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Steven Levenson

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Steven Levenson
Steven Levenson (10425).jpg
Levenson at BookExpo America in 2018
Alma materBrown University
OccupationPlaywright, television writer
AwardsTony Award for Best Book of a Musical

Steven Levenson is an American playwright and television writer. He won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Dear Evan Hansen.

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • Inside the Psychologist's Studio: Paul Ekman


Robert Levenson: Welcome. Paul Ekman: Thanks. Levenson: So, I thought it might be nice to start with where you came from, and how your life started out in academia. You attended the University of Chicago as a 15 year old… Ekman: I was thrown out of high school. It’s one of the things I’m really proud of, is I never graduated high school. Levenson: I don’t think that really hurt you too much. And you went right from there to one of the top colleges in the country, the University of Chicago, during a really famous time at the university, and you went there at a time when there were a lot of famous scholars and a lot of famous students. What was that like for you? Leaving East Orange New Jersey? Ekman: South Orange. Big difference. Well, it saved my life; furnished my mind; told me to aim as high as you possibly can. It really set my whole life in motion, from having been a total screw up and failure and rebel in junior high, to really getting very excited about ideas. There were no lectures at the University of Chicago, there were no textbooks; it was up to you, you had to learn how to think critically. Boy, I loved it. It spoiled me for academia; I’ve never found as good an intellectual environment since. Levenson: That was the great books period, where you read a series of books and that was your education? Ekman: Yes. Levenson: And who else was there at that time? Ekman: Well, Susan Sontag sat next to me in most of my classes. Mike Nichols, Elaine May… quite a number of people who went on, more in theatre than in anything else, surprisingly enough. I’m trying to think, I know there were some good writers… a poet, David Ray, did quite well. There were a lot of nutty people, too. Levenson: And if Susan Sontag, in her sort of wonderful, hyper-literate way, were going to describe you as a 15-year old, University of Chicago undergraduate… Ekman: Very shy. Not as shy as she was! There were the two of us, the shyest people in the class, sitting next to each other. I never had a class of more than 15 people, and there was a lot of pressure for you to participate in discussion, and it was a real strain for both of us. Levenson: You know, I don’t think of you as being shy. Ekman: Well that’s because you only see the exterior; inside is a very shy person. Levenson: Interesting. So from Chicago, you went to Aldephi University… Ekman: No, first NYU. Levenson: NYU? What was that like? Ekman: Well… actually it was quite a disappointment, although Margaret Tresselt, an experimental psychologist, gave me my first taste of doing research, and I became sort of an unpaid research assistant. And I ran the carts order, and did statistics for her, it was such fun. She was excited about what she was doing, I don’t even remember what it was about, but what I learned the most from was, I got a job working on the New York waterfront. I was the night clerk in a hotel, with a whorehouse on one side, and a loan shark on the other, and the headquarters of the mafia across the street, and so, for two years, that was the education. Levenson: It’s kind of like… the three cornerstones of your existence. The mafia, the loanshark… and where did you find yourself drifting? Ekman: You left one of them out… very kind of you. What? Where did I find myself drifting? Levenson: That was actually the period where you were spending a lot of time in the New York jazz clubs, right? Ekman: No, that was earlier. It’s really bizarre, I think of it now… When I was 13, I was fully grown, actually I was taller than I am now. I fell in love what was then called “bop.” I kept in a locker in the port authority terminal a bright yellow turtleneck, royal blue peg pants, and a maroon cardigan jacket. And on Friday, this little boy from South Orange, New Jersey, would go in, change into my jazz suit, and I’d get into all the clubs. They were small clubs, and I would smoke cigarettes and drink beer, and I heard Sarah Vaughan, and I heard Charlie Parker, in rooms that were a third the size of this room. It was fantastic, this for around two years. My parents had no idea was I was doing, but they didn’t pay much attention to me, as long as I stayed out of their way, they stayed out of my way. Levenson: I think most people don’t realize you were the first living hipster, and how much we all owe to you, a debt of gratitude. So let’s go to Adelphi, because it seems like that was a very different kind of place. Was that sort of a bastion for psychoanalysis, or psychodynamic thought? Ekman: It was, it just wasn’t why I went there, although I did intend, at that point in my life, to become a psychoanalyst, a lay psychoanalyst, and nobody told me that you had to lie on your applications. So in all, I applied to 24 schools, and where your career goals, I said “to become a private, practicing psychoanalyst.” So I got turned down by 23 out of 24 schools, the only one that accepted me was Adelphi, they wanted to train clinicians. That would happen to you today, I mean, you have to lie to get into clinical programs… the public university ones, at least… and claim that what you really want is a research career related to one of the star faculty there, and you’ll get in, even though your full intention is to do clinical practice. But, I had great, unbelievably good, clinical training, and I really liked doing clinical work. I had one for one supervision of psychotherapy, I had people like Bruno Klopfer teaching me Rorschach… I can’t remember who taught me TAT, but Lauretta Bender on the Bender-Gestalt. I mean, I loved projective testing, and I loved doing psychotherapy, and I came out to Langley-Porter to do an internship, in part because Jurgen Ruesch and Weldon Kees had published a book called Non-Verbal Communication, and I was already convinced from watching therapy sessions that so much of what was going on wasn’t in the words. Not that the words are unimportant, but there was just a lot that was being missed, so I was already committed to going that direction. Well, it took nine months before Jurgen Ruesch was willing to meet with me; I was just a graduate student, why should he waste his time? I wrote a review of his book that never got published that said “This would be a great book if it was the sixth book summarizing the findings of the first five, but since there are no first five, it’s a very questionable book.” That didn’t earn me a lot of admiration, I have to say. But, after the year of clinical internship, where I was actually making more of my living doing photography than doing psychology, and was considering developing a career where I’d split my time between photography and psychology, I got drafted! Peace time draft, it was still going. And I became chief psychologist at Fort Nix, New Jersey, and my God, there was nothing to do clinically, but you could change the environment with research. I had a commanding general who said “Get me the facts and I’ll make a change,” so I got the facts, I got my first research grant…I was all of 24 years old… and that switched me into becoming a researcher, because my main aim was to try to produce change in the world, and I had originally thought you do that with psychotherapy, but boy, you can really do it with research in a closed environment. I didn’t realize, the Army’s a special place; if I get a change, which I haven’t yet achieved, in how San Francisco runs its police department, it’ll have no effect on Oakland. I mean, producing change in the wider world is very hard. Levenson: Just for curiosity, because I don’t know this, what was that first research project? Ekman: The one I’m most proud of is, they made it very hard for these trainees to get to the mental health center where I was chief psychologist, so we usually didn’t see them ‘til the seventh or eighth week when they’d had a psychotic break, and usually that panic preceded it. So I convinced the commanding general to allow me to go to the training regiments in their first week, in their first three days, and say “If you can’t make it in the Army, you want to get out, come to the mental health clinic, we’ll send you home.” And we had four training regiments, ten thousand men in each; I did this in two training regiments, and not in the other two. No change in the discharge rate, it’s just there was a drop in the psychotic rate. These guys came, they knew they couldn’t take it. That was what I was most proud of. I changed the punishment for a first court-martial, an offense that doesn’t exist in civilian life, by showing that if you didn’t put them in stockade, just gave them extra company punishment, the recidivism rate was sixty percent lower. I mean, these are very applied studies, and they produce change. Levenson: Now, I have a little trouble seeing you inside the constraints of the military. Maybe nobody’s ever told you this, but you are a bit of a boundary pusher. Ekman: Yes. I’m proud of that, too. Levenson: How did that work out? Ekman: I remember I told my ninth grade teachers, the first time they threw me out of school, she announced what novels we were gonna read, and I raised my hand and I said, “Couldn’t we read any Hemingway?” and she said “No.” I said in front of the class “Why not?” and she said “Because I’m the teacher” and I said “Why did we just finish fighting a war against Hitler to have a dictator in the homeroom?”… thrown out of school. Levenson: Nice hyperbole. Ekman: I didn’t even think before I said it. Levenson: Well that’s kind of what I was thinking, that maybe you’d end up in the brig or something. Ekman: No, they kept me under, the sergeants, who run the army, he kept in the closet a freshly pressed uniform, polished shoes, and whenever they were gonna do an inspection, he was tipped off by the other sergeants, and they would get me to change, and I would really look spiffy. I did wear a mustache bushier than yours. Levenson: It’s not a competition! Ekman: I hadn’t seen you then… I did that so that all the pictures of me wouldn’t look like me when I got out of the Army, it was somebody else wearing that crazy mustache. So, they used to say to me, “You belong in Castro’s army,” to which my retort was “Why don’t you send me as military attaché?” But they didn’t; they did threaten, this is 1959, they threatened to send me to Vietnam if I wouldn’t call out numbers in the Officers Club, bingo numbers. I said to them “This isn’t my job, to call out bingo numbers!” They said “Lieutenant Ekman, the last officer to complain is now in Vietnam. Would you like to go to Vietnam?” I called out bingo numbers. Levenson: Excellent. Was that where you met Wally Friesen? Ekman: Yes… there he is up in the top left. I talk to Wally about once a month. He’s living in the south now and retired, almost retired. He had quit graduate school; I can’t remember who he got into an argument with. But he was a great admirer of the guy who did ecological psych… Levenson: Yeah, he worked with Roger Barker, didn’t he? Ekman: Roger Barker, and he had a big influence; Barker had an influence on me through Wally. So there was Wally, I made him research coordinator, I had twelve other enlisted men, all with master’s or some graduate work… and then I had a grant from the surgeon general, my God, we were really rolling. Levenson: You know, Wally, when I first met the two of you, I met you both at the same time… well, actually it’s my little story I always tell… I met Wally first, and he said, “I couldn’t meet you until I learned facts,” but I kind of saw you two as being Yin and Yang, and this kind of perfect match of complementary skills and temperament. Did you see it that way? Ekman: 25 years… absolutely, and I learned that, in the Army, we played very different roles, and didn’t step on each other’s toes, and got a lot done, had a lot of fun. Levenson: It was a remarkable collaboration, and it produced this incredible tool for studying the face, that is going strong now, all these years later. Did you know that, when you met him, that you guys were going to do great things together? Ekman: No, you never know things like that at all. Levenson: No instance? Ekman: No hint whatsoever. Other than, you know, my lab was funded for I think 35 years by NIH and NIMH, but you know, it’s a very tenuous life of getting renewals every three years. That really means I have two years to do some work before you apply for another renewal. But, you know, those rare moments when I give a talk at a university, I describe myself as a dinosaur, because circumstances were very different. You couldn’t lead the kind of life I led, and get the kind of funding for basic research that I was able to get for all those years. Levenson: It might be interesting to the audience to talk about how one went about getting a grant in that era. Ekman: You wrote a good proposal, that’s all it took, really. Levenson: And about what was the percentage… Ekman: 50 percent of the grants submitted were funded. I never had a grant turned down for 28 years, every grant was funded. If they had turned them down I would have quit! I would have gone and done something else. I certainly wouldn’t do it with the small percentage that are being funded now. I mean, you have to have more optimism than I’ve got… misplaced optimism…particularly basic behavioral science. “Phenomena driven,” that’s now a criticism in journals, “it’s phenomena driven.” Of course it’s phenomena driven, that’s my job, to try to describe what’s going on. Levenson: Yup. The two dinosaurs. Let’s loop back a little bit, because one of the things that I think characterizes you as a scholar is you’re always incredibly generous in terms of your influences. I was thinking of three influences that I was aware of that were very formative in your thinking, maybe you could say something about each of them. The first was Charles Darwin, who I believe you never met. Ekman: I did have a dream in which Darwin and I talked. It was when I was editing the third edition of his expression book, and he said to me in the dream, “I’m so glad what you’re doing to bring this book back to public attention, and there are over a hundred inserts from a modern perspective”…some of which you wrote… “but don’t you think, and afterwards, a hundred pages are a little too long in MY book? Don’t you think you should put that in YOUR book?” So I cut it by two thirds. Actually, I never ended up publishing those two thirds, which was “What’s the Difference Between a Sign and a Signal.” I should still publish that, because it’s a big difference. Levenson: That’d be interesting to see what you were thinking at that point. Ekman: Actually, I recently looked, I haven’t changed my mind about it a bit, it’s just, you know, getting things published is such a pain in the neck… but maybe I’ll just put it on the web. Anyhow… Well, I don’t need publications, so… Levenson: Uhhh, I heard you’re being reviewed in your uber emeritus status. Ekman: Yes, they’re going to throw me out of my old apartment because I’m not publishing enough. When I first started the cross cultural research, which, incidentally, was not my idea… in fact, most of the things that I’ve done that I’m proud of, somebody else suggested to me. The only thing I thought of myself was FACS, and everybody was against it, including Wally; including Silvan. They both said “It’s too hard, you won’t be able to do it.” Levenson: Wally was against it? I always assumed that was his, sort of… Ekman: He was absolutely against it. Well, he got involved in it, he really got into it, but he tried to talk me out of it, because he thought “We’ll never get it finished, and we’ll never get it funded, and it’s gonna be the end of our career, and the end of my salary…” and Silvan said “It’s much too complex, you can’t do it.” Well we did it; and Wally was fully engaged once we got started. But, I didn’t really care whether Margaret Mead, who I met with… Levenson: Let me find… I have a section called “Sparring Partners and Provocateurs,” I was hoping that you would talk about Margaret and then also talk about one of my favorite stories, about Carleton Gajdusek, who… Ekman: Tried to kill me. Levenson: Tried to kill you, and also got the Nobel prize. That is a very weird… Ekman: Not for trying to kill me. Levenson: No, for something else. For Prion Disease, but maybe you could talk about Margaret… Ekman: Margaret didn’t want to meet with me; her favorite was a fellow named Ray Birdwhistell. I went to visit Birdwhistell, and asked to look at his findings, and he says, “Well, that’s my finding,” so he had no data whatsoever. Levenson: Did he film? I can’t remember. Ekman: No, he was a linguist, so he developed this cumbersome, linguistically based system for describing expression that missed a lot of things, and, once you had spent all the time to annotate it, you couldn’t do anything with it. But the only reason Margaret met with me was because Gregory Bateson interceded on my behalf. I had met Gregory earlier, and Gregory thought what I was doing was a total waste of time, but he liked me, and I liked him. He kept saying to me, “It’s communication, not expression!” and it wasn’t until long after he died that I finally figured out, I wrote an article called Expression and Communication, it’s just two sides of the same coin. In the Darwin book, I have a section in which I reply to Gregory Bateson about that. Anyhow, Mead thought, “Why are you wasting my time? The answer’s already in, you don’t need to go and do any work.” Levenson: Now she would have predicted that everything was culturally constructed, that the expressions that people produced when they felt things were as arbitrary as the words that they might use, and it was a very strong position. Ekman: Absolutely. A very strong position, and everybody believed it, because it was very popular, it was popular here, it was popular in the Soviet Union also. “The state could make the human being;” we liked that, and so did they. Carleton, the fellow on the right… that’s a very youthful picture of Carleton. Levenson: Later on, when he won the Nobel Prize, he didn’t look like someone who would try to kill you, but this was in his sort of viral and hunky period… Ekman: Killing days. Incidentally, Carleton… I don’t think we’ll have time to get into the story… is the only Nobel Prize winner to spend three years in a federal penitentiary. Not for trying to kill me! But, Carleton was working in this area of New Guinea, the highlands, where half the people were dying. They thought it was a spell that was being cast, but when he read the accounts of it, that an anthropologist had brought out, which got a lot of attention, the power of culture. If you believe that a spell has been cast, you will tremble and die. Wow. Well, you read the description of the trembling, sounded like a CNS lesion. So, he took over two hundred thousand feet of film, color film of people in this culture, who had never seen outsiders. I dropped in on his lab, having heard that he had this film, and said “Can I look at it?” He had never looked at it, and he gave it all to me. It took Wally and I almost a year to go through it, but that settled the matter for me. I never saw an expression that I hadn’t seen before, and whenever I could check from either the antecedent or the consequence, my interpretations were right. So now I knew, Darwin was right, Mead was wrong, the challenge was, how you going to get evidence for this? In a culture… I’m being cautious, I’m gonna say, even though I’ve been denounced recently, a Stone Age culture, they were using stone implements, I have some of them in my apartment. They had never seen an outsider, never seen a match, they had no idea about material culture. So, I went there two years in a row, and between the first year and a second year, I remembered an experiment by Dashiell, probably nobody remembers him here, but Dashiell had done this brilliant experiment with children. Children don’t have a written language, so how do you know when you show them a face? So what he would do is he would tell them a story, and lay out some faces, and ask them to point to the face that fits the story. Fantastic! That’s what I could do with these people. And that’s what we did, and I got data on eight or nine percent of the people in the culture, and subsequently published it. Levenson: Maybe it’s worth, since we opened the door, just mentioning how Carleton tried to kill you. You’re sleeping in a tent… Ekman: He knows this story. Levenson: And Carleton is working on brains… Ekman: This is actually the second attempt on my life, the first, I don’t know if I have enough time to tell you about the first one, because it’s a little more ambiguous, but in light of the second, I’m certain that that was the intent, because in the second there’s just no question. We had hiked into a village where it was known that someone was dying of Kuru, so that Carleton could get the brain and get it sent back to NIH for people to work on. They understood why we’d want the brain, because they ate people’s brains, and they only ate the brains of people you love. From a public health point of view, eat your enemies that die in battle, they’re probably in good health; if you eat your friends, they’re probably sick, and if you don’t cook them, you’re going to get what they got. So it was a terrible problem. Levenson: That’s your favorite song, right? “We Only Eat the Brains of Those We Love!” Ekman: There’s a whole separate story about that…I never ate anyone’s brains, in case you’re wondering… even those I loved. So there we were, waiting for this guy to die, and we were in a small grass hut they had built for us, and it was maybe ten by ten, ten by twelve. I was up against one wall, asleep, lying with my face up, and suddenly, I felt wet stuff, hitting my face, and heard noises. I looked up, and there was Carleton; he had moved the autopsy table right next to where I was sleeping, so that bits of the brain were hitting my face, and I often sleep with my mouth open… I said, “Carleton, what are you doing?!” He said “Congratulations, you’ve had infectious contact with Kuru.” Well there’s no treatment for Kuru, and if it had actually gotten into my mouth, I would have been dead ten years later. That was the end of my working with Carleton; we parted company, I went to my own villages with my own guards. Quite murderous, I thought. Levenson: There’s one other story that I think might be fun for people to hear, and this is a Silvan Tompkins story. As I remember right, Silvan really wanted to know whether facial expressions for emotions were cross culturally consistent, and he didn’t want to do the work himself, and he figured that he would maybe seed the idea for a couple of young Turks, so maybe you could tell the story of how you and Carroll Izard ended up going off… Ekman: Well I have to back up one step; I was working half time in political science at Stanford studying threats in prisoner’s dilemma games, and halftime up in the city running my lab. This went on for about three years until NIMH said “Choose one, and we’ll fund, for five years, the one in the city, not the one down there.” But DARPA, was then called ARPA, was funding the threat research, so I went to see the guy who was funding it, and I said “Look at my wonderful results, I need more money,” and he said, “No more bargaining, no more threat research; what else are you doing?” I said “You wouldn’t be interested.” Well, to make a long story short, I told him about my research on expression and gesture, and he said, “I’m married to a woman from Thailand, and I think some of the reasons we’re having trouble is that we’re misunderstanding each other. How would you like to have as much money as you need to do basic research cross culturally? The only condition is has to be basic, and you can’t contract it out; you have to do it yourself, you have to be out of the country for six months every year.” So I went back to San Francisco, and I had two grants from NIMH. I talked to Wally, I said, “We don’t have to do this kind of research, I’m not gonna do it.” He calls me on the phone the next day, he says, “How’s the proposal coming?” I said, “We decided not to do it,” he said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He flew out, he wrote the proposal, and he gave me a million dollars. This was 1965, a million dollars is a lot of money then. Now there’s a whole separate story as to why in the world… he wasn’t giving me it for the reason he said, he had to get rid of some money that year, because he was in trouble for other reasons. So, there I had money; now to the question you asked, which I don’t even remember anymore. Levenson: How it was that you and Carroll both went traipsing… Ekman: Ah yes, okay, so now I had this money to do cross cultural research, and Silvan had a great photograph collection, which I happen to have. I have, if anybody wants to archive them, I have every photograph that’s been used in the history of psychology in the 20th century, and I need a place to put them or they’ll be archived. I haven’t been able to find… UCSF said “We’ll burn them, we don’t archive.” Anyhow, to get back to the question you asked, Silvan had a great set of photographs, we went through and picked the photographs, and off I went to do literate culture studies. Unknownst to me, Silvan had to talked to Carroll Izard, given him a different set of photographs. Now for the science, it’s really good, but for the investigator to know that someone else is doing exactly what you’re doing, at the same time, is a little worrisome, to say the least. It took seven years for Izard and I to get over some feelings of rivalry. But, I realized that literate culture research wasn’t going to settle the matter, because you could always say it was exposure to the media; you had to go to an isolated culture in New Guinea, and I did that, and that one, Carroll Izard didn’t do. Levenson: Okay, I wanted to leap forward a little bit; we have this picture of you, you’re a scientist; you’re in the Army; you’re changing the world with your research; you’re doing this incredible, groundbreaking, cross cultural work; you’re exposing yourself to Kuru in the service of science; and when I met you, I just thought you were kind of the most secular human being I had ever met, and the most devoted scientist. I mean, I will say that you really inspired me and I learned something about what a scientist’s life was like… Ekman: Well, that’s very gratifying. Levenson: And then you met the Dalai Lama. You know, I would’ve thought that this would’ve just been a walk away for you. Ekman: Should’ve been, maybe, but the only reason I met the Dalai Lama was because of my daughter, who’s sitting here in the front row; you can blame it all on her. She had, in junior high, spent a month or two trekking in Nepal, and unknownst to my wife or myself, the last eight or ten days, each of the kids who went lived with a Tibetan family in a refugee camp in Kathmandu. She came back all fired up about the plight of the Tibetan people, and I knew that if you got invited to his palace in Dharamsala, you got to bring a single observer, and I thought, “What a kick this would be for my daughter.” And so, although I thought this was just another one of the Bay Area fads, and I had resisted EST, and I had resisted Synanon, and I had resisted T.M., I figured, “Okay, I’ll make an exception, I’ll go.” So when we went to Dharamsala, Eve with me, I introduced her as my spiritual leader, I said, “She’s the reason I’m here.” But, for inexplicable reasons, I’ve written about this, I’ve written about the fact that I don’t really understand it, he and I really connected. Now, I call it déjà vu; I felt like I’d known him all my life. He points out “All you’re doing is naming it, you’re not explaining it.” I can’t explain it; none of us that I know can explain déjà vu; it’s a mystery. Well, he likes mysteries; I don’t like mysteries! I want to unravel mysteries, that’s what you were talking about this morning in that brilliant talk, and that’s what we try and do, but I don’t have the conceptual framework or the tools to unravel it. Anyhow, he changed the direction of my life, and this new book, just published this week, Moving Toward Global Compassion, is dedicated to him, inspired by him, and includes a discussion with him about the book. It’s an e-book, it’s out as of Monday. I mean, compassion isn’t an emotion, and I explain why I think that; for one thing, compassion toward strangers, unfortunately, isn’t universal. Emotions are universal; that’s enough to say it’s a very different phenomenon, but the question is, how do we move more in that direction? There’s lot of research; in this book, I list over 100 researchable questions that could help us understand the nature of compassion, and whether it’s really feasible to cultivate it across the board in all human beings. I’ve now spent sixty hours in one on one discussions, about emotion primarily, and more recently, compassion, with the Dalai Lama. I’ve never spent sixty hours talking about a single topic with anyone else in the world; neither has he. For some reason, we really have hit it off. I’m not at all reverential, I won’t call him “Your Holiness”. He calls me Paul; I should call him Tenzin, but I can’t bring myself to do that, so I call him “my dear friend.” “My dear friend, what do you think I just said about the fact that you’re totally wrong?” He loves being challenged; I like being challenged. We have a really good time; everything he takes for granted, I don’t, and vice versa, so we explore new territory. The previous book is a jointly authored dialogue between the two of us called Emotional Awareness, and if we’re going to regulate emotions, that’s the key. I believe that emotions evolved to keep awareness out, so you don’t think about what you need to do in an emergent situation, you do it. But that causes us a lot of trouble, because that happens all the time, we don’t think about what we’re doing, so we have to develop the skills to do what nature didn’t want us to do, to be aware of our emotions when they’re arising. My clinical supervisor, my last clinical supervisor at Langley Porter, Frank Gorman, long since deceased, said to me, “Paul, if you can increase the gap between impulse and action, you will have done everything for your patients,” and he should have said, “and we don’t know anything about how to do that.” Well, I developed some exercises that work very well hand in hand with contemplative practice that can help people learn to do it, and as you pointed out this morning, individuals differ in the onset slope, in latency, and people who have a long latency, like it appears our President does for anger… not for enjoyment, and that fits my findings, enjoyment is a totally separate system. Where he goes from zero to maximum in an instant in enjoyment, but very, very slow on anger; I have provoked him many times. That’s not true, but I’ve watched him being provoked. Levenson: I think this would be fair to say, I think you would agree that, in your own life, when you were younger, your latency to anger was very short. Ekman: Very short. Levenson: Even you and I have argued, and I don’t argue with hardly anyone, but we’ve had two fights in our thirty five years of knowing each other. Ekman: I don’t even remember that. Levenson: I know you don’t remember because you fight with everyone, but I don’t fight with anyone! But that’s changed right? Ekman: To some extent; and I attribute that to his very direct influence. Not an intellectual influence, but an inexplicable influence, and I do regard him as the brother I never had, and he thinks we were brothers in a previous incarnation. So who knows; I don’t believe in reincarnation, I think it’s a fairy tale, but I don’t want to be disrespectful of those who are not secular. Many beliefs, we don’t know; you’ll only know after you’re dead, who was right and who was wrong about all of this. Levenson: So, let’s make another sort of whipping turn from the sacred to the profane, and I want to definitely talk about this part of your life. These are your books down at the bottom, big deal, we’re all so happy, you’ve published a ton of them, but, you had A) a TV show based on you, with your life and your work, Lie to Me, and then you’ve just had this incredible impact on the popular culture. This takes about a minute to play, but this is an excerpt from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, which, for those of you who are fans of Law and Order, is the only one that’s still on, and I believe it’s because they mention Paul. Suspect: Well, there is a problem with your husband. Benson: What about him? Suspect: You don't have one. Captain Donald Cragen: Well, that experiment failed miserably. Benson: Am I crazy, or was this guy actually psychic? Dr. George Huang: No, he's been trained in FACS: Facial Action Coding System. Detective Elliot Stabler: He's gone to psychic university? Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola: Transferred from clown college? Huang: There are 43 distinct facial movements. A psychologist named Paul Ekman catalogued 3,000 possible combinations making up the entire spectrum of human emotion. Cragen: Why? Huang: To see if someone is lying. FACS breaks facial movements down into action units. AU 1 is raising the frontalis par medialis. Tutuola: That's not even English. Huang: His inner eyebrow. It's a sign of distress. Benson: I didn't think I gave anything away. Huang: FACS teaches you how to pick up on fleeting microexpressions that most people don't even see. Cragen: Turns you into a human lie detector. Huang: It's being taught at the FBI and CIA. Stabler: So how'd this numb nuts learn it? Huang: The CD-ROM is sold over the Internet. Ekman: I should have gotten a royalty for that. Levenson: Now this is the kind of thing, in life, I love: BD Wong, the actor who plays the psychiatrist? He’s just around the corner in a play. We should go over and get a picture! Anyway, so what’s this been like? It must have had some wonderful advantages and pros, and I would guess some pretty serious cons as well. Ekman: When the people came to tell me they were going to do a TV series based on my work, on lying, I tried to stop them. They said “We’re going to do it with you or without you, because there will be enough interviews with you, you’ve written enough books, we don’t need you, but IF you sign the contract…” there’s the devil, IF you sign the contract with the devil, “…then you get to see every script before we shoot it, you’ll be obligated to see every script, to give us a critique, and we’ll be obligated to read it, but not necessarily to follow it, so you’ll be able to give us advice and try and keep us on the line, keep it correct.” They then agreed, subsequently… I signed the contract, what choice did I really have at that point… they then agreed to allow me on Fox’s website to put a critique of every program, called The Truth About Lie to Me: Separating the Science from the Fiction, and sometimes it was very negative. Particularly in the second year, when Tim Roth decided this should be a program about him, not about science. Sometimes, my comment would be “No science, no comment.” He started leaving a lot of the science out. Anyhow, the problem is, that a couple of million people read my blog; about eight million saw program and got an idea that it’s a lot easier than it is and it’s a lot more certain than it is, and my fear is, there are going to be people convicted because somebody thinks they can really read this and it’s proof positive. I gave a presentation on the ethics of working with TV, it’s really hard to control these people, and I still regret that it happened. It brought a lot of attention… actually, it brought more attention than I could deal with. So it’s not a happy episode in my life. Levenson: So, those of you who are negotiating for TV shows, stop! Ekman: Watch out. Levenson: One other thing I think has been really an amazing part of your life is family, and actually… well, let’s say this: your early history was not stellar. But, after you met Marianne, and you started building a family fairly late in life, and Tom, from Marianne’s first marriage, and Eve, your first child, and this picture… it’s terrible, I took it myself… is from last week at the ramp, where Eve was having a party celebrating getting her PhD from Berkeley in Social Welfare. So what’s that been like? Ekman: Wonderful. Levenson: Would you have thought it? Would you have thought this would have been such a big part of your life? Ekman: Well, it’s what I wanted, and it’s what I was very worried about whether I would be able to do, both in terms of finding someone who would put up with me and want to have a family… I’d certainly had a number of broken marriages before this one, this is now in our thirty-sixth year. Family’s clearly the most important thing, much more important than career, I believe. It’s what I am most proud of, is having this family, putting someone like Eve Ekman on this planet. Levenson: And your family’s really involved now in your work, that’s really interesting to me. Ekman: Yes, it’s a funny story. My wife worried that I was so mismanaging the little company I formed to develop these online interactive training tools. When I retired, particularly after 9/11, I thought after all these years of support from the government, I want to try and translate my findings to things people could use, and the way to do that is to develop online interactive tools so people don’t need to come and sit in a classroom. We’ve reached more than a quarter million people so far, from all over the world, who’ve used the online interactive tools. It’s a totally different skill set, to design those, to translate your findings, at least some of them, into things people could use, and we have two more sets coming out. Well, my wife was so concerned about my mismanagement… I’m not a business man, I don’t know how to run a business… so she has joined as my Chief Operating Officer, I think that’s her title. She doesn’t like it when I say, “She’s my ‘koo’,” C-O-O. Levenson: She is your “koo”, there’s no doubt about that. Ekman: She’s my koo, a very cute koo. I never thought she would be willing… I mean, she was a dean at Berkeley, can you imagine being married? I never thought I’d be married to a dean, she wasn’t a dean when I married her, but there she was, Dean of Graduate Studies at Berkeley. So she knows a lot about management and dealing with people, and I never thought she’d be willing to be in a company where I was the boss, because I’m not the boss at home, but I am the boss in the office. I very rarely disagree with her, and she’s quite involved. Eve is using my work and taking it to new levels and places. She said to me a year or two ago, you don’t mind if I tell this story, it’s too late if you do, she said to me “Dad, how does it feel to have me walking in your footsteps?” I said “You’ve got the wrong metaphor; you’re standing on my shoulders to see what I couldn’t see, just like I’m standing on Darwin’s shoulders, and he’s not complaining, and neither am I.” Levenson: So, she’s like, two people… Ekman: Yeah there she is, it’s getting a little teetering, you better watch out! Levenson: It’s like a Cirque du Soleil show… I’m gonna close with something that James Lipton always does, and I think we have a few more minutes, I just wanted to ask you, your work is now used by the TSA, it’s used by the Department of Defense, it’s used by police departments around the world; some of that has been under your supervision, some of it hasn’t; how are you feeling about the net good that’s come out of that? The thing that I know must be difficult is, you really can’t maintain quality control over it, and you are a bit of a… well we won’t say control freak… Ekman: A bit of it, yeah, quality control… there’s a separate company that offers classroom training, and we maintain a lot of quality control. Every year, everyone who’s been trained to teach this has to be observed teaching it, and they’re disqualified if they’ve drifted and not doing a good job. So a lot of monitoring, quality control matters; don’t want people misusing the work, and making claims. I’ve always believed you have to undersell, not oversell; if there’s any ambiguity, undersell. Now, there’s a lot that our government does that I don’t agree with, but I do want to catch terrorists, and I do want to catch law breakers, and the work has been quite successful in catching wanted felons, rapists, smugglers… I’m told, but I’m not allowed to know the details, it’s been useful in catching terrorists. So, you can’t pick and choose which part of the government is gonna do what, and I’ve been asked, would I train undercover people in how to be more successful liars? Now there’s no question, there’s a lot of data to show that it is through undercover work that a lot of terrorism has been prevented… but I don’t want to run a school for liars. I run a school for lie catchers, and I know that if I was to develop technology for training people how to lie, I wouldn’t be able to control how it was used, just like I can’t control all the people who are using my work now. That would muck up the world even worse than it is now, if people knew how to become better liars than they are now. Most people are terrible liars, and just as bad as lie catchers. Now, we can train them to be much better lie catchers, particularly if the lies involve emotion, but even if they don’t. Levenson: Alright, James Lipton… I don’t even know if the show is still on, he ended his interviews on the Inside the Actor’s Studio with ten questions that were designed to bring out the essence and soul…no, it doesn’t go that way, you don’t have to remember them… of the interviewee, and they ask for short answers. So, I’ve rewritten them, and I’ve reduced them to five. Ready? No, it’s six. Maybe seven. What’s your favorite part about being a scientist? Ekman: Finding out things I didn’t know. Levenson: What’s the biggest thing you found out that you didn’t know? The biggest surprise. It’s an extra question. Ekman: That there are so many different ways that you can show emotion in the face, and I don’t know how many of them are synonyms. There are many more expressions for each emotion than there are words in the English language, or any language. So why are they there? Why did nature create them? That’s the huge question that I’m not going to get a chance to answer; I hope somebody will. Levenson: What’s your least favorite part about being a scientist? Ekman: Getting funding. That was a really easy one. The Germans do, in the Max Planck… actually, I turned down the opportunity to have a Max Planck in San Francisco. That’s a whole separate story. Levenson: I didn’t know that. Ekman: I always keep a few tidbits to myself. Levenson: I appreciate that, because we’re going to do this again in ten years. Ekman: I mean, they give you a lifetime, so you don’t have to spend every three or five years looking for money. Levenson: What turns you on creatively, spiritually, and emotionally? That’s the actual question. Ekman: Well, I’m a secularist, but I do believe that a spiritual value is to have compassion for all human beings. And we know there are such people on the Earth today. How’d they get to be there? Is it possible? We don’t say, “Why aren’t there more Mozart’s?” Is that what it is? Is it a special gift, or is this something that everyone’s capable of, and if so, why isn’t everybody compassionate towards all strangers? That’s an answer, I guess. Levenson: And then, this is the last Lipton question, again, modified a bit… if heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? Is that okay? Ekman: Boy, were you wrong. Levenson: Boy, were you wrong. Paul Ekman!


Early life

Levenson was raised in Bethesda, Maryland and attended St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and Brown University. He originally studied theater and English but then turned to playwriting. In discussing his interests in writing, he said: " does seem that a lot of my work tends to move in that [family] direction. I do find the dynamics in the family to be fascinating and endlessly variable. Family is, obviously, among the most universal experiences."[1] Although he writes for television as well as the stage, he said: "Theater will always be my first love."[1]



Levenson wrote the book for the musical Dear Evan Hansen which opened on Broadway in December 2016, after premiering at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC in 2015.

His stage playwriting credits include The Language of Trees (2008, Roundabout Theatre Company Black Box Theatre) and Seven Minutes in Heaven (2009).[2][3]

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin was produced Off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, opening in June 2013. The play was produced under the Roundabout Theatre's New Play Initiative.[4][5]

His play If I Forget opened Off-Broadway at the Laura Pels Theatre on February 22, 2017 and closed on April 30, 2017. Directed by Daniel Sullivan the cast featured Jeremy Shamos, Kate Walsh and Maria Dizzia.[6]

His play Days of Rage will open at the Off-Broadway Second Stage Theater's Tony Kiser Theatre on October 2, 2018 with direction by Trip Cullman. The play concerns activists in the late 1960s.[7] Days of Rage was earlier presented at the Hartford Stage Brand New Play Festival in a reading in November 2011, directed by Darko Tresnjak.[8][9]


He was a writer for the Showtime series Masters of Sex, which ran for four seasons, from 2013 to 2016.[10]

He will serve as showrunner for the upcoming FX biographical miniseries Fosse/Verdon about the lives of director-choreographer Bob Fosse and actor-singer Gwen Verdon. The series is set to premiere in 2019.


He will pen the screenplay for Lin-Manuel Miranda's film adaptation of Jonathan Larson's biographical musical Tick, Tick... Boom!, which will be produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.[11] He will adapt his and Pasek and Paul's script for Stephen Chbosky's film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen.[12]

Personal life

Levenson is married to Whitney May, who has worked in art history and design history. They have a daughter, born in 2015.[13]

Awards and nominations

He won the 2016 Obie Award for Musical Theatre[14] and the 2017 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Dear Evan Hansen.[15]

He won the 2014 Outer Critics Circle Award, John Gassner Award for The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin.[16]

His play If I Forget was nominated for the 2017 Drama Desk Awards: Outstanding Play, Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Jeremy Shamos), Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play (Kate Walsh) and Outstanding Director of a Play. The play was nominated for the 2017 Drama League Award: Outstanding Production of a Play and Distinguished Performance (Kate Walsh). It was nominated for the 2017 Hewes Design Award, Scenic Design (Derek McLane).[6]


  1. ^ a b Traiger, Lisa."Questions & answers with … Steven Levenson" washingtonjewishweek, July 29, 2015
  2. ^ Amatenstein, Sherry (March 24, 2017). "Steven Levenson on Writing 'Dear Evan Hansen' and 'If I Forget'" Paste Magazine. Retrieved June 12, 2017.
  3. ^ Bacalzo, Dan. "Review. 'The Language of Trees'", October 29, 2008
  4. ^ "Roundabout Opens 'The Unavoidable Disappearance Of Tom Durnin' Tonight", June 26, 2013
  5. ^ The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, retrieved May 7, 2018
  6. ^ a b If I Forget, retrieved May 7, 2018
  7. ^ McPhee, Ryan. "Kate Baldwin and Bryce Pinkham to Star in World Premiere of Tom Kitt and John Logan’s 'Superhero' for Second Stage" Playbill, May 9, 2018
  8. ^ Days of Rage, retrieved May 9, 2018
  9. ^ "Hartford Stage's Brand:NEW 2011 Runs 11/3-6", November 3, 2011
  10. ^ Gelman, Vlada (November 30, 2016). "Masters of Sex Is Done at Showtime". TVLine. Retrieved May 7, 2018.
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Klug, Lisa. "This nice Jewish boy just nabbed 9 Tony nominations" Times of Israel, May 3, 2017
  14. ^ 2016 Winners Obie Awards
  15. ^ " 'Dear Evan Hansen' 's Steven Levenson Wins 2017 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical", June 11, 2017
  16. ^ The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, retrieved May 7, 2018

External links

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