BLP Conversations: Jonathan D. Moreno & John Pankow

Welcome to the BLP Conversations series, featuring dialogues between people whose lifework, like BLP’s mission, explores the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences, and has become a testament to how science and the humanities can join forces to educate and inspire. This online series is inspired by E.O. Wilson and Robert Hass, whose talk about the connections between science and the arts was published in our book The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass.


In this conversation, Jonathan D. Moreno, author of Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network, speaks to actor John Pankow who plays television executive Merc Lapidus on the Showtime/BBC series Episodes. Together they examine the psychological petri dish of group theater and the ways it grew to influence science and life offstage.

Jonathan D. Moreno: John, thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy filming schedule to talk about Impromptu Man and my dad’s—J.L. Moreno’s—work. When J.L. was asked how he wanted to be remembered, he said “as the man who brought joy and laughter into psychiatry.” It seems to me that if he hadn’t had such an intense involvement in theater early in his life he wouldn’t have connected joy to psychiatry, which is so often about sadness and despair. And I think anyone who’s followed your career has to be impressed by the joy you bring to every role and the way you communicate the joy of theater to the audience, whether onstage or on-screen. What is it about acting that brings that out for you?

John Pankow: First, thanks for your kind words regarding my work. I have no doubt that the times in my life when I’ve felt most free and connected as an actor have been those times when I’ve been able to get out of my own way and key into a place of joy; the times when playing a character didn’t feel like work at all but more like the spontaneous make-believe that comes so naturally to all young children. No one understood this better than your father, whose work with children when he was a young man left such a vivid impression. It’s a very interesting notion, the role joy plays in one’s work. Clearly, and this comes through loud and clear in your compelling memoir, your dad’s joy and passion were in evidence no matter his pursuit—politics, journalism, medicine, theater, you name it.

I remember early in my career coming upon an interview with the great George C. Scott—I believe it was an interview with the late Roger Ebert—and he said something along the lines of, “If you watch actors, what separates the good from the great is the joy the great ones take in the work, in the storytelling.” He cited James Cagney as a prime example of one of those actors. I think it’s true in almost any field, and I believe, at least in the performing arts (and your father was certainly a consummate performer, whatever “role” he happened to be playing), the prerequisite for that kind of joy is confidence. Larry King, the legendary talk show host, who claimed that a large measure of his own success sprang directly from his love of the work and the sheer joy he took in meeting people and hearing their stories, believed that the common denominator of the great success shared by so many of the luminaries he interviewed was their intense and all-embracing love for their chosen fields.

JM: You’ve hit on an important point here for J.L.’s philosophy. When he came to America in the 1920s he thought that both psychoanalysis and the preoccupation with “classifying” people into personality types suppressed the qualities that often rescue us from despair: spontaneity and creativity. For him psychodrama was a way to train people to be more spontaneous in their lives in a safe and controlled environment, then go out and try their new roles. Of course, a big question for actors—maybe the biggest—is how to manage the relationship between their roles off- and onstage. I remember Al Pacino saying that his family got pretty upset with him for his surliness when he was doing Michael Corleone. Do actors sometimes have to deliberately “de-role,” as J.L. put it?

JP: You bring up two interesting points here. First, managing the relationship between roles on- and offstage can be very tricky. It’s especially difficult if you’re playing an isolated or deeply distressed character, someone dealing with excessive rage and inner pain, say a substance abuser. If it’s a play, by the time you reach opening night and have gone through weeks of rehearsals followed by a preview period, and have had ample time to fully explore the inner world of whatever character you’re playing, both in the rehearsal room and in front of an audience, you usually arrive at a place where you can comfortably assume the character as well as “de-role,” as J.L. puts it, fairly easily. Working in film, on the other hand, poses very different challenges. One does not have the luxury of the gestation period that comes with rehearsals and previews, and the vast majority of films are shot out of sequence, further complicating the creative process. It is understandable that Mr. Pacino would have had to stay emotionally close to the character of Michael Corleone—in all his isolation and ever-increasing paranoia—in order to remain optimally effective in the role. Also, generally speaking, and this is true of both theater and film, the process of de-role-ing is far simpler when playing comedy as opposed to drama.

As for spontaneity and creativity and J.L.’s dream of a “theater of free will unrestrained by a script other than the one written by the players themselves” where “…the border between them (the players) and the audience melted away,” J.L.’s influence on the Group Theatre, which obviously found great value in J.L.’s early spontaneity exercises, is an interesting one. This was a revolutionary theater company in every sense of the word, committed first and foremost to a realism and truth portrayed in a naturalistic style. But it was also a company that held writers in great esteem, especially their own Clifford Odets, an original Group Theatre member. One can’t help but wonder if another Group Theatre alum, Sanford Meisner, who would go on to become a legendary New York acting teacher, wasn’t influenced greatly by J.L.’s spontaneity exercises and psychodrama explorations. Meisner, who defined acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” developed his own technique whereby his students would work on a series of progressively complex exercises to develop an ability to first improvise, then access an emotional life, and finally bring the spontaneity of improvisation and the richness of personal response to textual work—an interesting marriage of the spontaneous, improvisational form and the traditional.

JM: J.L. and Meisner certainly overlapped in the actors they worked with, like John Garfield. Besides spontaneity, I’m also struck that Meisner and J.L. shared ideas about being fully present in the “here and now” and the importance of what J.L. called “interpersonal relations.” These ideas became common in the 1950s in psychology and sociology but these theater guys were already talking about them in the 1930s! That turns the usual assumption about where big ideas come from on its head, not from science to the arts but in this case from the arts to science.

And back to interpersonal relations, like J.L., Meisner appreciated that the actors onstage form a social network. That link between improvisation and the social network is one that I emphasize in the biography of my father and I think it’s very rich. But I would imagine that for an actor it presents some challenges in reconciling the on- and offstage network. That is, if there are some things that go on among the cast offstage and out of role, you have to bracket all that when you’re onstage and in-role. Though I’m not an actor, I imagine that it must be very difficult at times to maintain that level of spontaneity. An analogy might be the complexities of behaving in certain ways in the office setting and then figuring out to how behave when everyone goes out for a drink after work—the office role and the socializing role.

JP: Yes, given that the source of the quality of the acting in the Group Theatre sprang directly from the theory and practice of acting evolved by the Moscow Art Theatre and its co-director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, it comes as no surprise that J.L. and key members of the Group Theatre—Harold Clurman, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and later, Lee Strasberg—would find one another and join forces in the 1930s—as you say, a good twenty years before the notions of “interpersonal relations” and living in the “here and now” reached scientific circles. Harold Clurman, writing about the influence of the Stanislavsky system on the young Lee Strasberg, said, “Here at last was a key to that elusive ingredient of the stage, true emotion. And Strasberg was a fanatic on the subject of true emotion…. Here was something new to most of the actors, something basic, something almost holy. It was a revelation in the theatre, and Strasberg was its prophet.”

Not only was there this new burning desire to recreate the human experience on the stage as truthfully as possible (which rendered mandatory the actor’s ability to exist moment to moment, authentically in the “here and now”), there was enormous importance placed on the ensemble, as opposed to the individual or “star” performance, a radical departure from the past and an actual model for the notion of “interpersonal relations.” The actor’s primary focus became the other actors on the stage and working truthfully off of the impulses arising from the behavior of the individuals within the group and the group itself. So yes, here in fact was a case of those in the arts leading the way, with the scientific community relegated to playing catch-up.

As for interpersonal relations and the link between improvisation and the social network, I have to say I was struck by your description in your book of the psychodrama sessions—which vitally embraced improvisation and spontaneous role-play—at your father’s Moreno Institute in Manhattan from the late ’40s through the early ’70s. You write that in these sessions, “with little urging, people were willing to disclose and share their conflicts and troubles. A group that began as dozens of strangers felt an emotional closeness after witnessing a powerful enactment, even though only a couple of hours had passed. Many new friendships ensued, sometimes love affairs.” You could have as easily been describing any number of professional acting classes over the last fifty years, up to and including today. In the classroom setting, even more than in a legitimate work setting, there’s something about that shared vulnerability and the group exploration of the human condition, in all its emotional complexity, that seems to break down conventional barriers and foster intimacy.

The same more or less goes for any group of actors that’s hired and asked to form a cohesive ensemble over the course of four weeks, the usual amount of time for a rehearsal period. The stakes are higher than in the classroom setting and intense bonds tend to be formed, not only because the work involves revealing parts of yourself usually reserved for intimates, but because of the sheer survival aspect—how in a matter of weeks do you authentically convey a deep personal history, often of a familial or romantic nature, with a group of individuals whom you’ve barely met? And yes, out of this bonding process offstage “roles” do emerge. As with any group, alliances and friendships are formed and this offstage network has a fluidity and a life all its own. How spontaneity is achieved (and maintained) when those offstage roles are set aside, or bracketed, and it comes time to return to the world of make believe, is through a collective commitment to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances in the here and now.

JM: So let’s say John Pankow walked into J.L.’s psychodrama theater on the Upper West Side in 1960 (you would have been three years old, but stay with me on this). Maybe on one of the same nights that Woody Allen or Alan Alda was there. Considering your personal spontaneity both on- and offstage as well as your obviously well hewn intuitions about the psychology of the drama and the social relations of the players, I have no doubt that he would have tried to recruit you to become a psychodramatist. Have you ever been in a situation where you thought, “Gee, my experience in the theater has really given me some insight into what’s going on here. If I could do an improvisation about this situation some really interesting stuff would come out.”

By the way, I haven’t seen any therapy on your show Episodes yet, but I have to believe a lot of those characters are in serious need of treatment!

JP: First of all, I think you’re on the money with your assessment that all of the characters in Episodes are in dire need of psychotherapy. And I’m flattered by your belief that J.L. would have tried to recruit me as a psychodramatist. As for whether or not I’ve ever found myself in a group setting wondering whether my experience in the theater would be useful to me: absolutely. Having grown up the sixth of nine children there were many times during my training as a young actor when I thought, not unlike your father might have, that if my siblings and I could delve into some improvisational role-playing, it might go a long way in calming the turbulent waters of coexistence with eight (other) gregarious maniacs. Of course, even though my instincts told me this would have helped everyone enormously, getting my siblings to agree to such an exercise would have been akin to getting goats to water-ski.

JM: And—I can’t help but observe in conclusion—if they had that would have really gotten your goat.


Jonathan D. Moreno is a philosopher and historian who has advised many governmental and business groups and served on a presidential transition team. He is the author and editor of seminal books, including Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network; The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year; Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century; and Science Next: Innovation for the Common Good from the Center for American Progress (co-edited with Rick Weiss). Called the “most interesting bioethicist of our time” by the American Journal of Bioethics, Moreno is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. He divides his time between Philadelphia and Washington, DC.


John Pankow has created memorable characters in many noted films, including To Live and Die in L.A., Mortal Thoughts, Life As a House, Talk Radio, The Secret Of My Success, and more recently Morning Glory and Putzel. A veteran stage actor, Pankow has appeared in numerous New York Shakespeare Festival productions, including Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, Measure For Measure, Henry V, and Two Gentleman of Verona. Pankow has appeared extensively Off-Broadway, most recently in Kenny Lonergan’s Medieval Play at the Signature Theater and in The Actors Theater Company revival of William Inge’s Natural Affection. Broadway credits include Amadeus, Cymbeline, Serious Money, Twelve Angry Men, and The Iceman Cometh. John is currently starring as volatile network boss Merc Lapidus in the Showtime/BBC series Episodes.