Art, education, recreation and theater at Highland’s Boughton Place

Boughton Place office and theater manager Alexandra Langeley (seated) has one of her personal stories acted out by members of the Community Playback Theatre (L-R): Jeanette Leone, Valerie Wells, Judy Swallow, Fred Harris and Betty MacDonald. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Community Playback Theatre at Boughton Place’s Moreno Theater. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Boughton Place office and theater manager Alexandra Langeley (seated) has one of her personal stories acted out by members of the Community Playback Theatre (L-R): Jeanette Leone, Valerie Wells, Judy Swallow, Fred Harris and Betty MacDonald. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Community Playback Theatre at Boughton Place’s Moreno Theater. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Tucked away on Kisor Road in Highland just off Route 299, Boughton Place occupies a unique niche in the region. It’s not an arts center, per se, but it welcomes groups from the visual and literary arts: writers’ groups, a comic illustrator’s retreat and creative arts therapy workshops. It’s not a performance venue exclusively, although many groups utilize its famous Moreno Stage to offer music and dance concerts, theatrical shows and presentations of spoken word and poetry readings. Lindy dance classes are ongoing twice a week, and Community Playback Theatre recently celebrated its 30th anniversary there, with Boughton Place’s Moreno Stage their home base. And that stage so famous in the psychodrama world — more on that in a bit — also draws a number of participants for psychodrama sessions and other personal growth workshops and professional training.

On top of all that, the nonprofit can house overnight guests — there are officially accommodations for up to 14 people, but with creative use of air mattresses, larger groups are possible — so that means multi-day immersion programs are possible for participants traveling any distance. And don’t forget they have the space for meetings and family gatherings: baby showers, family reunions and holiday parties have all happened at Boughton Place in recent months, and groups like the Mid-Hudson Sierra Club meet there on a regular basis.

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Perhaps it’s best summed up overall as a “community center,” then?

“I like to think of us as a ‘center for communities,'” says site manager Lexi Langley. The property has two main buildings on its four acres with classroom and workshop space, kitchens, a gazebo, Wi-Fi, an accessibility ramp, bedrooms for overnight stays, four bathrooms (two with showers), a large screened porch, plenty of parking and landscaped grounds.

Langley says they’re in the process of doing some upgrades to the lighting on the grounds, making it more energy-efficient. They’re also doing beautification projects: painting and maintenance of the two old farm buildings there and the theatre. “And we have a lot of great historical posters to hang that relate to the Moreno Stage’s history,” she says. “We’ve recently had a few new board members, so we have new sets of eyes looking at ways we can make the space have more modern appeal. We’re treating everything with a fresh eye and new sensibility. We want to create a balance between the old and the new.”

 

Psychodrama and Playback Theatre

Boughton Place was founded in 1980 by Claire Danielsson, an advocate of psychodrama, and Sister Adrian Hofsteter, a Highland-based Dominican nun who challenged the Catholic patriarchy throughout her life and was a civil rights activist. Boughton Place was planned as a center for psychodrama, an interactive group experience in which participants work out their problems in improvisational dramatizations of their real-life experiences. Personal and even social transformation is the goal.

Playback Theatre, on the other hand, is improvisational theatre in which stories told by audience members are enacted by a troupe of actors. While psychodrama is a form of therapy, Playback Theatre is not; although it can be therapeutic, says Judy Swallow, Boughton Place board member and a founding member since 1985 of the Community Playback Theatre company there. (She is also a founding member of the original Playback Theatre company that originated in the Hudson Valley in 1975 and is co-director of the Hudson Valley Psychodrama Institute in New Paltz.)

Today’s Community Playback Theatre troupe is composed of Swallow and seven other members: Fred Harris, Toni Horvatin, Lee Myer, Betty McDonald, Val Wells, Jeanette Leone and Vinnie Furfaro, who like Swallow, is a founding member. Performances on the Moreno Stage at Boughton Place are on the first Friday evening of each month at 8 p.m. (The next performance will be on Friday, February 5) Admission is a suggested $10 donation. Swallow says they’re discussing adding a Saturday performance this year, too, but that has yet to be determined.

The acoustics in the theatre at Boughton Place are ideal for many types of performances, but it’s the history of the Moreno Stage that draws psychodramatists there from all over the world.

The Moreno Stage was built at the Moreno Institute in Beacon in 1936 to facilitate the practice of psychodrama. That term was coined by Jacob Levy Moreno, a Viennese medical student in the 1920s who was a young contemporary of the much older Freud. As Judy Swallow explains the story, Moreno didn’t agree with Freud about the value of talking about problems. “He had the idea that people could learn about their own life and also life in society by acting out roles and learning from being inside the roles,” she says. “If you’re exploring something happening in your family life, for example, that is upsetting or confusing, you pick people in the group to be the people involved and then you reverse roles with them. In doing the reversal of roles, you feel it in your whole body. Moreno was way ahead of his time; he was always interested in how people learn in action. Your whole world expands when you can see it and feel it from other points of view.”

In the late ’20s when Moreno sensed things were politically starting to get difficult in Europe, he came to the U.S. and started a sanitarium in Beacon, for which he had the Moreno Stage built. Its three levels are significant to the process of psychodrama in that each level represents a different stage of the psychodrama process and contributes to the participant’s understanding.

The first step of the circular stage is quite high, a foot and a half in height. “Moreno’s point was that the first step of seeking therapeutic treatment is the most difficult,” explains Swallow. “If you’re stepping on the stage to step into your world, to show people a certain circumstance in your life, that first step is the biggest and the most important; it’s telling yourself and the world, ‘I want to work on this,’ or ‘I’m stepping into therapy.'”

The next step represents the world you live in and is for working out the problems. The uppermost circle, the balcony, allows the person to take the role of any being who might be looking down at us from above, be it God or the soul of a departed loved one. The person working out their problems — called the protagonist in psychodrama — can go up to the balcony and look down at themselves, as it were, seeing themselves through the eyes of God or the departed loved one, and give themselves advice from that point of view.

After Moreno died, his widow Zerka (now age 96) continued the psychodrama practice in Beacon for several years but the facility eventually closed. In order to save the stage, it was dismantled and brought to Highland to be reassembled without its original bottom level, which did not survive the move.

Community Playback Theatre doesn’t use the Moreno Stage in the same way that psychodramatists do, says Swallow, but its balcony level can be utilized to best get across the point of the stories acted out.

And while Playback Theatre is not psychodrama, it’s not strictly speaking entertainment, either. Swallow says that it originated with Jonathan Fox, an actor at the time who had the idea of turning personal stories into theatre. To better learn how to cope with people’s emotions, he took some workshops at the Moreno Institute in Beacon, and so the techniques of psychodrama influenced what Playback Theatre became. Moreno’s widow, Zerka, in fact, liked the idea of Playback Theatre so much she helped fund its beginnings.

The audience of 40 people or so — the theatre holds 65 — at the monthly performances at Boughton Place share their stories and benefit by both telling their own stories and experiencing those of others. Sometimes the stories are funny, and at other times, tragic; just like real life, of course. The evening begins with a number of “short forms” in which the “conductor” in charge directs the actors in acting out some brief moments in the lives of the audience members, then moves into deeper territory. A musician contributes as well, and theatrical lighting is employed.

“Playback Theatre is practiced worldwide, now,” says Swallow. “And the fact that it originated in the Hudson Valley 40 years ago is magical to many people. We all still live in the area; the founding members, Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas, myself… and for me, personally, it’s been wonderful to be involved as a Playback actor. Thinking back to the philosophy of Moreno, the more roles we can play or imagine ourselves in, the richer, fuller person we are.”

More information is available at (845) 691-7578 or www.boughtonplace.org.

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