The Psychiatric World of Chester Bailey

Thursday, May 26, 2016

by Allie Moss and Shannon Stockwell

Joseph Dougherty’s new play Chester Bailey, starring David Strathairn and Dan Clegg, takes place in a very particular world: a psychiatric hospital on Long Island in the 1940s. Psychiatry back then was very different from what it is now. The play’s Dr. Philip Cotton both reflects and refutes that milieu.

The 1940s was a time of transition for psychiatry as a discipline, because advances in the field transformed it from a stigmatized profession to a respectable one. In the United States, many of the psychotherapists at this period started their careers working with World War II veterans suffering from combat fatigue (now called post-traumatic stress disorder). There were two main branches of psychiatric study and treatment during this time—operational psychiatry and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis (talk therapy).

In the 1940s, operational psychiatry was comprised of experimental procedures that were believed to cure patients of mental illness. These procedures included electroconvulsive therapy (running electricity through the brain so that the body would convulse), fever therapy (injecting the patient with a fever-causing disease like malaria so that the blood and the body’s tissue would heat up enough to kill whatever was causing the mental illness), and lobotomy (surgically removing the “problematic” lobes of the brain). Today many of these therapies are considered archaic and unethical.

David Strathairn (left) and Dan Clegg in Chester Bailey. 
Photo by Kevin Berne. 
Sigmund Freud’s method of psychoanalysis, “the talking cure,” was highly influential for psychiatrists in the 1940s. According to Freud, there are three levels of the mind: the conscious (of which we are aware), the preconscious (which we can call up in memories), and the unconscious (which operates without our awareness). The unconscious, Freud posits, holds all the underlying causes of behavior that are repressed because they are too painful or too difficult to think about. Central to many of Freud’s theories is the belief that the unconscious protects the conscious mind from what it cannot cope with; physical symptoms are manifestations of conflicts that have been repressed by the unconscious. Freudian talk therapy was intended to allow patients to access the unconscious motivations behind their feelings and actions in order to understand and (if desired) change their impulses and behaviors.

“Dr. Cotton is probably more of a therapist than a psychiatrist, and he may be more recognizable as a healer to us than he would be to his contemporaries,” says Dougherty. “There might not be an accurate model for him and his approach to treatment during the time of the play. He may be the first Cottonian.”

If you’re fascinated by the complex psychological themes in this play, please consider joining us for our InterACT event Theater on the Couch. Following a performance of Chester Bailey on Friday, June 3, Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center, will lead a lively discussion with the audience exploring the inner workings of the minds of both Chester Bailey and Dr. Philip Cotton.

“I’m a psychiatrist and trained in psychiatry,” says Dr. Turner. “But I also have a side to me that really enjoys writing and the theater. . . . I like to see how psychological themes weave themselves through theater in particular.”

Chester Bailey runs through June 12 at The Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets.

The Challenges and the Joys of Directing The Last Five Years

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An Interview with Director Michael Berresse

By Cecilia Padilla

Michael Berresse came to A.C.T. in 2012 while performing in the national tour of The Normal Heart, and he is delighted to return to the Bay Area—this time as an accomplished director. “Looking back at my directorial career,” says Berresse, “I see that a number of shows I’ve worked on have had complicated or nonlinear structures. There’s something about the puzzle of them and the way my own mind works that draws me to that kind of material.” With its unique structure in which one character’s story is told from ending to beginning, and the other’s from beginning to end, The Last Five Years has been another puzzle for the director to solve. We sat down with Berresse to talk about the challenges and the joys of directing.

Director Michael Berresse in rehearsal for A.C.T.’s 2016 production
of The Last Five Years. Photo by Shannon Stockwell.
What’s it like being both an actor and a director?
I love them both for very different reasons. As an actor, my responsibility is more limited, and I can relate to an audience in a very visible, personal way. As a director, I have more comprehensive responsibility but without the direct relationship to an audience. Nevertheless, directing comes with a very different kind of personal investment and reward. And my experience with and empathy for the whole process of acting informs many things about the way I direct. For example, when I start a new project, it helps me to imagine how it might feel to speak the words or live the circumstances before I start exploring how to tell the story from the outside.

How are you bringing your music and dance experience to the show’s direction?
My experience as a musical theater actor makes me especially conscious of rhythm and movement, not just in terms of songs or steps, but also in terms of the story as a whole—the connective tissue, the transitions, the music of how the pieces fit together. In addition to its glorious individual elements, I think of the entirety of The Last Five Years as a dance that has a consistency and continuity all its own.

This musical has been produced many times. How do you go about making it feel original and fresh?
Whenever you look at telling a story, whether it’s a new idea altogether or something that’s been done many times, you have to invest in some relevant big-picture priority. Whether it’s friendship or freedom or loss or redemption, when I risk exposing those personal priorities in the context of a story, it shows up in the production in a unique and original way.

Specifically for The Last Five Years, I believe that regardless of how a love affair plays out, the risk is as important and powerful as the outcome. “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” as the adage goes. I hope to show a little nod toward the future in the arc of Cathy and Jamie’s relationship, a moment of perspective at the end of the play that’s not necessarily written in the text.

Why is Jason Robert Brown’s work so beloved and enduring?
I had the extraordinary experience of working with Jason while appearing in a production of Parade at the Mark Taper Forum. I will never forget the day he sat down at the piano in the rehearsal room and started playing his own music for us. He stopped being the composer/lyricist, the pianist, and he started being the music. He puts his whole soul into his work. I think the listener can feel that instinctively.

The Last Five Years is playing at The Geary Theater until June 5. Read more of our interview with Berresse, along with other articles about the cultural context of this musical, in Words on Plays.

The Music of The Last Five Years

Friday, May 20, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell

For musical theater actors, there’s something magnetic about the music of Jason Robert Brown. “If you studied musical theater any time after 2000, chances are you memorized the original cast recording of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years,” says Huffington Post journalist Suzy Evans. The composer’s work has such a gravitational pull on this peer group of musical theater enthusiasts that Evans refers to it as the “Jason Robert Brown generation.”

Just what is it about Brown’s music that has defined a generation? “Jason is a master of making pop-song forms work in a musical theater context,” says Matt Castle, music director for A.C.T.’s 2016 production of The Last Five Years, now running until June 5. “To me, pop music feels like a suspended, single feeling. But a theater song can’t be that, because there has to be something at risk in a scene, something that changes over the course of the song.” Brown’s music, Castle explains, has all of the infectious rhythm and groove of a pop song, but he uses the songs to move the story forward.

Brown’s composing process is largely instinctual and improvisational. “What I do first is I come up with a title, which I’ll generally throw out halfway through,” he said in a 1999 interview. “I have a title, and I’ll sit at the piano, and I’ll just come up with some chord that makes me happy, and I’ll sing the title.”

Musical theater scholar Ian Nisbet points out that, while Brown’s process may come from the heart, his musical instincts are actually very sophisticated. Just judging from the sheer difficulty of the music, Castle would agree that Brown’s music is highly intellectual. “Rhythmically, as flowing and natural and funky and groovy as it feels for the audience, it’s much easier for the audience to take it in than it is for the two actors to execute,” says Castle. “It seems so natural because the rhythms are all based on how a person speaks.”

To Castle, the most important device comes from the unique nonlinear structure of the musical. “Each of their stories starts with up-tempo songs and modulates toward an end point of reflective ballads,” he says. “When you cross the two streams, it means that there’s an alternation between ballads and up-tempo songs throughout the whole show, which is an ingenious way to create the variety that helps make each song distinct from the ones surrounding it.”

Castle points out that it’s hard to predict how Brown’s music will be remembered in musical theater cannon, because his body of work is so varied. “I don’t even know what kind of pattern I could form between Parade and 13 and The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years,” Castle says. If Brown’s work can be labeled as eclectic, he’s also productive, and it will be intriguing to see what he creates in the next ten years. For the moment, however, there’s no denying that his music has staying power in the minds of everyone who hears it.

To learn more about the music in The Last Five Years , click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

The High School Musical and Cabaret Ensembles of the A.C.T. Young Conservatory present a celebration of Brown's solo work and musical numbers in Through the Years with Jason Robert Brown, May 20–23, in The Garret at The Geary Theater. 

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