Psychologists bring insights to stage

By Catherine Robertson Souter
February 1st, 2012

Was Hamlet depressed or suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder? Would Medea, who turned a vengeful hatred for her ex-husband toward her own children in the ancient Greek tragedy, be diagnosed today with borderline personality disorder? How would other heroes or anti-heroes, fare on today’s therapeutic coaches?

In creating a new theater company, Boston’s Psych Drama, clinical psychologist Wendy Lippe, Ph.D., decided to use the theater as a way to both take a closer look at the psychology behind these classic and classical plays and to give audiences insight into their own psyches. Starting with a modern take on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” this past November, the company plans to re-interpret these ancient and well-loved texts for a modern audience, from a psychological viewpoint. In addition, each performance will be followed with a talk for the general public given by a local psychologist on the themes of each show.

Lippe, who runs a private practice in Cambridge and Brookline and is currently an adjunct assistant professor at Boston University, has also had an extensive career in theater, having played a female Hamlet in several professional productions as well as other lead roles. She spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the start-up company and their first production, in which she took on the title role.

 Q: What was the impetus for starting the theatre company?

A: few years ago, I auditioned for role of Gertrude with Sporadic Evolution Theatre in Bridgewater and ended up being given the role of Hamlet. That led to a series of portrayals of female Hamlets in which I started to think about the psychology of the piece when you are doing Hamlet as a woman.

One of my colleagues invited me to this wonderful conference in the ancient part of Sicily, “Psychoanalysis in Greek Tragedy” – right up my alley. We saw this wonderful company in an old Greek amphitheater in Ortegia put on two plays and then several psychologists presented papers and we studied them in some very interesting ways.

But there was no connection between the psychologists and the actors and directors. I thought it would be interesting if you had a theater company that integrated psychologists with the artistic team and if there was some kind of reciprocal influence. My mind just started spinning.

Q: Your first show was a reinterpretation of “Hamlet” set in modern times with you as the lead character. Was that a success?

A: It was terrific and interesting and fun and an important production for us to start with. “Hamlet” obviously has so much psychology in it and there are so many different ways one can go with it. We focused on creating essentially a family tragedy.

We worked a lot with subtext and aspects of the relationships between the characters that are not usually examined. We slowed the soliloquies and monologues down so that you could really study and think about the psychology behind the relationships and the dysfunction as well as the intrapsychic conflict.

Q: Did you add text to the original play?

A: We mostly edited because it is a huge text; the full “Hamlet” is over five hours. There were some pieces of text we changed like references to gender. We changed a small piece of text because the end of our show was a little different than the typical fencing duel that happens between Laertes and Hamlet.

 Q: But it was still the same result at the end, everyone dies except for Horatio?

A: Yes, but instead of a poisoned foil it was a poisoned king piece in a chess match.

Q: How does a female Hamlet change the play?

A: I had to think about that a lot. What does it mean when you have a woman in this role – and specifically what happens to the Oedipal dynamics between Hamlet and Gertrude? That was the first question psychologists asked me when I said I was playing Hamlet.

I realized that [a female] Hamlet has to be gay so you can keep all that wonderful dynamic going where she is so preoccupied with Gertrude’s sexuality. It is what we call the negative Oedipal.

In terms of her own gender identity – when Hamlet says “frailty thy name is woman,” she is now referring to herself and to Gertrude and Ophelia. It says a lot about Hamlet’s own self-loathing and struggle to deal with her rage and hatred at her mother for behaving in this way and jumping so quickly from her father’s to her uncle’s bed.

It becomes this interesting study in gender identity, sexual identity, self loathing and so on.

Q: Your goals for these productions are to help audiences to see themselves through the lens of these ancient texts?

A: We are trying to increase psychological mindedness and help people be more reflective in their lives.

We want to reach people you don’t usually reach. These plays speak to human and relational dilemmas that all of us can relate to because they transcend time. Everyone can relate to lust, love, greed, envy, revenge.

But it has to start with an exciting, invigorating performance. If it is old and stuffy and done in the way it’s been done forever, no one is going to want to see it. I wouldn’t want to see it.

Q: You had a number of different presenters after each of the 14 performances. Were you able to have them all become involved in a reciprocal relationship with the production?

A: In this inaugural production, because some came in from New York and some from New Hampshire, we gave our presenters the option to work with our artistic team or to work in isolation. My vision moving forward is to have people more involved to engage the audience in self-reflection through characters and the plays.

Q: Were the talk-backs a success?

A: We did have a number of people come see the show two to three times and several just come to additional talk-backs. The theater needed the public to leave by 11:30 p.m. and we were kicked out every single night. People wanted to keep talking. There is a desire for this out in the community.

Certainly every theater invites psychologists during the run of a show to give a talk-back but nothing exists where every single night we have a psychologically driven talk-back based on a psychologically driven interpretation of a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy.

Q: What is the timeline for your next production?

A: We have started brainstorming an original play based on parallel process issues that came up around the reinterpretation of “Hamlet.” We are thinking of doing a traveling show that explores what happens to the personal relationships between the actors, not the characters, when you take a classic piece of work and do a modern day reinterpretation.

Our next big project will likely be a Greek tragedy, possibly “Medea” at the end of the year. 

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