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A DRAMATIC REMEDY : At State Hospitals, Homeless Shelters and Psychiatric Clinics, the Imagination Workshop Unleashes the Curative Power of Creativity

November 22, 1992|JOY HOROWITZ | Joy Horowitz is a frequent contributor to The Times. Her last piece for the magazine profiled Alice Callaghan, "The Woman Who Saved Skid Row."

Onstage, a boy with shaggy hair and a history of violence acts as the group leader and sings a tune he's written: "Songbird is happy. In a good mood. Very good mood." Fearful that people will laugh at her, a girl all but paralyzed by stage fright nonetheless sings an original dirge, called "My World Is Gone"--and the kids in the audience erupt with Arsenio-like, woof-woof applause.

Together, the ensemble of white, black and brown kids clasp hands with the adult artists and sing:

We are proud of today

We are proud of today

because there are so many things

in the world today

to make it a better day

The hospital staff is nothing if not ecstatic about the program's impact. "The first day these artists came out here, these kids wouldn't relate to each other," recalls Allan Murray, chief of central program services at Camarillo. "But by the end of the session, they were all holding hands and assuming characters of their own choosing and saying goodby to each other. It's unheard of doing that in a therapeutic milieu." Adds Jack Cheney, an art therapist at Camarillo: "These kids are salvageable. The Imagination Workshop shows us how they can open up. I'm convinced they'll all be productive members of society."

Los Angeles Times Sunday December 13, 1992 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
In "A Dramatic Remedy" (by Joy Horowitz, Nov. 22), Lyle Kessler was incorrectly identified as the writer and director of the upcoming film "The Saint of Fort Washington." Kessler was the film's writer, but the director was Tim Hunter.

THE LINK BETWEEN THEATER AND MADNESS CAN BE TRACED, AT LEAST IN part, to 16th-Century London at St. Mary's of Bethlehem--called Bedlam--where tens of thousands of visitors would pay 1 pence admission to laugh at the "show of bedlam" of insane and retarded residents there. In turn, drama historians suggest that the perverse practice influenced the theater, with more characters who were "fools" or insane, and more plays, such as "The Duchess of Malfi," set in insane asylums.

But the use of theater as a form of therapy didn't become an accepted practice until Jacob L. Moreno, a Viennese psychiatrist and contemporary of Freud, pioneered the field of psychodrama in the 1930s. In it, patients act out traumatic situations from their own lives under the guidance of a therapist. By 1979, the field had advanced enough to see the creation of the National Assn. for Drama Therapy, which today includes 300 members, many of them actors-turned-therapists.

Against that background, the Imagination Workshop distinguishes itself by staying away from psychodrama. The participants never play themselves, the workshops purposely don't focus on pathology and there are no specific treatment goals. If there is a basic tenet of the workshop, it is that the artists are not therapists. "We really don't get into their mishigas ," says Norma Bowles, who majored in masked theater at Princeton University and earned an MFA in directing from California Institute of the Arts. "It's really taking them outside of that and working with art for art's sake," she adds. "So the focus is the enjoyment of creating or the enjoyment of working with other people. Or just laughing."

The program got its start in 1969, and not surprisingly, its beginnings had much more to do with theater than with therapy. At that time, actress Margaret Ladd (later of "Falcon Crest" fame), who had been working on Broadway in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," was launching a new play by Eugene Ionesco at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Massachusetts. She joined the playwright to see a production of Gertrude Stein's "In Circles" put on by the patients and staff of the Austen Riggs Mental Health Center in Stockbridge, Mass.

"It was so outstanding," Ladd recalled on a recent morning, sitting in her sunny living room in Santa Monica, "and I thought, 'Well, which ones are which?' And I realized on a certain level you couldn't tell except that the patients were better at it. So much better.

"And this has been proven out time after time. We've seen performances in these hospitals that equaled Marlon Brando. I mean, these were really extraordinary things that just thrilled the soul. The patients' creativity, as Ionesco said, was from the place that dreams come from."

When Ladd returned to New York, she walked into the volunteer department at Mt. Sinai Hospital and asked if she could try out some exercises with patients there. Ladd and her husband, playwright and screenwriter Lyle Kessler, continued the exercises for 10 years, and they were the most popular activity among patients. That finding would be replicated when Ladd and Kessler moved to Los Angeles and started the Imagination Workshop at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute in 1979. Even the most severely regressed and withdrawn patients there would participate.

"I told them I'd authorize them to do this if they'd agree to allow the process to be studied and evaluated," recalls Dr. Louis Jolyon West, former head of psychiatry at UCLA. West says he picked three of the most hard-nosed psychiatrists on his staff to carry out that function. "These guys grudgingly agreed to undertake an evaluation to see whether this would make any difference or not. At the end of a year, they came back and said it really did."

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