By Will Barrios
Q: Hey, Alisa! Thanks for chatting with me today. I’m excited to chat with you about your company Dr. Drama. Can you tell me a little about your company and how you got started?
A: Sure! Dr. Drama is the combination of my two passions. My professional passion, which is Clinical Psychology, and Musical Theater. I’ve always loved musical theater and I’ve been going to the theater before I could talk but theater was never a career path for me. By middle school, I knew that I was going to be a psychologist. If I had had some talent in the acting department my career choice would have been different but I didn’t! So psychology was a really clear path for me.
Now I’m mid-career so I’ve gotten to a comfortable place with my work. I’m part of a group private practice called The Counseling Center of Nashua (http://www.counselingcenter.com/). There are definitely things that are challenging but there are things that come really easy now that I’m mid-career. I love psychology and have this obvious passion for musical theater so I combined the two!
When I started as a Psychologists and saw shows I had a really interesting understanding of the psychological aspects of characters. So when I went to the theater I would see shows in a different way. As a theater fan there’s nothing that combines these two fields so I saw a real niche there where I could tie the two worlds together. What I’m doing is writing about shows from the perspective of a clinical psychologist. My angle is towards the psychological aspects of the shows. So for example I may talk with Broadway actors about such topics as audition anxiety, trauma/loss, ADHD, gender identity, or depression. It’s been so much fun and so thrilling. That’s Dr. Drama!
Q: So I would love to talk more about psychology and theater. I think this is a really awesome way to bring the two together. Can you talk more about how you are combining the two?
A: There is a lot of overlap between psychology and theater. In some ways that are more obvious and some ways that aren’t. One way it’s obvious is that actors are exploring the inner lives of these characters. And that’s what we do as psychologists, we help people explore their inner lives, and make it external. We do this mostly through speaking although with kids it’s through things like play therapy or drawing.
Another example of the combination of psychology and theater is boundaries. As a therapist I have to have clarity about boundaries with patients. Even though we are sharing something intimate it’s for them, it’s not for me. To that end it’s limited how much of my personal self I am bringing into the room. I am finding with actors it’s similar in how much they let in and how much they absorb.
If you’re playing a character how much do you absorb to take in that emotional reality? Do you fall apart because of it and then you’re less available to play that role or are you feeling it to a certain degree but limiting how much you feel so you can do it again next show time?
I work a lot of trauma so I can’t absorb it 100%. But I need to absorb it enough to be present with the person in the room. That’s definitely a running theme in conversations with actors.
When I see shows I watch them as a psychologist. For example in Alexander Hamilton, in the biographies that Hamilton the musical is based on, there’s a suggestion by the author that Hamilton may have bi-polar disorder. And that’s not a novel idea. It’s not that well understood by people. As a Psychologist seeing the musical I saw that part of who Hamilton was and I was able to write about that and bring that to my readers.
Q: That’s a really interesting way to explore the life of these characters and the people who get to see them. On the flip side of that what benefits to you think actors get from playing these roles? Let me expand on that, not just professionals but maybe amateur actors, or kids role-playing at home?
A: That’s such a great question. I think I have yet to speak with an actor that hasn’t benefited from acting. There are so many benefits you get from theater whether it’s as a career or an activity as a kid it can be beneficial. For example, I have a piece I wrote on actor Jeremy Jordan and he talks about how being in Newsies helped him grow because he was forced to be in a leadership role in the show on and off the stage with the actors. That wasn’t a natural position for him but it forced him to grow. I remember reading about Audra McDonald having attention deficit disorder as a kid and her parents putting her into theater as a way to harness that energy and express it.
Also, acting classes can be great for kids who are high functioning on the autism spectrum because they learn social skills that teach them social scripts. If you give a kid on the spectrum a script they can play that role. They just need the words. It’s a great way for them to learn how to have verbal exchanges.
Q: So I think what you’re speaking to is that actors embody a character and live out a different social situation they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do or experience and that type of role playing can help others step out of their comfort zone?
A: Absolutely for the autism folks and for the neurotypical people then to explore parts of their personality that are less comfortable.
Q: That’s awesome. I really love your passion. I know I said that before but it really comes through when you talk about your work. So my next question is what really motivates you?
A: That’s a great question. Human connection. That is definitely one of the themes between what I do as a clinical psychologist and theater. It’s the human connection. That thrills me. I’m generally more of a one on one person. I can do a party and be outgoing but to be in a room one on one with someone who is sharing something incredibly intimate and allowing me to bear witness to that and navigate through that therapeutic path is very meaningful.
In a similar way to my clinical work being in a theater and experiencing that human connection, that community, with the people in the audience and then that sense of symbioses between the actors on stage is the same feeling. I get a full charge of that experience. I think about seeing Come From Away and experiencing a connection between the actors and the audience. Or The Color Purple absolutely did that too where there’s just this electric charge. I think at the end of the day that’s what really energizes me, that human connection.
Q: That’s a brilliant answer. So you’ve really found a way to bring these two worlds together and share that with others. Whether it’s being an audience member, running Dr. Drama, or your work as a Psychologist it’s that human connection that keeps you going.
You’ve talked a little about the benefits of theater and it sounds like theater gives people a community. Can you talk more about those benefits and the importance of how theater brings people together?
A: Yes. When I see teenagers and young people at my practice I ask them, “where can we help you find like minded people?” And for a lot of people that is finding your people in a school play or community theater.
You might find a social media group for a specific show or theater in general. There are these great little pockets of even cult musicals – so if you like these shows go find them and find a community! I think going to shows as a family is also a great experience whether its summer stock or Broadway it’s such a great thing to share as a family to experience that connection.
I hear people lament how common it is for a show on Broadway to get a standing ovation it’s almost expected now. And I heard Sondheim in an interview say that he thinks people stand and applaud so much now that it no longer speaks to the quality of the show but speaks to the power of live performance and community. In an increasingly disconnected world during a two and a half hour show it’s a fleeting connection but it’s meaningful. Whether you relate to the inner life of a character in a show or make a connection with the people next to you at a theater you’re sharing an experience.
For more information visit www.drdrama.com.