Psychodrama is an action methodology pioneered by Dr Jakob L Moreno in the early part of the 20th century and which encompasses a range of techniques that aim to facilitate deep insight and healing, and which enhances relationships with self and others. As the name suggests, it is a dramatic method and is applied in a range of contexts, from individual or group therapy, organisational and professional development or educational settings. It is taught and practised extensively around the world and is for anyone who wishes to grow greater spontaneity and joy in their lives, whether personally or professionally.
Many people will have met some aspect of psychodrama if they have ever participated in a continuum or line-up exercise as part of a group warm up or if they have experienced the use of “the empty chair" to represent people in
'experimenting with new ways of relating to others and extending their personal role repertoires'
When applied in a therapeutic context, psychodrama facilitates people to work collaboratively, to warm up to and enact some of the personal situations in their lives which they wish to examine and resolve. It works on the premise of “show us”, rather than “tell us”, about your life situations.
People are facilitated by an experienced director to enact the various roles they and others play in their lives. This enables people to access their spontaneity and creativity to come up with solutions and insights to the questions they are asking themselves. This may involve people re-examining their life or relationships, generating fresh and novel responses to situations in which they habitually find themselves stuck, experimenting with new ways of relating to others and extending their personal role repertoires. Within the psychodrama canon, Moreno also developed sociodrama as a way for groups to explore issues of shared concern. It is used in organisational consulting, community development and educational settings to assist people to get below the surface of cultural or group behaviours and from there to find shared solutions to group issues. Sociodrama shines a light on beliefs and values, allowing people to examine them closely and free themselves from restrictive norms or attitudes which may be holding the group back from greater success, effectiveness or satisfaction.
It is a highly potent method of conflict resolution and promotes greater group cohesion within groups and greater understanding between groups. Sociodrama has been used with a range of populations, from prison inmates to adolescents exploring choices around drugs, alcohol and sex/relationships to senior Managers working to develop high-performance cultures within their organisations to multi-cultural community groups wishing to better understand one another’s perspectives and beliefs. What does it look like?
There are typically three phases of the work in psychodrama: warm up, action and integration. In the warm up phase, participants familiarise themselves with one another and orient themselves to the issue to be explored. Whether the group is a therapeutic one or something that happens in the course of, say, a leadership development workshop, participants will also be bringing to mind the life situations and/or relationships which are of concern to them. This often happens in action, with a variety of action based group exercises that allow people to express themselves on a range of relevant criteria in a structured and purposeful manner. For example, if the theme is “family life”, the director of the group may invite people to get into groups according to how many siblings they have, which could lead to people sharing their experiences of growing up as the eldest, middle or youngest child and all that that entailed.
If the theme is “having difficult conversations at work”, the director may invite people to stand on a continuum which will allow people to indicate how easy or difficult they find conflictual situations at work. As people continue to warm up to the issue, they make their concerns and experiences known to others, and one person will emerge as a protagonist. They will be ably facilitated by the director to bring their concern to life in the next phase, once the director has made a contract with the protagonist as to which aspects of their life are to be explored and which areas of their personal role repertoire are to be enhanced.
Then comes the action phase. The various people in the protagonist’s life will take to the stage, with other group members taking up those roles on behalf of the protagonist. Some examples of the kind of things people explore in a psychodrama include:
the re-examinination of an old relationship dynamic, perhaps with a parent or spouse
an argument with their teenage child
issues related to self-confidence or self-esteem
loneliness and isolation
major life change
In this phase, there may be re-enactments of conversations, allowing the participants to make analyses of what worked well and what needs refining for the future. There may be rehearsal for upcoming conversations or situations of which the protagonist is feeling unsure. There may be opportunities for other group members to demonstrate new suggestions or ideas in action so that the protagonist can see and hear how they might play out. Throughout the action phase, the director is following the lead of the protagonist so that the contract of the work can be fulfilled to the best satisfaction of the protagonist.
'new beliefs emerge to challenge old ones'
In the action phase of a sociodrama enactment, the whole group is participating, taking up a range of roles within the area being explored and bringing their own spontaneity and creativity to the roles. To expand on the “difficult conversations at work” theme, a scenario might be played out in which a group of staff are unhappy with new HR regulations, though they feel disempowered to address their concerns adequately.
An enactment could unfold in which various people take up the roles of the HR department, senior Managers, the CEO, some of the unhappy staff and others in the wider system. Through enacting an identified situation, everyone has the opportunity to have an experience of the various roles within the organisation, thereby gaining action insight into the myriad dynamics at play in having difficult conversations. From there, the whole group is enabled to come up with new ideas, new behaviours, new ways of inter-relating at work. The final phase is integration. This is a critical phase because it is when people are able to reflect on the action and to make meaning of what occurred, integrating it into their lives. This is the phase when people often come up with further insights, when new beliefs emerge to challenge old ones, when new attitudes arise to renew old ones, when new solutions unfold to address previously “stuck” situations.
What about the training?
Both psychodrama and sociodrama are taught experientially, which means that there are no tourists. In order to learn this potent way of working, trainees experience an active process of learning how to direct and participate in dramas into which is woven their own personal growth. Training in the method involves the learner in working with themselves, their lives, the lives of others and the development of groups. It has proven to be highly effective for:
psychotherapists and counsellors who work in group settings or who wish to learn creative ways of assisting their clients to access parts of themselves that “talk therapy” doesn’t seem to reach
for group facilitators who wish to understand the deeper dynamics of groups and how to work with these in order to unlock more effective group life
for people involved in community development
for those who work with the marginalised
for those who work in the fields of organisational development or organisational design
or anyone who wishes to develop greater spontaneity and creativity in their lives
If you are interested in learning more about psychodrama and sociodrama, there is a perfect opportunity in July. The British Psychodrama Association is holding its 2017 conference from July 7-9 in Sheffield. It is open to anyone, from practitioners of the method to absolute beginners wishing to dip their toes in. The conference website is BPA2017.org and this year’s theme is “Creativity, Collaboration, Community”. A variety of applications will be showcased, demonstrating how widely psychodrama and sociodrama are used and how well it sits alongside other modalities. For those who are interested in accessing training, details can be found on British Psychodrama Association website For those with experience as a psychodrama director, there is also a stand-alone pre-conference workshop from July 4-6, led by Rollo Browne and Peter Hall from Australia, entitled “Developing Potency and Presence as a Psychodrama Director” and the link to this workshop can be found HERE
Follow the link here for more information or to attend the British Psychodrama Association Conference 2017
John Wenger, BA, Dip (Couns), MBACP is a counsellor, psychotherapist and organisational consultant based in London. He can be found via his private practice website and at Quantum Shift. He has been applying the psychodrama method in all of his work since 2000.