Psychodrama in Highland to help restore historic stage

Original 1936 Moreno stage

Original 1936 Moreno stage

“A true therapeutic procedure cannot have less an objective than the whole of mankind.”
– opening words of Who Shall Survive? by J. L. Moreno, MD (1934)

Not far off Route 299 between New Paltz and Highland, on Kisor Road, there stands a cluster of old buildings set amidst gardens that include a labyrinth laid out for meditation. Called Boughton Place, this site houses a not-for-profit organization whose avowed mission is to serve as a “learning center that provides education, community and practical support for individuals and groups interested in developing transformative skills for sustainable living,” and “a community-creating space used for meetings, gatherings, performances, celebrations, study circles and training sessions that promote its mission.”

If that all sounds a little vague, airy-fairy and New Agey, homing in on the true historic gem preserved in this bucolic setting should provide a more concrete picture of what makes this organization unique. As of 1987, Boughton Place became the resting place for an iconic structure closely associated with the concept and practice of group psychotherapy – a term coined by Jacob Levy Moreno, the Austrian-American founder of psychodrama: the original circular stage built for the Moreno Institute in Beacon in 1936.

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Breaking from the psychoanalytic model, Moreno took the approach that “We are all therapeutic agents of one another.” In 1912 in Vienna, Moreno publicly told Sigmund Freud, “I start where you leave off…. You analyze [people] and tear them apart. I let them act out their conflicting roles and help them to put the parts back together again.” It was around that time that Moreno conducted the first-ever formal self-help psychotherapy group, for Viennese prostitutes.

Moreno moved to New York City in 1925, having already established such international repute as a social scientist that later legends including Fritz Perls, Eric Berne, Virginia Satir and even Candid Camera’s Allen Funt came to study with him. In 1936, he bought a building in Beacon that had formerly been a summer cottage for the Vanderbilt family and turned it into “a psychiatric hospital for people who had tried everything else,” says Rebecca Walters, MS, LMHC, LCAT, TEP, co-director of the Hudson Valley Psychodrama Institute and recently retired director of Child and Adolescent Psychodrama Services at Four Winds Psychiatric Hospital in Katonah. Moreno had a beautiful round wooden stage specially constructed for his psychodrama sessions, “inspired by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre” and “built like a wedding cake,” with a semicircular gallery suspended above.

According to Walters, only the bottommost level of the original Moreno Psychodrama Stage did not survive the move from Beacon to Highland. After the eminent psychotherapist’s death in 1974, his widow Zerka Moreno – now 96 and still active – continued teaching at the Moreno Institute for several years, but was financially unable to sustain the building as a hospital. In 1986, “The Beacon Fire Department wanted to burn down the building for practice,” Walters relates. “To save the stage, they had to dismantle it. They cut it in half and took it out through the windows of the Institute.” The 1,000-square-foot theatre space at Boughton Place – which belonged to Clare Danielsson, a certified psychodramatist who was one of J. L. Moreno’s last students – proved just a bit too small to accommodate the widest base level of the stage, but the rest of it was reassembled where it now stands.

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