I first met Charley Lang in Havana Cuba in 2007 at “The Spirit of Community: Narrative Therapy and Cuban Social Programs.” Ever since then, Charley has become a central companion on my life’s journey in work, play and friendship. When Jill Freedman invited Charley to participate in Dulwich Centre’s Meet the Author, we recorded the above interview that brings together the worlds of documentary filmmaking and narrative therapy. We added the text below to show how Charley draws from his experiences as documentary filmmaker, actor, narrative therapist and teacher. Check out the playlist for more glimpses into his contributions. Thank you Charley!
Peggy Sax, Re-Authoring Teaching Founder
An Interview with Charley Lang
1While I know that there are many different ways we could begin this interview, can we focus on you as a documentary filmmaker? In preparation, I relooked at your online course, Queer Counseling and Narrative Practice. You say something about how you've always been fascinated by people's stories.
Charley: That’s been a piece of what’s always intrigued me about capturing stories on film is that you’re capturing a moment in time, which is then, it lives on as a reference point for future generations or whatever to reflect on, to learn from. And yeah, it’s all about the story of that moment.
2How did you get interested in making your first documentary film?
Charley: Back in ’94, I was between jobs as an actor, and I was always doing volunteer work, or some kind of service-oriented work, which eventually led me to becoming a therapist. But I found down the street, there was this alternative school for high school students who had dropped out of the regular school system because of oppression, or discrimination.Charley Lang. And I just started showing up, and helping them with their schoolwork.
As I was talking to these students, this theme kept emerging about how they wanted to do the first gay and lesbian prom sponsored by a big city in the country.. And this was a group of ragtag students. Several of them were taking three buses from across the city to come to this little storefront to work and finish their degree.
My motivation was the inspiration that I received from these kids, and how they were claiming a space for themselves in the world. And just thinking, I want to capture this, this feels too unique. And who knows if the prom will ever happen? Maybe it won’t, but why not make a little project out of it. And I had no idea how to make a documentary film. All I knew was that the first step was buying a camera. And that’s what I did.
For further interest:
Live To Tell: The First Gay and Lesbian Prom in America (1994)
3How did you bring together the technical side of filmediting?
Charley: I think we had 30 hours of footage, which ended up in a 24-minute film. Every step along the way, I was like, “Wow, okay, I don’t know how to edit, I guess we have to find an editor. So, I just contacted all the people that I knew in the industry, and said I need an editor for this project. We’re making this for 29 cents, there’s not a budget. And it was the generosity of people who decided to come on and support the project that allowed it to come to fruition.
4This was the first prom of its type in America, the first gay prom, and since then, you said there have been hundreds. What about this film inspired others?
Charley: We entered it in a film festival here in Los Angeles, and it won the best short documentary award. We picked up a lot of awards. The National Educational Foundation picked it up, and included it in high school curriculum classes for cultural diversity around the country. Again, it’s the power of capturing a story and creating an audience for that story.
5What are some of the assumptions that feel similar to what you bring into your work as a narrative therapist?
Charley: There are exceptions to every problem story. These kids were showing me one every day that they had the ability, and that there is no such thing as a too small exception. That small change leads to larger changes. These are all things that ground me in the work, and made me so like a moth to a flame when I first heard about narrative therapy. At the very tail end of my graduate school program, it felt so familiar to me. I think, because of my work as an actor, because of my work on that film, and just that, I think for all of us who have navigated really challenging, sometimes incredibly oppressive experiences. And we found a way through, or around, or over to another space. There’s something about wanting to support that process, engage people’s resources in ways that enabled them to navigate the inevitable challenges in their lives.
For further interest:
6Some of the things I know about you now, as we're creating Reauthoring Productions, reminded me about less is more. And how to highlight someone's voice to create the storyline in the transcript to make things pop. How did you learn that skill?
Charley: I think it’s the cumulative effect of a lot of experiences, probably. I think I said earlier, we had 30 hours of footage. We made a 22-minute film. So, as we’re reviewing all of that stuff, I’m carefully selecting out the pieces that I want to tell in terms of the story of these kids. And it’s a very similar thing, in terms of my work as a narrative therapist, not that I’m selecting out. But I’m supporting the client to select out the pieces that they want to engage to either rewrite an old story or create a new preferred story of who they are in the world, how they address their problems.
So, for me, it was a very simple move from actor, filmmaker, editor to narrative therapy, and so much of what really made my mind explode about narrative therapy, compared to all the other models that I had studied in graduate school was this inherent sense of resourcefulness, is paying attention to people’s hopes, and dreams, and preferred experiences in life.
And helping to carve a path to go there, as opposed to what was the dominant path in my graduate school education, which was, in many ways, endlessly circling the problem story. And I would be left with and then what? For me, narrative therapy is the and then what. It’s like, “Okay, what do we want instead?
7When you finished that documentary, many people might say, great, I made a documentary. How did you decide to go on to make another and another?
Charley: Life events that just stopped me in my tracks, and I went, “Whoa, okay. Something sparked and I followed that spark.” my third film, which was about gay cops. I had met this cop. He wasn’t gay. Well, I never heard anything about gay cops. There must be gay cops.” I started researching, and got invited to this national event, and filmed that, and then did the same thing in personal interviews.
And the irony was that the first day of the conference ended up being 9/11. Certainly, I couldn’t have planned that. And yet, so there we were, on the first of five days of this conference for a national conference for gay and lesbian law enforcement officers. Everyone dealing with the effects of 9/11. Yeah, it was pretty intense.
For further interest:
8Wow, that was intense. As I reviewed that documentary, I was thinking what a different time we're in now as we're having this conversation in 2021. There was, at least in the interviews, such a sense of pride for so many people in being police officers. What are your thoughts about that?
Charley: It’s really amazing how different moments in time just bring a completely different energy. Here we are, a year after the George Floyd murder, and all the Black Lives Matter protests, and all the drama, and passion, and pain of that for the past year. And Derek Chauvin just yesterday got sentenced 22-and-a-half years in prison for the murder of George Floyd. People are looking on cops at this moment in time in a very, very different way.
9It's inspirational to think that we each bring our past experiences to what we do, and how these experiences influence how we are as therapist, teacher, community organizer - or whatever we do.What are some of the unique skills, and knowledges that you bring to your work from the earlier days as an actor, and also the understandings of life you bring to your work as a gay man?
Charley: I teach graduate students narrative therapy classes. I say to my students all the time, “We all bring our lived experience into this work, and that lived experience often times informs the directions that we choose in terms of being clinicians in the field of psychology.” Certainly, I bring into my teaching and counseling my work as an actor and filmmaker – editing a story, selecting out certain pieces, choosing the language that gets used in order to tell the story, highlighting all of these pieces that reinforce and/or reconnect clients to their sense of agency in the world.
My teaching is very informed by my work as an actor. There’s a performative element to it, especially when you’re in the classroom. And I feel very comfortable there. Some people aren’t so comfortable starting out in teaching, and I understand it. They’re not used to being in front of an audience. I had 20 years of doing that on the stage, in film and in television.
It feels like a seamless link from that world to the world of narrative therapy. During the last class that I took in graduate school I heard about postmodern therapy. And that’s all I needed. Up until that point, I was thinking I guess maybe I’ll be a therapist. I’m not so sure. But after that day, I started going to conferences, and found a narrative traineeship. I just wanted to be in that world that felt so comfortable to me, familiar to me.
10Don't you also teach a course on documentary films?
Charley: I use film in all of my classes. I’m a total film buff. And part of the reason I use film is because they’re so instructive. And it’s just another way to engage people’s critical thinking processes. I’m focusing a lot on people of color this summer, because of the moment we’re living in our culture right now. Everyone makes a four-minute film of their own, based on something that they’re passionate about, either personal or in a more global context.
I have another class in the fall called Madness in American History and Film, where we deconstruct concepts of insanity and madness from the beginning of American history, with the European influences, and then through various representations and films since the beginning of film up until the present day.
11Are there ways that you bring film or these sensibilities also into your work as a practitioner?
Charley: Yeah. I’m oftentimes having conversations with people about what they read, what they’re reading right now. And if they’ve seen any films of late, or what they’re watching on television, especially television in the pandemic, because we were all isolated in our homes, and I find that really rich material. I’m very interested in what they’re drawn to. That’s oftentimes an entry into really rich conversations for people.
12 How do think these life experiences influence your involvement with Re-authoring Teaching?
Charley: I love being part of this community and making contributions as a Board member. I can draw from a range of life experiences to co-create online courses, co-host the Collab Salon, edit videos and collaborate on all sorts of emerging projects. I feel so very honored and humbled to be one of the first to try out this new interview template that brings together different parts of my life’s work. Looking ahead, I look forward to interviewing other treasured colleagues.
13Well, I think there's so many more things I could ask you, The saying that comes to my mind that you've taught me as someone who I live, as you know, in rural Vermont, and you live in Los Angeles, and you're so close to the industry there, and you always say, leave them wanting more.
Charley: So, let’s do that.Good. I’ll just end by saying in case anybody’s interested, both of the films Live to Tell: The First Gay and Lesbian Prom in America, and Gay Cops: Pride Behind the Badge are available on YouTube.
14And should we promote your courses as well?
Charley: Oh, absolutely. Reauthoringteaching.com is a remarkable website with so many resources with five online courses (right now) including the one referenced earlier in this conversation: Queer Counseling and Narrative Practice. All three documentaries are in this course: Battle for the Tierra, Live to Tell and Gay Cops.
Also I worked closely with you and Akansha Vaswani on the course, Rich Story Development in Action: 3 live interviews with Maggie Carey.
For further interest:
Queer Counseling & Narrative Practice
Rich Story Development in Action: 3 live interviews with Maggie Carey
Charley Lang, MFT (Los Angeles, California) created the online course, Queer Counseling & Narrative Practice and cohosts The Collab Salon. He is co-founder of Narrative Counseling Center, providing resource-oriented consultation services for individuals, couples, and families, in addition to strength-based psychotherapy training for interns and therapists in the Los Angeles area. As Director of the Psychology and Addiction Studies Concentrations at Antioch University, he teaches numerous courses, including Narrative Therapy in Practice, Human Sexualities, Shakespeare Deconstructed and Madness in American History & Film.
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