Bion & Basic Assumptions
The group concept of ‘pairing’comes from Wilfred Bion, a British psychoanalyst who studied how groups develop and why members act as they do, especially in the service of dual goals: task accomplishment and psychic survival. Bion became interested in understanding the impact of small and large group processes from his psychiatric work with wounded soldiers during and after WWII. He observed survival-inspired strategies (basic assumptions of dependency, fight/flight and pairing) employedby group members to feel safe and protectedwhen faced with the rough-and-tumble demands of task completion within group life. Pairing with another person in an exclusive (Bion thought, ‘sexual’) bond is one such strategy. He imagined the group was colluding with the couple to do the group’s work by (pro)creating a magical solution. The concept is particularly relevant to our thinking about the underlying psychological processes of The Great God Pan. The play has many pairings, recognizable as couples, pals and parent/child and therapist/patient dyads. All feature intimate relating, but with varying degrees of attunement, attachment, stress and distress—and purpose. While we never actually see the ‘group’ all together on stage, the characters can be thought of as a distressed/regressed basic assumption group. The ensemble of actors playing the characters is more recognizable as a work group. Bion would say all groups have qualities of both a work group and basic assumption group. The group goal is to be enough of both to survive and thrive.
In the ten scenes of the play there are only a few moments where three characters are on stage together. I interpret this strategy as an effort to avoid group-wide knowledge and painful exposure. This exclusive reliance on pairing is a compelling feature of the dramatic structure of The Great God Pan. Whether intuitive or intentional, the playwright sends a powerful message about survival with her use of dyadic structure.
Jamie and Paige, as an intimate couple, are faced with the prospect of becoming a family group. Paige is pregnant, and this is experienced as a threat to the couple’s exclusiveness.It might be said that Jamie’s inability to pair with the fetus threatens its very existence.
Jamie and Frank were exclusive playmates as children, and may have been harmed by an exploitative parent. The arrival of Frank, with explosive news, threatens Jamie’s internal sense of wellbeing, and by extension his relationship with Paige, and potentially his wider circle of familial relationships.
Frank and Dennis (offstage character) are paired as son and father. Their traumatic attachment bond leaves Frank in the “impossible” position of being harmed by the very person to whom he would otherwise turn to for protection.
Jamie and Cathy are paired as son and mother. His efforts to please his mother and her desire for him to “just be happy” are often in conflict. Jamie’s reaching out for an empathic and informational response from her, in light of his visit with Frank, is frustrated by her dissociative inability to recall something that happened “so long ago”.
Jamie and Doug ‘act the parts’ of father and son, awkwardly. Their pairing seems to producemore longing than comfort for either of them.The play offers them a redemptive opportunity to risk more authentically ‘living their parts’.
Dennis Lawrence and his wife (both offstage characters) are paired as a highly distressed marital couple. Her inability or unwillingness to respond with outrage or instrumental action to the harm being done to her son is “complicated”, as acknowledged by Frank.
Paige and Joelle are a therapeutic dyad. The wounded healer and the healing wounded, mirror each other in comforting and confounding ways. I imagine this will be painfully familiar to therapist audience members who work with trauma victims.
Jamie and Polly were paired as youngster and nanny. The remembering of Polly “as the best babysitter” captures the protective power of what we call in dynamic therapy, an idealized positive transference. The desire to recreate that kind of protective bond in future relationships throughout life is ubiquitous.
This structural choiceof theatrically dramatizing twosomes generates for me the clinical question: What would it be like for Jamie, or any of the characters, to be in group therapy? To be faced with the emotional risks of telling their story in the presence of others could feel quite threatening. Destabilizing. Painful. Redemptive. Liberating. Relieving. Devastating. The emotional possibilities are complex and many.
Our ensemble of therapist/actors have an opportunity to explore this ‘what if’ clinical question through theirown experience of preparing to dramatically read The Great God Pan for an audience. Their depth exploration of the characters of the play is intimately linked to their own corresponding, very particular, internal emotional terrain, making the theatrical work ultimately, therapeutic as well. This experience occurs first through the ensemble experience of preparation, second, through their performance for an audience and third, through post-performance process group discussions and written reflections.
Actor and Director Collaboration
Today was our first effort at focusing exclusively on scene study and character development. We established a sequence of scenes to work on and a basic working contract between the actors and the director. This would be primarily a theatrical rehearsal, with group process explorations deferred until the very end of the rehearsal. Instead we began the process of collaboratively integrating the director’s interpretation of the dramatic action of the scenes with the actor’s interpretation of the characters motives, relationships and modes of expression.
My intent in establishing a clear demarcation between the director’s responsibility for interpreting the play, and the actor’s responsibility for interpreting the character was for many reasons. But foremost, I want to empower the actors to be the final arbiter of their artistic choices. My goal is to help clarify the action of the scene—what we call the “here-and-now” in group therapy—and allow the actors to consider how their character would ‘act’ under the circumstances. We are consultants and collaborators to and with each other: they assist me in better understanding the action from their character’s perspective, and I assist them, in better understanding their character from an action perspective.
In the processing segment following the theater rehearsal, the emotional nature of some of our own pairings operating within the ensemble and leadership team emerged. Various pairs, (notably the director and consultant,and two actors who work together in a clinic setting), identified interpersonal conflicts related to the convergence of their designated roles and tasks, the emotional impact of the play, their collegial relationships as ensemble members, and their professional roles beyond our theater enterprise. Whew!
As an ensemble, the actors are able to do theirexploratory work of revealing to each other theirsubjective experiences—of the play and of each other—in a ‘safe-enough’ group context. Everyone is privy to hear what isgoing on between pairs (and subgroups and the group-as-a-whole), to bear witness, and to offer reactions, commentaryand support. This takes dedicated time, effort, courage, talent, tenacity, clinical skill, empathy, compassion, timing and more than a sprinkle of love and luck.
It is only because the conflict of the drama infects the ensemble and the leadership team—slowly, insidiously, inevitably—that we can experientially learn about group therapy through the parallel process of play reading. Our way of working is thus part theatrical, part therapeutic, part educational, and part relational. These multi-dimensions of a play reading process allow us to learn about dynamic group processes thatare relevant to our work as group therapists.