Theater

That’s What Winning Looks Like!: A conversation with Wendy Lippe from The Psych Drama Company

It seems like a lifetime ago that I had the pleasure of reviewing Psych Drama Company’s production of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo. The theater had an exciting season planned before the pandemic, but I was excited to hear that rather than stay dormant, they’re mounting an exciting virtual production of The Lion in Winter. I spoke with Wendy Lippe, the producing artistic director, about their ambitious digital venture.

Kevin Broccoli (Motif): Before we talk about The Lion in Winter, can you speak a little bit about your company and your approach to producing? I find the mission statement really fascinating and I’d love to hear more about it.

Wendy Lippe: I was inspired to start The Psych Drama Company, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization while attending a psychology conference titled “Greek Tragedy and Psychoanalysis” in Ortigia, Italy. The mental health professionals at the conference saw two extraordinary performances in an Ancient Greek amphitheater: Ajax and Phaedra. The conference attendees then met for several hours each day, presenting papers and discussing these wonderful performances in what I refer to as a “psychological bubble.” I describe it as a psychological bubble because none of the actors or creative team was present for these discussions, nor was the general public. The papers and discussions were rich and filled with commentary on the elements of human nature that transcend time because that’s what the Greek tragedies portray. In fact, that’s what all great theater and art accomplish. I believed the discussions occurring in this “psychological bubble” could appeal to and meaningfully affect a much larger group of people, the general public, if only the use of jargon could be removed from the presentations and discussions. AND if the intellectual discussions could have emotional and visceral life breathed into them by having the actual creative artists present to participate: the actors, directors and the full creative team!

Another motivating factor in founding the company was that as a person who has always been and continues to be deeply ambivalent about technology’s impact on our minds, lives and relationships, I recognized the way technology both opens and collapses space for us.  With the pre-COVID world being so fast-paced and technology-driven, I had been very concerned about the collapsing of reflective space in our lives. I wanted to find a way to hold space for the public at large to meaningfully reflect on their lives and relationships in new ways outside of a therapist’s office. I believe the integration of theater and psychology has the potential to create that kind of space. Immersive theater, in particular, can activate particularly powerful emotions and physical reactions in audience members because they are no longer simply spectators, and psychologists are trained to hold space in unique ways that facilitate reflection and processing of those reactions; the result can be transformative. Immersive theater and psychology — a marriage that has the power to activate, hold, metabolize, and transform.

I left the “Greek Tragedy and Psychoanalysis” conference with an ideal vision of a theater company that would bring theater artists and mental health professionals together in the mounting of productions, working on all phases of the process, including the post-show discussions with the audience. While every production is different, we have had psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers consulting on casting, character development and character arcs, text analysis, the conceptualization of the immersive nature of the show, the rehearsal process and the post-show discussions after every performance.  

For the post-show discussions, each mental health professional chooses a different psychological aspect of the play that they would like to help the audience reflect upon. One of my favorite moments in these post-show discussions occurs immediately after the play concludes; we ask the audience members to sit quietly for three minutes and to notice the emotions, physical sensations and thoughts they are having after experiencing the play. Our skilled post-show discussion leaders create a space where conversations about those reactions becomes part of reflecting on and processing the play, and also includes discussion of the aspects of human nature that transcend time in the script and in all of us.

KB: I don’t want to spend too much time on the sad state of theater at the moment, but I did want to ask about the company’s pre-pandemic plans and how you went about shifting those plans as it became clear in-person programming wouldn’t be possible for a while, and how you decided to produce The Lion in Winter, which is one of my favorite plays.

WL: The Psych Drama Company has produced shows for a number of years in Boston, Brookline, NYC and RI.  Prior to the pandemic, we were scheduled to have our first full season of shows for 2020 in Providence at AS220. Our inaugural season of shows included Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, which we performed in February 2020 just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.  Our season explored themes of illusion and disappointment in relationships, self-deception, reflections on the nature of “love,” primal and civilized parts of self and authenticity. With the Albee production, we had a full roster of Harvard Medical School mental health professionals who led post-show discussions after every performance. The list included Steven Cooper, Ph.D., Justin Newmark, Ph.D., Lise Motherwell, Ph.D., Jennifer Stone, Ph.D., Deborah Hulihan, PsY.D., Goldie Eder, LICSW, Eliane Boucher, Ph.D. and myself. Sadly, due to COVID-19, we had to cancel the two other shows in our season, which were Stage Kiss by Sarah Ruhl and God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. We also had to cancel all of the post-show discussion leaders we had scheduled for those two productions.

With news of the pandemic being confusing and chaotic, and the theater bug burning inside all of us, we realized we needed a new plan. I usually have multiple creative projects that I dream about at night and fantasize about during the day.  In 2019, I had played Eleanor of Aquitaine in Roundabout Productions’ The Lion in Winter. Some number of months after the production closed, I had a dream about an immersive production of The Lion in Winter that would fit The Psych Drama Company’s mission and aesthetic.  

Because it was a show I was familiar with and had already performed in, because I had a vivid conceptualization for an immersive version of the show, and because we were able to recruit a few of the cast members from the 2019 production, it seemed reasonable to start initial rehearsals via Zoom until the virus was behind us; the plan was to rehearse in person as soon as we could safely do so. We had our first read-through and discussion of the immersive concept for the show via Zoom in April, and we were fully cast and doing table work by June. We all thought the Zoom rehearsals were temporary, but like the rest of the world, we had no idea what we were in for! As the weeks went by, and news of the pandemic was worsening, the horizon for performing the show in a theater was moving further and further away.

As we continued to dig deeper and deeper into the text, simultaneously engulfed by the uncertainty around us, at times it felt like the only certainty was the liminal Zoom rehearsal space … an oxymoron indeed! As weeks turned to months and months turned to the possibility of a year before we could perform the show in a theater, two things happened almost simultaneously. One was that some of our actors were realizing that they might not be in the Boston area in a year or longer due to graduate school and other commitments that had been put on hold due to COVID. The second was that there was a felt need by the group to have some creative output after three months of intensive table work and rehearsals. As a result, we concluded that we needed to do a streaming radio drama with our original cast, and we needed to cast additional actors in role-share positions because some of our original cast members were likely leaving the Boston area before theaters reopened. Perhaps a futile effort to feel some sense of certainty in a time of uncertainty? Or an adaptive effort to control what we could control? I don’t know. But one thing I know now more than I have ever known before is that the creative force within artists will never be squelched, no matter how oppressive external conditions are.

As excited as we were about the immersive, experimental production conceived of for live theater that we would have to delay due to COVID-19, we were delighted to discover that The Lion in Winter also met several criteria that made it an excellent candidate for an audio drama adaptation. Those criteria included, but were not limited to the following:

  1. the main action of the play gets started early 
  2. there is a strong and compelling narrative 
  3. there are not more than seven main characters 
  4. the characters are each very distinct 
  5. the scenes of the play are varied with regard to length and pace 
  6. the dialogue keeps the story moving forward

KB:  It’s clear your company puts a lot of thought into the work you produce in regard to how it benefits the company’s mission; how does The Lion in Winter fit that mission and what was the decision-making process like in terms of how to present it? You’ve opted to do it as an audio drama, but was there ever any discussion of doing it as a live digital reading or a recorded Zoom reading? I love that you went with a strictly audio version for now, but I’m wondering how those conversations transpired or if it seemed like the right choice from the onset.

WL: The Psych Drama Company’s production of The Lion in Winter, once in theaters, will be immersive like most of our shows. With our immersive productions, as previously discussed, we seek to create an experience for our audience members that stimulates something different — something activating that takes them out of the passive position of being a spectator. We have the immersive, experiential details fully conceptualized and planned for our live production that will occur once theaters reopen, but that is a surprise worth waiting for and we don’t want to spoil it by sharing it now!

For the present moment, in the context of COVID, we chose a streaming radio drama with no visual content, so that listeners could actively let themselves imagine … actively let themselves fantasize. Due to the length and pervasiveness of the pandemic, for many people the Zoom world and Zoom relating has come to feel two dimensional, and as such, it can feel draining and sometimes quite deadening. Most of us are suffering from Zoom fatigue. In contrast, the activation of our internal world … our imagination is three-dimensional and beyond; it is enlivening, and can be inspired by books, music and audio recordings of plays! One of my favorites is the 1973, The Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center, three record album of Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire with Rosemary Harris and James Farentino.

Goldman’s brilliant text, The Lion in Winter, also fits The Psych Drama Company’s mission because it is replete with rich psychological themes to mine. Family dysfunction in every conceivable direction, betrayal, envy, greed, narcissism, sexual identity, adultery, sibling rivalry, deceit, Oedipal dynamics, sexual politics, infidelity, self-deception, loss and love. The currency is power, provinces, land and crowns, but underneath it all, is the fundamental human yearning to be recognized, seen and loved. In Act Two, scene four, as Princess Alais so wisely says to King Philip, “Love is the turnkey.” Once we are back in theaters, our post-show discussion leaders will have a field day with this text!!

KB: In your message to me, you mentioned that you spent three months working on the play digitally. I can imagine that there’s so much to discover when you start a table working this play at this time. How much knowledge did you have of the play beforehand as a group, and did it speak to you in a different way looking at it in today’s political climate?

WL: Those of us from the 2019 production had a reasonably solid working knowledge of the script. As with most well-written plays, however, and The Lion in Winter is undoubtedly one such example, there are always more and more layers within the text and ourselves as actors to be discovered. I have found that there are certain roles that I feel repeatedly drawn to, and Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of those roles. I remember one of our post-show discussion leaders, Arthur Gray, a wise and seasoned psychologist from NYC who had professional acting training, said he believed that when we are compelled to go back to specific texts over and over again, it is because the repetition is somehow helping us work through unconscious, unresolved issues.

Working on this play in this nightmarish political landscape is challenging because the Plantagenet family, as portrayed in Goldman’s play, and the Trump family share disturbingly similar qualities. And though The Lion in Winter is fiction, Goldman does capture many upsetting historical truths about the Plantagenet family.   

As Mike Levine wrote in his July 23, 2020, ABC News article based on his interview with Mary Trump, “As Mary Trump tells it Donald Trump grew up in a ‘dysfunctional’ family whose own family members were used as ‘pawns’ and believed ‘money stood in’ for acts of love.” This is all vividly captured in Goldman’s telling of the Plantagenet family story.

Levine continued, “She (Mary Trump) previously told ABC News ‘it’s impossible to know who Donald might have been’ had he been born into a different family, but his father, Fred Trump, was a ‘sociopath’ who pushed his children to ‘succeed at all costs,’ to view people as ‘expendable,” and to ‘do anything to get attention, financial rewards, and to “win”.'”  Levine further added that Mary Trump, “In her interview with ‘The View,’ said the president’s family ‘excels at’ being ‘gratuitously cruel.’ All of these statements pertaining to Trump and his family powerfully resonate throughout Goldman’s play about the Plantagenet family dysfunction.

Though I can’t speak for the other actors in the show, given the state of the world and the Trump family, I felt more conflicted than I did in the 2019 production with regard to what I needed to access internally to play the role of the omnipotent Eleanor of Aquitaine. This second time around, I couldn’t get through Eleanor’s monologue in Act Two, scene one (“It’s 1183, and we’re still barbarians….. we are the origins of war….dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten….”) without tearing up and having my voice crack, so I just used it. Of course, Trump was president the first time I played Eleanor of Aquitaine in 2019, but the most recent national tragedies and crises have affected me on a deeper and more visceral level.

KB: I know you said that you’ve made some unique casting decisions with the show. Can you talk a little bit about that and how you made those choices?

WL: Our original cast was comprised of all white actors. Once we decided to audition for role-share positions, because of the likelihood that some of our original cast members would be leaving the Boston area once theaters reopened, we were fortunate to have a very talented young Black man audition for the role of Geoffrey.

With all the consciousness-raising that the BLM movement has generated, we were invested in “color-conscious” casting instead of “color-blind” casting. In other words, if we were going to cast a Black man as Geoffrey, we did not want to negate his identity by asking the audience to ignore the color of his skin as some form of “suspension of disbelief.” To make one of the sons Black was to make the explicit statement that one of Henry and Eleanor’s sons was a literal bastard and that either Eleanor or Henry had conceived a child with a Black individual. Interestingly, Geoffrey’s dialogue with other characters in the script worked beautifully with this narrative, as did much of the dialogue between other characters when referring to Geoffrey. While Goldman’s play is purposefully peppered with anachronisms, we still wanted to understand if this mixed-race narrative could fit within the text’s historical context.

Some quick research taught us that in the early medieval years (prior to 1183, when The Lion in Winter takes place), being a “bastard” did not necessarily preclude a person from claiming an inheritance. What mattered more was the status of the parents, not whether they were married.  Though the following is something that should be common knowledge but is not, just as is the case today, in medieval Western Europe, Black people existed at all levels of social strata including nobility; and if Geoffrey was a child that Eleanor conceived with a Black nobleman, Geoffrey could have a claim to Henry’s crown. In this narrative, Geoffrey would be advocating for an older standard or rule of who was entitled to an inheritance which was in transition and rapidly becoming outdated by the year 1183.

With this historical information to support “color-conscious” casting of a Black man as Geoffrey, we introduced an exciting and rich layer to our production of The Lion in Winter, one that we had not seen done before in other productions of this show. 

KB: What’s your experience with creating audio drama? Is it something you or anyone else at The Psych Drama Company has done before or was this a new frontier for all of you ,and will this be the last project we see from the company before in-person theater is back, or has this inspire you to create more work in this way?

WL: This is the first time The Psych Drama Company has created a radio drama adaptation of a play, and we found this endeavor to be very enjoyable and rewarding. For the radio show, we added in bits of narration adapted from the stage directions in the script. We believe that this added narration, in addition to the distinct voices and characterizations of our actors, will make it clear to the listening audience what is happening in the story. All of this was carefully worked out and rehearsed in advance, before we met one time in a large socially distanced room to make the audio recording of our performance. We have also had to learn and work with some technologies that are new to us: audio recording and web streaming. 

The first streaming performance of The Lion in Winter radio drama is on Saturday, December 5, 2020, starting at 8pm. The show runs two and a half hours with an intermission break between the two acts. Each ticket gets you a link to listening to the show on one device, either computer, tablet or smartphone. We have learned that it is best not to have any programs running on your device, so as to avoid any breaks or buffering in the streaming audio. 

We are already in the planning stages of our next project, and we are very excited about it! Just as with The Lion in Winter, we will start with a streaming radio drama that we will bring to the stage once theaters reopen.  The Psych Drama Company, in association with The Audiovisual Centre Dubrovnik and composer Zarko Dragojevic, will be collaborating on a play (the title of which we have not yet announced) with an original score of music composed for our production. We will be assisted by the former director of major gifts and planned giving from the Metropolitan Opera, and 10% of all proceeds will be donated to the World Health Organization to help fight COVID-19.  We are thrilled and honored to be working with this international group as all artists all over the world are truly in this together!

For tickets and information about The Lion in Winter radio drama, go to onthestage.com/show/the-psych-drama-company/the-lion-in-winter-99927

For information about The Psych Drama Company, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, please go to thepsychdramacompany.com

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