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Supporting creative achievement

an interview with therapist Lynne Azpeitia

by Douglas Eby

Actors, performers and other people in the arts usually don't seek therapy "until they're pretty desperate," psychotherapist Lynne Azpeitia admits. "They don't go to a professional until they have to go -- until they think something's really wrong with them, their relationship, their family, or somebody or something at work."

She finds that many of the people who see her "have had previous therapeutic experiences which were pretty limited due to the fact that the creative artist, the actor, can and does solve most things better, more creatively and innovatively by themselves than with most others' participation or input."

Most of her clients say they don't call their work together therapy in the usual sense. "The people I see are multitalented, creative and artistic high-achieving persons," she declares. 

"Because of previous experiences they don't consult with someone identified as a therapist unless they know they're in a situation where they need the presence of another human being to help them through it. So in their wisdom they say, okay, I'm going to go find someone good."

The people who consult with her are usually having some kind of problem with someone else. For about half the people she sees, it is a person connected with their professional work in tv, film, or a theater company. "A number of clients get very frustrated in not knowing what to do about working with an inexperienced director," she notes. The other half of people she works with have situations involving their relationships and family life.

"The first thing I do is help someone realize that it's not their imagination, they're not crazy; the situation really is out of hand and they have the right to expect something different. 

"For example, the play they are in does require someone directing who is more experienced. But when that's not going to happen, how does my client make up their mind around that? And what do they tell their agent, and their manager, and how do they deal with pressure from them to stay in the project? And what kind of statement are they going to make to the director and the other actors in the play, and all the people behind the scenes, so their own professional reputation as an actor is not negatively impacted?"

Looking at these questions can also get into personal psychological issues for the actor or other artist client, "but that's not usually where I start," she says.

"Most of the time. we make a list of the problem areas that are going to have to be handled, whether they stay or whether they go. Then we look at what needs to be done, and do they have the skills to do it.

"Then we practice, just like they practice for the stage. We 'role play' and I give them responses, so there's 'script work' as well as 'rehearsal', 'performance' and 'notes.'"

A format Azpeitia likes to use in helping her clients, she explains, is called the PLISSIT Model. "The first thing is 'P' for permission: If there is a tense situation, a chaotic situation, what I tell them is what they're feeling is very normal and appropriate to what's going on. For example, if they are looking for a certain kind of direction from the director, and it doesn't come, then you are going to feel anxious.

"The 'LI' refers to 'Limited Information' - there are some things you can do about it, and some things you can't. You have to look at  and understand the way this director works, for example, and if something is missing, see if it can be supplied in another way, by yourself or by someone else.

"For a recent client who was doing a play, the director didn't really organize the actors and get them together, welcome them and get them started. She didn't have  a director's interaction with them, which my client, who is an experienced actor, really relied on.

"Before the performances started, one of the other actors was doing this as her first play, and the director did not intervene when she was moving all over the stage and ignoring cues and blocking."

To provide therapeutic problem solving for this kind of situation, Azpeitia notes the therapist and client have to look at the amount of time the artist has to respond and correct these problems when they're happening.

"In the case of a play, this also involves  looking at where it takes place, what's going on, what's appropriate, what kind of costuming is there, what kind of dialogue: is there a dialect; that kind of thing. How long is the play going to go on, how many performances? 

"All this needs to be taken into account when giving a performer limited information, otherwise the therapist is just demonstrating ignorance of the performing milieu of the artist."

This also gets into the next part of the counseling model she uses: 'SS' meaning Specific Suggestions. "That's where we look at exactly what is appropriate to this actor and this director and the setting they're in: the play itself, the venue, the other actors, and the actor's skill level in dealing with all of that.

"Then we make a specific plan, a sort of generally scripted situation plan but not a script per se, of the challenges the person has to deal with, then we practice those. Things like how they can make contact with the director, what they can say to the director at some point, to give them cues as to what works best for you or to give them some information as to what is going on.

"If the other actors are talking about how awful it is what's going on, and my client wants to keep their focus so that they can give a good performance, then we might talk about how to interact with the other actors, or how to keep their anxiety lower.

"So instead of speaking to the other actors and creating a bigger bonfire by adding more negative comments, they  might say, 'Yes, things are awful, but I'm trying to keep on focus in terms of this' or 'You know, I see the director improving' or maybe, 'I don't see the situation improving, but I'm willing to stay in because I like the interaction with you' or 'This is good material.'

If the actor wants to join the other actors in complaining, Azpeitia understands. "We all need that sometimes. However, it helps to really define for yourself how much you're going to participate in that, because you may get yourself too worked up to be able to focus on your material."

She will often have her clients role play the "problem" person, the inexperienced director, for example, while Azpeitia demonstrates some alternative ways to respond.

"And then we switch roles," she continues. "It's really useful for them, especially as actors, to get under the skin of that other person, because it gives them new information, which is quite useful when they are going to construct a response; they can aim a little better."

"Some other specific suggestions might be for the person to manage their anxiety so it doesn't get them in the red zone, so they can keep enough energy going for themselves so they can perform well. We might review types of breathing, stretching, and positive thinking; how much eye contact to make, things like that, in order for them to be able to manage.

"Maybe it's some positive affirmations they can say to themselves, such as 'I'm capable of handling this situation.' Everyone is different, and for some people affirmations are very effective. Some people listen to music to help their anxiety. But when you're right there in the moment, and you want to scream at somebody, that may or may not work.

"So we try different things, to give them a good repertoire of tools. Skills that actors have are very useful in these situations. If someone gets stuck on what to do, I can always say, Well, if you were this type of character, what way would the character respond? What advice would your acting teacher/coach give you here?"

Another element of her work with clients is having fun: "And fun is very important," she declares. "We can laugh about it when that fits and as we all know a good laugh can sometimes help a lot."

The last, fourth part of the PLISSIT model is 'IT' for 'Intensive Therapy' -- where you focus on personal issues. For example, a client's constant complaint in all types of situations may be, "The other person never does it right."

"So we look at the roots of that, why this actor is going to need everybody to do it right all the time," Azpeitia says. "And the person might talk about why they need that, or it might go to family, to relationships, or to an early acting teacher, coach or manager,  something like that. 

"So we can explore the roots of that, but really what we're doing that for is to have the actor understand what some of their vulnerabilities and anxieties are, so they can identify them and learn a different skill in how to respond when those feelings, thoughts, behaviors or situations occur."
In her experience, about eighty percent or more of the problems are solved by the use of the first three parts of the model, without getting into intensive therapy. 

"We may talk about what some of the roots are, but after people see me a few times, they get what areas we are exploring, because I encourage them to do that, and it's part of the tool kit they're learning from me. Most of my clients want to learn, and do learn, how to do this process for themselves."

Azpeitia agrees that her creative and multitalented clients typically have qualities of high psychological and nervous system intensity and sensitivity. These have been described by, among others, Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski as five areas in which a person has a stronger or more intense response for a longer period of time than the average person.

"Acting or performing," she explains, "uses all five areas of the intensities: psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational and emotional. The psychomotor has to do with body and movement, eye contact and pacing, tone of their voice, their feeling in the moment, receiving what they're hearing, how they're speaking and responding to other actors and the audience, and to the creative and technical people who are around.

"Intellectual has to do with the material, whether or not they are speaking lines. Imaginational has to do with the picture that they're showing, the whole world they are creating through the interaction with the other actors and the material, as well as the inner world that is happening for them. Also their relationship to the material in the first place, that made them want to do it and go through the audition.

"Emotional has to do with another part of their instrument, in terms of what they're showing and how they're responding to the material, the audience, the crew, the other actors and director."

So these elements are all part of an actor's resources, she notes, but "people tend to be too much or too little in terms of these intensities, and to have their favorites which they rely on and where they are more reactive than responsive.

"It can be a whole lot of fun to make noise and cry or laugh or keep it on an emotionally expressive level. Many times when people say they are too emotional, they have an idea that a flood of emotions is being expressed. But many people have problems in the emotional area, and that apparent expressiveness might be a display; they might be quite repressed in emotional areas, or only have one or two they express.

"Also, some actors who are quite emotional give a very restrained performance, and can incredibly transmit on an emotional level. Judi Dench has given some very restrained performances that knock us all out as an audience. Paul Newman has been described as most compelling when appearing to do nothing at all."

She emphasizes that success for a performer is in "the combination, the blending and the calibration of all five of these areas, working in concert. One or more may be showing on the surface, but they are all present, and that's why people respond so well to these actors and performances; they are integrated, and wherever we are strong in these areas as an audience, we can plug in.

"This blending and integration of the five areas is something I can help facilitate for my clients. I see people as being able to integrate these areas instinctively, but mostly what people  learn in life regarding the use of these five areas is not helpful; it gets in the way of them 'playing their symphonies.'"

She notes that as a creative artist and performer there are many situations which consist of numerous difficulties, frustrations and challenges. "But it is a normal part of business. So we look at these types of things as opportunities for people to develop who they are as a person, as an actor, as a professional, as an artist. 

"The business doesn't exist without some difficult people or situations. Some are truly impossible. But sometimes you have to work with them, and you have to develop your skills in order to deal with them or move past."

She describes her clients as people "who have multiple talents and credits such as an actor who does comedy, drama and musical theater, or someone who writes, edits and directs. Many also produce or do any combination of the above. Their multiple talents may not always be in a finished form, or they may not always be earning money with them.

"Sometimes they don't have an idea about how to combine their talents and utilize them, and that's part of what they can gain from the type of professional consultation they have with me."

She notes that she may work with her clients in a number of different ways to help their professional or creative development. "I help many people develop their ideas, sketches, scripts, plays, shows and other things through helping them know their creative process and developing their resources, ways of working, networks and support systems, and financial plan.

"People are capable of being expressive, but often they are interfered with or misinterpreted in these areas. So my job is to help them identify when they are in that fluid and creative state, and help them look at how they got there, and on purpose how to make those things happen. That's the best part of what I do."

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Lynne M. Azpeitia, M.A.  is a licensed therapist in Santa Monica, California, and may be reached at 310.828.7121 or 626.797.1052

related article:**Misdiagnosis of the Gifted by Lynne Azpeitia, M.A. and Mary Rocamora, M.A.

interview by Douglas Eby - resumé

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