Counseling Individuals and Families classes and Acting 3 classes partner up to practice skills

Sophomore Eliza Gibson counsels her acting partner, sophomore Katie Moran, during a mock counseling session on Oct. 6. Photo courtesy of Eliza Gibson.

By Marlena Chertock

UPDATED MAY 8, 2011

They sat in a room in the Alamance Building, discussing emotions and goals. One student was videotaping the interaction. Another was acting out a pre-assigned role.This was the outside class work for the Acting 3 class and the Counseling Individuals and Families Human Service Studies class.

Judy Esposito, an associate professor of Human Service Studies, said she wanted her students to get real-life experience with counseling.

“For lots of reasons clients are reluctant and resistant, that’s what I want my students to realize,” she said. “That’s real life.”

So students in the counseling class were paired up with an acting student. The counseling students met with acting students twice during the semester to enact a counseling session. The meetings lasted 15 to 30 minutes. The first meeting established report, Esposito said.

“How can they get the client to tell their story?” she said. “And how can you end that session effectively, where can you end it. Summarizing what they’ve heard, which is a skill. Talking about what they’ll do the next meeting.”

The second session was a follow-up, planning next steps or checking up on the client.

Acting out people in therapy

Acting students take this kind of project very seriously, said Richard Gang, an associate professor of theatre arts.

They are given a description of a character and an impediment, a physical or mental filter for responses.

Some examples are: a woman who has just broken up with her long-time boyfriend, an older man who has recently divorced his wife, a student who was recently in a car accident and is now anxious of driving or a student who’s very homesick or having trouble fitting in.

Sophomore Andrew Keeler had to play a 60-year-old widow. He had to think of the hurt that he had for losing his wife.

“Then I had to think about impediments, which is basically like a mild case of depression along with lower back issues,” he said. “You have to let them be a filter for you to listen and respond.”

The character description is how they look at the world, their point of view, Gang said.

“For impediments, you have to learn how to break a foot or clavicle or get needle in the eye,” he said. “Some very specific physical impediment. Then they start to problem solve and don’t think. You can’t think on stage. Because you have to be available for your cue, and if you’re thinking you’ll miss your cue.”

The acting students take on the responsibility of knowing intricacies and details of their character. They made it as real as they could.

“They bamboozled the counseling students,” Gang said.

Meeting with a counseling student and playing the role of one of those characters was practice for all the techniques the acting students learn in Acting 3, said sophomore Andrew Keeler, a music theatre major.

Before the counseling class practiced with in acting students, they would work with each other or roommates.

“Every time there would be a real lack of authenticity,” Esposito said. “They would be giggling and have to stop and start the tape over again.”

This setup also gets around ethical issues when professors want their students to work with real clients, she said.

The video of the session helps both counseling and acting students, Gang said.

“They can get a picture of what they look like acting,” he said.

But even though they are playing a character, real emotion might be coming through, according to Esposito. She watches the videos and sometimes wonders if she needs to contact a student to refer them.

“Maybe they need help or maybe the counseling student needs to get help right away so they can be a better helper,” she said. “That’s a counselor I would want to have. Someone who can recognize and take care of it instead of being in denial and possibly doing harm.”

People don’t have to be mentally ill to need counseling, she said.

“It’s amazing how much money people spend maintaining cars and electronics, but they don’t want to spend money working on relationships or through something painful,” she said.

Real-life counseling practice

Junior Eliza Gibson had one session with acting student junior Katie Moran. In the second session, Moran brought her “husband,” another acting student.

“When I first walked in I felt really panicked,” Gibson said. “I’ve never been a counselor. And now I’m counseling a couple. It was a new dynamic. They played off each other so well you’d think they’d rehearsed it.”

The counseling students said they felt vulnerable and unprepared for the sessions, Esposito said.

“My answer is, ‘This is your preparation,’” she said.

After the sessions, many said they felt accomplished.

There’s only so much you can get from a textbook, said junior Eliza Gibson.

“The fact that I was able to do this in an intro to counseling course is really amazing,” she said. “It made the class much more valuable. I don’t think I’d be able to get it somewhere else.”

Senior Patrick Cunningham, a psychology major, took the counseling class pass/fail. The class doesn’t count for his major, but he recently decided he wanted to be a counselor.

“The class has been my absolute favorite I’ve taken at Elon,” he said. “I just knew that’s what I’m meant to be doing.”

Most of his psychology classes are more theoretical, he said.

“We were really prepared well in class,” he said. “How to handle awkward silences, ask questions, using reflexive statements. When people think in counseling usually think asking questions, but we’re told we’re supposed to use those more than questions. We’re supposed to try to capture what other person is thinking and feeling. It’s really beneficial.”

Reflexive statements reflect a person’s emotions back to them.

“Say you were talking to me about how you’re angry with your roommate over something she did,” he said. “I would say, ‘It sounds like you’re angry or really upset about how your roommate is treating you.’ Hopefully it will get them to say, “Yeah, that’s definitely how I’m feeling.” A lot of time they don’t say their emotions. They’ll say, ‘My roommates a jerk.’ So we try to match their emotions with their words; it’s hard.”

People don’t normally communicate with reflexive statements, Gibson said. But it offers a more personal interaction.

“You normally say, ‘Oh, that sucks.’ Or, ‘I’m sorry,’” she said.

During class, the counseling students watch all the videos and offer feedback.

“Watching the videos of my classmates doing sessions exposed me to a variety of clients and situations,” Gibson said. “It took me beyond my singular experience. It was helpful to see how they responded and it got me thinking is that how I would have responded.”

The project offered the opportunity for counseling students to practice techniques with someone who seems like they actually have what they’re struggling with, Cunningham said.

“But it’s also comforting to know they’re acting,” he said.

The final class meeting is May 11 at 6:30 p.m. in LaRose Digital Theatre. The students and professors will discuss the process and provide input.

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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