The Pinocchio Moment
In the late 1980s, I became the director of a community mental health center in suburban Philadelphia. During my first years there, we worked much as I had in Queens, with adequate supervision, productive treatment team meetings, and reasonable caseloads. We spent a full year developing and producing a play with clients and staff.
It was an adaptation of the real story of Pinocchio—Carlo Collodi's subversive, satirical, 1883 tale, not the sugarcoated Disney version. The story had palpable meaning for clients and staff alike. Some identified with Pinocchio's struggle to be "real." Others related to his impulsivity, poor judgment, and penchant for doing what wasn't in his best interest. Still others connected to it as a story about the value of loyalty and love, or the capacity for self-sacrifice in the service of a goal.
From the beginning of this collaborative effort, client creativity trumped that of the staff. Many clients took the lead in designing sets, creating costumes, painting the scenery, and writing the music. They made the most original contributions to the script, and some of their acting was inspired. Gepetto was played by a middle-aged woman outfitted in a moustache and suspenders, who imbued her character with a rakishness and wit that only her therapist had been privy to before.
The performances garnered standing ovations and local press coverage. The cast was jubilant. But what moved me most was the experience of watching clients dive into places in themselves—creative, capable, joyful places—that they'd scarcely known existed. (We'd later learn that audience members couldn't consistently distinguish staff from clients.)
Many of our clients had spent years in mental hospitals, where they'd learned to define themselves by their pathology. The community mental health model gave us, and them, the freedom to try out vastly new roles, to experience genuine collaboration, and to utilize our imaginations in ways that would have been all but impossible in a traditional therapy setting. Some of these clients continued to inhabit their new sense of agency and creativity, and were able to build bridges to healthier lives.