By: Aimee LaBrie
George Pfirrmann MSW '79, BA '75 is not only a successful teacher and clinician, he is also an artist. While balancing his practice and teaching responsibilities, he carves out time in his daily life to write. His 2010 play AROUSAL was produced in San Francisco to great acclaim, receiving awards from the San Francisco Fringe for Best New Comedy, Best of the Fringe, and most sold out performances. From there it went to LA (Theatre Asylum), and then onto NY (The Flea). Recently, his play The Brothers Khan, An American Story, was chosen for production by The Broadway Bound Theatre Festival and presented in New York on August 15 through August 18.
The play is the story of two immigrant Muslim brothers, one of whom becomes Americanized and the other radicalized and the ensuing conflict that arises between them. It is in some ways a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel as Rustam, the radicalized brother, comes to believe that in order to be welcomed into paradise he must find out if his brother has indeed become a traitor to Islam and, if so, he must act.
Pfirrmann spoke to us about how he manages his artistic life with his professional life as a teacher and clinician.
What got you started on this journey toward this particular story?
About ten years ago, I was working for Department of Defense as a military family life consultant on various Army bases in Europe. In that role, I worked work with both the families, who were stationed there, and the soldiers who would come and go in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. I was working at the Child Development Center (CDC) with the spouses and the children of the soldiers and was awed by all the challenges they faced taking care of their’s and other’s children while their husbands were facing extreme danger in far off countries.
When I came back to the States, I wrote a play about it, and then got involved with The Playwrights Foundation and also became a part of the Will Dunne's playwriting workshop. Will brings together 12 playwrights one weekend a month, provides writing exercises, then brings in actors who read our pages so we can hear how the dialogue sounds and get feedback. I've been part of his workshops for the last nine years. The writing is work, but it is also a joy to be able to develop structure and learn the nuts and bolts of writing a play, and then bring the characters to life onstage.
Tell us how the seed for your play grew into a full-fledged manuscript.
The Brother's Khan, An American Story came out of my interest in exploring what happened at the Boston Marathon bombing--how could these brothers, immigrants from Chechnya, turn on their newly adopted country and commit such an act. While this was the initial inspiration the story took on a life of its own and became less about jihad and these specific boys and more about the forces that impacted the brothers of the play causing one of them to be driven to become an American and the other to embrace jihad and ultimately driving them towards a moment that could end in their destruction. It is at its heart a psychological drama.
I've always been aware of the dichotomies between the "us" and "them," or “good" and "bad," and how that binary framing opens the door for a panoply of incredibly destructive behaviors. In my research into these issues, I've found that the forces that have motivated many of the people who have committed an act of terror in the name of Islam (911, Paris, San Bernadino, Orlando, etc.), often had as much, if not more, to do with feeling marginalized, seemingly powerless to effect change in their lives, and having various personal problems, than with their religious beliefs. I think what we've done is to try to paint anyone who commits such and act as a religious fanatic. My goal is to try to see each person as an individual who has their own life story rather than quickly dehumanizing him or her with labels.
Can you explain a bit more about how you got your manuscript into production?
Broadway Bound Theatre Festival is an organization whose goal is to help playwrights learn to navigate the process of staging a play from beginning to end. I feel very fortunate that this play was chosen to be part of this year’s festival as it is a fairly competitive process to be selected. Once chosen the staff at BBTF help to build a community where all of the aspects of production are discussed, problems worked through, and successes shared.
Who inspires you?
In general in my work as a playwright, I strive to illuminate the lives of the characters and their situations in order to deepen our connection with others and enliven our experience of ourselves in the hopes of enabling us to be more fully human and to use that humanity to build a more just, caring, and enlightened society.
I'm inspired by the work of many playwrights including: Sam Sheppard, Edward Albee, Martin McDonagh, Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel and Christopher Durang among others.
I ascribe to Lerner Motti's idea that a playwright can be "an activist in reflecting the problems in the world in order to incite change and transform the society." I hope that in my plays I'm able to do this in honest, humorous, and entertaining ways.
What do you do in your day-to-day profession?
My professional life is composed of a private practice and teaching I spend about 20 to 25 hours seeing clients, a few hours each week teaching at California Pacific Medical Center. I teach cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to the psychiatrist residents during their third year of education, and then clinically supervise them for the remainder of their residency. I've been teaching there for the last seven or eight years. I've been in private practice since 1985, but most of my professional life has been involved with community agencies and residential treatment centers, providing clinical services to clients and their families, supervising the counseling staff, and providing trainings. In addition I attend a monthly consultation group led by Joan Davidson who is an expert in CBT.
What brought you to the field of social work?
Aside from my own personal issues I was drawn to this field in part because of my religious upbringing. I was raised Catholic, and came to believe that I had a responsibility to be part of the helping to build a better, more just society. In addition, I was influenced by the social activism around me, and indeed, was very active in the anti-war movement at Rutgers as an undergraduate.
Any words of encouragement you can offer to alumni who are struggling to find a work/life balance?
One of the aspects of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). ACT asks you to focus on getting clear about your values and what you want your life to be about in the important aspects of life i.e.; work, family, relationships, friends, community, etc. At this point in my life, I've been able to clarify where I most want to put my energy, and what steps I need to take to get there. That's an important part of this journey for me; instead of sitting on the sidelines, or dreaming about what you want, you have to do what you can to bring your dreams into being.
I am happy that I have done that with my writing and can also see the benefits it brings to my work with clients. It's about moving the focus of your life away from feelings that can discourage or keep you stuck to actions. This way of thinking opens up a whole area of new possibilities. It becomes synergistic and it can help you move toward self-fulfillment.
For more information or to buy tickets to The Brothers Khan, visit www.broadwayboundfestival.com.