When Patient and Therapist Play Themselves: Robert Landy, Playwright and Drama Therapist, Talks about ‘Borderline’

At NYU Steinhardt, the conversation starter of the season is the musical, Borderline, which runs four nights at the Provincetown Playhouse.  The play, starring Jill Powell (as patient) and Cecilia Dintino, Ph.D. (as therapist), is the story of Powell’s ten-year treatment with Dintino for borderline personality disorder.  The play is like any 50-minute session – complicated – and has all the elements of great drama – love, mystery, murder, and redemption.

Robert Landy, founder of Steinhardt’s Drama Therapy Program, wrote the musical after being approached by Dintino, a clinical psychologist and drama therapist, about her patient, Powell —  a Broadway musical theater performer and TV actress, who had become resistant to conventional psychotherapy.

An Interview with Drama Therapist, Robert Landy

Borderline feels part theatre, part therapy session, can you talk about this “cutting-edge” genre — is this drama therapy as you practice it?

This is therapeutic theatre. a form we’ve been innovating at NYU for some years now. Most of drama therapy practice is not about performance, but working with groups through a process of play and improvisational role-playing. Therapeutic theatre is getting back to the art form of performance in front of an audience, and working through a therapeutic process with the actors in rehearsal. Our belief is that through this form of therapeutic theatre, changes can occur both to the performers and to the audience members. We are currently working on strategies to research this premise.

Is it common or unusual for an audience to be “invited in” to a session or  performance in drama therapy?

This is common. In drama therapy, groups are well defined within various institutional or private practice settings. In therapeutic theatre, we also invite a receptive audience.  If the topic of the performance is, as in our play, borderline personality disorder, we invite a community of people — family members, friends, professionals, and academics — who are aware of the disorder or who want to know more about it.

How long did it take to write ‘Borderline’ and do you have plans to perform it again?

We worked on this piece over a period of about eight months, beginning with sessions that I held with both actors, Jill and Cecilia, who, in fact, shared their real-life stories with me.

From there, I wrote a play based upon their stories, then added music, composed brilliantly by Michael Starobin. Then we turned over the process to our extraordinary director, Dave Mowers, also a drama therapist, who took the actors through — not only an aesthetic experience — but a deeply therapeutic one.

As to the future, we need to evaluate the process and the product within the therapeutic theatre and drama therapy community. We are going to have a a discussion with the entire community next week and will be spending lots of time with the artists involved in the piece evaluating its effectiveness.  We’ll be making plans about the future of Borderline after the evaluation.

Can you speak to the complex issues surrounding confidentiality that you struggled with in writing this play?  How complicated is it to use actual material from treatment sessions and performers who are the actual people in that treatment dyad?

This is the largest question that touches on the ethical responsibility of anyone involved in therapeutic theatre. The two principle players in this process, the therapist and the client, whose stories are being told, approached me and said that their therapeutic process needed to take a new direction to move forward. They surmised that putting the story on stage was the boldest and potentially most transfromational way to go.

Opening night talkback with Director Dave Mowers, Jill Powell, and Cecilia Dintino.

We all agreed to take the risk of putting a private practice into a public forum, in the hope that the realities of mental illness would be embraced by an audience, and in turn, the therapist and client would be able to find a new way to move forward in the process of change that they so deeply desired.

We spent many hours of rehearsals as if they were therapy sessions — sometimes with two to three therapists in the room — discussing the minutia not only of our aesthetic choices, but our therapeutic choices, as well.

We took a risk by sharing a true story of one person’s struggle with mental illness and its effect upon her therapist.  We created distance by, in part, fictionalizing the characters and placing them within the fictional frame of musical theatre. Was the risk worth it? Will the client and the therapist ascend and soar? Stay tuned.

Borderline was produced by the NYU Drama Therapy Program at Steinhardt, supported by a grant from The Billy Rose Foundation.

(Story and photos by Debra Weinstein)