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How DCPA used a psychotherapist to flesh out characters in its new WWII spy thriller

It began with the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” — which only seems right. While working on a production of “Sweeney Todd” at Portland Center Stage theater, director Chris Coleman was puzzled about something that Stephen Sondheim’s titular killer declared.

So, he asked Barbara Hort, a Jungian therapist, what she thought.

“He said, ‘I have a question about the song “Epiphany,”’ Hort recounted during a brief break from a rehearsal of “Rubicon,” on which she serves as the show’s psychodramaturg. Kirsten Potter’s espionage thriller about World War II spy Elizabeth “Betty” Pack is currently receiving its world premiere at the Denver Center, where Coleman is the artistic director of the theater company.

“Todd is going to try to kill the judge and the judge gets away from him. So, Todd decides, while he’s waiting to get the judge again, he’s going to kill the world.” And here, Hort interrupts the recollection to sing-talk, “’Because we all deserve to die, Mrs. Lovett. Even you, Mrs. Lovett.’ At the end of that song, he says, ‘I am alive at last, and I’m full of joy.’”

Coleman was puzzled as to why Todd would say something like that in that moment. “And I said, ‘I have no idea,’” Hort said. “He’s a character, Chris. He’s in the mind of Stephen Sondheim.”

Then she added: “I can tell you why a real person who’s lived through what he’s lived through, a Benjamin Barker who was incarcerated and terribly depressed, who suddenly finds a purpose, who suddenly finds a trajectory might. As a depressed person, he’s suddenly filled with energy. And that feels like joy to him. That feels like empowering energy. And compared to being extremely depressed, this is alive, this is life, and this is joy. And it’s a very dark joy, but that’s what it is.”

Out of this exchange, a theatrical practice was born. For more than 12 years now, Coleman has called on Hort, a psychologist based in Portland, Ore., to perform “psychodramaturgy” for his shows. It’s a role they created. Hort doesn’t replace a show’s dramaturg so much as offer complementary insights. Dramaturgy provides an essential function many theatergoers audience may not know about, although they are its beneficiaries.

Dramaturgs provide creatives with historical background, context and literary works, helping to ground the milieu of a play or musical in research. “It has a lot to do with cultivating relationships with the text, relationships with the history of the world of the play, and then seeing how those discoveries influence the text itself,” said “Rubicon” dramaturg Kristin Leahy. Her approach hinges on relationships, she said, to “the different artists that we’re working with, from the sound designer, for instance, in ‘Rubicon,’ with Megumi [Katayama], to Chris and Kirsten. What do they want to accomplish? What are their goals?  What we can do with the text itself to continue to cultivate, to develop things, to make it more nuanced, to make it more insightful, to develop the stories and, obviously, to raise the voice of a character like Betty, who’s essentially omitted in history?”

Unpacking Betty Pack

“Rubicon” follows Betty Pack (née Thorpe) as she goes from being the willful scion of a well-situated Marine officer and senator’s daughter to the savvy wife of a British diplomat to becoming a canny operative in the lead-up and into World War II. Each of Betty’s liaisons, while dangerous,  are also sexual, which makes her a maverick if complicated patriot. She was a woman who leveraged her sexuality in a patriarchal system to gather vital information, but also to fulfill a desire for adventures.

“I think the most meaningful discussion that came out of Barbara’s work on Rubicon was around the subject of female sexuality,” Coleman said in an email. “Most of the characters in the play judge Betty’s forthright use of — even enjoyment of — her sexuality as a tool to get intel from her sources.”

Even the playwright had some of her notions about the character, which she’d written through a feminist lens, challenged, Coleman said. “Kirsten [Potter] shared this with me, after that discussion: ‘I realize I’ve been judging Betty’s use of her sexuality.’ I think that culturally, we’ve all drunk the Kool-Aid a bit on our relationship to sexuality – and it was a real head spinner to have a different perspective.”

Therapist and theatergoer

Pack is portrayed with carnal verve and smarts by Carolyn Holding. And from the start of Coleman and Hort’s collaboration, actors have often been the people in the rehearsal room most drawn to her insights. During a “Rubicon” rehearsal, actor Pomme Koch (who plays Betty’s Spanish lover as well as her French paramour and partner in a cypher heist) jokingly asked for Hort’s business card. But the therapist has always underlined that the role she plays in relationship to the actors is that of interpreter, not coach.

“What I offer might be of use to an actor, and it might not be. This isn’t prescriptive work,” she said. It’s a nuanced and vital distinction that allows an actor to listen and heed or find their own way to their character’s psyche. She tells actors she’ll share how many people handle a particular situation their character is facing. Then she’ll tell them, “You are the artist. You’re painting the picture, so use the colors that work for you.”

There have been times, though, when Hort’s insights allow a performer distance from their character’s traumas or violence. “The information allows them to stay safe in these pretty psychologically precarious circumstances,” she said.

Hort comes by her sensitivity to acting honestly. “My mother was an actress in New York — in college —  and then she acted off-Broadway. But she decided that theater was just too emotionally taxing for her,” said Hort. When Hort’s grandparents moved from New York City to the San Fransisco Bay area in California, her mother joined them.

There, her mother took her to numerous productions. “I saw a lot of theater when I was a little kid. I saw Shakespeare and I saw everything — I mean, maybe not really edgy stuff, but I saw a lot of theater.”

“The thing about Barbara is that she’s a consummate audience member,” said dramaturg Leahy, who is an assistant professor at Boston University. “She has seen so much theater, in Oregon in particular.” It was in Portland that Hort and Coleman met and became friends. For years, he had been drawn to Jungian analysis.

Even though psychology and theater have been braided for much of her life, Hort said “it never occurred to me that I would return in a different kind of contributing way to theater. So, when this happened 12 years ago (or so), it was a surprise to me and to Chris, too.”

Their invention may have legs. She hopes to train new practitioners in what psychodramaturgy is — and what it is not. (“It’s not about doing psychotherapy with actors. It’s not about coaching actors.”) When Hort gave a presentation at a Literary Managers and Dramaturg of the Americas conference in Chicago, Coleman was there.

“It was like having my dad in the audience,” Hort said.  While she was waiting for her panel, he texted her. He didn’t know that she had a PowerPoint at the ready and was a veteran of corporate presentations. “‘Look up, look up, look up,’ he texted” she recounted with a laugh. And then she added, with an even more boisterous and appreciative laugh, a musical reference befitting the insider she is. “Sing out, Louise! — sing out!”


“Rubicon”: Written by Kirsten Potter. Directed by Chris Coleman. Featuring Carolyn Holding, Geoffrey Kent, Kate Forbes, Aaron Blakely and Pomme Koch. At the Kilstrom Theatre in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex through March 10. or 303-893-4100

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