What Would Freud Say?

posted by Edward Budworth, A.C.T. Group Sales
and Linda Lagemann, Ph.D.

“Sweeney Todd has revenge issues.”
“Hedda Gabler suffers from an Electra complex.”
“Maggie the Cat is in heavy denial.”

Since Sigmund is no longer around to comment on the characters in dramatic literature, A.C.T. started a program called Theater on the Couch to explore the inherent neuroses, psychoses, and downright insanity that afflict some of our favorite icons of the stage.

The idea for Theater on the Couch came to us when representatives of the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis (then known as the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute & Society) attended a performance of Eve Ensler’s The Good Body at A.C.T. in the spring of 2004. We hit it off immediately and began thinking of ways our two institutions could collaborate. A.C.T. regularly offers audience discussions with actors, playwrights, directors, designers, etc., so why not, we figured, add psychoanalysts to the mix and have a discussion about the psychological issues of the characters in the play and the psychology of the group experience? It was a natural fit. The psychoanalysts bring another layer of thought that stimulates and engages the audience in lively discussion.

Our first Theater on the Couch was after a performance of a wonderful production, Well, by Lisa Kron. The show deals with physical well-being and family dysfunction, a hotbed of topics! When we came out onstage we were amazed to see upwards of 250 people in the audience ready to join us on our maiden voyage. It was a great beginning, but we had some learning to do to make it a truly interactive experience. We found that the gulf that naturally exists when the panelists are onstage under stage lights inhibited some people from commenting and asking questions. As a trial we moved the discussion to the theater’s downstairs lounge, known as Fred’s Columbia Room. While we sacrificed in terms of the size of audience we could accommodate, the move afforded us a more relaxed atmosphere, and there was a more direct connection between the panel and the audience. Discussions have been energetic! The audience gets so comfortable and eager to participate that they spontaneously respond to each other and interact with the experts.

The psychoanalysts have led discussions on a wide range of themes involving the psychology of the characters, the playwright, and the audience experience. The discussion of Curse of the Starving Class, by Sam Shepard, delved into family dynamics and the theme of psychic malnutrition—the parents do not have the psychological/nurturing goods to give their children (for example, the refrigerator in the play is perpetually empty). As a result the children are psychically malformed; they are not equipped to deal with the reality of their situation; they replicate their parents; and the only way to differentiate is through escape fantasies. Though the play left some feeling bleak, the real hope is manifest in the reality of the playwright who transformed his personal experience through writing.

In discussing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the analysts noted that cannibalism is a primal fear that shows up in infantile phobias (the monster under the bed) and popular fairy tales that include the fear of being devoured (e.g. “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood”). This anxiety is a factor in our psychic life and theater provides a cultural ritual where, as an audience, we come together and in the safety of numbers and with the help of the playwright using humor and song, we are able to transform a primal terror into something manageable. The horror of a cannibalistic mother is turned comic via Mrs. Lovett, in perverse domesticity, merrily baking human meat pies.

Interest in Theater on the Couch has snowballed. Not only has it received national recognition (in three publications), locally, we are proud to say, we have “groupies” who attend all of the discussions. It’s great to hear someone say they enjoyed the play more after participating in the discussion, or that their family is going through the same issues and that seeing the play and hearing the panel gave them new insights into the problem. Our Hall of Comedy favorite comment came in the discussion of Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? when a gentleman said, “In my country this practice [relations with goats] is so common the play would be meaningless.” We take great satisfaction in knowing that we present a program that enhances the audience’s theater experience, entertains, and at times really touches and enlightens people.

We hope you will join us for our next two Theater on the Couch discussions this season: following the performances of Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins on Friday, February 20, and At Home at the Zoo on Friday, June 19.

Lagemann, Freud, and Budworth

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