Whenever I am asked about being a psychodrama psychotherapist often people want to know what it is, have some odd ideas that it means being ‘psycho’ in a dramatic way, or that it’s just role play which often has negative associations with the questioner having had badly done role play scenario’s from training sessions as there only experience.
Little if anybody knows about its origins or about the person who developed a number of action-based methods including psychodrama, spontaneous theatre, sociodrama, and also group psychotherapy and sociometry.
Dr Jacob Levi Moreno (1889–1974) is a much forgotten figure in contemporary psychotherapy which is hard to understand given his methods and ideas are actually used often in different areas of therapy, organisational trainings, spontaneous theatre, and many group-based therapies such as family therapy.
Adam Blatner put it well in his very accessible book Acting-In: Practical Applications of Psychodramatic Methods: ‘Many of the most powerful active approaches in contemporary psychotherapy and education are derived from the method of psychodrama, in which a person is helped to enact his problem instead of just talking about it.’
In fact Dr Moreno in his straightforward book emphasised the wider application and underlying philosophy: ‘I have always tried to show that my approach was meant as much more than a psychotherapeutic method. My ideas have emphasised that creativity and spontaneity affect the very roots of vitality and spiritual development. I have always wanted to have people attend to the processes of health, as well as the problems of illness.’
In the beginning of my training I started to use the method in an adult mental health day centre to aide people to look at different situations with new eyes – a change in perception. If you continue to see things and folk in the same way the same results and interactions will probably occur. Often they would bring simple frustrations and dilemmas which felt unsatisfactory or caused them frustration and dissatisfaction.
A scene would be created in the here and now with key people in the described story. The protagonist( lead actor) whose story would unfold would be asked by me as director to develop the scene and also to create the venue where it takes place. Each part being marked down with an object, chair, or cloth.
We would develop it some more to include the characters within the scene and for them to state what they might want to happen/change – a contract of intent between us both to say where we wanted to go. Today in my present role in CAMHS we would be looking at goals as part of routine outcome measures which fits this way of looking at a contract.
As the stage setting is developed so the characters are named and specific roles assigned to the group – in psychodrama we would call them auxiliaries. They are there to help and support the protagonist with their dilemma and given specific words to speak in the situation.
The scene is then given life with the protagonist encouraged and supported to explore the issue via techniques such as role reversal to gain a deeper understanding of the interaction, to observe in mirror as though watching a film/stage drama and asked to watch or stop/change the action, and to see the scene with support from another. Within CAMHS I have often asked if a superhero might be helpful and what they would do in the scene: give the person a chance to hold the role of a superhero with special powers might provide new solutions, increase confidence to tackle the situation, and provide creativity when it feels like there is no spark or imagination around.
Ken Sprague whom I was fortunate to train with said in his chapter in Psychodrama-Inspiration and Technique: ‘Moreno knew that he was creating something bigger (a philosophy for life) a life method, in fact. It is a method based upon the realisation that humankind is a social and organic unity. Tendencies continually emerge between the different parts of this unity at times bring them together and at other times drive them apart.’
Finally after the scene is resolved to the satisfaction of the protagonist the whole group would share from the role they held – what it felt like and any aspects that had significance for them as well as the story as a whole. The point being to bring each and everyone involved to a place whereby there is a collective understanding about the protagonists situation without judgement and also the universal understanding that we all have connections some more than others but shared. Moreno himself stated this most clearly in his seminal work Who Shall Survive: ‘A truly therapeutic procedure can have no less an objective than the whole of mankind’.
Dr J L Moreno and his wife Zerka developed psychodrama within the mental health facility they ran in Beacon in New York. Here they developed psychodrama as a therapy and also his writings which she was co-author of as well, which included The Group Approach in Psychodrama in 1942.
Through this work he developed and set up the International Committee on Group Psychotherapy and later was the first president of the International Association of Group Psychotherapy which included S H Foulkes as it’s vice-president along with Serge Lebovici.
He also would run spontaneous or impromptu theatre at Carnegie Hall whereby plays and performances took place with him focusing mainly on spontaneity training and the living newspaper technique. Many an aspiring actors were rumoured to attend these open sessions in New York. This work he wrote about in two editions of a self-produced and published magazine called Impromptu.
Today we can see many of his thoughts,ideas,and techniques at play not only in therapy sessions such as family therapy, non-violent resistance, and mentalisation but also in contemporary society and television series such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? where a story or few words might be given out and a new or different response made spontaneously.
I believe Moreno and his wide ranging techniques, methodology, and theory really matter today in the 21st century and I would encourage people to read some of his works but also try it out at introductory workshops and look at situations with new eyes and perspectives. We really do need new ways to see things at these most tricky times for humanity and psychodrama may offer us a way to see things afresh.
Image credit: Freepik
Carl Dutton is a psychodrama psychotherapist working in the NHS in FRESH CAMHS at Alderhey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust.