The therapeutic technique known as psychodrama was developed in the mid-20th century by the psychiatrist Jacob L. Moreno as an outgrowth of his theories on interpersonal relations. The purpose of this note is not to explain psychodrama but rather to describe two experiences I had with it recently.
The first was in a group therapy class. The protagonist’s issue was a breakdown in communications between co-workers in her office. Her boss had an authoritarian and controlling style. Each of her co-workers had developed different coping strategies. One was the diligent supervisor, putting up with the bosses’ mercurial temperament. Another was ditsy but flirtatious and amusing. Another was avoidant, either looking the other way or avoiding the bosses’ tirades. Another was a primary target of derision, kept on only because she continued to function well in her position.
The leader spent approximately an hour moving furniture around in order to approximate the office setting described by the protagonist. She explained she was striving for a realistic setting. The way I interpreted this was that spatiality and the nature of the spatial environment is an important component to group dynamics. Persons who are clustered closer together, or with adjoining desks, develop different relationships than those in separate offices, or with cubicles, or even with desks spaced further apart.
Another hour was spent casting roles. While some fell naturally into place some were harder to cast. Being gender and age-appropriate I ended up playing the role of the boss. Throughout the furniture arrangement process the protagonist had offered a running commentary on different facets of each character’s personality. By the time it came to assign roles each of the participants had a pretty good idea of the parameters of their role, the most appropriate utterances to make and the types of behavior that were required to be enacted in order to achieve some measure of verisimilitude.
Finally everything was in place. The actual performance of the psychodrama took about a half hour. As per accepted technique the protagonist frequently stood behind each character to offer cues and prompts, when appropriate. There were no audience members to offer critique as everybody had been cast in a role. The way it evolved seemed to me to be somewhat forced. There was considerable hesitation and uncertainty. I attribute this primarily to the inordinate amount of time spent in organizing the furniture and casting the roles. The participants became so distracted by this process they were unable to inhabit their roles fully and as a result lost fluency. Although at the end the protagonist claimed to have derived some benefit from the performance I harbor doubts whether this was so.
The second episode moved along much more quickly. The protagonist spent about ten minutes discussing her issue, which was conflict with her son. No time was spent moving furniture around; everybody gathered in a circle. Rather than a more formal “casting” process, roles were assigned based on the conflicting voices the protagonist heard inside of her head.
I started off being the sole audience member although I joined in later because I came to believe there was an aspect of the protagonist’s personality she had not accurately identified or accounted for, but which was a necessary component in order for the other voices to make sense. I was concerned the protagonist simply had expressed some elements of her personality that were involved in her conflict with her son, leaving out others that may have been equally important. She may have done this, for example, under the influence of a recent mood such as frustration or impatience with the son’s behavior, rather than on more reasoned reflection, when she may have felt more tranquil or equanimous. The exercise tended to elicit only the parts of the protagonist’s personality that were explicit. Surely though there were others that were more tacit. These came to be revealed as part of the exercise because they were necessary to cohere and link together those that were more overt, whether logically or emotionally. Might it make sense to think of these unspoken parts as “unconscious,” revealed themselves only when the assigned parts start speaking up, causing the other assigned parts to react?
With a simpler set-up the actual enactment of the drama seemed much more spontaneous and natural. The participants were better able to improvise within their roles and repartee quickly developed. At first the participants tended to interrupt each other but this became more fluid after a few minutes. The participants (each representing a separate voice) learned how to segue naturally from one to another so the dialog made sense when considered as a whole. One expression precipitated its counterpart to speak out. It wasn’t just a random collection of voices but rather topics were expressed sequentially in a way that seemed to me to better mirror the protagonist’s actual thought process. The constructive, solution-seeking voices elicited believable responses from those who were destructive (or just neutral). The entire exercise lasted for about a half hour. At the conclusion the protagonist stated she had benefited not only from seeing how her internal voices were given expression, but also how they were refocused and their energy redirected.
I preferred the second experience to the first. It better demonstrated the ways in which a protagonist’s internal voices cross-relate and associate with each other. The sequence of group responses, i.e. the cycling and firing patterns, who speaks next and why, simulated a plausible sequence of the protagonist’s actual thoughts. At the end each player briefly expressed how he or she felt about playing that role. The protagonist then responded to what extent the performance mirrored her actual experience. It seemed to me there was remarkable attunement with the client’s actual mental and emotional state. Each voice individually, and their combination, illustrated the potential therapeutic utility of the exercise to the client.
On reflection I became interested in how the dialog between counterpart voices suggested possible interventions, particularly (in this client’s case) with regards to stress management and emotional regulation. What might happen, for example, if different people had played roles other than those they did, with different facility, emphasis and insight? This may suggest new strategies and coping techniques to the client. If there had been time, it would have been an interesting experiment to have the participants change roles. Reciprocally I had to resist the urge to redirect the roles in real time with a view towards keeping the client’s hypothetical psychological network in balance.
The key to making psychodrama work from a practical standpoint is for the group leader to pay attention to the internal dynamics and rhythm of the group. The dialog of internal voices suggests a pervasive mood and also implicates possible roles for missing elements and links between voices. The group mood can shift quickly, giving rise to different voicing’s and articulations of the roles. This prospect of improvisation and extemporization considerably expands the scope of each internal voice, with the possibility of greater insight (or error). If the group flow is natural it suggests a facile process of association. The relative strengths of internal voices might illustrate the dynamics and inherent tensions of the client’s actual thought process. On the other hand if it is disorganized this may mirror actual disruptions in the client’s thought process.