Is It Theater--or Therapy?

I n a pool of dim light on a small stage, a stout, middle-aged man, his balding head crowned with a monkish fringe, kneels on a tiny wooden platform. His round face breaks into a grin; he speaks, incongruously, in the lisping tones of a child:

"My daddy can't hit me today; he got a finger cut off at work."

Audience laughter, sharply expelled, momentarily breaks the tense silence at the Santa Monica Playhouse.

Shane McCabe, who suffered a childhood of systematic physical abuse at the hands of his father, is telling it all in "No Place Like Home," a one-man litany of broken bones, burns, blood, innocence and tentative hope.

After the play, members of the audience approach the actor. One man has difficulty speaking; McCabe takes his hand. Nearby, others are looking over stacks of help-resource material for abuse victims.

The audience flinches as a slight young member of a fictional self-help group for adult survivors of incest discharges her anger at her violator in explosive bursts, striking a torn, vinyl couch with a plastic bat. The noise is an aural assault.

At the Powerhouse Theatre, in "Shattered Secrets" by incest survivor and playwright Libbe S. HaLevy, group members "share" experiences of sexual abuse by parents, brothers and cousins.

During the play's violent climax, the group almost self-destructs in a shocking loss of control.

After the play, HaLevy talks to the audience; at one point she suggests that "perpetrators" of incest be brought to see it. With the loud buzz of angry response and bitter laughter it becomes clear that many in the audience are themselves victims.

One woman asks in a troubled voice if all therapy groups were like the one in the play--"I wouldn't feel safe," she says.

Emotional responses to live theater are nothing new. But these two modest plays, evoking intense audience reaction and marked interest among psychotherapy professionals, suggest that the drama is carried offstage as well.

And so artistic responsibility becomes a central issue.

The playwrights consider themselves artists; they view their work as theater, not therapy, despite autobiographical roots. McCabe says that it is not the artist's "obligation" to worry about the emotional state of the audience.

Yet both playwrights have decided to address the needs of their audiences. HaLevy leads post-performance discussions; McCabe stands outside the theater after his show because "people need to talk to me, to touch me."

The blurring of the theater/therapy line here is undeniable: Some audience members are bringing their therapists; some therapists send their patients.

Drama critics have had mixed opinions ("I had one critic say ('Shattered Secrets') wasn't a play," HaLevy snaps). So have psychology professionals.

Dr. Cheryl Breitenbach, project co-director (with Susan Edelstein) of UCLA's graduate Interdisciplinary Training Program in Child Abuse and Neglect, used "No Place Like Home" as education for faculty and graduate students in law, medicine and social work.

"McCabe offers a good balance between adult and child perspectives," Breitenbach says. "People working this issue out could find validation in his play to break the abuse cycle."

Licensed counselor Linda Barone and partner Dr. Llynn Steinberg, who conduct an abuse survivor group at the Los Angeles Women's Therapy Center, took patients to "No Place Like Home."

"The play," Barone says, "brought up memories in a lot of people who had not been able to access those memories prior to seeing it."

Barone drops the professional verbiage to add, "You don't see (what McCabe does on stage) in therapy. You may see someone spill his guts, but you won't see it presented so incredibly through a child's eyes."

But that vivid theatricality worries M. K. Gustinella, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor and publisher of "Beyond Survival," a magazine for and about survivors of abuse and neglect.

Gustinella feels that "Shattered Secrets" sheds important light on incest, but "the play isn't representative of a safe (therapy) group.

"The pain and confusion are characterized (so strongly), I wouldn't recommend our patients go without their therapists. . . . Staying contained is difficult for them; triggered, unprocessed memories can be overwhelming."

Conversely, Craig Lockwood, editor of "Beyond Survival," thinks both plays are vital tools to raise public consciousness.

"People worry about nuclear arms as a danger to society," he says, "but that danger is far outweighed by the (social) breakdown created by abuse."

Dorothy Baldwin Satten, a specialist in psychodrama at the Westwood Institute of Psychodrama and Psychotherapy in Beverly Hills, has not seen either play, but approves of the idea of publicly putting "some responsibility where it belongs"--with the perpetrators.

However, Satten is also concerned that people in a non-clinical setting can be emotionally over-burdened. That could be mitigated, she says, "if audiences can share feelings stirred up by the pieces."

HaLevy and McCabe are attempting to do that.

HaLevy is stung, however, by the suggestion that "Shattered Secrets"--which will be presented in Burlingame Tuesday at the sixth annual Governor's Training Conference on Crime Victims--might be perceived simply as a kind of public testimonial.

"It's done by live actors. It's fully scripted. Audiences laugh and cry and applaud," she states flatly. "That sounds like a play to me.

"Theater doesn't have to be all Neil Simon. I wanted to put as much truth as I could on the stage and still make it entertaining."

She credits director Jerry Craig's "strong, clear input" for helping her accomplish that goal.

It was the national attention given the McMartin Preschool case that prompted HaLevy, in her 30s, to seek help dealing with her own abuse. During her recovery, the playwright says, she experienced "emotional truth and intensity I had never seen in a public setting."

The play became an extension of that experience. As for its relevance to a general audience, HaLevy contends, "If there's a fear, or a sadness or anger (creating dysfunctional behavior), there's a reason for it. Two out of every 7 to 10 individuals have this issue in their lives, conscious or not."

(A 1985 Times poll found that at least 22% of Americans had been molested as children.)

"No Place Like Home" also began in television actor Shane McCabe's therapy. He began using pieces of it in acting workshops. When he saw Paul Linke's autobiographical account of his wife's cancer death, "Time Flies When You're Alive," he asked the show's director, Mark Travis, to help him develop his own project.

"We spent three months working on it, Mark spurring my memories. It was painful. I wanted to quit sometimes," McCabe says. But the effort will have been worth it, he says, "if it keeps just one child from being slapped. . . ."

McCabe takes several minutes before each performance to detach himself emotionally "so that the material not be seen as my own catharsis." He wants to give audiences a "safe way" to share the experience. "Every night someone comes up to me and admits, 'I was an abused child,' " he says.

Still, McCabe contends that critics "overstep their bounds" in judging the play as psychodrama, not theater. "If it weren't for the life experiences artists draw on, there would be no theater."

It is evening; a little girl, sitting on a raised platform next to a lectern, reads from a script in a fragile voice, "If you really knew me, you wouldn't like me because I am dirty . ... Daddy said so."

She is talking to an adult actor playing a snow-white dove. There are murmurs from several invited guests watching from the wooden pews of a Studio City church.

The little girl is not a professional actress, but the words are affecting. After the reading, one guest is distraught; the play had resurrected long-buried memories. Friends rally to offer comfort.

Except for this recent staged reading, "I Can't Talk About It," planned as an album and a musical stage presentation, is not taking the public path.

"Les Miserables" actor Stephen Breithaupt, who trained as a psychiatric technician while pursuing acting, conceived the idea with composer Steve Siler, based on the book of the same title by Doris Sanford.

Breithaupt intends his project to be used only in a clinical setting in the treatment of child victims of incest. He has no doubt "where the responsibility of the artist lies" when people may be profoundly upset by what they see.

"How can I be sure they'll be all right when they leave the theatre?" he asks.

Among many abuse survivors and therapists, the consensus is that the operative taboo has not been the actual abuse, but the telling of it: that society, finding the subject distasteful and far too close to home, has conspired to keep it quiet.

HaLevy, McCabe and Breithaupt feel that as artists, they can help break that conspiracy.

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