This interview on the Chessboard technique presents a method of investigation and therapeutic play that is part of the repertoire of psychodramatists and analysts who love the encounter between image and word. The patient places a certain number of action figures and characters from our collective unconscious on a chessboard to then photograph the picture and make a series of changes.
Ottavio Rosati invented it in the eighties and applied it to groups in Pier Luigi Luisi's Cortona weeks and in various psychodramas and sociodramas in Italy and abroad such as Il Piombo and L'Oro del Perdono or the bibliodrama The struggle for Jacob.
The Chessboard technique was born as a form of active imagination of the Jungian matrix. Later someone called it a tabletop psychodrama that sheds light on the group and systemic dimensions of a family or work context.
The Chessboard is a new technique that you invented in 1986. The patient represents his dreams, experiences and relationships on a chessboard through the use of puppets and action figures in the studio. In your collection there are even 4000 of these, but the setting can also exist if you have about a hundred of them.
For that matter, even ten of them are fine.
Certainly, the more choices we have, the better the Chessboard works. Where did you get the idea from?
It is an archetype. The roots are in Leonardo Da Vinci’s thought. He believed in the importance of images and their frequent superiority over verbalization. Leonardo referred to the writer with a certain superiority: “Oh writer what verbal communication can you guarantee the level which pictural design furnishes? The pictural artist is much superior to you”. The image in and of itself, that of the alternation of light and dark squares, comes from a blackberry cake that the Americanist Fernanda Pivano ordered from the Austrian pastry shop in Rome in honor of Moreno, the inventor of Psychodrama.
What does Pivano have to do with the blackberry cake and the Chessboard?
Beyond the pun of the "Morena cake", the image in those days was born from the presentation in Italy of Jacob Levi Moreno's Psychodrama Manual. In Milan we presented him at the Piccolo Teatro in via Ravello with Luigi Zoja, Roberto de Monticelli (the theatrical critic of Corriere della Sera) and Alessandro Cecchi Paone improvised his own psychodrama on stage. On that occasion, Pivano told of her trip to the Beacon Institute in New York where she had interviewed Zerka Moreno for Corriere della Sera. This is the cultural climate in which the Chessboard took hold. From the point of view of emotions ...
What do emotions have to do with it?
They have something to do with those who believe, like me, in the concept of "creative disease" presented by Ellenberger in his book The discovery of the unconscious (1970) to which Aldo Carotenuto, my first training analyst, continually drew attention: no discovery is made for theoretical and rational reasons. The history of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in general is full of turning points, moments of personal crisis such as the one that Jung experienced with his famous Sabine Spielrein and which in a stormy and almost tragic way led to the discovery of the transference. Behind every theoretical model there is a passion or a complex to be solved.
I don't completely agree, but I understand the importance of the Ellenberger model for some of us doing this work. There have been numerous discoveries made in a non-turbulent climate such as Jung-Freud-Spielrein and equally valid. As for the Chessboard, what was the disturbance that prompted you to create it?
A growing intolerance for the traditional psychoanalytic dialogue which had reached levels of nausea. I fantasized about changing jobs. Listening and interpreting and commenting in words in some cases had become useless and impossible for me. My eyes closed during the sessions and I experienced moments of embarrassment and despair due to the lack of communication and meaning that had filled the analytic setting. As soon as I hesitantly introduced the chessboard complete with toys, with great feelings of guilt, when I proposed to the patient to translate into puppets ...
No no, I insist on using this word, rather than the traditional word of "images" because it allows me to think of the pitch "crazy for puppets". The despair and nausea vanished as if by magic. I mean that, alongside the game, the word found its dignity, its importance and its hermeneutic and communicative splendor.
What kind of training do you have?
I've been in analysis since I was 18. My analysts were Aldo Carotenuto, Paolo Aite, Mario Trevi, Claudio Modigliani, Nadia Neri and Stefano Carta.
Isn't that too many?
They are not the only ones. I omitted the ones like Lemoine and Zerka Moreno with whom I studied psychodrama. More than too many, they are many. A sign that I needed it. I was born into a complicated family and I am complicated myself. And then I'm curious.
How did your more "traditionalist" colleagues take it?
The ones close to me, fine. Others ignore me as I ignore them. But slowly the Chessboard is gaining importance a little everywhere. Also because in the world of Jungian psychoanalysis there has been an approach called "SandBox Therapy" created by Dora Kalff since the 1950s. Play areas with soft cloth puppets are essential even at the Tavistock Clinic which is the Temple of psychoanalytic orthodoxy.
What are the differences between the Chessboard and SandBox Therapy?
The Chessboard is less soft and more theatrical. It moves in parallel, orderly co-ordinates. In my opinion it is more masculine than Kalff's zinc house which is full of sand that can be modeled with water. In the Chessboard there are only wooden characters and modular elements similar to those employed in the theater. I have never used objects of nature such as shells or lichens or stones. But some of my students do it. Each in its own way.
And the patients?
Well, although it quickly emerged that there was a percentage of people who were more or less afraid of the possibility of staging a game of characters on the chessboard, this naturally seemed to me a confirmation of its hermeneutic value. For example, I remember a patient (a very high level magistrate) who was paralyzed by the idea of having to use his hands and to choose figures from the repertoire that was initially made up only of animals. Aside from that, a white ghost with a black sheet and chain.
The adult and terrifying version of Casper!
Yes indeed. The ghost had been given to me by Pivano who liked my idea: the figure contained within itself the black & white dialectic of the Chessboard. Some patients experience real joy in choosing and sorting the puppets. Others are very shy and would tend to settle for those which are placed on the table next to the three empty boards. This is also very significant.
It is evident that these patients, as well as in their everyday life, are unable to choose new people to relate to. I also use the Chessboard and you reminded me of a patient, a very good illustrator, who had no difficulty in composing a picture with puppets but rather, found it hard not to. That was his way of expressing himself to make himself understood.
In fact, I remember a rather tall psychology student who was standing next to a cabinet with the masks of the commedia dell’arte, various ines, like Totò and Pulcinella, five centimeters from his eyes, who told me: "It would take some theatrical images. But I don't see any ".
Returning to the main theme, what are the most important elements to observe in a chessboard made by a patient?
First of all, the structure that expresses the articulation or fragmentation of internal objects emerging from the unconscious. Another element is beauty.
The internal breath of the image, the dialogue between its components, the unpredictability of the combinations and the tension towards the viewer's reading. Beauty is the desire to communicate, while ugliness lies in the contraction and avarice of what the author puts together on the Chessboard. Other elements are the strength that emanates from the location, the ability to connect characters of a very different nature, such as a saint and a cartoon character. A very significant dimension is the play of glances and reciprocity between the various figures. Unfortunately, someone places objects side by side as if on an exhibitor without them looking at each other or mirroring each other. Fortunately for him, someone else creates real choreographies.
In some ways, reading a chessboard is reminiscent of a family photograph in the approach called "photo analysis": there are families where no one looks at anyone, families that favor parents' contacts with their children but neglect that of parents among themselves . The experience that an analyst has in analyzing photographs is very convenient in reading a Chessboard, but of course the knowledge of the history of art, cinema, architecture and finally ballet is also of great help.
Why haven't you published your book on the Chessboard that you've been writing for years?
I'm afraid of being trapped by it. To spend the rest of my life consulting and supervising. I will do it immediately after having published my collection of short stories The Atomic Babes and having made, after many short films, documentaries and television broadcasts, my first fiction film. I don't want to be an essayist.
However you have registered the trademark and you have published several articles.
Yes, of course.
Are there any contraindications to using the Chessboard?
Yes, because it is a very powerful method that in the hands of immature, unconscious and unanalysed people, can cause damage. Think about what happened with Hellinger's family constellations. The operators of the Chessboard should know the formidable repertoire of moral and cultural recommendations that Alejandro Jodorowsky has introduced to his new book on Psychomagic. First of all, no one should make a therapeutic use of the Chessboard without having studied psychology and done a good analysis. Especially since not even these two criteria in themselves are sufficient to guarantee us the best. Let alone their absence.
What does Jodorowsky's Psychomagic have to do with the Chessboard?
They are two different approaches that contain some common elements. The game, the contact, the creation of images. In some cases, the Chessboard becomes a formidable tool of that method Jung called active Imagination, a technique wonderfully mastered by Marie Louise von Franz. I am preparing an article on this subject for the Studi Junghiani magazine. The person who applies the Chessboard to himself, as in Jung's methodology, has the possibility of creating a series of plastic paintings that can be modified from day to day after having been photographed and stored in a dossier.
Do you mean that it is much easier to modify a chessboard than a complex and articulated design like the ones that Jung created for the Red Book?
That's right. When I use the Chessboard for myself I try to deepen the knowledge of a complex and to overcome its limits. Sometimes an image pursued for hours suddenly no longer has energy, it no longer makes sense because its experience paradoxically downloaded the image I arrived at. The finish line becomes a new start. It takes courage to demolish something that took hours or days to process. It takes honesty in admitting that the first or second restructuring is not always enough for our purposes. The plastic and scenographic nature of the Chessboard allows a continuous transformation. A painting can be completely changed in meaning with the elimination of an object or the overturning of two borders. It is like writing a file on your computer instead of a typed page or turning a scene from a film digitally instead of on film.
As a clinician I have also noticed that the patient obtains a certain historicization of his path by observing the sequence of photographs of various sessions made with the Chessboard.
In fact, the expressive power of a Chessboard is immediately communicable to third or fourth people or to a group with a speed and an incisiveness that are not comparable to those of the verbal summary of a psychotherapy session or a psychodrama game. Speaking of psychodrama, let's do a role reversal. Now I ask you a question: what is the characteristic of the Chessboard in your work with patients that makes you happy and gives you more satisfaction?
It amuses me a lot to see patients having fun composing the Chessboard and, even if they sometimes start from a very gloomy or sad state of mind, playing to represent their psyche and with my help, they feel better. In fact, we can joke and take lightly, in some moments, the complex nuclei that are resized thanks to this powerful tool. I am happy when I make my patients happy.
Does it depend on the fact that you provide matter as well as mind?
Together with the patient we create a play space in which both of us are active and, pass me the term, mutual. As it happened when I was little playing with my mother: Dolto would have liked her very much.
That is? It is clear that you carry a mother that is more than "good enough".
My mother involved me in her activities to help her and we did them together. In addition, she often created moments of understanding in which she suggested things like: "But what do you think if we went there for an ice cream?". She often participated in the games between me and my brothers with our toys.
So she didn't let you play with each other so she could stay in peace?
That's right. She enjoyed being with us and we felt she was happy doing it. But now let's get back to you and the Chessboard. Speaking of gaming, do you have any memorable short cases to mention related to the Chessboard?
The cases are very jealous. If I mentioned one in particular, the others would kill me out of envy. I'll first tell you the most recent one. But it is clear that the others, the ones I have forgotten, are a hundred times more beautiful. Therefore, it is a young woman, coming from Sardinia, who compresses her remarkable beauty under clothes worthy of a nun. She comes to the Graduate School as a trainee and is amazed at the mercurial speed of games and exchanges with which the students deepen their knowledge of their psyche. In this festive and sometimes aggressive atmosphere it often happens that the humor of the interpretations is ruthless but produces meaning.
At a certain point the woman I will call by a false name, Filippa, begins to cry saying that she is so sensitive and needs so much empathy. It emerges that the dictatorship of her tears is a form of passive aggression that erases everything and everyone and cuts her off from any relationship and exchange with others. Filippa has no erotic life. At the ending of the psychodrama I invite her to try to arrange her relationship with her mother on the board and she takes two blocks of crystal similar to ice. It couldn't be clearer than that. I ask her how we could restructure the situation. The group suggests that she choose a good mother from a locker full of female figures from all times and places. Unfortunately, Filippa is struggling to find a good mother. I insist. Finally he says "Here she is" and (unbelievable but true!) takes Queen Grimilde, Snow White's stepmother, in the Disney movie.
Moreover, she is a popular character and recognizable as a negative even by the colors, skills aside!
Indeed. With patience and tenderness the girls of the group help her to find something good and I must say that just remembering this I feel moved. So, slowly, she takes a series of figures out of the lockers: Grandma Duck with a cake in her hand, Jane from Tarzan, a Winx, Clarabelle, Minnie, even a little Playboy bunny girl and piles them on a pillow. When we got to a repertoire of about thirty pieces, I wonder how I can go on. And here the Teatro della Spontaneità connects to the Chessboard. I invite her to slip these characters into the décolleté of her dress. I can do it because the climate is extremely restrained and we are eight people in the room. At first, Filippa is horrified and shakes her head. After two minutes of plea bargaining, I realize that we are facing a door created by years of cumulative trauma. When she finally gives in and lets these vital female figures enter her skin, the ice cube melts and everything in her is transformed, from the light in the eyes to the color of the skin and the breath. Ultimately Filippa will say that it was a wonderful experience that he thought was impossible. His body had become the Chessboard that housed the feminine forbidden by her mother. Do you see a relationship between Chessboard and Psychodrama?
Surely in the spontaneity of the choice of the puppets as for the auxiliary egos of the group to interpret the old and new characters of the patient. The presence of the group serves to guarantee containment and also a response in the form of feedback with respect to the characters of the Chessboard. In the duo setting your solution with the patient's decollete would not have been possible.
Inappropriate, dangerous and in bad taste. But not in the group, as you say.
I know that in some situations you have moved all the Chessboard paraphernalia to the setting of a Sociodrama.
The first time we did it for "Lead and the Gold of Forgiveness" with the Parent Circle of Tel-Aviv, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who meet in the sign of peace to mourn loved ones who died in war or in attacks as children, brothers, spouses. On that occasion, we brought 500 figurines and placed them on tables on a veranda surrounded by shaded curtains. In reality there is no chessboard but a white marble vase full of water, designed by Paolo Tommasi, with which I washed the feet of the protagonists at the beginning of the meeting. The characters were located on the ground around this tank and some moments of anger, despair and pathos could find much more than a purely verbal expression. For the first time I saw people angrily hurl images of spiders and snakes representing war to the ground.
Is it difficult to manage such a large "company" of characters who will tend, among other things, to fill up with dust or break?
Yes, it is necessary to create a real first aid, of a "trauma center" to continuously repair heads, arms and legs. In addition, the figurines must be washed and dusted often especially at the Roman headquarters of Plays which is surrounded by a garden and which houses two cocker spaniels. Furthermore, the figurines, after playing with psychic charges of death and destrudo, must be recharged with positive energy by exposing them to the sunlight for a few hours. I don't think it's just a metaphor. I can't explain why in scientific terms, but the Chessboard is a machine for making the imagination come true and at times dripping with entropy. It must somehow be cleaned up. Disinfect it.
Marie Louise Von Franz, Jung's famous pupil, wrote Psyche and Matter in 1988 in which she claims the possible existence of an intermediate or subtle body that can be thought of as a "psychoid". Is that what you mean?
In a certain way, yes. According to Jung, the archetypes of the collective unconscious also seem to operate in matter. For example, I had the experience of synchronicity in which the outbreak of fire seemed a profound psychic expression. I mean that the Chessboard is a reassuring space because it confirms the possibility of an unus mundus, that is, of an ultimate unity of physical and psychic energy. In my life the most significant and vital psychic experiences have never been intellectual and verbal but creative, erotic and synchronistic. Almost always linked to the creation of theatrical or cinematographic events, rather than conferences or speeches without the dimension of play. It seems limiting to me to think only with thoughts. Perhaps this tradition derives from the Catholic brand: distrust of what is material and corporeal over the superiority of the disembodied spirit. Of course this opposition is overcome in art but traces of it remain in the old psychoanalysis of dialogic orientation. When it is invested by the psyche, the matter is able to dialogue with the psyche and to multiply its values and the search for meaning.
Can you give an example?
An example of how verbalization can confuse ideas, rather than clarify them, I take from a chessboard that at a certain point I transformed into a real hortus conclusus...
Do you mean the medieval enclosed garden that used to be in monasteries and convents?
Exactly. In that case, at a certain point, I saw a butterfly in the garden and I thought of transferring the characters of the Chessboard to the garden outside the front door of the studio which is really a hortus conclusus crowded with many plants, silent and protected. Almost magical. The patient Concetta was a middle-aged nurse who had been trapped for years by the fusional and secretly tyrannical relationship with a peasant mother, almost illiterate, from a town in Basilicata. A mother without femininity who wore pants at home and who had always considered her daughter an extension of herself. As in the typology of The Dead Mother by André Green, this working mother, resigned and anhedonic ...
That is, unable to please? I also imagine alexithymic, that is, with great difficulty in expressing one's feelings ...
That's right. She had never imagined that her daughter could do anything other than taking care of her. In Puglia it is said that these daughters are chosen since childhood because when they grow up “they will take their mother to the sun”, in other words, they will become her caregiver without starting their own family. After several months of analysis with the Chessboard, the patient was quite aware of the mess in which she had been raised. She no longer felt privileged and full of nostalgia. She had stopped considering her mother a divinity and, at the same time, a helpless and suffering child (Concetta's child) of which she was to be the only consolation, even after death. The day I saw the butterfly, Concetta told me that she imagined that she had been grafted onto her mother's tree as is done for certain fruit plants that need to be fortified. And she was very proud of it. She had expressed this ghost by placing a dozen colored wooden sticks flat on the chessboard to create a kind of branching. It was clear, however, that this flat, schematic and didactic chessboard explained absolutely nothing and that perhaps it maintained a misunderstanding. We went out into the garden and I invited her to choose a tree. She took an olive tree in a pot almost two meters high, then detached a sprig of privet, placed it in the middle of the trunk and said: "Here is the graft. What binds me to my mother ". Then her eyes lit up and she added: "Actually I understood that the tree is not my mother. I am the tree. My mother is the graft ". At that point, I invited her to choose three branches of different plants from the garden and she took an oleander, a fern and a rose. Thus, leaning them against the trunk, it became clear that her mother's deception, favored by her own fantasies, was the illusion of confusing as a graft what was an incestuous bond of the uroboric, that is, endogamous type. If I placed the branches of the other plants on the trunk in this mega living chessboard, I symbolized the possible marriage with an exogamous branch that came from another plant.
Concetta realized that the mother-olive tree was her own plant and that therefore it made no sense to speak of "grafting" an olive tree with its own branch but only of "confusion". The whole experience lasted five to six minutes but it was enlightening. She was coming clean. I believe that in this case the passage from the words to the traditional Chessboard was replaced by a further passage, that from the dead wood of the Chessboard to the living wood of the plants. We both agreed that it was still a Chessboard and not a simple session.
How has the Chessboard evolved over the years?
The very first change was the transition from an exclusively animal repertoire to a repertoire of characters of all kinds and it was almost immediate. The second change consisted of adding wooden modules similar to the practicable ones of a theatrical stage: in this way it became possible to articulate the chessboard also in a vertical direction. The third change was the addition of lights and laser pointers as well as a series of side tables with other chessboards.
In fact, the other chessboards allow me to combine the reconstruction of the patient's social atom that I have in session with that of his partner's social atom. This is the passage from individual psychoanalytic work to a work that is also interpersonal and systemic, that is, in the tradition of Moreno.
In fact this was perhaps the most important change of all. Another step was the use of musical commentary facilitated by the advent of smartphones. With that after I began to propose to photograph the chessboards in series in order to study their evolution. Then I started making videos. Indeed, to make the patient do them.
There are many colleagues and your students who use both the actual chessboard and very similar techniques. What do you think about it?
First of all, what I have already said about Psychodrama applies to the Chessboard: Psychodrama does not exist, there are psychodramatists. I am happy and also curious that my colleagues or students carry out the method each in their own way. For example in Tuscany, Luciana Santioli was the first to create a Chessboard space within the public service for the prevention of drug addiction. Furthermore, yesterday another student of mine who is about to finish graduate school was enthusiastically talking to me about a combination of chessboard and virtual reality that allowed you to enter the mazes of the chessboard looking at them at the level of the puppets. I'm afraid I didn't understand perfectly but it seemed obvious to me that this is the right way. A path of research based on enthusiasm in which everyone articulates the method according to their gifts and their typology in the Jungian sense. For example, I have known you for years and I know in your type, empathy and sentiment are very important but your knowledge of the characters derived from animation and comics is also important, which is at least double what I have. Thus the Chessboard is an open game system that allows each personality to convey the best of his universe into the encounter with the patient to the point that we can speak of a psychotherapy that becomes an encounter between playmates, one of the two, of course. , he knows a little longer in terms of psyche, unconscious structures and puppets.