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Kurtz, S.A. (1986). In the analytic theatre. Free Associations, 1(6):100-122.

(1986). Free Associations, 1(6):100-122

In the analytic theatre

Stephen A. Kurtz

I Prologue

The consulting-room is a shared space — jointly created by analyst and patient — belonging to the realms of play and theatre. That we can think in these terms is owing to Winnicott's (1968) work, which expands on the brilliant aperçu that ‘psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together’ (p.591). This concept of therapy as play is epitomized in his technique of the squiggle (1977) — a collaborative universe of shared discourse worked out on a playing field of paper.

But Winnicott's invention was itself preceded by the actuality of children's play. One small boy says to another: ‘Let's play “Star Wars”’, and immediately his mate agrees, a new world comes into being. The words, ‘Let's play …’ issue an invitation and, at the same time, mark the boundary between conventional reality and the world of ‘the play’. This world is materially the same (to the eye of an onlooker) but transformed: the block of wood that was a portcullis now becomes a ray gun and the castle, demolished, a pile of Venusian debris. From behind the wardrobe's canyon wall an alien creature threatens. Inches from its jaws, the explorers clone a cell to power their weakened engines, and the ship blasts off. The action is defined and the props identified by a continuous dialogue with sound effects. There is no conscious scenario (Russell Hoban captures this play world brilliantly in They Came from Aargh).

Although such games are filled with clichès derived from TV and films, the characters and situations remain archetypal. Within the framework of these archetypes — which are satisfying in themselves — feelings are expressed, adult roles rehearsed, and positions of power claimed and ceded between the players.

At some age, fantasy play will yield to more formalized games in which fantasy itself becomes private and largely unconscious.

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