01 Jul Tonya Meeks – Psychotherapist and Performer
Tonya Meeks and I sat down at Superba Bread and Food in Venice last week for a Q&A about everything from her One Woman Show, Flying Standby, to people who inspire her to her retreat in Kauai this September. This young psychotherapist, interventionist and performer fits it all in and still has time to work on the next project.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a country singer.
Seriously, I would never guess that! Where did you grow up?
Cincinnati, Ohio. My mom was into country music. She was into Crystal Gayle, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers…and Elvis.
What was your form of escape as a young girl growing up in a turbulent household?
I would make little skits with my friends, ironically similar to what I am doing now. My friend Jodi and I would create soap opera skits. Someone would say, “My husband left me and he took the kids.” Then someone would end up murdered. They were very intense and were worse than soap operas because they were darker. And then I would orchestrate little bands.
How did the idea come to you to combine performance with clinical work?
I kept them very separate. I took a writing class that had a performance component when I went to school in San Francisco. I had never performed and I loved it. I ended up getting sober in that program. I started running Artist’s Way groups, and authentic movement, I was doing therapy and I went back to grad school. Then three years ago I booked a show in the Hollywood Fringe Festival. When I was marketing it I found that the audience who I really enjoyed performing to were people in recovery versus a mainstream audience. I decided to combine the two worlds and told myself that either I had made the biggest mistake in the world that will impact my clinical world, or it will be a good thing. It turned out to be a good thing.
What moves you to write what you write?
I felt that telling the truth of your life carries the most impact and that it encourages other people to tell the truth about their lives. That is what is most interesting to me – people’s true stories. I didn’t even consider doing anything different, it’s the most interesting thing to me.
What modality of therapy do you find yourself practicing more than any other?
I have a very eclectic approach. I try to read the client and what’s going to work for them, so I don’t have a standard, ‘I do the same thing with everybody.’ And I also incorporate the process of “telling the truth on stage,” where I help people tell their life stories through performance.
How do you do this?
It’s either one-on-one as a part of counseling, in the theater as a group, or as a retreat. It consists of writing, group exercises and mining for a story. Then I will demonstrate how to weave the story together.
What age group and gender are drawn to you?
I’ve tended to work with young 18 to 25-year-old, chronically relapsed, dual diagnosed, complex trauma gals. When I first began I worked predominantly with young boys just out of Juvenal Hall, angry young men, and I still get this mix of clientele. I do a lot of family work because I don’t believe you can work with just one person in the system and expect that system to change. I usually integrate as many people as possible.
How does your work differ from others in its genre?
I think the difference is that what I do is really redemptive storytelling. My clients are actually retelling the story, rather than just having drama therapy with the same container of people who are all in the same group. There’s something different that happens when you play all the parts and practice the story with the beginning middle and end through an arc. When someone knows they are going to perform in front of an audience it becomes a very, very powerful process.
What would you tell the woman who feels hopeless, that there’s no point in trying….to get sober, to be creative, to live her dreams?
Women can have such emotion and be so tuned in, I think that a lot of using is to numb something out – whether it’s trauma or wanting to feel connected. Ultimately, it doesn’t work and by getting sober we are able to have a stronger connection and intensity in life than we ever had using substances – a sustainable connection. Even though in the beginning it’s difficult, life is still 1000 times better sober and no addict/alcoholic who gets sober would do it if it didn’t get better. That’s not just a Pollyanna “Ohhh it gets better.” It doesn’t matter how bad it got, there’s a way to overcome it, transform it and have an amazing life! It sounds very Oprahesque, but it’s true.
What style of intervention do you practice?
I do more of an invitational approach. I will do a lot of psychological assessments with the family prior to the intervention. I use my clinical tools but I almost feel that my performance background and my ability to use improv….
Ohhh, that’s my next question.
…the chaos and unpredictability is very easy for me to acclimate to in working with the family. When doing an intervention with a client, I will play them to them. For instance I’ll say, ‘This is what it looks like over here.’ I read each situation. If someone’s really volatile I’m not going to agitate him or her. People don’t see themselves so I’ll have members in the family role play different pieces out. I’ll play the kid, and then I’ll rotate and I’ll play their dad. I’ll play out what their dad doesn’t know how to articulate, not in a clinical way but in a way that can land, where I know they can hear what I’m saying. It’s really powerful.
Do you use your gift of storytelling to sway an addict to agree to treatment?
Most definitely I think that’s my…..
That’s your gift.
….yes, that’s my gift. I worked at this treatment center in Orange County and we had a family program with family days. I would play the girls whom I worked with to their family. They would be role-playing what they were going to need to set a boundary with or where and how to do aftercare. Because I knew them, I could easily flip flop roles.
Are you able to begin writing a new project while you are still performing the last one?
Yes. I’m currently working on the next show, “But I Loved Him, Her, It.” It’s about drugs, alcohol and my relationship with men and women. It covers addiction in all facets and how that’s played out. It’s more about relationships. I like working on pieces concurrently. I think I will pause this show locally and then set a launch date for the new show – that’s how it will work.
And are all of your pieces one-woman shows?
Yes, and I am going to stick with that format. I’ve thought about incorporating the singer who performs in Flying Standby and possibly having more live music on the next show.
So what does your workday look right hereof? With practices in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach, plus shows all over the U.S. – what keeps you balanced?
I definitely tend to be a workaholic so I have to keep that in check. I stay balanced by going to my set meetings. The ocean for me is a big regroup and I do these 1/2 day spa treatments. I really have to turn it all off for six hours in order to recharge. I also have my own therapist. I can’t imagine seeing clients and doing what I do without having someone to talk to. Plus, I will always continue to do my own internal work. It’s not as if, ‘Oh, I’m all tidied up now!’ I have a sponsor and I have sponsees as well.
I know you love to wear dresses that I absolutely adore and admire – do you think women can get in touch with the feminine in them through the use of clothing, paying attention to how they carry themselves? It might seem like a strange question but it’s something I think about. Is it symbolic?
I don’t do anything but dresses now and even when I need to work out, I’ll wear a dress with leggings underneath. It ‘s comfortable for me. I’ve been doing it for so many years. It is a way where I connect with my feminine. I tend to be very driven and somewhat masculine in my style. And even though I’m really intuitive and feminine and empathetic, I think that a dress helps balance that out. I grew up in my masculine and having to take care of everything. It’s nice to just be a girl. I don’t know what it would be like if I had a suit and a briefcase and I went marching off to work. I like the look of a dress. I feel too contained in other clothing.
What famous actor writer musician performer do you really admire? Or inspires you?
I love Annie Lamont. I started reading Maryann Williamson, A Woman’s Work and A Return to Love in high school. I’ve always really admired Oprah and I love that she had the life she had and then created her life now. It is just so inspiring to me.
I got the chance to see Flying Standby a couple of days after this interview. Tonya’s performance captured her mother’s essence effortlessly, I felt as if I knew her. It was choreographed in such a way that time moved backwards and forwards through the use of quick costume changes, monologues and some audience participation. It is clear that Tonya has a gift for helping those who struggle with addiction give a voice to the family affliction of trauma and substance abuse. She will be hosting a seven day performance driven retreat on the north shore of Kauai. Tonya facilitates individual work by participants to create fifteen minutes of cohesive work and walks them through the process she used in creating Flying Standby.
For information on Tonya’s retreat, follow the link below.