Couch and Stage

Integrating words and action in psychotherapy.

The Roles Not Taken

Meditations on new roles for the new year

I ran into my old friend, the Generalized Other, as I was walking through Washington Square Park late in the afternoon. He was admiring the Christmas tree shimmering under the arc.

“How glorious,” he said, as he held up his iphone and captured the moment in time. “I want you to see this,” he offered, “I’m having so much fun with this Hipstamatic app.”

Before I could ask, “What’s a Hipstamatic app?”, he told me: “It’s amazing. I can get the picture in a square box, looking just like the snapshots we used to take when we were kids, the colors like Bazooka bubble gum.”

Although I thought the photo was awful, I could see he was full of awe. It was Christmas season and he was in Washington Square Park at dusk, inhaling the colors and shapes and sounds, reflecting on the years past when the park was the focus of the Beatnik scene in New York. Just before he walked off, he took several more with his Hipstamatic app and asked: “How’s the drama therapy business going? Heal any actors lately?”

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Before I could remind him that drama therapy is not therapy for actors, and that people, actors included, heal themselves, he was gone. I recalled the words of an adolescent boy I had worked with many years ago when instamatics were all the rage: “Lighten up, Landy!”

Not a bad idea, I thought, better than judging a happy man with his Hipstamatic, a Christmas tree in all its splendor, a moment of nostalgia for a pastel-laden past, an attachment to itechnology. And so, in a lighter mood, this blog will be about several roles not taken, some of which I hope to materialize during the holidays and into the new year.

The Roles Not Taken

At the end of his memorable and oft-quoted poem, Robert Frost writes:

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference."

If a road is a role, or at least, a destination expressed in role, then

here are some I wish to take on:

Subway Panhandler: I commuted for many years into Grand Central Station, passing by endless panhandlers in the station and subways. They were part of the background, a generalized group of beggars with guitars and steel drums. I want to see the world of privilege that I once inhabited from this perspective. Who are the passengers? Who was I throughout the years in that role? Who am I now? What is the privilege of the panhandler?

Musician: Music was and still is my first art, the one I love the best. It is the road I only traveled in part, the one that rises deeply in my chest at random moments, only to recede when it is time and stifle my ability to listen. My “axe” lies buried in the back of the closet, the old Knabe piano once in my basement in an old Victorian brownstone in Hoboken, long gone. If I can play again, will the moments of inspiration become less random?

Fool: I am so weary of attempting to be wise and adhering to so many boundaries. I’ve never played the clown, even as a kid. I want to poke fun at others, especially at myself. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard that it hurt. I think I am of an age where I can bear ridicule. Or am I just kidding myself?

Celebrant: Can’t this one be put to rest, already? How many times do I have to grapple with matters of religion and spirituality, only to come up short? Yes, on my travels, I will visit the local temples and churches, as always. But this year, I desire something different. Maybe it’s just a letting go of a need to assert a single spiritual identification. I will be in Korea on Christmas and I will be asked if I want to go to church, and when I identify myself as a Jew and sit with the reactions, I want to feel at peace. I am a cultural Jew, steeped in the religion, but my spirituality comes from other places and I want to celebrate those in the coming seasons. I want to celebrate at the temple of imagination, solitude and relationship.

Beginner: The only true beginner roles I can think of are birth and death, and even those are unfixed in time and space, their truth being relative. I fought with all my might with the notion of here and now, even though I teach its gospel to my graduate students. I have raged at Fritz Perls, waged battle with the humanist psychologists and new age gurus for decades. Isn’t it time to surrender, to give up? I like myself best when I can begin again. The roles I mention above aren’t really new. Nothing is, really, isn’t that so? I have begged for money, played music, played the fool, celebrated holy days. I have done what most men my age have done: lived among and within my family roles, those extending from my body and gender and sexuality, my spiritual and political beliefs, my complexity of thoughts and feelings and impulses. So why do I think that these roles are new? Is it enough to say that they are at least renewable as the new year approaches?

It is getting late and I am hungry. Time to go home. Time to bid another goodbye to the park, with its gleaming tree and arc, its proud monuments to George Washington and Giuseppe Garibaldi, its fountain and gates, circles within circles, its mix of locals and commuters, students and retirees, dealers and buyers, players and passers-by. It’s time to go home. I am pulled from my reverie by a greeting from a recently graduated student. She tells me she has just been hired as a drama therapist and will begin in the new year. She is excited and I am, too. A new beginning. We embrace and as I depart I think, “The only thing that matters is the here and now, right? Isn’t that right?”

I send warm holiday greetings to all for many new beginnings, those that spring from the past and point to the future.

Robert J. Landy, Ph.D., is a Professor of Educational Theatre and Applied Psychology and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at New York University.

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