure emotion doesn’t mean that the anger will go away. It just gives more options to real people who feel stuck in anger, and options are interesting.”

In the end, an actor (and the director) may choose to have the character stay at the same level of anger through the scene…or the play. But my understanding is that options are interesting from a theatrical point of view, as well as a psychological one. And the image of anger as a fire burning on emotional fuel is worth a thousand annotated references.

The read of a character or a storyline is the creative prerogative of the artists who are producing the play.  I might deliver information about what happens to real people when they experience chronic anger, or posttraumatic stress, or consuming passion, or a psychotic break. But the choices, if any, that will be based on my information are entirely up to the director and the actors. 

Psychological authenticity can be extremely valuable in many cases. However, there are circumstances where the artistic choice will be to create a character who is less psychologically authentic, because that will best serve the storytelling. Directors and actors want characters who feel like real people, but those characters are never real people. They are components in a story that is being brought to life on a stage. Sometimes verisimilitude serves that goal, but sometimes it does not. That decision is up to the storytelling artists.

I know this because from 2015 to 2018, I had the privilege of working side-by-side on two shows — Astoria: Parts One and Two — with Benjamin Fainstein, the Literary Manager and Production Dramaturg for Portland Center Stage. The Astoria productions entailed the monumental challenge of adapting for the stage Peter Stark’s book  ASTORIA: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival.(i)

Benjamin Fainstein was the production dramaturg on these shows, and his task was Herculean — to research and report on the historical accounts of the overland crossings of North America, the sailing ships that rounded Cape Horn, wealthy mansion life in New York, and rugged fur-trapping life in the wilderness. Without a doubt, Ben was the offstage hero of the ASTORIA productions.  And while Ben was addressing every historical nuance of that enormous saga, I was addressing the psychological traumas and triumphs of the Astorian participants. Ben has assured me that, throughout those three years, our work was collaborative and compatible.

Ben has also asserted that the vocabulary and context for psychodramaturgy are fundamentally different from those pertaining to established production dramaturgy. I remember saying to Ben that if someone had asked me to produce the mountain of historical detail that he compiled for ASTORIA, it would have taken me ten times as long to assemble something one tenth as worthy as the wealth of information he gathered for those shows. Ben replied that he felt the same about the material I gave to Chris and the cast regarding the psychological dynamics of the Astorian expedition.  Ben’s opinion is that my decades of psychological training and experience enable me to answer questions of psychodramaturgy with a speed and specificity that is born of my training, just as many years of theatrical training and experience enable Ben and other dramaturgs to respond to questions of production dramaturgy with a speed and specificity that someone without their training could never duplicate.

After three years of working side by side on the ASTORIA shows, Ben Fainstein and I have come to full agreement that the practices of production dramaturgy and psychodramaturgy are fundamentally distinct — and also — mutually supportive.

 (i) Stark, P. ASTORIA: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival. New York: Harper Collins, 2014.