Many people who have lived in the New Paltz area for more than a few years know that our town is the birthplace of Playback Theatre, the improvisational model developed in the 1970s by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas utilizing some of the techniques of psychodrama, and still practiced locally on a regular basis by the group known as Hudson River Playback Theatre. A smaller group is at least vaguely aware that Boughton Place in Highland is now home to the original stage used in Beacon by psychodrama and group therapy founder Jacob L. Moreno during the latter half of his career. Fewer realize that, in more recent decades, our neck of the woods has become an international hotbed of psychodrama training, thanks to the work of the Hudson Valley Psychodrama Institute (HVPI), co-founded in 1989 by Judy Swallow and Rebecca Walters.
Walters, who now resides in Highland and whose New Paltz roots go back to the early 1970s, when she was earning her baccalaureate in Psychology at SUNY, is the director of HVPI to this day. The initials on her calling card, TEP, signify that she has been certified as a Trainer, Educator and Practitioner by the American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. Last week she was honored with what is perhaps the most prestigious award in her area of specialization: the J. L. Moreno Award for Lifetime Achievement, conferred by the American Society for Group Therapy and Psychodrama at its annual conference, held this year in Dallas. Walters terms the honor a career “pinnacle…an acknowledgment that I’ve devoted my professional life for over 40 years to this field.”
“Within the psychodrama world, I’m a nationally recognized expert on its use with children and adolescents,” she notes matter-of-factly. But among friends, Walters is known for her maternal warmth, exuberant extroversion and easy, often silly sense of humor. Raised in Hastings-on-Hudson, she comes by her combination of nurturing and showmanship honestly: Her mother Sylvia was a school nurse, her father Sidney an actor, director and stage manager. Rebecca’s intent during her undergraduate years, when she was studying early childhood education and being mentored in creative dramatics by Joanna Kraus, was eventually to become a dance therapist. She was aware of psychodrama at the time, but thought it “too intense for children.”
Then she went on to pursue her Master’s degree in Expressive Therapy at Lesley College (now Lesley University) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and found herself sidetracked. In her first semester, there was no room for her in the intensely competitive dance therapy program, but she was invited to join the school’s growing psychodrama core. What seemed a frustration at first turned out to be a life-changing opportunity. “At Lesley, I realized that creative dramatics is psychodrama for children. Play is children exploring their world,” she recounts. “I became a convert. And you know what converts do? They proselytize!”
Walters went on to get a deep grounding in the use of psychodrama to treat children and adolescents — many of them trauma survivors, some with chemical dependencies — in clinical settings, first at Fair Oaks Hospital in New Jersey and later at Four Winds Hospital in Katonah. “I’ve had a lot of experience with very fragile people,” she notes. After a few years based in New York City, her growing family returned to the New Paltz area in the early 1980s, when her husband, Waldorf educator Eric Gidseg, co-founded the Mountain Laurel School. It was through Mountain Laurel that Walters became acquainted with Peter Pitzele, then Psychodrama Department director at Four Winds, who recruited her to become his assistant. She ended up spending more than a quarter-century at Four Winds, eventually becoming director of Adolescent and Child Psychodrama Services after Pitzele’s retirement.
Although Walters notes that “The majority of my work was done in inpatient psychiatric settings,” she also directed the hospital’s Psychodrama Internship Program, honing her skills in “training the trainers” that eventually reached their full fruition through HVPI. She did community liaison work as well, doing outreach to therapists and agencies throughout the Hudson Valley on Four Winds’ behalf. Meanwhile, her partnership with Judy Swallow was taking shape, utilizing Boughton Place as a magnet for mental health professionals who wanted to expand their therapeutic skillsets through the use of what psychodramatists like to call “action methods.”
Although she offered private counseling practice for more than 20 years, Walters says that her true calling turned out to be “psychoeducation, not psychotherapy.” It was J. L. Moreno’s widow Zerka, who died in 2016, who first pegged her greatest professional strength: “Zerka told me, ‘You are a wonderful ambassador for our method.’ And that’s what I’m being recognized for.” Indeed, last several years of Walters’ career have been a whirlwind of professional trainings and presentations at conferences, including trips to England, Singapore, Italy, Greece, Guatemala and Finland, spreading the gospel of psychodrama and its manifold applications.
Not all of those are in the field of psychotherapy. Psychodramatic techniques such as mirroring, doubling and role reversal, as well as the use of sociometry as a tool for understanding group dynamics, are finding increasing usefulness among human resources professionals and medical personnel. For the past eight years, Walters has been a visiting faculty member at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston (“Sloan-Kettering’s main competition”), training doctors to utilize sociodrama techniques to improve their communication skills – especially in conveying “bad news,” dealing with end-of-life issues and in supervisory settings. She has even done trainings specifically for trial lawyers, “to help them be more effective in getting their clients’ stories told.”
“A big part of the reason why I’m getting the Moreno Award is that I’ve been hugely involved with promoting psychodrama, both in the Hudson Valley and beyond,” Walters concludes. “It’s a tremendous honor, getting recognition from my peers for my whole professional life… It’s a validation of the energy that I’ve put into this field.” Although she has retired from clinical treatment, the proselytizing and training will continue for the foreseeable future: “People who do group work – once they’ve tried it, they want to use it.”
For more information about the Hudson Valley Psychodrama Institute, visit www.hvpi.net.