Want to know what your therapist is really thinking? Yeah, me neither. Writer/performer and yep, therapist Jude Treder-Wolff is here to tell you though. Her one woman show Crazytown: My First Psychopath hits the Chicago Fringe Fest this week. A comic take on an over-eager therapist’s wake up call, Crazytown evolved over years of solo performance work. Treder-Wolff spoke with Our Town about the relationship between art and therapy and how to nurture a heckler.
Our Town How do performance, therapy and writing relate?
Jude Treder-Wolff From my perspective, an effective performance, therapeutic process or piece of writing deals with some kind of transformation. A person who begins in one circumstance or state of mind, faces obstacles, tries various ways to overcome the obstacles and is changed by the process. It may not be the change one envisioned or even wanted at the start of the process, but that is often because in facing down the obstacles we discover things inner strengths, hidden connections between events or people, secrets or truths that redefine the problem – that could not be discovered without those obstacles. The role of performer and therapist are linked in the sense that an effective performance takes an audience through some kind of emotional experience, but entirely different in every other way. As a psychotherapist, my opinions, feelings, and concerns have to be put to the side so I can give my full attention and connect as deeply as possible to the person or group in front of me. The role is about good listening, good timing and creative guidance to help a person discover their own strength, creative capacities and path out of the problems they face. The performer role is me with my big opinions and big mouth out in front of people sharing what I really think about things. Being a performer made me a more effective therapist because I had this outlet to express ideas and work through my own perfectionism, fear of being judged, negativity, desire for control and disappointments which continue to flare up all the time in the process of creating or writing anything. Working through those issues has the side effect of expanding awareness about other people and their stories, which translates into being a more effective therapist.
OT Molding real life events into a story with a compelling narrative arc can be tough. How did you go about deciding what was interesting to you vs what might interest an audience?
JTW This is a great question. Just because something interesting or dramatic happened in real life does not make it viable as an entertaining story onstage. Because I started writing monologues exploring an idea or a theme and I often use vignettes or experiences from my own life when doing training or shows on these themes, I have lots of opportunity to see how a story lands on an audience. For example, I run a Smoking Cessation Program for a very large company on Long Island, and most of the participants are pretty cranky about having to be in the program. If I can get a laugh from a group in an 8 a.m. workplace smoking cessation group or staff meeting, I know I can get that laugh from an audience in a theater. So I have a great deal of real-time opportunities to try out and sharpen the stories of real experiences from my own life that make the point I want to make. The evolution of Crazytown has been almost an 18-month process of improvisation. Every performance was different, because I was trying out different ways to tell the overall story. The audience response is immediate and shows me clearly what works, what should be changed, and what needs to be cut.
OT Im curious about what sort of moral quandaries might have resulted from using real-life clients to create entertainment.
JTW Ill clarify right away that although until about two years ago I was seeing psychotherapy clients, I never used any of their stories in my shows. While the material and the characters created for my shows are rooted in real-life dilemmas common to many people who show up for psychotherapy, they are about my failures, flaws, and flops. It would be a terrible violation of the therapist/client relationship not to mention of their ethically-enforced right to confidentiality – to use what I heard in sessions onstage. That said, in Crazytown I am telling a story about my struggle, my fear and my obstacles through a real event with a real person in a real place. Details of everyone involved are completely disguised.
OT How do you align the identities of performer and therapist?
JTW What I believe, and have come to understand through these experiences over the last 20 years, is that self-awareness and engaging in a process of change in our own life is critical for a therapist. Therapists have to be very clear about our own issues, flaws, and current struggles so we dont project our story onto a client. A therapist is going through his/her own disappointments and dramas – a creative outlet like storytelling, writing or any other art form keeps us awake to our own story which helps tremendously in maintaining clarity and boundaries with clients.
OT Ever had the two sections of your life overlap?
JTW Here is an overlap I never saw coming: About ten years ago I played the lesbian doctor in a production of Falsettos at a theater here on Long Island. The show had a two-month run and we did some GLBT benefits as well. From this I received a great many private clients most of them really thought I was a lesbian but even when they learned that Im not, knew my position on gay issues. Because Ive been active in both the therapy and theater worlds, there is overlap in the sense that clients are aware of those activities and are free to come and see the shows if they are interested. [This] has been a boon to my private practice because I almost do issue-oriented work so people would know where I stand on something before even meeting me.
OT Whats been your favorite audience response to Crazytown?
JTW My favorite response to the show has been people telling me in person or emailing me to say that they laughed a lot (because without those laughs Im just a big old loudmouth narcissist, or at least thats how I feel up there) and felt a little more courage in talking about their own mistakes. Surprisingly, another favorite response was the night I got heckled during my show at the Broadway Comedy Club. I told the heckler whatever it is youre going through, we can work it out. Ive treated people much more troubled than you and let me tell you something, you are troubled. Ill give you my card after the show, which got things back on track. It was one of my favorite audience responses because I was able to stay in control and deal with the heckling in the moment. That felt really good.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, Herself When Shes Missing,” (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicagos StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually.