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Gestalt Therapy and Performance

Philip Brownell, MDiv; MA

[2]Introduction [3]Gestalt Therapy Overview [4]Gestalt Perspectives On Performance [5]Gratitude For The Performance Discussion [6]Resources

The world coalesces. In performance studies people pursue the meanings of "process" and "experience." In psychotherapy researchers try to understand the process whereby people make meaning out of their experience. One group struggles around an apparent dichotomy between theater and performance while another attempts splitting the fine hairs that sprout among constructivist, narrative, and gestalt approaches to psychotherapy; yet, in both conclaves people consider similar issues. Those dedicated to performance as a comprehensive paradigm may not know that in the field of psychotherapy another group of people perceives the world with similar lenses but they call themselves Gestaltists, and believe that Gestalt therapy offers a comprehensive paradigm of its own. These two groups could benefit from a dialogue in which each informs the other. As Dwight Conquergood put it, "Instead of a stable, monolithic paradigm...I prefer to think in terms of a caravan: a heterogenous ensemble of ideas and methods on the move."

This suggested dialogue is fitting, given the influence of dramatic performance on Gestalt therapy. During Fritz Perls's youth he was a student-actor with Max Reinhart in Germany. Many see similarities between Perls's Gestalt psychotherapy and Jacob Moreno's psychodrama; whereas in Gestalt the client "plays" all roles him or herself, in psychodrama, these are cast by various members in a therapy group. Although there's been no significant documentation of a link between these two men, it appears that similar concepts occurred to them at the same time in the caravan of ideas sojourning through their epoch.

This article presents an overview of Gestalt therapy, Gestalt perspectives on some of the issues in the discussion of the performance paradigm, and an expression of gratitude to performance thinkers for concepts which Gestaltists might do well to consider.

Gestalt Therapy Overview
Robert Resnick, in an interview in the British Gestalt Journal, characterized Gestalt therapy as consisting of

* an appreciation of [7]the field, in the sense of field theory,
* utilization of the[8] phenomenological method
* and a [9]dedication to dialogue.

Others have included as important
* willingness to [10]experiment and
* a belief in the [11]paradoxical theory of change.

There are many additional subjects that could be explored in relation to Gestalt therapy and its theory and practice. Those interested in a more complete summary of Gestalt therapy should consult the web site for the [12]Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy (AAGT).

The field is all that is. It's the universe, the solar system, the planet, the continent and so on down to that portion of a bio-social system in which one happens to breath. It's where you touch the soft warmth of another's skin. It's where you look up into the night sky and squint back into time. I watched my first child born from one place in the field, and I welcomed him home after his sophomore year in college from another. Individuals exist embedded in an objective place within the field, but at the same time, they occupy that place as subjects, and perceive themselves in a given manner because of their perceptual apparatus. That constitutes the ground of their being, from which emerge various figures, a cycle of contact and withdrawal. It plays itself out with regard to any person's being in the field. He or she experiences a persistent march of need and fulfillment in respect to the drama of life, a cycle of contact in which a person reaches out for satisfaction and then withdraws. All this occurs within a context, embedded within other contexts. Robert Crease understands this when he writes

Performance is first of all an execution of an action in the world which is a presentation of a phenomenon; that action is related to a representation (for example a text, script, scenario, or book); using a semiotic system (such as a language, a scheme of notation, a mathematical system); finally, a performance springs from and is presented to a suitably prepared local (historically and culturally bound) community which recognizes new phenomena in it. The field develops through an interaction of all three. (1993, p.96)

Susan Gregory, during discussion of the concept of field on the [13]AAGT mailing list, described it as
an inseparable whole, attributes of which may emerge to our awareness through excitation and contacting and thus may become figural for us, allowing us to think and communicate. This impression of figuralness - a Figure - is not in fact an aspect separate from the Field, but is an inseperable part of the Field, that constelation (sic) of aspects upon which we are then focusing. 'Then' can be a moment or a lifetime or an historical epoch. (1996)

Taking Crease's components, performance occurs as incident in the field. As such, it brings together the figural experience of playwrite, cast, and audience, and the whole process transcends time. Thus, performance can indeed be a moment, lifetime, or an epoch, depending upon one's perspective, one's physical and conceptual vantage point in the field. Indeed, performance may be these many things simultaneously, depending on the positions various participants occupy.

...we have effects on our relationships and communities and we are also affected by them. We help create or organize the mutual reality or shared field and in turn are created and organized by it.(Parlett, 1991)

Phenomenological Method
Phenomenology concerns itself with the subjective character of a person's experience. How does a person organize his or her perception to make meaning? According to Resnick,

How people choose, organize, and contribute to the construction of what becomes figural for them and what background(s) they bring to bear, is critical. This is what creates their phenomenological reality in the moment and contributes to how they create their life over time. (Resnick and Parlett, p. 3)

Often, consideration of the field leads to contemplating how one person within it experiences his or her position in that field. On the other hand, concentrating on an individual's subjective experience may lead to considering the system in which that person functions, because the subjects of phenomenology and field are vitally bound. As Sylva Crocker described it:

...it is important to realize that reality is "chunky". For example, a number of organisms interacting in a given environmental field (which includes them) all have their own organizational integrity. Each, in other words, is a unity which has its own unique organization of aspects, its own assimilated history, its own purposes, its own preferences, its own strengths and weaknesses, etc. The organisms are not the same as the non-organic elements in the situation, and there are obvious distinctions among these elements themselves. Reality should not be conceived of as a kind of homogeneous soup, but as a vastly complex system of individual things which interact with each other. Here again, the theorist has a choice to begin with the One and then try to figure out how it differentiates into the Many, or she/he can choose to begin with the Many and then try to understand how these are related into One system. (1996)

Bert States implies that performance is also phenomenological when he writes:

As audience, we go to theatre to witness a transformation of the things of reality (or fantasy) and presumably the actor performs in order to undergo a transformation, or to become a twice-not ... self. So theatre, and as I will argue, artistic performance at large, offers us the pleasure of transformation. And I think this is a fundamental pleasure at the very core of mind and memory. "Memory (itself)," as Gerald Edelman writes, "is transformational rather than replicative." Hence, the endless abililty of "the brain to confront novelty, to generalize upon it, and to adapt in unforeseen fashions." All perception, all memory, is creative, which is to say adapted to the specifications of the organism, and performative art-making (of all kinds) is one of the extensions of this principle into collective life. (States, 1996, p.21-22)

The phenomenological method is an approach to doing therapy whereby the therapist suspends judgement in order to concentrate on the description of how his or her client perceives experience. Rather than fitting the client's story into preformed theoretical categories, often accompanied by interpretations given from the therapist, which the client is supposed to receive, Gestalt therapists exert an effort to understand how a client sees that portion of the world in which they live, and what significance that has for them. It doesn't matter so much what the objective condition might even be, and some push phenomenology far enough to ignore such issues. What really matters is the client's current experience, or reality, because for them their construction of reality is reality itself.

The quest to understand how a client puts that reality together, how it serves him or her, and to utilize the dialogue and contact in this investigation so as to enhance the client's own awareness of these things, is the phenomenological method.

Commitment to Dialogue
I often tell clients what I'm wondering about as I listen to them. When I make observations about their behavior in my presence, I say things like, "I notice you're squeezing your hand," or, "I see you moved away from me, and I'm wondering what that means." After a short while, they typically become more responsive, observing for themselves the way I pay attention, so that even such a non-verbal thing as paying such attention becomes dialogical and carries a portion of our conversation.

"Dialogue is basically the open engagement of two phenomenologies - the client's and the therapist's." (Resnick and Parlett, p. 4)

I once sat down to talk with a paranoid individual in a locked, acute psychiatric unit and told him I felt fearful in his presence. He relaxed. In that situation such dialogue proved to be virtually the only non-threatening contact available between us.

Gestalt therapists affirm that, indeed, there are two individuals in the session, and both are required in order to carry out an interpersonal process. That means a Gestalt therapist works to be present authentically, not just as playing a role or acting (professional, and he or she includes the client by making a space for them, even reaching toward them to encourage an "I - Thou" meeting. Gestalt therapists believe that growth comes to individuals as they establish and maintain contact with one another. In this regard Lynn Jacobs writes :"Therapy composed solely of awareness techniques, without the contactful engagement of the therapist / person with the patient / person, limits the awareness possibilities for the patient and interrupts the becoming of both people. " (Jacobs, p. 64)

There seems to be a corollary with such dialogue in Philip Auslander's description of "performative writing; " he states, "In the hands of skilled practitioners, this kind of writing entails the acknowledgement and exploration of the writer's own subjectivity and the nature of that subjectivity's engagement with the object of inquiry." There is contact and a legitimate I - thou, instead of a depersonlized I- it. In this respect performance seems to share the Gestalt emphasis on the interpersonal and dialogical.

...we become unique individuals only in relation to other human beings. This runs counter to our usual individualistic model of the person. It deeply recognizes that one of the most fundamental tensions of human existence is the tension between our relatedness and our uniqueness. (Hycner, p.29)

In therapy it is the awareness of how one organizes around a given figure that generates an investigation. Client and therapist alike become detectives searching for clues to that organization. What starts out vague gradually becomes more specific. In this process typically a person may ask, "I wonder what would happen if..." The issues of the moment and the emerging figure dictate the details of any given experiment, and the word experiment is itself purposive, for truly, therapist and client alike are collecting data and creating meaning from what they uncover. As Miriam and Erving Polster described it, the Gestalt experiment...

...is used to expand the range of the individual, showing him how he can extend his habitual sense of boundary where emergency and excitement exist. A safe emergency is created, one which fosters the development of self-support for new experiences. Actions which were previously alien and resisted can become acceptable expressions and lead to new possibilities. (Polster and Polster, 1974, p. 112)

In one situation I asked a client who related to life from her head, to keep track of her feelings in the morning and the evening for one week, just as an experiment to see what would happen. Her writing indicated a tedious thinking about feelings until the last entry in her record. That's when some corollary reading had provoked an outpouring of emotion, and she could see from the notes that there was a relationship between what she had been doing and ( thinking about on the one hand and what she was feeling on the other. She became excited by this information, and reassured that her negative feelings probably had a context as well, one that she could search to understand if she chose.

...psychotherapy is not the learning of a true theory about oneself...it is a process of experimental life - situations that are venturesome as explorations of the dark and disconnected...(Perls, Hefferlein, and Goodman, p. 312)

Paradoxical Theory of Change
Pushed to the ridiculous the difference between Gestalt therapy and others is that with them the therapist hopes something will happen "in here," but with Gestalt the therapist assumes it will happen "out there." Of course there is a goal for the therapeutic encounter itself, but that is contact and awareness of the moment, an experiential I - thou encounter. Such genuine contact, and the excitement attending it, stirs a person. They process their experience for hours, even days afterward. The reorganization takes place "out there," in the community. It is the paradox of such experiential learning that change occurs precisely when no such specific goal for change was sought. This is in contrast to minutely articulated treatment plans in which the client will do X, Y, and Z three times before the end of treatment!

Human beings are finite; it is impossible to fully grasp any situation, and so one's understanding of it, whatever "it" is, can only be partial, an analogy for the actual, and thus a parable of life. When pushed to an extreme, when applied and over applied, the analogy ultimately fails. Thus, when made to walk on all fours, the parable eventually appears ridiculous and must be replaced, updated, reshaped. This is what takes place when one's awareness of experience is made more complete; the analogies for life become more completely informed and must be reorganized, which is something people do in the quiet of their own lives, outside of the hour they sit talking with their therapist. It springs forth riding the bus home from work, changing the baby's diapers, shopping at the market.

A person changes by stopping attempts at change and allowing him or herself to be what he or she is.

Gestalt Perspectives On Performance

The discussion of performance typified in States' article, in which he characterizes two contributing perspectives on performance, reminds one of models of communication in which there is a sender and receiver. Summarizing the positions of Richard Schechner and Peggy Phelan, he writes,

Whereas the aesthetic of presence dominates Phelan's approach, the aesthetic of repetition dominates Schechner's contention that "restored [or twice-behaved] behavior is the main characteristic of performance." Phelan views performance essentially from the spectator standpoint, Schechner from the performer standpoint. (States, 1996, p.13)

Thus, performance is anything for which a receiver might organize an impression. Every Tuesday morning the garbage is collected on my street; therefore, every Monday night the residents put their cans by the curb. I have risen early, stood at the end of my street and been impressed by the "performance", the effect of those parallel rows of garbage receding towards the horizon, and of the ritual in it. Some may say that this was a performance indeed, made possible by the ensemble of players otherwise known as my neighbors, but for me it lacks intent. For me performance is an interpersonal relationship predicated on an implicit contract between performer and audience. Why is it so? We cannot escape the field; it is everything which actually exists, including our inheritance of a history of people paying in order to watch and of bringing to the event of their watching some expectation of being affected.

Moreover, intent is one thing that differentiates creating from performing. These are two different processes. On the one hand someone puts together a little of this and that to bring into being something not there before. On the other hand someone takes something that was definitely there before and reproduces it, or they express it in a different medium. Admittedly, there is creation in every performance, the bringing of something new to each "twice-behaved behavior," for there are no two exactly identical positions in the field.

There are also no two dialogues between performer and audience that are exactly alike. The occasion and the character of each performance is slightly different from that of another, but it's a different kind of joy to create something, reaching the point where one is satisfied with its existence, as opposed to presenting to others and having to wait on their response, the dialogue, to know whether one's performance has been appreciated. Thus, dialogue becomes the commerce of performance. Creation is monological.
Performance is dialogical.

In the Gestalt - dialogical approach to performance there is presence, inclusion, and a commitment to continued process.

The performer is actually there. If the performer is not there, and there is not a meeting between persons, then an individual is constructing his or her own meaning from something in their field, according to their own, monological and figural needs. One could say there's a meeting of sorts, protracted over time and space, when a person views a painting hanging in a gallery, but the wider the distance between performer and audience, the less an actual dialogical relationship exists because reciprocity diminishes to the point that behavior becomes mere coincidence, two isolated things happening at different points in the field.

The audience is actually included. The definition of audience may differ so that cast may also become audience during rehearsal, but the awareness of the audience and the inclusive atttitude toward them is what's important. One of my Gestalt trainers, in an effort to communicate this concept, made an important distinction. I had been saying, "So the therapist 'goes after' the client in an effort to include them in the dialogue," and she corrected me. She said, "No. I make room for them, but I don't intrude." Without this distinction performance becomes assault, an abuse of the dialogical relationship.

Finally, both performer and audience are committed to the process. Because of the excitement of contact, performance is distinguishable from ritualistic presentation. When people touch one another, it's perceived as rare and precious - worth holding on to. That is one aspect of a commitment to dialogue in performance, but another is the striving to achieve or maintain this contact. Those involved in performance understand both.

This meeting, or temporal-spatial occasion, becomes an experiment, as if the producer had asked, "I wonder what would happen if we ran the play on a fifth night in the same location?" He or she might say afterward, "I'll never do that again." The performers, however, could experience a satisfying exchange with that particular audience and realize that every performance is a different opportunity. They might walk away processing these things only to realize weeks later, "I really like doing this theater stuff!" That would be the paradoxical theory of change evident in virtually all experiential learning. The reconstruction takes place after the event, and the meaning-making contributes to future affective and behavioral states. In other words, what we experience makes us feel, think, and act in a certain manner. Thus, performance could also be another way of conceptualizing what takes place during Gestalt therapy, a relationship Fritz Perls and Jacob Moreno observed many years ago.

Gestalt therapy theory and practice are rich with a variety of understandings and applications. This has been but a dabbling with regard to a few of them. The use of Gestalt principles extends from organizational development, at one end of the stick, to the individual working out of a person's private spiritual life at the other. Application of Gestalt dynamics to the performance discussion could stimulate the process underway among performance thinkers as well. They would do well to consult Gestalt thinkers (people like Gordon Wheeler, Iris Fodor, Sylvia Crocker, Robert Resnick, Elaine Kepner, and many, many others), because a more complete explanation of the relevance of Gestalt concepts is beyond the scope of this article. In addition, the exchange of insights and perspectives undoubtedly would prove exciting for the Gestalt community.

Gratitude For The Performance Discussion

Bert States (1996, p. 25) culminates his article in the Theatre Journal with a few thoughts on the artistry in life. Like a poet, he contemplates living and suggests that any creator, be that person a scientist or an actor, is still an audience. "Surely, all artists respond to their work as an audience in the very act of creating it." He goes on to say:

Here is what we might call the kernel or gene of performativity from which all divided forms of artistic performance spring: the collapse of means and ends into each other, the simultaneity of producing something and responding to it in the same behavioral act. All artistic performance is grounded in this pleasure and performance thereafter goes its cultural way toward endless forms of differentiation and intentionality, whereby others (now called performers) stand apart and perform for us (called audiences) the "heard melodies" of themselves and others. (States, 1996, p. 25)

This is one of the reasons I like doing psychotherapy. Not only is it interesting and challenging work, it's satisfying to observe that people actually change by virtue of the process. There's also a sense of mastery and accomplishment in the discipline of what I'm doing, and I'm able to monitor my own growth in the skills required.

Some would say I'm merely seeing what I want to see, and that certainly would be correct. In a day when outcome studies push clinicians toward cold scientific data and managed care dictates an ever truncated course of treatment, who wouldn't yearn for a little artistry in what they were doing? However, I read in what States has expressed more than an aesthetic value. It has to do with excellence, doing the thing as well as you can, and it has to do with humility, a sense that something in this is more than you can do. It's miraculous, as if someone else were at work, and so here comes, even more so, the quality of being an audience and of watching the performing miracle in it.

Therapists need to know the freedom of playing at their work, of enjoying it, and that comes from a sense of performance in which we learn to observe ourselves and the artistry with which we approach what we do. In this caravan of ideas sojourning during our time it might be worthwhile to take a page from the past and let history repeat itself. If Fritz Perls can do it, why can't we?

Auslander, P. (1995) "Evangelical fervor", The Drama Review. 39 (4), p. 179.

Conquergood, D. (1995) "Of caravans and carnivals: Performance studies in motion. The Drama Review 39(4), p. 140

Crease, R. (1993) The play of nature: Experimentation as performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 96, quoted in States, B.O. "Performance as metaphor," (1996) Theatre Journal 48(1996) p. 21.

Crocker, S. (Feb. 17, 1996) "Re: Mind and body" AAGT mailing list

Gregory, S. (Feb. 23, 1996) "Ground or field 2" AAGT mailing list.

Perls, F., Hefferlein, R., and Goodman, P. (1980) Gestalt Therapy NY: Bantam Books.

Hycner, R.H. "Dialogical gestalt therapy: An initial proposal." The gestalt journal 8 (1), p.22-51.

Jacobs, L. "Dialogue in Gestalt Theory and therapy" The Gestalt Journal 12 (1)

Parlett, M. (1991) "Reflections on field theory." British Gestalt Journal 1, p. 69-81

Polster, E. and Polster, M. (1974) Gestalt therapy integrated. NY: Random House.

Resnick, R. and Parlett, M. (1995) "Gestalt Therapy: principles, prisms, and perspectives." British Gestalt Journal 4(1), p. 2-13.

States, B.O. "Performance as metaphor," (1996) Theatre Journal 48(1996) p. 1-26.

   1. mailto:brownell@europa.com
http://kali.murdoch.edu.au/~academy/articles/jnode._GESTALT._Phil_Morle_.847117496.0.html#Gestalt Therapy Overview
http://kali.murdoch.edu.au/~academy/articles/jnode._GESTALT._Phil_Morle_.847117496.0.html#Gestalt Perspectives On Performance
http://kali.murdoch.edu.au/~academy/articles/jnode._GESTALT._Phil_Morle_.847117496.0.html#Gratitude For The Performance Discussion
  12. http://www.europa.com/~brownell
  13. mailto:aagt@netride.com
  14. http://kali.murdoch.edu.au/~academy/index.html


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