The Red Well Theater Group is presenting ‘Art’, by Yasmina Reza, as an Open Session at the 2015 AGPA Annual Meeting on February 28 in San Francisco. ‘Art’ was first presented by RWTG at AGPA in 2006. The new cast features RWTG members John Dluhy and Maryetta Andrews-Sachs and guest artist Macario Giraldo. The Open Session Chair is Bob Schulte. The play is being directed by Rob Williams. The musician is Tom Teasley. The discussant is Liz Marsh. Liz is also writing a blog account chronicling the Group’s experience preparing for the Open Session.
HERE WE GO…
Here I am writing the blog in preparation to be the discussant for AGPA. Bob says that it seems right to have me in this role as Red Well grows up. Rob is directing, Bob is focused on writing, and still, we’re rebirthing the original play that started it all. I’m honored to be included in the fun.
Leaving the reading today, I’m thinking about group process as a whole… In the play, Serge and Mark have a falling out because they cannot tolerate that the other does not see the painting the way that they do. We see this dynamic in groups all the time. Members place different values on certain subjects and crave agreement and validation from their peers. But in a group, we are confronted with who people really are, rather than our projections. Through the process, we learn who we are as well.
Other threads that surfaced in our discussion… gender dynamics with Maryetta playing Yvonne, how do men bond vs. how women bond, is Yvonne a “castrated male”?… death and loss, does the painting represent immortality, love, a woman?
During this reading, I was left associating to a trip I took with my father several years ago, maybe to the Hirshhorn, for an exhibit of American Color Field Painters. My father and I both have fine art degrees and I remember us getting into a debate, much like in the play, about whether this was really art. I called my father to talk to him about this experience. He had no recollection. And so it goes… what may be important to you, might be inconsequential to someone else. He did suggest we look up “White on White” by Kasimir Malevich.
Art Blog #2 – October 13, 2014
“You can’t have desire if you don’t experience lack”- Macario, quoting Lacan.
At the end of our second reading of “Art”, I found myself distracted by the intellectual discourse within the play. So many references to artists and writers… I felt a lack of my own knowing, as if I was excluded from an inside joke. Googling only lead me on a wild goose chase of Wikipedia and YouTube. Maybe I know a little more intellectually, but I’m not sure I understand the play more. Even as I sit to blog today, it’s hard for me to shift from a focus on information to the emotional experience of the characters.
I have to wonder if this is, in some way, a parallel process. In the play, Mark and Serge get caught up in the conflict over the intellectual and monetary value of the painting and struggle to discuss their feelings and relationship.
The conflict begins when Mark refers to Serge’s painting as “shit”. In a group experience, members anticipate that they will stir up one another’s “shit”. Hopefully, in a group, we are bound to stay with the “shit” and work through it, together.
Here, in the play, the characters threaten to break that contract. They want to end the relationship. Essentially, because they both experience lack.
The play opens with Mark ridiculing Serge for engaging with a new group of friends and an interest Mark has trouble appreciating. We can assume that he experiences lack in his relationship with Serge. By the end of the play, this longing is confirmed when Mark says, “I loved the way you saw me” to Serge in reference to how their relationship used to be.
Similarly, Serge is someone who has struggled to maintain relationships. His marriage has dissolved and he struggles to find interest in his children. I will assert that, on some level, Serge’s longing for connection has become externalized onto the painting.
Like a Johari Window, each sees something in the other that they themselves are blind to. The lesson of “the group” (the play) for Mark and Serge is to renew the “contract” by being able to accept feedback and tolerate conflict without disposing of the relationship. In order to do this, they must set aside the intellectual discourse about the value of the painting and face their feelings in relationship to one another.
Art Blog #3 – November 17, 2014
One of my favorite newly discovered gems of this play is the way that Reza has helped introduce her characters to us by describing the paintings they have in their homes.
Marc has what is described as a “Flemish style” painting in his home, although it is an image of the fortified French town of Carcassonne. Interestingly enough, what is known as Flemish painting and the wall and city wall that make Carcassonne a world heritage site, would have both been in their heyday during the renaissance period of 1500-1700. Flemish painting is known for traditional images representing man’s relationship with God and the order of things. It is marked by incredible technical precision. Carcassonne, of course, is beautiful, but a military fortress nonetheless. Built to withstand vast armies and the test of time. All of this reinforces Serge’s description of Marc as “classical” and ridged; “atrophying”. He is an aeronautical engineer stuck in the rational and holding fast to how things once were, especially in regards to his friendship with Serge.
On the other hand, Serge has a monochromatic color field painting. This style of painting emerged alongside Abstract Expressionism as a way for artists to free color, line, and shape from their more technical uses and to allow them to become art in of themselves. Serge is a dermatologist, concerned with appearances, and the next hot thing. He’s accused of breaking free of Marc’s rigid rules of understanding the world and their friendship. Art critics have been debating the merits of classical and modern art for decades, Marc and Serge have fallen into this conflict and it has become a metaphor for the merits of their relationship.
When we are introduced to the artwork in Yvonne’s home, it is only described as “motel art”. We can assume that this means a generic painting with a generic subject in non-offending colors. This seems to suit Yvonne, who is described as bouncing from job to job without conviction. Towards the end of the play, we discover that this painting has actually been rendered by his father. This revelation happens right before Yvonne comes back to the Marc and Serge in an attempt to help repair their relationship. Could it be that Yvonne’s heartfelt commitment and sentimentality are his most overlooked features and deserve more credit?
What does the artwork, music, colors, and knick-knacks that surround us in our homes say about us?
Art Blog #4 – January 15, 2015
The play ends with Mark once again reflecting on the painting:
Under the white clouds, snow is falling.
You can’t see the white clouds or the snow.
Or the cold, or the white glow of the earth.
A solitary man glides downhill on his skis.
The snow is falling.
It falls until the man disappears back into the landscape.
My friend Serge, who’s one of my oldest friends, has bought a painting.
It’s a canvas about five feet by four.
It represents a man who moves across a space then disappears.
Shortly after leaving our last rehearsal, I heard, for the first time, Regina Spector’s song “All the Rowboats.”
And I’m left reflecting on this idea of growth and change, movement and freedom; in visual art, in the play, and in our selves.
Serge has bought a painting. Over the course of his very long friendship with Yvone and Mark, he became interested in modern art. He pursued this interest to the fullest and actualized this new part of himself by purchasing this “white” painting. From an attachment perspective, you could interpret him as leaving the secure base of this threesome and venturing off on his own. Serge wanders away to see new things and meet new people and then comes back to the group to say, “hey, look what I’ve discovered, isn’t it great?”
Similarly, Yvone has ventured off. Tired of being comic relief when he’s with his friends and lonely when he is not, Yvone has sought out therapy and is now engaged to be married. BUT we hear him say, “I still need you as my witnesses”. OR, “I want to be able to come back to my secure attachment place and have your blessing”.
Mark is also attached to his friends, but his attachment is anxious. He has not been able to continue to seek out and grow, using his relationships to encourage his self-actualization. Throughout most of the play, Mark is stuck in antiquity, like the subjects of the song. When his friends come back to him to say, “approve of my discoveries and join me in my adventures”, he panics. Mark senses that he may be left behind, stuck in his ways. He acts out in aggression towards both of his friends.
Perhaps this final evaluation of the painting, regarding the skier, is a reflection on this. Mark recognizes a need for movement. He has new faith that separation from his friends can lead to stronger reunification rather than abandonment. Although the skier “disappears”, we know he’s just behind a snow drift, waiting to come back and invite us back into the painting. The painting bought by “one of his oldest friends”, Serge.
Art Blog #5 – March 15, 2015
“Art” Discussant Presentation:
We have all just witnessed a dramatic reading of the play “Art” by Yasmina Reza; a play about a white painting; a tabula rasa, onto which our characters, Serge, Mark, and Yvan project with abandon their very personal, subjective truths. Subjectivity and multiplicity are at the heart of this play. Just as therapy group members are challenged with sorting through their projections, hoping to discover self and other as they truly are, so too our characters wrestle with this painting in a quest for truth.
As the audience, the play and the painting, also hold our projections. We have witnessed a 90-minute snapshot of these three characters. We are left to fill in the many details of context and back-story. We do this naturally, with a mix of projection and perception, influenced by our unique desires, biases, and insecurities. This complex process of ‘making sense of things’ may be exaggerated with a play reading because we have no props, costumes or scenery. Like the painting, only described in this performance, we have a few pale lines, but the picture is not complete. The same might be said for the group therapy experience.
Before the break, you all had an opportunity to share your reactions, associations, and personal projections with a fellow audience member. Perhaps you also tried to determine where you might have seen a glimpse of yourself in the characters and their predicaments. Soon we will hear some of your interpretations and reflections. As is the case with any group, there are many projections and perceptions in this room. And like the characters in the play, some of us might be shocked to hear how different each other’s interpretations may be from our own.
Similar to the process of Serge, Mark, and Yvan, members of a group must confront the mystery that others may see them very differently from how they see themselves. Latent in these interactions or conflicts are our desires, insecurities, and drives. For Serge this painting represents his idealized other. But Mark only sees “shit”. Even when the canvas seems to be white, no one can avoid projecting their personal colors upon it. Whether we find these colors “moving” or not, our reactions reveal as much or more about ourselves, as they do about the work of art before us.
Immediately upon being introduced to this play, I saw myself like Serge. I have a fine arts degree and was tickled by the thought of someone blowing everything for a piece of art that he loves. Serge can also be seen as the explorer of the group. He is interested in the nuances of art and in challenging himself to see things that are not immediately obvious to the naked eye, this fit my idealized self just fine.
And this is a piece of modern art, nonetheless. Color field painting is associated with a tradition in which artists challenge themselves to leave behind the rules of art in the spirit of experimentation. I feel that there is a metaphor here for group psychotherapy. All of us have accepted the challenge of seeing beyond individual narrative to observe multi-person and group-as-a-whole dynamics unfold, just as modern art disposes of concrete visual narratives in favor of abstractions; images that are difficult to interpret and continue to reveal more upon revisiting.
With this metaphor in mind, I observed the attachment-inspired dynamics unfolding in this play and I saw Serge and Yvan as individuating, but securely attached to the group. This left me to interpret Mark’s behavior as the unfolding of a challenge to also find and actualize his authentic self. From his panic over perceived abandonment, and through the power of the group, I felt sure that Mark would evolve, the relationships would be reborn, and the attachments would continue to be secure.
Of course, we have all witnessed this dynamic in groups in which we participate and facilitate. Some of the most important work of a group is learning to tolerate difference and disagreement and still recognize the value and strength in the ongoing relationships. As I was saying earlier, many of these differences can exist as a result of our personal projections. We search out pieces in our group leaders and other members that we yearn for and that intimidate us. By asserting our own perceptions and being challenged by the conflicting perceptions of others, we do the work of learning our blind spots and actualizing our true selves. Working through these conflicts strengthens the relationships in the group and secures our attachment to one another. We are then able to stretch our wings and take individuating flight.
This performance of “Art” today marks the 10 year anniversary of Red Well presenting dramatic readings at AGPA. In 10 years, our group has evolved quite a bit. There are many old friends and colleagues, like Mark, Serge, and Yvan, in Red Well; therapists who have known each other for many years. AND there are Step-Mothers and Catherines, like myself, who have been married into the group. Recently, roles have been examined and perceptions are changing. Rob is developing as a director in his own right, and I am serving as the discussant today, a first for me. And new projects are in the works. Bob has encouraged the group to write an original play. Like the painting in ‘Art’, this new, all white “blank page” stands before our Group, gazing back at us, inviting our projections! There will be many reactions to come from the members of Red Well. The ‘Serge in us’ might be excited for something new and wonderful, the ‘Mark in us’ might dread change and fear being left behind, and the ‘Yvan in us’ might just want everyone to be happy and together!
Like Serge’s announcement that he has bought the white painting, the tabula rasa of the play yet-to-be-written may indeed threaten attachment securities within the Red Well Theater Group. Processing our shared experiences has always been a prominent part of how we work and Red Well is currently in discussion to consider how these changes and new approaches might affect our relationships with each other and with the project as a whole.
I feel a deep admiration and connection to the members of Red Well. Because of my temperament and because I have been included and encouraged throughout my experience with the group, I began to see the dynamic in the play, between our three characters, as a parallel process to my experience in the Red Well Theater Group.
I realize now, that in this way, I am like Yvan, happy and hopeful because the more I witnessed “Art”, intent on finding proof of a happy ending, the further from reconciliation these characters seemed to be. Although Mark’s gesture of good will at the end of the play is a gift to Serge, I cannot help but hear the echoes of a termination.
Is it possible, then, that we have witnessed in “Art” the end of a group? Perhaps in Mark, we are not witnessing a man struggling to be more actualized and open to his friends, but a man wrestling with the truth that everything, eventually, ceases to exist.
Looking back through my notes from our 6 months of rehearsal, I realize that this existential interpretation of Mark’s last words came up very early on in our process discussions. Still, my personal projection of the play remained focused on reconciliation; my wish was for Mark to realize that he can tolerate conflict and accept feedback and still remain whole. Wearing my self-satisfaction as Serge and my need for connection as Yvan, I chose to interpret the action of the play, the same way I saw our Red Well group, through the lens of evolution and connection, striving for continual growth and expansion.
But the apocalyptic truth might also be, that with Red Well’s new playwriting ambitions, questions will emerge. “Who will contribute?” and “Will members be left behind?” and “What if we’re just not very good at this?”. Like the characters in “Art”, we are in our own “trial period” and we are searching out different ways of continuing our relationships with each other, while exploring new ways of working. Today, I wonder if my projection of perpetual growth, and my denial of loss reflect my own existential struggle. Perhaps, I am also like Mark.
At the heart of Mark’s struggle is not to change, but to exist; to remain relevant. Can he still be himself without the connections to, and admiration from, his two “oldest friends”? Mark’s anger that Serge has bought the white painting, deep down, stems from the fact that Mark feels like he has been replaced. Is Mark terrified to see his own ordinariness, once the loving gaze of Serge is stripped away? Will Mark continue to “be loved”?
I began talking about projection and how it surfaces amongst our clients in individual and group therapy. Perhaps our own projections and, in this case, denials show up as a resistance to terminate a client that we know has fulfilled his work, or our reluctance at the end of the group to walk away from the pleasure of idealized transference; to admit that we, like Mark, “loved the way you saw me”. The truth is, we face endings all the time. Every time a session ends, we lose a moment that cannot be recaptured. The challenge is to find meaning in the finitude.
The process of group therapy gently challenges our clients to reclaim their projections and see themselves, others, and the world, without blinders. We are complex people in a multi-faceted world. As I re-opened my eyes to the play, I am confronted with the meaninglessness inherent in this white painting, and the meaning I imbue upon it when I see it through the eyes of Serge, Yvan, or Mark. I have all the characters within me; I am an explorer, a reconciler, and a stubborn leader. I am at once stuck in my ways and fascinated by new ideas; forceful and acquiescing. I also have a playwright within me and trust my ability to author new outcomes. As therapists and group facilitators we have to sit in a space of not knowing, comfortable with the fact that these same multiplicities exist within each of us and the people we work with.
We invite our clients to be more transparent, revealing both their internal self-states, and their authentic reactions to each other. By the end of the play, our characters have indeed discovered what it might be like to be more transparent with each other. Whether we are witnessing a new beginning or a poignant ending- or both- Serge, Mark, and Yvan have each gained something from risking vulnerability and revealing themselves. In our therapy groups, members have the same opportunity. As Yvan might say, “Transparency has ‘something’. It’s ‘not nothing’”.