AGPA 2014 & The Great God Pan

The Process Begins…

Preparing an ensemble of group therapist/actors to present a stage play for an audience of group therapist colleagues, in the service of their mutual professional development, is a complex process. The interplay of artistic sensibilities, small group dynamics, personal meanings, learning goals and performance anxieties requires a highly collaborative approach.

Following a summer of readings and discussions between the actors and myself, and weekly meetings the project’s consultant, I devised a process-centered approach to our preparation and eventual performance.  I share the basic elements of our plan in the service of transparency, collaboration, reflection and refinement. 
Script Selection

Last year at AGPA we presented Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo. This Pulitzer Prize-nominated comedy explores the self-protective strategies of keeping secrets to save face, telling lies to protect others, and justifying fraud for personal gain —think ‘paranoid/schizoid position’.  The audience discussion, however, let us know that while the performances were felt to be compelling, and the play fascinating and funny, too many questions remained.

The playwright’s sometimes-facile approach to early traumatic loss (foremost the unexplained death of Max’s mother and the unrevealed true nature of the relationship between Max’s and Suzanna’s parents) and a too-tidy resolution of unconscious enactments (foremost the sexual encounter between Max and Suzanna) did not satisfy the sophisticated audience of psychotherapists. Their ‘something is still not right here’ reactions matched my own directorial sense that something more sinister and trauma-based was actually driving the action of the play. My impression at the end of the play was a sense of mystery that fell somewhere between ‘Chekhovian fog’ and comedic expediency.

Enter The Great God Pan

With karmic-like timing, I first encountered The Great God Pan, by Amy Herzog, during the later stages of rehearsal for Becky Shaw. Colleague Joyce Lowenstein asked us to consider the play for a future presentation at a Division 39 Conference.  Ironically, The Great God Pan begins with a traumatic secret courageously revealed in the service of psychic healing.
“Jamie’s life in Brooklyn seems just fine—a beautiful girlfriend, a budding journalism career, and parents who live just far enough away. But when the possibility that he might be the victim of a childhood trauma, chaos ensues” (Dramatist Play Service).
Unsettling and deeply compassionate, The Great God Pan explores the impact of childhood sexual abuse on intimate relationships, the destabilizing effect of secrets on a couples’ capacity for intimacy, the enduring influence of the internalized parental couple on attachment relationships and the power of group process to activate healing. 
In stark contrast to Becky Shaw, Herzog’s Pan relentlessly pursues truth telling, employing empathy and authentic confrontation to approach memories of traumatic loss and to facilitate reconciliation—think ‘depressive position’.  We take up the task of presenting The Great God Pan in hopes of a corrective emotional experience to our complicated and unresolved experience with Becky Shaw.  The two plays are so powerfully linked in my mind that I am approaching The Great God Pan as a spin-off from, or sequel to, Becky Shaw.

The reading will be followed by a formal discussant response, an audience discussion and an actor debriefing segment to allow attendees an opportunity to explore their experience of the play and discuss clinical issues relevant to their practice of group therapy.

Cast & Leadership Team
Typically we open up the process of casting to all Red Well Theater Group members.  But the spin-off concept created the option of using the same ensemble from the 2013 Open Session.  This would allow those of us who participated in Becky Shaw to share in the ‘corrective emotional experience’. I was also reminded of the AGPA Institute’s popular variation of offering a multi-year PGE experience.  These associations boosted my confidence that we would benefit from a two-year journey.
These panelist/actors from last year are included in the 2014 cast: Kavita Avula, Liz Marsh, Yavar Moghimi, Rosemary Segalla and Rob Williams. Last year’s understudy Barbara Keezell and first time guest artist, Connor Dale complete the cast. Eleanor Counselman from Boston will be the discussant and facilitator of the audience discussion.  John Dluhy, who was the co-director for Becky Shaw is now in a consultant role to the director and rehearsal debriefing facilitator. I will again work as the producer/director.
Presentation Style
The format is simple.  The play will be read by group therapist/actors who are assigned a character and given a script, a music stand and a chair.  The actors will be arranged so they can visually interact with one another from their stationary position, giving the visual appearance for the audience of a cross between a radio play and a traditional theater rehearsal.  We stage our readings ‘in-the-round’. A musician will provide incidental music between the play’s ten scenes to amplify the feelings that flow throughout.  The hang drum, with its ethereal tonal quality, feels just right.
Since we don’t have costumes, sets or props, we research visual images that can be used during the rehearsal process to inspire our theatrical sensibilities. As the rehearsal process unfolds, one of the images will be selected to grace the cover of the printed program.
Rehearsal Approach
For the first time we are using a formalized, two-step approach to preparing the actors to present the play. 
This fall we are conducting three, once-a-month readings, whereby the actors will have the opportunity to read a variety of roles from the play. This psychodrama-inspired approach gives the actor an opportunity to develop a deeper play-as-a-whole understanding, to bear witness to other actors interpreting a variety of characters, and to develop deeper empathy for the actor/character relationship.  Each of these pre-rehearsal readings will include an hour-long process session following the play reading.
In January and Februrary we shift to a more traditional theater approach with weekly scene and character study, whereby the actors will rehearse as their assigned character. We will continue to debrief the rehearsal experience each week, as part of the ongoing process of discovery. The last scheduled meeting before traveling to Boston for the AGPA 2014 Annual Meeting is a dress rehearsal with an audience of friends and colleagues.
Clinical Relevance    
Our educational goal of relating the play reading process to our understanding of group therapy processes is enhanced by studying journal articles that elaborate the clinically relevant material found in the play.  We have posted two journal articles on a confidential blog site for the actors to reference throughout the rehearsal period:
The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse on Adult Interpersonal Functioning: A Review and Synthesis of the Empirical Literature (Davis, Petretic-Jackson, 2000)
Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness (Benjamin, 2004)
The RWTG Blog
The actors participating in Becky Shaw last year posted blog entries that revealed an impressive depth of understanding about their characters, the play-as-a-whole and the dynamic process of preparation and performance. 
The actors will again post descriptions of their subjective experience. The actor’s first installment will be in early January 2014, reflecting on their experience of reading the play multiple times together, each time in the role of a different character.  The second installment will be after April 1, 2014, with reflections on their depth experience of preparing their assigned character role for performance. 

The actor’s blog postings will serve as a foundation for a journal article that we plan to write as a team.  Rob Williams and Liz Marsh, as the writing team coordinators, will help us navigate that process.
Join Us
I hope you will follow along as we move through this process of discovery.  For those of you planning to attend the 2014 AGPA Annual Meeting in Boston, we will be presenting The Great God Pan on Saturday morning, March 8. If you would like to attend our dress rehearsal in Washington, D.C., please contact me at
Stay tuned for the actor’s blog postings early next year.
Bob Schulte