The Performing Art of Therapy: Acting Insights and Techniques for Clinicians

The Performing Art of Therapy: Acting Insights and Techniques for Clinicians

by Mark O'Connell
An actor/therapist explores the converging demands of each role on stage and in the clinical space.

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“Where does the actor acquire the understanding that for the doctor takes years of study?"
-Theater Director, Peter Brook

Act I: Therapists as Performers

Therapist, you are a performing artist, whether you realize it or not!

The moment a client enters your office, you are on stage, face-to-face with an audience, a scene partner, and a variety of characters you do not yet know how to play (after all, our clients both become and cast us in all of these roles faster than we can say, “How can I help you?”). And every move you make—or don’t make—influences the treatment, the play, the story you tell together.

Like actors, as therapists our appearance, aura, voice, and relational responsiveness often leave stronger impressions on clients than the words we say or the techniques we use
Like actors, as therapists our appearance, aura, voice, and relational responsiveness often leave stronger impressions on clients than the words we say or the techniques we use. This is not to say that our clinical training is of no use; of course it is. But effective technique is less about what we do—less about reading a script by rote—and more about how we do it, how we use ourselves, how we perform our interventions.

When you watch actors performing in movies or plays, do you think about their techniques?—whether they used Strasberg, Adler, or Meisner? Probably not. You are more likely moved by the performers themselves—their ineffable presence, their use of self. Likewise, our clients are more affected by us than by our schools of thought—whether we studied psychoanalysis, CBT, or family systems.

No matter what kind of therapist you are, if you approach your work like an actor—or better yet, like a performing artist in your own right—I promise you will become more awake, alive, and engaged with your clients, while also having a greater capacity to care for yourself. I offer this promise as a psychotherapist who has used my experience as a trained, professional actor every day.

The skeptical reader may think that the words “perform” and “act” don’t belong in the therapy office. When I tell people that I use my training and experience as an actor more than any other resource as a therapist, they often take me to mean either that I’m “fake” with my clients, or that I deploy literal dramatic exercises in session. I’m not (or at least I try not to be) fake with my clients, and I rarely, if ever, use theatrical interventions in session, unless I believe they might be useful for a specific client in a specific moment. However, when I simply think about my clients the way actors think about their characters and scene partners, I enhance my capacity to dive into the deep end of their stories, beyond the words they speak—their “scripts”—even when I do nothing more than listen to them compassionately.

I may not end up doing anything radically different in session from what any other clinician might do instinctively. But by thinking of myself as a performing artist, as opposed to just a clinician, I find creative ways to join my clients in their emotional subjectivity, relate to them like a character who can help them grow, and allow myself to expand personally in the process.

Again, to be clear: “Acting” does not mean being fake, it means finding truth within a given set of circumstances. So, in that sense,
as therapists we are all actors: we use our selves (our primary instrument) to help bring other people’s authentic selves to life
as therapists we are all actors: we use our selves (our primary instrument) to help bring other people’s authentic selves to life.

Below is a pair of vignettes, each including a significant learning moment for me as an actor, and a corresponding revelation as a therapist. These dramatic/therapeutic narratives, illustrate how my use of self helped me to pursue the three main objectives that apply to the creative process of both artforms:
  1. To create a treatment frame in which our scene partners feel safe, oriented to the nature and purpose of our work, and free to participate in it.
  2. To join our clients in their emotional subjectivity, like actors embody their characters.
  3. To relate to our scene partners as a character who can help them to heal and to grow.

Act II: Using My Self as an Actor

I was 20 when I was cast as the gun-obsessed Quigley in Hyperactive, an edgy play about teen angst by Olga Humphrey. Quigley was described as a “masculine, hard-edged” adolescent, whose favorite magazine was Soldier of Fortune. I was an effeminate, soft-natured man, whose favorite magazine was Entertainment Weekly—in other words, nothing like Quigley. But I was also an actor, and as an actor’s my job is to find diverse characters within myself, even if they seem very different from me on the surface.

I was 20 when I was cast as the gun-obsessed Quigley in Hyperactive, an edgy play about teen angst by Olga Humphrey
Other than having a teenager’s build, the only quality I seemed to share with Quigley was the determination to prove my worth. In my case, proving myself not only meant getting hired, which I did, but also finding some genuine version of this unlikely role within me. My greatest challenge was to make an empathic connection with Quigley’s bullish personality, his gratuitous language, and (most difficult of all) his obsessive, violent fantasies. All these qualities—or symptoms, if you will—made me extremely uncomfortable and seemed to alienate me from him, rather than to invite me into his emotional world.

My first task was to create a framework for my rehearsal process, within which I would have room to discover and explore who this person was, through trial and error—ideally without judging him. Rather than begin with preconceived acting choices for Quigley—much like therapists are often tempted to impose treatment interventions onto new clients—I needed to find a way to let him speak to me on his own terms. And since my head could not make sense of this boy, I had to find a way to access him viscerally—using my body, voice, and imagination.

As I began reading his crude and aggressive lines aloud at our first rehearsal, I imagined I was one of the bullies from my own high school past. I widened my legs, puffed out my chest, and spoke with an affected tough-guy bellow, straining to produce the intimidating, nasty persona adopted by so many males from my youth.

The result was what the kids call a “fail!”
My performance was cartoonish and over the top
My performance was cartoonish and over the top; I’d created a caricature, not a human being. “Um, that’s a bit much,” my director said, with a penetrating squint of disdain in her eyes. Humiliation flooded my body and shut down my spirit. My effortful impersonation seemed to expose my limitations as both an actor and a man. I wouldn’t need to try so hard if I was actually talented or masculine enough, I thought to myself, further shamed by my inner critic.

But in the same moment, a window opened for me into Quigley’s inner, subjective life. I had unwittingly, but effectively, joined him in his debilitating self-consciousness, vulnerability, fear, loneliness—and self-hatred. His core intention wasn’t to intimidate and destroy other people, I realized. Those behaviors were secondary to his primary objective: to protect himself, validate himself, survive.

With those visceral motivations living in my body and mind, I could commit to Quigley’s macho expressions while maintaining an underlying sense of vulnerable truth. And as I played with this duality—grounded in my own fear of failure, and my instinct to overcompensate for it—I increasingly understood how he/I was motivated by a desperate need to be validated by other people. I could now bring a genuine version of him (and me) into the rehearsal studio with my scene partners, supported by the technical breathing and vocal exercises, as well as mind/body practices I had developed in drama school. (Again: the creative use of oneself is not a replacement for technique, but rather it informs the performer of what specific moves we need to make at any given moment in our scene work.)

By the time the production was on its feet, I was able to embody Quigley without extraneous effort: from his brusque introduction to his cathartic end, in which his mother and best friend hold him in their arms and thwart him from carrying out a violent attack on his classmates. Actors often try to force emotion and tears in high-stakes moments like this—not unlike therapists when we impose heavy-handed clinical interventions onto challenging clients we want to “fix.” As my actor friends say, we often try to “play the end of the scene” too hastily, rather than allow ourselves to be present in every step of the journey.

But I didn’t have to strain myself to find Quigley’s deep-rooted pain for this scene. All I had to do was surrender my feelings to my scene partners, with whom I’d cultivated a great deal of safety and trust throughout our creative collaboration. As we performed the climax of the play, Quigley’s taut energy thawed from my jaw, neck, and shoulders—where it had been deployed as a shield—and it dispersed throughout my body, accessing a range of other emotions. In fact, at one point I awakened to the insight that all along Quigley had been defending against, and overcompensating for, the absence of his father. It’s an abstract clinical exercise to analyze a data point like this about a person’s life, either in a script or a psychological evaluation.
But when we make efforts to join that person in all their subjective bodily, emotional, and intrapsychic complexity, we expand our capacities for empathy
But when we make efforts to join that person in all their subjective bodily, emotional, and intrapsychic complexity, we expand our capacities for empathy, mutual recognition and creative transformative action, both on and offstage, in and out of therapy. Best of all, we learn to relate to that other person (character or client), no longer through the trailing edge of their transference, as the recipient of their resentment, frustration and fear, but through the leading edge of their transference—as the embodiment of their generative desire, longing, and hope.

Act III: Using My Self as a Therapist

Harry burst into my office each week like he was in a race against time; he wanted answers, and he wanted them fast. A straight, white, corporate millennial, he was used to instant gratification, and he expected no less from his therapy. He emphasized that he already understood himself “extremely well,” and that all he needed from me were “professional tips” to reduce stress in his highly successful life.

I was flattered; I’d been cast in the role of commercial guru, the kind who might dominate the American market with bestselling, confidence-inspiring catchphrases. Except I felt too slow, discursive, and insecure to play this part for Harry, more the man behind the curtain than the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. Each week, I expected him to look at me incredulously—much as I’d feared audiences would respond to me portraying a butch, gun-wielding teen—and see that my training and degrees were all a sham. I anticipated the day he’d tear back the curtain and expose me as the talentless hack I felt myself to be in his presence.

On the plus side, Harry showed up for our weekly “rehearsals” consistently, which spoke to the frame I had provided, which apparently made him feel safe enough to “play” with me. But each scene between us had a palpable yet indiscernible tension. First, he’d summarize his week, speedily and with the energetic poise of a cocky movie star—shoulders back, chest protruding forward, eyes sparkly with intense self-assurance. Then he’d present a dilemma—“I need to make more time for relaxation and balance,” for example. At this point, he’d look to me as if to indicate it was my turn to perform, and to prove I was a worthy scene partner.

I would then try to seize the spotlight, so to speak, masking my self-conscious insecurity with a commanding delivery of a line like, “I recommend yoga, three times a week. Put it in your calendar.” I was desperately trying to personify the omnipotent coach I imagined he wanted me to be. And though my “acting choice” arguably answered Harry by his own method, it felt as though I was trying way too hard to impress him—much as I had overcompensated in my bullish portrayal of Quigley, as I stumbled through my first few rehearsals of Hyperactive.

Eventually, I’d look back on these moments and realize how all these unnerving sensations could help tune me in to Harry’s complex internal world, and to join him there. But in the meantime, I felt blocked, like a superficial actor who failed to connect with his character on a deep personal level.

Over time, it became abundantly clear that Harry couldn’t be bothered with my attempted interventions. He’d wince disapprovingly at my suggestions and say things like, “Yoga never works for me. I just end up obsessing about the more productive things I could be doing with my time.” At the end of our sessions,
he’d stride out of my office with a proud posture, leaving me behind to reel in a slouch of inadequacy
he’d stride out of my office with a proud posture, leaving me behind to reel in a slouch of inadequacy. I couldn’t seem to reach him, no matter how hard I tried. I felt like the FBI agent Tom Hanks played in the movie Catch Me If You Can, endlessly chasing Leonardo DiCaprio’s slick and wily character, a master of escape.

This frustrating dynamic manifested in a number of ways between us, including our weekly schedule. Harry would frequently ask to alter our meeting times due to his ever-changing obligations, and I’d accommodate him more than I wanted. I did this because I was afraid to disappoint him. Not only did I sense he’d fire me if I didn’t manage to keep up with his demands, but more significantly, I had an inexplicable sense of dread that he’d erase me from his mind entirely if I let him down. Unwittingly, I was tuning in to Harry’s inner life. I could feel his deep ambivalence about trusting and depending on people vibrating within my own body. And as it turned out, my fears were not unfounded.

One day, after two years of working together, Harry raised the emotional stakes of our scene work. I was running behind (by about a minute), between notes and phone calls, and he had no intention of waiting; it was his time, and he’d enter my office if he wanted to. I was completely shaken off-center as he blasted through my door. Within the flicker of a second, my face flushed with a combination of shock and shame, but also disapproval and a smidge of anger.

As we made eye contact, Harry stopped in his tracks—and his reaction to me was startlingly evocative. While his body asserted its typical conviction, his eyes betrayed a doubt, fear, and deference that I’d never consciously sensed from him before. Since I was too caught off-guard to address this novel improvisation between us in the moment, Harry made a beeline for the couch and shared his latest dilemma as if nothing had happened.

The latest dilemma, it turned out, was that his long-term girlfriend, of whom he’d always spoken glowingly, had proposed to him. “It came out of nowhere!” he exclaimed wide-eyed. “I was totally thrown off my game. Shaken.” Hmm, like what just happened to me now? I thought to myself. “We’ve talked about getting engaged for a while,” he continued, “but I just thought when it happened, it’d be...different.”

“You mean you thought you would be the one who proposed?” I asked.

“Well, yeah,” he replied. “I mean, not because of gender roles and tradition and all that. It’s just...I would’ve made sure it was perfect.”

“What would you have done differently?” I asked.

His eyes squinted as he struggled for an answer. “I guess I just wish she...” he paused for a while, “seemed surer of herself?” As we talked, he realized that this proposal had surfaced an implicit contract in their relationship: that he was in charge of their major decisions as a couple. His girlfriend had gone out on a limb and broken that contract—and now Harry was struggling to understand why he didn’t feel safe following her lead.

Uncharacteristically, his body sank back into the couch as he stared blankly in silence for a while. Finally, he spoke again: “Maybe she’s not the right partner for me.” There it was, the confirmation of my underlying fear; if his long-term girlfriend was expendable, so was I.

“It’s normal to feel a range of emotions at a pivotal time like this,” I said in an effort to validate him. “I appreciate your confusion and doubt, and since your girlfriend seems willing to give you some time to reflect, I suggest we continue talking before you make any big decisions.” He seemed momentarily held by this, but as I watched him take a minute to shield himself with his typical smug poise before leaving the office, I understood deep inside that this sense of security was tenuous, for both of us.

Harry colonized my mind for the rest of that day, much like a challenging character might consume me as an actor
Harry colonized my mind for the rest of that day, much like a challenging character might consume me as an actor. At home, I looked in the mirror and tried to emulate his self-possessed posture. As my shoulders dropped back and down, my chest expanded, and my eyes and mouth affected Harry’s cool-guy charm, I began to recall the unpleasant sensations I’d get when trying to play the part of his expert guru. The external posturing I would affect at those times didn’t feel grounded in confidence, but instead seemed to serve as a shield to my internal self-doubt and fear of rejection.

Suddenly, I understood that the same was true for him. The look on his face when he’d barged into my office earlier that day, and the months and months of tension between us, began to make more sense. And as I joined his mind/body experience of self, I realized that what he really wanted was not for me to catch up to him or project the same overcompensating confidence that he did, but to get ahead of him. He longed for me to become someone who could set boundaries with him, disagree with him, and ultimately, care for him—without getting caught up in the same debilitating self-criticism that plagued him. But how could I successfully embody these qualities in the therapy room, and become the character with whom Harry longed to relate?

I thought about the end of Catch Me If You Can, when Tom Hanks learns to approach Leonardo DiCaprio no longer as an elusive fugitive, but as a boy abandoned by his father. I thought also of Harry’s father, who’d died suddenly of a heart attack when Harry was a child. Gazing in the mirror and focusing on the sensations within, I rediscovered what I had first learned with Quigley: biographical details about clients and characters alike resonate within us much more richly when we embody them, rather than simply study or analyze them. I then shifted roles and explored ways that I could present myself to Harry that might make him feel safely held.

I drew inspiration from men, in my life and onscreen, who were both palpably strong and nurturing, including Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Barack Obama. I considered their physical groundedness, the clarity of their thoughts, as evidenced by the easy poise of their heads, but also, most significantly, their emotional openness, illustrated by the lack of tension and flow of energy in their chest region.

As I played with where I felt these qualities in my own body, I didn’t try to impersonate the men superficially, but to connect with the experiences in my life—like caring for my younger brothers when I was growing up and being a camp counsellor—that brought out the warmth and confidence Harry needed from me now.

When Harry next raced into my office, I was prepared to get ahead of him, and relate to him with focus, calm, and an embodied sense of security
When Harry next raced into my office, I was prepared to get ahead of him, and relate to him with focus, calm, and an embodied sense of security. As we revisited the previous session, I validated his anxieties about depending on his girlfriend (or any intimate “scene partner” in his life) and invited him to talk about the pressure he puts on himself to “be ahead” of other people, including me.

Throughout this session, there was more ease, vulnerability, and play between us than ever before. But it wasn’t what I said, so much as how I’d learned to be in the room with him, that made the difference. I was even able to recommend self-care activities like yoga, which he’d rejected in the past, in a way that he now responded to with complete openness—in theater terms, same script, better performance.

As Harry exited that day, he turned around in the doorway, took a moment, and then said through the shimmer of a tear, “Thank you.” I simply smiled in return, maintaining the combination of groundedness, strength, warmth, and vulnerability that we’d discovered together in our session.

Finale

While I waited for my next client, alone in my office, I reflected on the connection Harry and I had found, and I recalled an interview with Meryl Streep, in which she explained that in her view, her success as a performer was only as good as it was “the last time.” Thinking of our sessions ahead, I knew we could expect more tension, insecurity, fear, and doubt to manifest between us. But at the same time, I knew my acting training could help me perform on this different kind of stage, where we’d continue to explore various versions of ourselves together.

I initially felt I needed to be someone else in order to access both Quigley and Harry. Like so many actors and therapists, I am driven by the desire to please my collaborators, to be the “expert,” and to “get it right” on the first line reading. But at the same time, in order to connect with our clients, characters, and scene partners as performing artists, we must practice our craft with humility, patience, and the belief that we are enough. We must trust that if we show up to each “rehearsal” with the willingness to be fully present—along with our vulnerabilities, naivete, and deep self-reflection—we will give our creative partners what they need to be present with us as well. Especially if we engage each other in a process of imaginative, empathic play.

I knew my acting training could help me perform on this different kind of stage
Through our respective play sessions, Quigley and Harry both showed me that their apparent toughness, butchness, and self-containment were part of me as well—keys existing somewhere within my instrument, even if I don’t embody them every day. But an even greater revelation for me in both cases, was that the idiosyncratic “soft” qualities that makeup my everyday self—and that I originally believed were obstacles to bringing both young men into the spotlight—turned out to be exactly what they needed to find hidden keys within their own instruments. By playing these untapped versions of ourselves—even, and perhaps especially, when we felt inadequate—each of us found a way to breathe, to integrate, and to become more fully alive.

Note: This article has been adapted from Mark O’Connell’s new book, The Performing Art of Therapy: Acting Insights and Techniques for Clinicians, and his article “Character Work: What Therapists Can Learn from Actors,” in the Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2019 issue. 

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Bios
Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R, MFA, is a NYC-based psychotherapist in private practice. His writing covers a range of topics related to the performing art of living, and has been published in Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, as well as popular sources, including The Huffington Post and on his Psychology Today column, Quite Queerly. He is the author of Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional 21st Century Weddings. His website is: www.markoconnelltherapist.com