Arts on the Couch: A Community Outreach Project

by Barbara Drinka

Welcome to Portland and Oregon.

Thank you for inviting me here today and giving me the opportunity to tell you about the development and evolution of Oregon Psychoanalytic Center’s exciting “Arts on the Couch” Community Outreach project.  The goal of this project has been to increase the visibility of psychoanalysis in Portland and expose the community to contemporary psychoanalytic ideas. Through an all-volunteer program, we provide a forum for psychoanalytically oriented discussants to demonstrate the strong underpinning links between literary arts in the form of plays, operas, films, and psychoanalysis. Since the initial season in 2006 to date, there have been 82 community programs developed for Artist’s Reparatory Theatre and Portland Center Stage, Portland Opera, and Northwest Film Center, and beginning tomorrow, with Bodyvox Contemporary Dance Company. Our sustainable program involves no out-of-pocket financial cost to our analytic organization. Since it’s beginning in 2006 to date, we have reached nearly 3,000 audience members.

Our intent is for audiences to learn that psychoanalytic meaning deepens their understanding of aspects of theatrical productions as well as increases insight into the contributions psychoanalysis might play in their personal and intellectual lives.  Our community partners have provided us with rich and varied repertoire to discuss.   A sampling of our programming includes the operas: Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; Verdi’s “La Traviata; ” and Bernstein’s “Candide.” Plays presented through community partners PCS and ART have included: O’Neil’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night”; Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard;” Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest;” Tennessee Williams,’ “Streetcar Named Desire;” and Potok’s “The Chosen.” Films reviewed include “Mary and Max” and “Air Doll.”

This afternoon, I would like to share with you the underlying vision and values of the program that have allowed us to be successful.  This will include 1) how the project came to be developed; 2) how the ongoing organizational structure evolved 3) how we have been successful 4) and finally, by using past successes, how I developed leadership to sustain “Art’s on the Couch” into the future.

Some 9 years ago, 2004, when our “new training facility” was in its embryonic stages, Marianne Buchwalter, a retired clinical social worker and former board member of the Ore Psychoanalytic Society, the precursor of Oregon Psychoanalytic Center, decided to introduce local psychoanalysts as well as psychoanalytic ideas to her friends outside of the mental health community. On several occasions over a 2-year period, Marianne held “salons” in her home to discuss a film with a featured analyst. In 2006, OPC became interested in expanding this discussion format to address a more varied audience and gain more visibility in a public place.

I became involved in 2006, by accepting an invitation to be the speaker at a play called “Mr. Marmalade” at the ART. A public event had preceded this invitation that I had attended involving a Portland Opera program prepared as a “ thank you” for large donors.  One of our newly arrived analysts delivered a scholarly paper on Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in a program enhanced by arias and duets sung by operatic interns.  When approached about doing an up-coming opera, I declined out of lack of confidence that I would know how to approach preparation for such an assignment or how to develop the skills to carry it off.

I had a second chance to participate when the concept of a Community Outreach Committee was implemented by the Center. Peter Armstrong, the in-coming director invited me to be a discussant for a play about a child coping with barren and tumultuous family relationships with the aid of imaginary playmates. Upon agreeing to talk, I was sent a copy of the play and a suggestion that I contact Kimberly Howard, Ed Dir at ART prior to the event. Together, she and I brainstormed to reach a consensus as to which ideas to prepare to address:

  1. Why do children create imaginary friends?  What issues might Lucy be trying to work through in her creation of Mr. Marmalade and Bradley?
  2. What are the traumas Lucy is trying to comprehend?  Does the script go too far having her work out these issues in “play”?
  3. The language that Lucy and Larry use is far beyond their age.  How much dramatic license does the playwright take in the telling of this story?

I attended the opening night of “Mr. Marmalade,” courtesy of ART, as well as a post- play opening night gathering. I enjoyed meeting the director, and the cast.  They seemed intrigued by my thoughts of the characters they were playing and expressed wishes for a consultant to answer their questions on the psychology of children. I began to look forward to the play discussion to be held 4 days, hence.  During the intervening days, my thoughts became readily focused on the questions, having seen the production and the director’s take, not just having read the play. As I arrived for the performance/discussion, I learned that the moderator was ill, leaving the program totally up to me. I immediately needed to change my approach. In another unexpected occurrence, 3 members of the cast also appeared for the discussion. My comfort level rose.  The actors and I openly pondered the issues of the children in the play. The actors shared their experiences being in character and I commented on the situations and issues from my psychological and developmental point of view. The audience got involved with thoughtful questions and comments. A discussion that was to have lasted 20 minutes following the 10:30 PM Tuesday evening performance continued for 40 minutes and involved 2/3 of the original audience. By now, I had forgotten my anxiety, as I was now in familiar territory.  In fact, the experience of connecting with the audience and creating a discussion gave me a little high of satisfaction.

Peter Armstrong had been in the audience and contacted me again, “ Would I accept the task of developing this program as part of OPC’s Community Outreach?” Through my experience presenting “Mr. Marmalade,” I had formulated ideas that would make presenting easier for others. I agreed to the challenge of developing this project within the psychoanalytic community.

The primary purpose for the analytic speaker/discussant is to present 2-3 ideas stimulated by the play, film, opera, or dance. Then we facilitate audience participation in a discussion regarding the complexities of meaning of the performance. At the same time, we present a 21st Century face of psychoanalysis to the public audiences with analytic discussants of diverse age, gender, and mental health backgrounds. This counteracts the caricature of the “white, gray, left-brained male physician psychoanalyst” as seen in

“New Yorker” cartoons. We have been in operation for 7 seasons beginning in 2006 with the PO program discussion of Don Giovanni closely followed by the “Mr. Marmalade” play. These 82 discussant programs have involved 41 psychoanalytically oriented volunteers: TA’s, faculty, candidates, psychotherapy training program graduates, and faculty mental health spouses. This project has relied entirely on volunteers due to the sparse financial resources of our developing institute. The rewards to our pro bono participating analytic discussants take the form of representation of psychoanalysis in a public forum, an opportunity to enhance speaking, discussant, and writing skills, and have their analytic practices become more visible. Our program is sustainable as long as we can interest volunteer discussants and the community in the discussions and dialogue.

My thoughts generated by the initial discussant experience evolved into my vision to bring the program into reality. A memorable, quoted observation of Margaret Mead’s stated that “organizations that last (that can be sustainable) longer than 50 years in any community must be perceived as contributing to the community-at-large.”  I had learned standing on the periphery of fund raising efforts that institute successes in this area were seldom, as our organization was perceived as a training facility for people who would be adequately reimbursed by their patients.  I concluded we must do something that could reach the public eye by enriching the community-at-large.   Few people in Portland really understood what psychoanalysis was all about: Of what a use were 100-year-old Freudian or was it, Jungian ideas anyway? We had our work cut out for us to demonstrate and show the benefits available via greater familiarity with psychological and psychodynamic ideas. It was evident to me that a natural bridge existed between the arts and letters and psychoanalytic meaning making.

My vision evolved into three guiding principles:

  1. I wanted the project to help establish OPC and an understanding of psychoanalysis in our city and be seen in the wider community by offering our psychological wisdom and ideas to a wider audience than our daily 1:1 office relationships provided.
  2. I wanted the project to provide an opportunity for personal growth and development of any volunteer interested in learning more about the arts or wanting to develop his/her public speaking skills.
  3. I wanted to strengthen our organization via providing experiences for members that were not yet developed or available in the institute.

As part of the transition to my leadership to locate a program within OPC, Marianne Buchwalter and I met that spring with educational directors of PCS, NWFC, and PO hoping to elicit their partnership in collaboration with us. Doors were more easily opened, as Mrs. Buchwalter had been supportive with her time and energy to each of these organizations. In these meetings, we proposed to have a post-performance contact with the audience to deepen the psychological understanding of the performance. We carefully listened to each contact person as to their particular venue’s wants and ideas should they join forces with us.

We were told a sad tale of one of our esteemed analyst’s experiences years earlier.  This training analyst had diligently prepared an analytic talk like he might have given to an audience of analysts, and presented it in the tradition as if presenting at an analytic meeting. (What do you imagine that might have looked like?) Yes, he read a paper, head down, laced with analytic jargon of his complex analysis of the movie.  The final straw for the audience was they had not yet seen the movie and were becoming progressively impatient to see the film!  Very unfortunately, this respected senior psychiatrist was booed off the stage and the film center decided to end opportunities with the organization for film event fundraisers. (I made mental notes for future training purposes: Pay attention to context in attempting to connect with the audience. Since this is not an analytic meeting, making 2-3 points are sufficient. Speaking in psychoanalytic jargon is likely to be counterproductive.)

In separate conversations there was collective consensus among our community partners:  all similarly wanted us to elicit a discussion in everyday language that actively engaged the audience through collaborative discussions. ART, PO, and PCS all desired our involvement in several programs each, beginning in the 2007-08 season. NWFC joined us in 2009, having heard positive feedback from others venues. Marianne Buchwalter had sparked the flame and aided us in making the initial contact with key people in the arts community. Now it was my job to develop the stable of analytic speakers through my connections at the institute and center. That spring, I sent out a letter to faculty and candidates asking for volunteers to participate as discussants. Mrs. Buchwalter and I matched volunteers with the opportunities for the coming season before she transitioned off the project, leaving its development through the center in my hands.

Early that next autumn, I led a mini-training workshop held to give direction and support to volunteers in preparation for their first events. I described a protocol of step-by-step procedures to take each volunteer from acceptance to performance:

  1. Read play.
  2. Make contact with venue Ed Outreach Director 6 weeks prior to performance to collaborate on direction of discussion.
  3. Attend dress rehearsal or play prior to event. (Courtesy admission for events.)
  4. Make 2-3 points, then direct attention to engaging audience.

Tips for engaging the audience were given by analysts who had some experience in public speaking:

  1. Ask more questions than you give answers.
  2. Locate the “analyst” or the character that listens in the play.
  3. Discover what excites you in the play and lead to presenting that aspect.

Volunteers were encouraged to contact others or me for assistance and support if desired.

At that inaugural meeting, a sign-up sheet was passed so that each speaker might select a performance of another to attend, and then write a review of the program to be published in the newsletter sent through the OPC membership mailing list.  This review served multiple purposes:

  1. To let the membership community know what analysts at OPC were doing in the community.
  2. To introduce the analytic speaker and reviewer through their ideas presented at the discussion.
  3. To give the reviewer an opportunity for further development of analytic writing skills.
  4. To provide publicity by being introduced to the Portland community.

Volunteers were enthusiastic about their opportunities and wanted to come back for more. One candidate was thrilled to see how capable she had been in answering audience questions as confirmation that she had grown substantially through her training.  She had been approached by an elderly couple after her matinee performance with PCS and asked, “When might we be able to come again to one of these post-play discussions?”

Another volunteer, recently relocated to Portland from an intellectual community in Boston, told me with palpable excitement that he had never dreamed he would have discovered such a strong interest at this point in his life as he had opera and in Mozart that was developing through these experiences.

Another said, she would never have had the courage to volunteer but for the mentorship involved in assisting volunteers in their journey from saying “yes” to being on stage.

Beginning in that 2007-2008 season, I attended all 10 events to support the speakers and to witness how our format was working, to see how we might need to adjust our approach to be invited back, and to give support to the analytic volunteers.

As this responsibility was taking 15-18 hours a week, I soon realized this was a committee task, not a job for a single person. As a newly minted analyst and faculty member, I had no experience in committee development in an analytic organization.  I consulted 3 capable people in our community who stimulated my thinking through how I might proceed to do this. At the close of our first full season, May 2008, I invited 5 people to be potential committee members, each from a different segment of our community to promote inclusiveness: A PPP graduate, a candidate, 2 advanced candidates from different classes, an analyst coming from another institute in the city to attend a planning meeting. I had selected people based upon:

  1. Having demonstrated an interest in the arts
  2. Who I thought could connect through creative exploration
  3. Who demonstrated abilities to work collaboratively

Also, as the authority in the organization was top down, I hoped to spread the wealth by offering opportunity to those younger and newer members to be seen and become known, to include the TA analysts, while not reinforcing exclusivity by keeping others on the outside of publicity opportunities for years to come.

With a committee selected, we initially developed our policies and procedures; each member chose the venue partner of most interest to them. I facilitated venue chairs to meet the educational dir of their designated community partner and to begin establishing a working relationship with each other. The development and maintenance of a relationship with a key person in our and their organizations has been central to facilitation of problem solving that would inevitably occur. A 5th committee member was in charge of locating reviewers.

Next the committee offered a training workshop held at the institute.  This event has evolved into an early autumn party at the home of a committee member as we began interweaving thank you’s to past season’s discussants with current season’s volunteers learning the protocols.  Mixing with those more experienced discussants to answer questions worked well on both sides.

Thereafter, monthly meeting agendas entailed collaborative problem solving and troubleshooting, plus exploring additional ideas to be part of our Community Outreach.  After months of exploration, and involvement in other projects, we decided for the present, to put the majority of our energies into the “Art’s on the Couch.”

We have learned much in this process and experienced community and individual successes as a result of participation. Film and play audiences are consistently larger, particularly when the performance is a weekend matinee and the discussion follows at the same location. Having a ready-made audience following a performance is a big plus. Season after season, each venue partner has asked for our continued involvement. We have become more selective, choosing plays most appropriate for our psychoanalytic orientation.

Tim DuRoche of PCS says:

“Partnering with OPC on the post-show series has been an incredible way to create an added level of value to our audiences’ experience of art, theater and ideas.  A frequent comment we’ve heard is that following a vibrant post-show conversation, the discussion continues out the front door of the Gerding Theater and onto the Streetcar–which is more than we can ask for.

This is an ideal platform for exploring how shared stories tell us about who we are and what we believe and an even better way to use the arts to frame questions around love, power, conflict, loss, justice and other big ideas.

“There is a huge hunger for intellectual discussion and for making connections between seemingly unrelated things. People come to our discussions not even knowing that they are looking for such connections, and leave satisfied–and most importantly they come back. OPC has offered us a deep and meaningful partnership–lending insight, expertise and enthusiasm to our programming.      Alexis Hamilton. PO Education & Outreach

Within the experience and exposure, volunteers have exercised their personalities in developing individual styles and approaches to their presentations:

One of our talented candidates, a chamber music musician, added the playing of arias on the piano as an aspect of her opera presentation.

Another volunteer has co-led an opera discussion group running for the past few years at APSA semi-annual meetings with an analyst from another city who has established an “Opera on the Couch” program in her institute and city, different from, but inspired by our program.

Other volunteers have had invitations to join the Portland Art’s Council and invited to participate in groups/think discussions at PNCA during their Centennial Celebration.

We continue to build on the successes of the past, but no program is without its challenges. When OPC publicity transitioned from colorful, engaging advance announcements by email to a few lines embedded monthly in the new website, advantages and disadvantages resulted to audience size and composition. Our community partners provided more publicity through program announcements or biographical inserts of the discussant in the programs. Beginning this season, the peer review aspect of the program has been eliminated. We need to consider how best to preserve the rich archive of past reviews.

My final step in AOC development was to evolve a gradual transition process from my leadership to that of a new chair. I recruited energetic, organized, politically savvy Saskia Hostettler-Lippy who has been devoted to the program since the development of the committee. Together, she and I worked towards this transition over a 2-year period.  She gradually assumed responsibilities beginning in late 2010, while I remained on the committee to offer consultation when requested.  Through the process of overseeing the program decisions for the 2011-2012 performance season, the full responsibility of chair was placed in Dr. Hostettler-Lippy’s capable hands. I stepped down from the project in June, 2011, with the satisfaction of knowing that the experience had been rewarding for our committee members, all of whom remained active either in committee leadership and/ or as discussants; knowing that most of our faculty and candidates have tried their discussant wings, and feeling confident that Saskia Hostettler-Lippy would have center support in continuing the work of presenting a deeper understanding of psychoanalysis to our city through the “Arts on the Couch” programming. If you would enjoy seeing our project in action, I encourage you to attend the PCS performance of “The Body of an American” this Sunday afternoon, when she will be the discussant.

I have strived to paint a picture of our “Art’s on the Couch” project, how its development has evolved, and the important points that have made it a sustainable project in Portland, Oregon.  The success of this project belongs to each of the 41 volunteers within the OPC Community who have made the commitment to stretch their skills, giving their time and devotion that has facilitated preparation for each presentation. As in the case in many worthy projects, to quote Hillary Clinton, It has taken a village and we fortunately have benefited from the development of dedicated volunteers.

Returning to Lucy and her imaginary friends, Mr. Marmalade and Bradley. Lucy enriched her inner life via her imaginary friends who facilitated her developmental trajectory until she was able to make a healthy age-appropriate relationship with Larry in the real world. Likewise, those of us involved in the “Arts on the Couch” program at OPC have developed through our association with our intimate connection to ourimaginary friends: characters in opera, plays and film. Through the process of presentation, the volunteer becomes vicariously steeped in the inner lives and challenges of the performance character, our imaginary friends, if you will:

1) In the depressive struggles of the abstract painter, Mark Rothko in “Red”

2) In the moral choices made by an interned Japanese-American in “Snow Falling on Cedars”

3) In the birds’ eye view into the characterological issues and intimate female relationships Giancomo Puccini played out in his operatic productions, such as “La Boheme,” “Butterfly,” “Turandot.”
We have had the opportunity to think of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” of Sarah Treems’ “A Feminine Ending;” or John Shanley’s “Doubt” engaging our imaginations to come face to face with their choices. Whether part of the audience or as a participant, we are all enriched by the process of thinking more deeply through the varied assembly of characters in performance arts.

Perhaps in learning about the deeply satisfying experiences we have had through our Art’s on the Couch” project, some of you may feel inspired to develop a program that could benefit your institute and the broader community where you live.

Barbara Drinka, LCSW

OPC Faculty

Portland, Oregon. 97205

November 2, 2012


  1. You alluded to challenges discussed as part of monthly meetings.  What kind of problems did you work at solving? # projects manageable? Focusing time/direction/purpose/goals. Learning to be effective committee members. Challenges in over-all aspects of program: venues, discussants.
  2. What were the challenges presented in working with discussants? Convincing old guard to follow protocol.  Dealing with anxieties /concerns of presenting. Narcissistic injury.
  3. What were the challenges presented by the various venues? Opera: talk before performance, in a different location, on weekday eve. Lost funding for speakers, so we volunteered to do the entire program that made the paid speaker loss negligible. PCS: inconsistent announcement of speaker; no mention Freud. ART: No outreach director.  PNCA: difficult to contact and have calls returned; disorganized introductions.
  4. Why did the Center suggest no expenditures and how did you manage without it? New training facility=no endowment. Elicited more involvement from community partners: bulletins; bios in program; posters.
  5. You mentioned wanting to strengthen the institute as one of your goals. What measures did you employ? Introduced mentoring function and attitude.
  6. Created atmosphere of cooperation/collaboration around creativity to reduce competitive attitudes.  Inclusive rather than exclusive basis for belonging. Experienced speakers thought they knew better than to attend workshops, then were disappointed with their own results.

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