POOR DOG GROUP / Group Therapy

Published on 2018-04-21

Performance Yearbook (which many of you, lovely members, will receive in print at the close of 2018) comes out of a desire to better understand, and better document, our current moment through the work, process, ideas and struggles of the artists we support. 

For this first Performance Yearbook entry, Jesse Bonnell, artistic director of Los Angeles-based company Poor Dog Group, answers a few questions, following the premiere presentation of of Group Therapy at the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. What better way to begin the Yearbook, than with a brave performance that places the insecurities of being an artist, and often the insecurities of being a white male artist, center stage? 

Can you share information on your source material and/or points of reference for Group Therapy?

Group Therapy is a live documentary performance that confronts a two year-long process of actual group therapy undertaken by my company, Poor Dog Group. Each of our therapy sessions were recorded and transcribed. From the transcription we recreated and responded to our past selves as a way to continue the practice of therapy and at the same time continuously generate the work itself.

Group Therapy evolved out of Poor Dog Group’s previous show, Five Small Fires. During the final performances, I kept watching a film by Yasujirō Ozu titled, Floating Weeds, in which a down-and-out kabuki theater company is forced to disband. I thought my work with Poor Dog Group had come to an end after Five Small Fires, much like the company in Floating Weeds. After closing, we had just enough money in our bank account for seven therapy sessions, so I decided to hire an actual therapist for the company in what was to be our last year together. I felt that it was time to write a love letter to my company, and then step away.

During this time, I started doing research and found a documentary film Journey Into Self by Dr. Carl Rogers, which really became the bedrock of Group Therapy. Filmed in 1968, a group of eight strangers sit in a circle and probe into personal truth. I was fascinated with the way  the camera swirls around the participants, as a silent partner. It has the exact physical structure as the last scene from Floating Weeds: a group of people in a circle asking themselves some of the most challenging questions about who they are individually, and who they are in the context of the group.

What questions were driving your creative process while making the work?

During this time I became obsessed with the question, “If we were to make one last show, how much would we be willing to risk?” I also kept questioning product vs. process...especially when it comes to open-ended therapeutic journeys. We were constantly challenged with the ethics around self exploitation. How many years do you ignore all the warning lights? And when you do recognize what's been going on? is it too late? Can you let go of the past?

It was important for us to show the work in front of an audience as we developed it over a year. So we presented it four times, asking our audiences for feedback that we would incorporate in the next showing. LAPP and our dramaturge, Eleanor Skimin really helped shape the work as we grappled with it. In part this had to deal with the political and deeply personal nature of the piece. When you see Group Therapy, it’s very much as if you’re starting to watch a TV show mid-season and you don’t exactly know who everyone is, their relationships or what has already happened. Because we’re using chance operations, the more you watch the show the more you are able to make the connections.

What experiences throughout the creative process triggered your curiosity?

I think we became really interested in the “echo chamber” of the space in which we were inhabiting. The work, and the accumulating audio archive, became ouroboros-like, generating its own machinations. Each time I tried to control the experiment, it would fail. Playwriting was impossible. The piece keeps rolling, in feedback loops, fugues, in past histories and present extemporaneous confrontations, all while obsessively documenting what could be our last work.

What are your daily concerns as an artist? Human?

I’m always anxious about money. It’s the first thing I typically think about when I wake up in the morning. We spent all our money on Group Therapy. For many years I felt the ecology of non-profit arts organizations that are young and scrappy with energy and vision, are forever threatened by those who control arts funding resources. County, state, federal, and private granting requirements are motivated by social context and capital growth. For this reason we see many independently wealthy theater practitioners sustain themselves outside of the constraints of nonprofits. This applies equally to wealthy artists that work within the context of ensemble based theater. Artists that work in an ephemeral processes, have been and continue to be systematically dismantled by the government starting in 1990. When the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) stopped funding individual artists on the basis that artists were implementing a partisan political agenda, artist were pushed out of public space and forced to depended on private project based funding rather than larger sums of money, in which one could sustain a life. Therefore, those who are privileged could continue to cultivate a creative practice full time. Call it a sweeping generalization but the fact is the NEA’s $150 million is dwarfed by Germany's $1.75 billion dollar budget for arts and culture.

Like most people, I’m deeply concerned for our country. Trump has complete contempt for government and the people of world. I also bought a jar of Tostitos Salsa Con Queso cheese dip...so that’s a concern.

Can you share a moment of wonder from your development process or performance run?

Last year I became so intoxicated with the meta-nature of Group Therapy my life and artistic practice became so interconnected that I felt suspended in time and space by the project, much like the works of artist Tehching Hsieh. I was inspired by the rigor of our group’s democratic creative process, and the disobedience of our theater-making to present something that was brutally truthful. We really put our lives on the stage without any filter. It’s a crazy experiment. I remember writing in a draft proposal for MAP Fund that we were “taken by the ecstasy of our privilege.” And I truly felt that on closing night. What an amazing way to conclude what has been the most important thing in my life over ten years, and the past three years of developing the project with LAPP.

Any other thoughts to offer, looking back, or looking forward?

That’s a loaded question. I made a social experiment with my friends and it was really very challenging. I’m looking at the past ten years making work together under the name of Poor Dog Group as an incredible opportunity that brought us profound joy. I hope that people who were able to see Group Therapy walked away in shock and awe at the audacity of the show. I hope the empathetic, synchronized beat of our shared experience offered an alternative to the way we see each other. A place of truth. Performing the final hour of Group Therapy was personally transformative, as I evolve as an artist. It’s been a very lucky and supportive journey with so many incredible people and institutions pushing the work forward. I am forever grateful.

• • • 

GROUP THERAPY premiered in January 2018 at the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA

GROUP THERAPY was commissioned by The Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA and was created as part of its Artists-in-Residency program, with additional residency support from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Headlands Center for the Arts. Group Therapy is a project of Creative Capital, and is produced in partnership with Los Angeles Performance Practice.


Andrew Gilbert, Poor Dog Group
Andrew Gilbert, Poor Dog Group


KCRW’s Opening the Curtain:

“It's a bit like being a voyeur to a momentous transition in the lives of others. Like watching a couple after they've decided to finally break up. Or sitting with a family after a funeral - not for the moments of devastating tears and sadness but after that in the moments when the air is still and the ghost of what had been there is still present. It's a world where a silent glance speaks a world of meaning.”

Los Angeles Times review: 

“Being an artist in America is tough enough. Being an experimental theater artist in Los Angeles has to be crazy-making.”

“The ensemble members, either reenacting group therapy scenes or commenting on them, reveal the wounds of being young, gifted and avant-garde in a society that prefers its culture prepackaged.” 

Interview with Jesse on Creative Capital’s Blog

Catherine Ventura Ahmanson, Poor Dog Group
Catherine Ventura Ahmanson, Poor Dog Group