An introduction to psychodrama
Psychodrama has been defined as a way of practising living without being punished for making mistakes. The action that takes place in a group is a way of looking at one’s life as it moves. It is a way of experiencing what happened and what did not happen in a given situation. All scenes take place in the present, even though a person may want to enact something from the past or something in the future. The group enacts a portion of life seen through the eyes of the protagonist (or subject of the session). The personal representation of truth by the protagonist can be eye-opening for someone else watching, who may see themselves reflected in the struggle to express what is real. J.L.Moreno, who founded psychodrama in Vienna in the early 1900s, described it as ‘a scientific exploration of truth through dramatic method’. Moreno (1953:81) had observed that thus far there was a science without religion and religion without science. He felt that the way forward was a combination; ‘A truly therapeutic procedure cannot have less an objective than the whole of mankind’ Moreno (1953:3). Each member of the group is a therapeutic agent of the other. To be understood and held emotionally and physically by a group member who is not previously enmeshed in the story, can be a healing experience in itself.
The psychodrama session has three parts: the warm-up, the action and the sharing. A fourth part, which is used for training purposes, is called the processing. In this chapter, I would like to describe these parts to you as well as discuss some practical considerations in using the method, the training of practitioners, the literature and the research in psychodrama.
The warm-up serves to produce an atmosphere of creative possibility. This first phase weaves a basket of safety from which the individual can begin to trust the director, the group and the method of psychodrama. When the room has its arms around you it is possible to be that which you thought you could not be, and to express that which seemed impossible to express.
There are many ways to warm up a group. Moreno often encountered each person and enabled people to talk easily to each other. An individual person with a particular life issue was accepted by the group as their protagonist. Another way of warming up is for the director to select a protagonist, one who s/he thinks is ready to work. Another alternative is creative group exercise from which the subject of the session emerges. This is called a protagonist-centred warm-up. In a self-nomination warm-up, people can put themselves forward to be the subject. These suggestions are ways of protagonist selection which come from the warm-up while the warm-up itself makes it possible for people to feel freer to trust the group, and to present their problems in an atmosphere of love, caring and creativity. It is important to remember that each individual comes with their own warm-up. Group discussion may be an expedient catalyst to get the group into action.
After the warm-up, the director and the selected protagonist take the work forward from the periphery of the problem to the core. Psychodrama means literally action of the mind, and it brings out the internal drama, so that the drama within becomes the drama outside oneself. The director uses the group members to play auxiliary egos who represent significant people in the drama. The design of the original psychodrama stage consisted of a circle with three tiers. The first level was for the audience, the second for soliloquy and represented the space outside the heat of the drama, and the top level was for the drama to be enacted. The design was for the work to go from the periphery to the core of the problem.
Enactment in most psychodramatic sessions takes place in a designated stage area. During the drama other group members do not sit in that space unless they are playing a role. The stage feels like a ritualised space once the drama begins: that is to say, the event that is meant to take place in that space takes place only there. Psychodrama that is attempted within the group space with no designated stage area, may fall flat because there are no boundaries spatially or methodologically.
Within the action there are five main tools or instruments that distinguish the method of psychodrama from other group methods. Moreno (1953:81) said:
The stage provides the actor with a living space which is multidimensional and flexible to the maximum; the subject or actor is asked to be himself on the stage, to portray his own private life; the audience is a sounding board of public opinion as well as the subject itself—it becomes healed by taking part; the auxiliary egos have a double significance, they are extensions of the director, exploratory and guiding, and extensions of the subject, portraying the actual or imagined. The director has three functions: producer, counsellor and analyst.
Psychodrama is based on life itself. The space a person moves in is reproduced on stage. If a conversation takes place in the kitchen, we set out the tables and chairs and give imaginative space to a window, sink, door, fridge, and other objects. The time, daytime or night-time; the atmosphere, warm, cold, hostile or friendly; and the space, the distance between people and objects are all important in staging a drama. Constructing the reality of an individual’s space helps the person to really be there and warms them up to produce the feelings that do or do not exist in that space. When someone remembers a conversation that took place at the table, in childhood, it is often important to have the people in the scene played by selected members of the group. We can often learn more by looking in this way at a person’s living space than we can in months of interview. I once was invited into a created space of a young man’s apartment. He walked in by lifting his feet unusually high as if carefully tiptoeing. I asked why. He said, ‘I throw my old milk cartons on the floor; they are everywhere.’ That spoke of isolation, not many visitors, a lack of care for the smell and look. An important clue to his alienation was his living space. Our task, then, was to look at why he had no friends and why he became a recluse. His words, up until then, belied his reality, but showing the ‘stage’ upon which he lived gave us a truer reality to begin to assess our task together.
I used to work in a public theatre in New York at 78th and Broadway called the Moreno Institute. Seven nights a week there was a public audience, a circular wooden stage and a director. A person seated in the front, middle or back of the theatre, a professor, housewife or carpenter, could be a subject of the psychodrama session which each had chosen to attend. It could be anyone.
Human beings have problems. Normosis, a word coined by Moreno, meaning the struggle to be normal, confounds the best of us. Though psychodrama was designed to help psychotics, for many people it has evolved into a therapy of relationships for many people. The protagonist, meaning the first in action, is a representative voice through which other group members can do their own work. The protagonist simply states an aspect of life s/he wants to work on: my fear of death, my relationship with my daughter, my authority problem at work. The director, with the protagonist, sets out to create scenes that give examples of the problem in the present, past or future with an eye to a possible behavioural pattern. Seeing the problem in the present, seeing the problem as it exists in the past and trying to resolve the problem by establishing the core or roots of the issue, is the aim. Future behaviour may then contain a more adequate approach. The ‘spontaneity’ that is sought is defined as a fresh response to an old situation or an adequate response to a new situation. The idea of throwing away the script is crucial to the conceptualisation of psychodrama as an action method. The protagonist has a chance to review the life script that s/he is using, which may have been handed down for good reason, but fails to be adequate for present life requirements. A person who was handed a script ‘Do not cry’ may feel that it doesn’t serve in present-day functioning. One who has never grieved for the loss of a parent because they bought the ‘brave’ script may feel the relief of crying, as grief is let go. The person may find a new definition of brave—one who has the courage to face what really exists within. That courage may not have been within the role repertoire of one’s parents, but within this new ‘family’ group, bravery may find a new climate to encourage self-expression, which may have lain dormant for years.
The average size of a psychodrama group is between five to fifteen people. I have seen groups of as small as three and as large as 500. The emotional material in large groups seems to transcend the numbers and often people feel the group shrinks in size. They are astounded that in a group of twenty-five they are able spontaneously to be themselves. The spontaneity of the director evokes authenticity in group members which in turn creates intimacy, which, ironically, makes the group feel smaller.
There are many societal roles represented in any given group. If, for example, the protagonist is an alcoholic, there may be a mother, sibling, partner or therapist in the group who, in the sharing, can present their own view of what happened to them in relation to an alcoholic family member. This feedback from other roles, in relation to the problem enacted, can be an invaluable insight for the protagonist. The socially investigative dimension of the problem is better researched in the session when many roles are represented. One of the aspects of a psychodrama group that sets it apart from other groups is the multiplicity of roles that are represented by each person in the group. We each play a staggering variety of roles each day: parent, son or daughter, professional, friend, lover, citizen, boss, student, not to mention all the somatic roles such as sleeping, eating, crying. Separate from the many roles we play in our own lives, we may be asked to play a role for someone else in the group—a dying mother, for example. If the person selected to play the dying mother has previously been seen as the group scapegoat, the role-structure can change drastically in a psychodrama group, allowing a positive alliance to form between protagonist and person playing the dying mother; an alliance which previously did not exist. This constant change of role structure in a psychodrama group helps prevent the role rigidity that may occur in other groups. The role repertoire is expanded by each group member playing a different kind of role in the drama than s/he may be seen to play in the group. A member of the group with low self-esteem may be stretched to play a courageous role, surprising both themselves and the group by the release of creativity hidden in problematic, learned behaviour. The glimpse of courage motivates the player to produce more courageous behaviour and encourages group members to relate to them in a different way.
The auxiliary ego
In the very first group I joined, there was a psychiatric nurse for whom I formed an immediate dislike. While she was protagonist, she was asked to choose someone in the group who could understand her inner thoughts and could help her express what she was not able to say. She chose me to be her double. I was astonished at her choice, but found, once I stood next to her and we worked as a team trying to explore her inner truth, that I could understand her very well and I stopped disliking her. She taught me how much of me was in her and introduced me to the reality that the people we dislike usually display behaviour that strikes close to home; therefore we are warding off the very thing we cannot deal with in ourselves.
The auxiliary ego is anyone in the group who plays a role representing a significant other in the life of the protagonist. This may be a role external to the protagonist, such as a family member or colleague at work. It may be an internal role such as one’s fearful self, child self or one’s inner voice. This voice may be represented by an auxiliary ego playing the double. The double helps express that which is not being expressed, with or without words. Because Moreno felt that the royal route to the psyche is not the word but non-verbal expression, the auxiliary ego can express, by gesture, posture or distance, those unspoken secrets in relation to the protagonist. I once was a double for a man who was having a quite a normal dinner conversation with his wife of twenty years. He was telling her he did not like to eat liver and clenched his fist as he spoke. As his double, I also clenched my fist and went a step further. I slammed my fist down on the table and said, ‘I’ve had enough of not being understood, I want a divorce.’ He looked at me, shocked, and said to her, ‘So do I!’ It was the non-verbal clue that spoke the truth, not his words. His body conveyed the truth while his words masked it. He then chose to express his actual feelings. The body remembers what the mind forgets.
The auxiliary ego who plays a dying parent may reach out with arms to say goodbye to the protagonist caught in a web of unexpressed emotion. Those very arms may represent years of love that was also unexpressed. If the protagonist reverses roles and is able to speak or show what has not been said all those years, the role-reversal can release spontaneity that was dammed or blocked in his own role as son. He can express love in another role, as the parent.
Often people are more spontaneous in the role of someone else than in their own role. Role reversal is the engine that drives the psychodrama. The role of significant other in the drama is modelled by the protagonist and a group member then moves in to play that role. Through crucial role reversals, the protagonist experi...