Creativity, Celebrity, and Pathology

A Faculty Member, Student, and Alumnus Operate at the Nexus of Entertainment and Psychology

creativityBy virtue of being situated in Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of America, GSEP faculty, students, and alumni have an exclusive opportunity to apply their skills in a particularly creative manner. Following are three profiles of members of the GSEP community who are leveraging life in the land of celebrity.

Dr. David Levy, The Professor

Dr. David Levy, professor of psychology, knows firsthand how big “industry” personalities can be, and how the competitive and unpredictable nature of the industry can take its toll psychologically. As a former actor, director, and Emmy nominee for famed children’s television show Wonderbug, Levy experienced great success in his artistic pursuits, but grew interested in becoming a practitioner of psychology when he began to see how the lack of controllability in the field of entertainment could contribute to depression. Levy also saw that narcissism and neuroses were common pathologies.

Dr. David Levy

“It is difficult when your life is in the hands of other people, and you are always wondering when the next job will come,” said Levy. “Alternatively, if someone hits it big, it is amazing how much their worldview changes and how their values can be so easily corrupted. The intersection of power, money, and creativity is pretty unique to entertainment. People tend to have a more emotional investment in what they are creating because it is such a personal endeavor.” However, Levy—who has commented on major television stations from CNN to NBC and in a number of top-tier papers, including the Los Angeles Times, on celebrities such as the Lakers, O. J. Simpson, Madonna, Britney Spears, Princess Diana, and Marilyn Monroe—has found a way to utilize his background in acting and directing to assist his current clientele of actors, writers, producers, designers, and cinematographers.

“My experience in entertainment has made me a better observer of human behavior and interaction. It has influenced how I teach and perform (no pun intended!) as a therapist. In fact, in working with this creative population I am able to employ some especially creative therapeutic techniques, such as engaging in role-play or recommending relevant movies to watch.”

One of Levy’s favorite acting experiences was when he ironically played one of television character Frasier’s psychotherapy patients on the popular program Cheers. “I had the dubious distinction of being the leader of the low self-esteem group,” Levy laughed.

Kongit Farrell, the Student

Kongit Farrell

Like Levy, Kongit Farrell, a current student in the master of arts in clinical psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy program, also started out acting. However, frustrated by the limited roles for African American women, Farrell decided to take the initiative and create for herself the characters that she wanted to play and see on television and in films.

“I wanted to see African Americans who are like people that I know—funny, neurotic, intelligent, fragile, and sometimes despondent.” That led Farrell to write, produce, direct, and perform in the original stage presentation Landing of the Urban Rebels. Consisting of a series of monologues chronicling the lives of young African American urbanites rebelling against various facets of mainstream society, the play explored the range of life’s highs, lows, and overall contradictions. The performance was staged at Two Roads Theatre in Studio City, California, to much acclaim.

“So far, my psychology education has been paramount in my character development, both as a playwright and an actor,” said Farrell. “For my recent production, Landing of the Urban Rebels, I found that the depth of knowledge about human behavior, emotion, and thought processes that I have gained while at Pepperdine helped me give my characters authenticity.”

Farrell sees an obvious link between her interest in entertainment and psychology. “I think that writing plays is another way of contributing to the mental health of a society because artists who create what they see (rather than what someone tells them will sell) often make profound statements about the characteristics of society, but of which the society itself may not be aware. Plays can communicate concepts that might be hard for people to grasp if not explained within the context of entertainment.”

Dennis Palumbo, the Alumnus

Dennis Palumbo

Dennis Palumbo, a graduate of the master of arts in clinical psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy (MA ’88) and a former student of Levy, applies his 15 years of experience as a Hollywood film and television writer to his psychotherapy practice today treating writers, actors, directors, composers, and other artists.

“Because of my history in the field, I have a unique and personal perspective on common issues such as procrastination, creative ‘blocks,’ rejection, and depression that trouble my patients,” Palumbo disclosed. “In addition, for many patients, working in the entertainment industry can reawaken painful childhood issues around self-esteem and vulnerability to criticism, and the high-stakes struggle for show business success can exacerbate relationship problems. Here, my training and experience as a psychotherapist dovetail nicely with my entertainment industry background.”

Palumbo got his start as a professional in the entertainment industry in his 20s after moving to Los Angeles to “make it” as a television writer. Soon, Palumbo added to his credits the feature film My Favorite Year, for which he was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay, and classic television show Welcome Back, Kotter, which aired on ABC.

“My work in entertainment, and in particular my observations of the personal dynamics among the writers, producers, and crew, gave me early insights into group process, especially when under stress,” said Palumbo. “Moreover, my years as a screenwriter, which involved dealing with a wide variety of producers’ and directors’ personalities, helped build a foundation of diligence, resiliency, open-mindedness, and risk-taking which has been crucial in my work as a therapist. These experiences—typical of those that many of my patients deal with today—make it much easier for me to relate to their dilemmas and concerns.”

Palumbo further explained why he believes psychology has such a significant role in the entertainment field: “Creative people use what’s going on inside of them as the raw materials for their work. Just as a bricklayer’s raw materials are his bricks, for the artist those materials are his or her own feelings and impulses. These interior states give the artists access to their imaginations, passions, and unique drive to tell a story. On the down side, these feelings can be overwhelming and confusing, especially when the patients believe that this anxiety ‘says’ something negative about their ability. It is the therapist’s job to help patients address these self-assigned and self-defeating meanings and conflicting emotions. It takes sensitivity and clarity on the part of both the therapist and the patient to do this successfully. This is why good clinical work, with its mixture of intuition and technique, is as much an art as a science.”

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