Sue Scavo is acting out her dream before a room full of people. In the dream, she’s standing at the bottom of a hill, and a man at the top is rolling barrels filled with lemonade down at her. In the room, Scavo calls for volunteers from the audience to play the barrels. Four middle-aged men and women leap from their seats, drop to the floor and start logrolling toward Scavo.
She athletically dodges the human barrels, “Donkey Kong”-style, while exclaiming, “Look out! Look out for the barrels! They’re out of control!”
The dream therapist presiding over the dramatization interrupts to ask Scavo how the dream is making her feel.
“It’s funny,” Scavo says nonchalantly.
“Lemonade means basically, you know, like a lemon car, that kind of thing,” the dream therapist says. “So all the things that can go wrong — the unpredictability of life — doesn’t concern you?”.
This psychodrama is taking place at North of Eden, a magnificent post-and-beam dream retreat center on the slopes of Norris Mountain, near the tiny town of Eden, Vt. The actors are Vermonters of diverse backgrounds who have come here to share this intimate form of group therapy. The directors are Marc Bregman and Christa Lancaster, dream therapists and astrologers who cofounded the place in 2003.
Bregman calls this kind of dream theater “string therapy.” (At times, participants hold a sort of cat’s cradle of string to illustrate a dreamer’s connection to various actors.) By acting out dreams with live subjects playing the roles of people and objects, he says, dreamers can enter the emotional field of their dreams in a more intimate way and gain a clearer window into their own psyches.
“It’s like going through the closet into Narnia,” suggests Bregman, a rail-thin 63-year-old with a gold-cross necklace and a bushy gray beard.
Adds Lancaster, a tall, 53-year-old blond: “The price of entrance through that door is to feel whatever it is you probably decided long ago you weren’t going to feel: fear or hurt, something like that.”
On this recent Sunday afternoon, Scavo’s dream is just the warm-up act. Before the therapy session is done, two others will have their dreams acted out in vivid, almost Oscar-worthy detail.
In one scenario, a retired nurse named Cynthia is dreaming about a woman in labor, played convincingly by a participant who writhes on the floor, screaming at the top of her lungs. In another, a woman named Annie, who is not acting, sobs uncontrollably, face down on the floor, while re-creating a dream she had about bleeding to death alone in the desert.
Several times a year, North of Eden’s members descend on the center for dream retreats lasting three to six days. The six-day intensives cost $850, plus $100 to $300 for lodging. They attract upward of 72 participants. Weekend retreats for couples, held in December, are $900 per couple.
Guests eat local food prepared by the staff and sleep on beds made at Maple Corner Woodworks in Calais, whose owner, Robin Chase, is a North of Eden member and dream therapist. Participants can also choose to camp at one of the many lean-tos dotting the hillside around the center.
In many ways, North of Eden feels like a church community — tight-knit, friendly and welcoming to strangers. On the day Seven Days visits, more than 20 members converge from around Vermont to demonstrate string therapy. The center’s main room, a modern lodge with cathedral ceilings, holds rows of seats, a Plexiglas podium from which Bregman directs the dream theater, and a platform at the rear where a kid wearing headphones films the whole thing. Bregman plays the role of the revered preacher — and teacher. He mentors clients to become dream therapists themselves through North of Eden’s training program.
Bregman has been practicing archetypal dreamwork since the early 1970s. For years, such therapy was done mostly in one-on-one sessions, until, Bregman says, he started hearing a voice that told him how to use group sessions to draw out dream meanings.
Bregman has no formal training as a therapist — he earned a bachelor’s in religious studies from the University of Vermont and a master’s in special education from Johnson State College — but he says he’s closely studied the writings of Fritz Perls, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and the astrologer Dane Rudhyar.
“I did my own Siddhartha thing where I went overseas in the ’60s and ’70s. I came back from traveling for, like, seven years and was borderline schizophrenic from all the LSD and being on the road,” says Bregman, a Philadelphia native dressed in tight, white slacks and a Phillies baseball cap. “So I settled down and went to college. I was a very poor student, but I was always interested in the occult and astrology.”
Bregman opened a practice in Montpelier doing astrology and dream therapy. In 1988, Lancaster came in as a client. The two hit it off. He trained her as a dream therapist, and she ran her own practice for years before the two started North of Eden. Lancaster sank more than $2 million of her own money into building the center on land Bregman owned. The couple are engaged to be married next year. To counter perceptions that he was a “Svengali” manipulating a former client, Bregman says he recently signed over his financial holdings to Lancaster.
In eight years’ time, North of Eden has become a small franchise, with classes and workshops, a press that has self-published six books, dream-inspired CDs of original music and a “college” where the organization’s leaders train others as dream therapists via WebEx.
The center has also gained international exposure — and a measure of acceptance — in recent years by doing live demonstrations of string therapy at dream conferences and workshops in France, Spain and the Netherlands, and at new-age centers such as Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts and Esalen Institute in California.
Much of that increased credibility is owed to Rodger Kamenetz, author of the best-selling book, The Jew in the Lotus. Kamenetz became involved with North of Eden after encountering Bregman on a trip to Vermont years ago and studying archetypal dreamwork, an experience he describes in his 2007 book, The History of Last Night’s Dream. That book earned Kamenetz interviews on Oprah’s “Soul Series” show on XM Radio and on the syndicated National Public Radio show “On Point with Tom Ashbrook.”
“I view it as a form of spiritual direction, not necessarily a substitute for psychiatry or psychotherapy,” Kamenetz says in an interview, adding that he was tutored by Bregman to become a dream therapist and now takes on clients. “The value of the work is the fact that dreams help us get to the level of our core feelings.”
Many of North of Eden’s core members found their way to the organization through dreams. Bill St. Cyr owned a successful plumbing and heating business in Montpelier when a disturbing dream about his then-wife made him seek out someone who could decode the meaning. He found Lancaster.
St. Cyr was so changed by the dream therapy that he gave up his plumbing business and devoted himself full time to North of Eden. Today, he is a dream therapist with his own set of clients and runs the center’s day-to-day operations with Scavo, his fiancée, who has coauthored several books with Bregman and Lancaster.
Not everyone came to North of Eden because of dreams, though. Dorothy Korshak made an appointment to see Bregman more than a decade ago because her marriage was falling apart.
“Two different people handed me a piece of paper saying, ‘I think you need to call this guy,’” recalls Korshak, 60, who owns Sarducci’s Restaurant in Montpelier. “He was actually the first person in my life who didn’t listen to my crap. Like, it all just came back to me.”
Hugo Liepmann was far more skeptical of the dream therapy when his wife, Cynthia, first persuaded him to see Bregman four years ago. A 76-year-old retired lawyer from Randolph Center, Liepmann says he went “kicking and screaming” to that first appointment, and was shocked when Bregman read him like a book.
Over time, he came to see dreams as portals to his psyche — and Bregman as a skilled dream weaver. Liepmann credits the dream work with helping him confront a painful childhood that he had locked away for most of his life.
“I have come to sessions with half-baked, scattered dreams,” he says, “and by the end of the session Marc will have woven the thread of my pathology.”
My wife and I call them NPR dreams — those weird vignettes inspired by the “Morning Edition” stories blaring from our clock radio in the minutes before we’re fully awake. I might be having coffee with Nancy Pelosi, or playing volleyball with the chairman of the Fed.
It’s tempting to write off these dreams as Steve Inskeep-inspired nonsense and go on with my day. But is there a deeper meaning there? Marc Bregman says yes. Every dream offers a window into the psyche, he says, through which we can learn something about ourselves.
Last week’s story about the Winklevoss twins dropping their lawsuit against Facebook inspired a bizarre little NPR dream where I was walking arm and arm down Main Street in Burlington with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, like we were best buddies. The next night, I had a non-NPR dream about a Burlington municipal board making a rule that barred anyone from buying less than a gallon of gas when filling up — because, supposedly, it was bad for car engines. I asked Bregman if he could make sense of them.
By phone, he explains that Zuckerberg represents what Carl Jung called the “animus,” or archetypal male. Palling around with the Zuck demonstrated an intimacy that revealed my vulnerability, he says. But later in the dream, when I’m interviewing Zuckerberg and asking dorky reporter questions, that represents a retreat from vulnerability.
Regarding the second dream, Bregman asks how I felt in the dream about the one-gallon gas rule. “Irritated,” I tell him. “Like it’s a stupid rule.”
“Would you say that to someone? ‘That’s a stupid rule. I don’t want to do that.’ Or would you be conformist?” Bregman asks.
I consider lying, then confess, “I’d be conformist.”
“So we would call that passive-aggressive,” he says. “Because, really, inside you’re like, ‘This is bullshit.’ But then you try to be the good guy, the caretaker. I think you’re afraid to be honest. I think you have a lot of fear issues.”
Suddenly, it feels like we’re on the cusp of some deeper psychological revelation. Then Bregman brings it back down to earth, offering a simpler explanation.
“Maybe it’s just that, as a journalist, you have to take everybody’s shit.”