Jesse Bonnell’s Theater Group Experiments with Group Therapy Sessions

Does the US need one big group therapy session? Jesse Bonnell and Poor Dog Group, experiment with that idea by working with a therapist to confront some of today’s most challenging questions in their Creative Capital Project, Group Therapy. Premiering Jan 11-13, 2018 at the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, the new theater piece draws on 16 hours of audio recordings from the group’s actual therapy sessions with a licensed professional to examine their long-term collaboration, and how their relationship has progressed through marriages, divorces, disagreements, alcoholism, and the struggle of being professional artists.

We spoke to Jesse to learn more about his project.

Alex Teplitzky: So tell me about Group Therapy.

Jesse Bonnell: Group Therapy is a live documentary performance that confronts a year-long process of actual group therapy undertaken by my company, Poor Dog Group. Each of our therapy sessions were recorded and transcribed. From the transcription we have been recreating and responding to our past selves as a way to continue the practice of therapy and at the same time generate the work itself.

Poor Dog Group rehearsal of Group Therapy, 2017. Photo by Efren Delgadillo.

Alex: I was just reading about it and I really love this idea that it’s a therapy session but also a work of art, and in the session you’re talking about making art and struggling with continuing your practices. Everything is wrapped up in one another.

Jesse: The origin story for this piece came from the last show that we performed called Five Small Fires. During that experience we felt a sense of eminent demise of our collective. I became really interested in this film by Yasujiro Ozu titled Floating Weeds. It’s about a down-and-out kabuki theater group who is forced to disband because there is no audience and no more money. So they all have to go home. In the last scene they are sitting around drinking sake before they go their separate ways the following morning. I became really obsessed with this scene in particular: understanding what the end looks like for this kabuki theater troupe and my own company.

The company had very little money in our bank account and I chose to use it to hire a professional therapist. We had enough for seven sessions, spread out over the course of a year. We grappled with the question, how do you sustain yourself in the arts? How do you maintain the collectivity of your collaborators over the long-term when opportunities are few and far between? How do you keep a consistent practice? The idea of therapy seemed to be the way to move forward.

So many other ensembles and collectives across disciplines have something unique in terms of it being a family, a family that can fall apart because of strained financial ecologies. It’s so challenging to keep these collectives alive, especially now with the way that the funding in this country is designed. So I became obsessed with this question: if we were to do one last project, what would it be? If we knew it was to be the very last performance, how much would be willing to risk?

I feel that it’s important right now to practice empathy and to be very public about your experience and our shared experience. Even if our problems seem banal, the act of putting it in front of each other hopefully benefits our well being.

Alex: Can you give us a little background about the group? I know that’s also important to the story.

: We met when we were 17 years old during art school. The group was founded in 2008 after we graduated from CalArts. We were renting a large warehouse in the arts district in Downtown Los Angeles, where some of us were living. We made our work out of this warehouse during our first year.  Our first public performances happened at the warehouse, The Getty Villa Theater Lab, EMPAC, and Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater (REDCAT), in a variety of contexts including our work titled, Murder Ballad which was part of the 2015 season. Our company grew out of this warehouse space in which we were deeply entrenched with ourselves and our art practice at a young age. Our collective has since evolved into what looks more or less like a theater company, with a history of successes and failures, marriages, divorces, babies, physical fights, our lives outside of the group, international travel, the hustle of trying to sustain it all.

There are at the core, 10 members. That number fluctuates based on projects as we fold in new collaborators with every project we make. The size of those shows also fluctuates between two people and 12 or more people. I conceive, write, and direct the shows in deep collaboration and development with the full company. We typically make work that in some way or another orbits around notions of what it means to be an American. Our work incorporates both antiquated and new technologies. We pull from all different types of source material that for whatever reason gets stuck in our creativity filters, and which we form obsessions around. For instance, cult histories, NASA, therapy, and so on.

Still from the 1968 documentary Journey Into Self

Alex: One of these obsessions is this documentary about a group therapy session of strangers from 1968, Journey Into Self?

Jesse: Yeah, that really came from learning about early American psychiatric methodologies. Specifically I was looking into work that was being done in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Dr. Carl Rogers along with some colleagues started making these films. Journey Into Self actually won the 1968 Academy Award for best documentary. You can watch it online. I watched it and became obsessed with this notion of civil unrest, and the resistance to capitalism that was happening outside of the walls of this studio, while very quietly, a group of strangers were trying to raise consciousness, and practice empathy as the camera circles them. It has the exact physical structure as the last scene from Floating Weeds: a group of people in a circle asking themselves some of the most challenging questions about who they are, and who they are in the context of the group.

We were looking at these forms in comparison to performance history, in dialogue with Floating Weeds and karaoke. I zeroed in on client-centric Rogerian therapy. I was also interested in more abrasive gestalt-therapy, started by Fritz Perls.

Alex: Basically, the strangers were asking each other how they can co-exist?

Jesse: Yes. It just really clicked for me. I felt it could be something interesting, about going to the theater and seeing a group of people sit in a circle and have these conversations. It was also a way to document not only the year in which we were in therapy together, but to continue that practice. So it’s ongoing and becomes a living documentary. The hope is you get a sense of the year in which we were in therapy, the following year that we sat and listened to the audiotapes and talked about what wasn’t being spoken. All of those conversations were recorded, and then we listened to those tapes and continued that process. We continued probing and holding each other accountable.

The performance itself models that process. We sit and start the show by reading the transcript and then we respond to it, and it takes off from there.

Alex: So the form of it is you read from the transcript and then respond to it in real time?

Jesse: Yes, in real time. The show is really porous in that sense.

Poor Dog Group rehearsal of Group Therapy, 2017. Photo by Efren Delgadillo.

Alex: Each performance will be different? Or vastly different?

Jesse: Yeah, so the section from which we read is chosen randomly each night. There’s also other sections in the piece in which the actual audio is played through in-ear monitors that the actors are wearing, and they recreate these sections from the audiotapes. Those audio clips are also chosen at random, and then have an unscripted response, which is also recorded for later use. We now have this accrued database of recorded experience that we’re able to draw from.

Alex: It sounds to me like exactly what the US needs right now, various group therapy sessions. We’re in this moment that seems similar to what was going on in the ‘60s: a consciousness shifting, people discussing issues that had been ignored by so many people.

Jesse: Yeah, I feel that. I feel that it’s important right now to practice empathy and to be very public about your experience and our shared experience. Even if our problems seem banal, the act of putting it in front of each other hopefully benefits our well being.
It’s important for me that the show isn’t just about the members of Poor Dog Group, that it reaches beyond us, to our community, our nation at large. I’ve been thinking a lot about endings in the theater. The piece is structured as a fugue in many ways. So the ending is the coda. The piece keeps rolling, in this echo chamber of feedback loops, and fugues, in past histories and present extemporaneous confrontations, all the while obsessively documenting what could be our last work.

In some ways feel like we’re making television. When you come and see Group Therapy, it’s very much as if you’re starting to watch a TV show mid-season and you don’t exactly know who everyone is, and their relationships and what happened. Because we’re using trans-operations, the more you watch the show the more you are able to make more connections.

What audiences will see in January will be very specific to 2015-2017, as we moved through a Presidential election, through a year’s worth of interpersonal confrontations and how our process worked in opposition to what it means to “get better.” We keep recording ourselves within this echo chamber. Hopefully it won’t be our last work.

Alex: It sounds like the stakes are high for this performance.

Jesse: The stakes are high. But the company members and collaborators remain deeply committed despite our really problematic rehearsal process of sitting in a room and saying the things you’re most uncomfortable to admit…. It’s been a very strange process, but really electrifying. But the show is also really funny and I think we’re getting better.

To plug Creative Capital, it wouldn’t be happening without them. It’s been a long process: from 2013 till now and I’m so deeply grateful for all the institutional support we’ve received from The Center for Art of Performance at UCLA, Headlands Center for the Arts, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and our Kickstarter supporters.

Poor Dog Group rehearsal of Group Therapy, 2017. Photo by Efren Delgadillo.

Alex: Now that you mention it, how was the Creative Capital Award impactful for you, actually?

Jesse: My relationship with Creative Capital has been such a bedrock for me and my practice over past years. The understanding and fluidity of the organization is incredible: it responds to artists in the same manner that artists respond to their work. That level of collaboration between myself and everyone at Creative Capital has allowed for a much deeper probing into my own consciousness and practice to really ask, what do you want to say? What do you want to say with your work?

My first Creative Capital project was very different. It wasn’t Group Therapy [Editor’s note: Jesse Bonnell received a Creative Capital Award for a different project; he changed it to Group Therapy]. But through conversations with staff members, other Awardees, through the Artist Retreat, through reading Creative Capital’s blog, all the different platforms for artists to engage with, it all led me to Group Therapy. It’s taken years to come to this place where we’re now able to present work that actually means something to us. So we’re not just making more stuff, but we’re making work that really challenges our own art practice.

It’s a personal journey. One that is solely unique to Creative Capital, to have that kind of intimacy and understanding. Hopefully, we’re all making better art because of it.

Purchase tickets and read more about Group Therapy by Poor Dog Group at Center for the Art of Performance UCLA.