Psychodrama: The bare bones

Psychodrama The Bare Bones

Peter Howie

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Many years ago I found myself emotionally hamstrung and unable to respond well to the conditions of my life. As a consequence I sought professional help in the form of a psychologist doing one-to-one therapy. I found this process excruciatingly painful. I would go along to the session and sit there and find I could hardly say anything about what was really going on. I kept going around in circles, approaching minor problems and peripheral issues in my life. Unbeknown to me, the psychologist had noticed this. At some point in our sessions she pointed out that I appeared to be finding it difficult to present myself, to talk, and I seemed to her to be, for want of a better word, stuck. I was greatly relieved to hear this as it matched my experience. She recommended I attend a psychodrama self-development group as a means of loosening up, and to assist me to find expression for my feelings, my thoughts and drives, my dreams and passions – in order to get unstuck. So I booked into a psychodrama self-development weekend and went along, ready for pretty much anything, and scared to death. The workshop I attended was one where participants were encouraged to interact and engage with one another. They also used this strange method called psychodrama, which included having participants act out their dilemmas and situations on a stage-like space, rather than talk about them. In order to do this they required other participants to take on supporting roles. This bit was easy because it wasn’t my story. So I played other people’s mothers and fathers and lovers and various odds and ends of their lives, sometimes furniture, sometimes a cloud or the rain, and also a river. I didn’t have to make up much of anything, so there was little in the way of stage-fright, because it was the other person’s story and script, not mine. Self-consciousness was at a minimum for me. And when I did get stuck I could follow others who were also being ‘the river’, or the group leader, the psychodrama director, would coach me what to do, or remind me of lines I had forgotten. The weekend progressed and whether or not I developed flexibility or an improved ability to express myself, I developed a keen yearning to understand what was going on and an entirely new interest in these strange creatures called people. I recently found the following quote, from Zerka Moreno in which, surprisingly, captured what happened remarkably well:

Everybody who has ever participated in a psychodrama is both fascinated and stunned by the impact of spontaneous play…[it] starts out on an empty stage with no script, no professional actors and no rehearsals. There is only the protagonist with his or her story which through the unique psychodramatic techniques expands into a full play, be it tragedy, satire, or comedy. The psychodrama has a strong psychological impact on the protagonist, the co-actors, and the group present.

Moreno, Blomkvist and Rutzel, 2000, p. 1.

My background up to this point had been studying for a Bachelor of Science degree following high school; then becoming a house painter to earn a crust; afterwards becoming a computer programmer with promises of good things to come (just when card-readers disappeared); and then running my own property development company to make my life hellishly stressful. While I was a property developer I began to do psychodrama groups and eventually train in the methods and what a clash of values that was! I add this bit of biography to indicate that I did not arrive here, as an experienced group worker and psychodrama director and trainer, in the usual way and so far as I have found, neither has anyone else, and there really is no ‘usual way’.

This chapter starts with a concise overview of psychodrama that I have called the basics. Within the basics I present the five instruments of psychodrama, the three phases of a typical psychodrama sessions, the seven main techniques from which so many others are derived, and finally the operating principles for using these basics. Then follows a short section on a limited range of psychodrama philosophy that informs and influences the principles, and the unfolding of the sessions where it might be used. Finally, I give three case examples of using these methods – the practice component. Throughout the chapter when referring to psychodrama I am also including the specialisations of sociometry, sociodrama, group psychotherapy, and role training, which use the same basics and philosophy in ways specific to the groups with which a director will work. The examples include the use of group work, sociometry, sociodrama, and psychodrama with community leaders, scientists, and a residential addiction treatment setting.

What is psychodrama

An introduction to psychodrama is a difficult feat to achieve in a way that may be considered thorough. It’s like an introduction to physics or chemistry; more is left out than can be adequately presented. First there is the psychodrama that was developed by Moreno, the founder, creator and original developer of psychodrama in the 1930s and 1940s (Blatner, 2004).This dealt with drama, mental illness (during times without anti-psychotic drugs), group structure, and group therapy. In the 1950s it was further developed by other researchers and practitioners for specific client groups such as children, addicts, and families, in experimental settings in ‘mental’ hospitals, universities, the army, and the beginnings of international collaboration in the form of large conferences. In the 1960s there were further developments for use in general hospitals, schools, and other settings along with the influence it had on organisational training settings and training more generally.

Since then psychodrama training institutes and professional psychodrama associations have been formed around the world where the approach is actively being researched and developed by communities and associations of practitioners, and taught in many accredited training institutes. Still, there is an essence of psychodrama practice and philosophy that was there at the beginning that is still recognisable wherever one travels to international conferences in Europe, North and South America, Asia, and the Pacific. What is written here would be recognisable in each of those locations.

Psychodrama is a methodology for stimulating participants to expand their capacities to think, feel, and act in the moment. As a consequence of this improved capacity, participants find themselves able to create new and workable solutions to what were old or intractable dilemmas (Carter, 2005); such dilemmas as being angry with my spouse, being unable to stand up for myself, not being able to stand my team mates, thinking my boss is a waste of space, feeling depressed and unworthy, feeling entitled and looking down on everyone, lacking confidence, hating myself, hating others and feeling stuck. When psychodrama is used in a group setting, an individual’s attempts at developing new solutions to old problems will also significantly stimulate the other group participants. The psychodrama practitioner assists participants to be better able to find their own solutions and ways through as a direct consequence of the increased capacity to think, feel and act. The focus of psychodrama is not directly solution-focused. The focus is on the development of spontaneity.

The Basics

The five instruments

Psychodrama in a group setting has five main instruments. These are:

  1. the director, who is the person responsible for the group’s functioning, for warming up the group, for assisting the group to choose whom to work with, and for the production of the psychodrama, and who has been trained to do this work;
  2. the protagonist, who is the person chosen by the group, with assistance from the director, to work on their particular issue using dramatic means;
  3. the stage, which is where the dramatic methods are enacted and can be an actual stage or a simple delineated area in a room, or the centre of a group space;
  4. the audience, which is made up of those people not involved directly in the drama; and
  5. the auxiliary egos, generally called auxiliaries, who are members of the audience who are chosen and agree to be a part of a protagonist’s psychodrama.

These five instruments, as Moreno termed them, are the basics required for running a psychodrama.

The three phases

The three phases are the warm-up, action, and sharing phases and these are the responsibility of the psychodrama director. The director initiates what is termed the warm-up phase of the group. The warm-up phase is where the director invites the group to enter into a variety of processes that may increase collaboration in the group and assist group members to present themselves and their areas of concern. As this process begins, individuals are influenced by one another; they may respond empathically directly to one another, may present their own story, may create distractions or take the group down various paths, and they may become stimulated to consider entering into an investigation on the stage. The director attempts, during this time, to build the relationships between participants, to determine the themes and areas of interest in the group, and to see whether there is one theme and one person who is carrying the interests of the whole group. This phase is finished when a protagonist is chosen from the group to enact something on the stage. The group may make the decision, or the director may make the decision, though the protagonist is always a volunteer.

The next phase is the action phase where the director and the protagonist co-create an enactment on the stage using the other instruments along with the techniques and their variations (presented further in this chapter). The director and the protagonist enter the stage, where the director orients the protagonist to the stage and the work at hand, and begins to have them produce their drama. The drama may have one or a number of scenes and usually finishes when it has reached a resolution of some type. Such resolution may be of the Hollywood type, which is where divisions are healed or completed, relationships mended or ended, the future is clarified, and hopefulness emerges. Or it may be of a more nuanced, European type where difficulties are accepted, pain is embraced, the future is cloudy but real, and the complexities of life remain.

Following the action phase is the sharing phase, sometimes called the integration phase and, in organisational settings, a debriefing phase. During this phase the group members share with the protagonist and the director what they have made, or how they were affected, by the psychodramatic enactment. They may reflect back their own story with similar or different problems. They may reflect on the experiences they had as part of the drama, as either an auxiliary or an audience member. They may discuss the feelings and other imaginative responses they had during the enactment. This is not an assessment process, and is not designed to give more input in the form of advice to the protagonist. It is a sharing of how people were touched, in whatever form, by the work thus far. It is designed to give the protagonist a break as well as giving the other group members an understanding of the effect the work has had on the whole group.

These phases are not fixed, and the group may stay in the warm-up phase for a considerable time or a short time. The sharing phase may lead directly to the next enactment and serve as a warm-up phase itself. There may be numerous short enactments as part of the action phase rather than one longer drama. The director’s job is to keep things bubbling along.

The Seven Techniques

The director has at their disposal a variety of techniques and processes that were developed by Moreno and others over a long period of time. These fall into a small number of general processes from which an almost limitless number of specialised and specific context-related techniques might be developed and used. These techniques are adaptable to a wide variety of situations and group settings and this capacity to adapt the methods is the essential teaching for those training to be psychodrama directors. Contexts such as organisational settings, training groups, team development, group psychotherapy and counselling, strategic planning, role development in organisations, mediation, conference sessions, theoretical explorations, large groups, small groups, families, and one-to-one settings. Many books and various psychodrama journals have over the years published numerous accounts of different applications of these techniques for different client groups. The basic techniques are as follows:

1.            Concretisation is the process of having the protagonist choose people or objects such as chairs, toys, cushions, or materials, to represent, or to be, some of the factors relevant to their area of concern. Concretisation, in the psychodramatic enactment, is a novel approach, and while many people are already very familiar with externalised representations of thoughts or feelings such as diagrams and models, using either people or objects is a very surprising process. The other techniques, which follow, may all be seen as forms of concretisation as each one is, in effect, the concretisation of a seen or unseen element of a person’s life, whether a feeling, a thought, a memory, a person not in the group but in their life, and so on. The concretised objects could be areas of concern that are current, such as their partner, friend, colleague, work situation, child, or living relative; they could be people no longer living or people yet to be born; they could be ideas, thoughts, feelings, intuitions, bodily experiences, mental properties; they could be fantastic or fictional entities such as gods or demons, kings or queens, living or dead, or entirely self-created ideas; they can be the relationships between these various objects. This process is always surprising and demonstrates that we, as human beings, are well able to treat objects as people, and people as objects, indicating an incredible capacity for projection and imaginative engagement.


2.            Mirroring is the process of the protagonist becoming self-aware through having auxiliaries copy or ‘mirror back’ what the protagonist has just enacted on the stage, which may be sounds, physical movements or whole streams of actions and enactment. This process is often surprising for the protagonist as they are often unaware of how they actually are seen and understood by others.

3.            Modeling is where members of the audience are invited to act as they themselves would if they were in the situation that has been set up on the stage. This process adds a considerable element of surprise and expansion as different audience members try things unanticipated by the protagonist and other group members.

4.            Role reversal is the process whereby the protagonist, who has chosen a person or object to be someone or something of importance in the scene they are enacting, is asked to be that person or object and respond from that place to what is occurring. Then they are reversed back into their own role and get to experience the response they have just made. The role reversing process may go on through quite a few iterations. This process includes a form of mirroring (see above, as the protagonist will get to view themselves from the other’s perspective. It can also progress conversations and can create highly worthwhile dramatic and aesthetic moments. The auxiliaries, in the first instance, repeat as best they can the complete response displayed by the protagonist. Once the auxiliary has grasped the essence of the role they may take it further, and, with the proviso of being guided by the director, follow their own responses to the situation.

5.            Maximisation is a technique where one or more elements of the protagonist’s functioning are exaggerated or maximised. Such instances may be somatic, where a part of the protagonist’s body is mobile, such as their hand forming fists, but they are not aware of it. An instance may be vocal, where a protagonist speaks in a small voice and then they are encouraged to speak loudly. Maximisation is employed to assist the protagonist to include actions in a more integrated manner with feelings, thoughts and intentions by enhancing the action component in a person’s response, usually producing vitality as a consequence.

6.            Doubling is a technique most often used when the protagonist’s confidence fails them, or they are finding it difficult to express their inner world. The protagonist chooses an auxiliary from the audience who then attempts, imaginatively, to become the protagonist. They stand behind and slightly to the side of the protagonist, while mirroring their body language and speech. Their job is to ‘feel into’ the protagonist and, using hunches or interaction with the protagonist, to express what they imagine the protagonist is experiencing. This can often be done with a high degree of accuracy. The main effect is the building of confidence of the protagonist in the scene they are enacting, a loosening up of their expression and a great reduction in isolation as the protagonist is in effect ‘getting with’ themselves.

7.            Soliloquy is a technique where the protagonist is invited to express what is within them, their thoughts, feelings and other responses out loud. The soliloquy is treated as a single exposition of where the person is up to, in the moment, and is treated as though it is expressed to the world at large, the gods, or the clouds, as though no-one can hear them. It has a long form where the protagonist walks round the whole stage and is finished when they feel they finished. In this form the purpose is to assist the protagonist to gather themselves and integrate what has come before or prepare for what is about to come. In its short form it is termed an aside, where the protagonist turns their head away from the current enactment, while staying in the enactment. They then verbalise what is within them at that moment, again with the fiction that none present is able to hear this expression. It is similar to the aside in a film where the protagonist turns to camera and discusses some angle about what is going on. The aside is employed in psychodrama to allow expression of bottled-up responses that cannot come out in the drama because they are forbidden in the situation being examined.

The Operating Principles

The following operating principles are used to guide the application of the techniques. They serve as a guide for the overall work in the group and the application and timing of the techniques just mentioned. These have been developed from the writing of Zerka Moreno who was married to J.L Moreno and was also a significant contributor in her own right until long after J. L. Moreno’s death in 1974 (Z. T. Moreno, 2006).

Action – Action is used instead of talking about a situation or the work needing to be done. This is usually brought about by the director producing an enactment, which means having the protagonist present their thinking, or interacting, with an auxiliary on the stage. For instance, if the protagonist is complaining about their friend, have them choose an auxiliary to be their friend, and have them talk to their friend directly, in preference to theorising about what they would like to say.

Here-and-now – The protagonist is encouraged to act in the here- and-now, in the moment, regardless of when the situation they are enacting took place, or might take place, or even if it is a fantasy situation. Working in the here-and-now keeps the protagonist as an active agent in the drama rather than a storyteller, someone reminiscing, or being an historian and only ‘talking about stuff ’. Moreno noted that even reproducing scenes minutes after they occurred was never accurate and suggested that “absolute recall does not exist, and correct reproduction is a hardly attainable ideal”, and therefore the use of the here-and-now situation, with all its inaccuracies, produces more life and vitality than trying for slavish reproduction.

Subjectivity – The protagonist is encouraged to act from their own truth, their own subjective reality, irrespective of its apparent distortions. Without a full enactment of a protagonist’s lived inner experience on the stage, Moreno suggested, the protagonist may not warm up adequately. Acceptance of their experience comes first, prior to any attempts at retraining or modification.

Inward movement – The warming up process of the protagonist in the enactment does not begin with diving in the deep end; rather it proceeds from the periphery and carefully wends its way to the centre, if required. This is in contrast to jumping into, for instance, a traumatic event. The director is required to use their production skills to construct scenes that are meaningful and relevant to the protagonist’s work and to follow the warming-up process of the protagonist.

Protagonist’s choice – The protagonist chooses the scenes that are enacted – the times, the places, the situations, and the auxiliaries. The director and the protagonist, as co-creators of the drama, have different roles. The director is attempting to work as a dramaturgist to produce the dramatic elements of the enactment, which brings life, vitality and passion to the enactment and may provide guidance and direction, while the protagonist is the primary author, which brings authenticity, meaning, and vulnerability to the enactment.

Restraint – Psychodrama may also be used to practise restraint, not simply the externalising of inner thoughts and processes into outward expression. Restraint may be brought about through a variety of processes, the most common being the use of role reversal when a protagonist is in a state of high feeling and action.

Acceptance of inexpressiveness – The protagonist is not considered a performing monkey and is accepted to be as inexpressive as they are at the time. This lack of expressiveness is acceptable and the protagonist may need to learn to accept this before any further learning is possible. From the point of view of maximisation, referred to above, this may mean the maximisation of the inexpressiveness, which can be a powerful process in itself. When enacted, the inexpressiveness may allow the protagonist to appreciate their own lack of expression, and learn from that.

Interpretation – Interpretation in psychodrama is enacted through dramatic methods, not through theoretical or other types of discussion. Moreno uses the terms ‘action insight’, ‘action learning’, and ‘action catharsis’ to describe learning through acting. The enactment is considered to have its own value and interpretations may be unnecessary or counter-productive. Thus, instead of discussing a difficult relationship, the difficult relationship is enacted using auxiliaries and examined in the here-and-now.

Cultural adaptations – It is important to be sensitive to the different cultural milieux group participants may be from, and to produce the group warm-up and enactments with an understanding of this.

Identification with protagonist – The protagonist must never be allowed to become isolated. Even if they are acting an isolated role, the director must stay in contact with them, and keep the group engaged with them. During the sharing phase the director needs to engage group participants to work to connect with the protagonist and the enactment that has taken place.

Role-playing – The protagonist is encouraged to explore by taking the roles of all those with whom they are meaningfully related. ‘All’ includes that which he or she sees, feels, hears, smells, dreams, loves, hates, fears, rejects, is rejected by, is attracted to, is wanted by, wants to avoid, wants to become, fears to become, or fears not to become […] in order to take unto themselves […] with greater or lesser success, those persons, situations, experiences, and perceptions from which they are now suffering. In order to overcome the distortions and manifestations of imbalance […] in role reversal […] they can re-integrate, re-digest, and grow beyond those experiences that are of negative impact and become free in themselves and more spontaneous in a positive manner (Z. T. Moreno, 2006, p. 110)

Flexibility – The director is encouraged to use the method with confidence that it will enable the protagonist to produce new and more enlivening responses from themselves and not to resort to interpretations and discussions but stay with the method treating it as a “flexible all-embracing medium leading systematically to the heart of the protagonist’s suffering, enabling the director, the protagonist, the auxiliary egos, and the group members to become a cohesive force, welded together to maximize emotional learning.” (Z. T. Moreno, 2006, p.110)

Psychodrama theory

There is quite a body of psychodrama theory that is beyond the scope of this chapter. However there are several central concepts that deserve a brief exposition because, while they are not essentially rules or techniques, they are seminal concepts in psychodrama that add considerably to practitioners’ approaches to the methods described.

Surplus reality

This is a term created to highlight that the enactment produced on the stage is designed to contain elements that are not possible in our regular lives or in our normal universe. Surplus reality is designed to give the protagonist an experience of a “…world without limits, where the person is liberated from the real world” (Z. T. Moreno et al., 2000, p.2). J. L. Moreno expressed it thus:

 Psychodrama consists not merely of the enactment of episodes, past, present and future, which are experienced and conceivable within the framework of reality – a frequent misunderstanding. There is in psychodrama a mode of experience, which goes beyond reality, which provides the subject with a new and more extensive experience of reality, a surplus reality. […] surplus reality is […] an enrichment of reality by the investments and extensive use of imagination.”                               

J. L. Moreno, 1965, p. 212.

All the techniques of psychodrama, in effect, bring about this ‘surplus reality’.


Warm-up is another central concept in psychodrama. It grew from Moreno’s early work where he experimented with enabling actors to warm up to being spontaneous on the stage (J. L. Moreno, 2010). His experimentation also led to his playing close attention to the protagonist in order to follow their warm-up, which is the whole expression of a person in the moment in response, and in relationship, to their context. From an individual’s warm-up state the director, as dramaturgist and therapist, is able to make sensible production decisions about where to go and what to do. Warm-up can be thought of as a process that is applied to an individual or a group. When applied to a group it is the group warm-up and, as with the protagonist, the director can make an assessment of a group’s warm-up, moment by moment during the warm-up phase.

Catharses of abreaction and integration

Moreno valued the expression of feeling and developed the concept of an act hunger: a left-over confluence of feelings that a protagonist may experience in life, which is then brought to life on the stage (Nolte, 2014). Examples of this are shouting at their mother or father or leaving their partner or getting married or talking to someone they are shy with or standing up to an authority figure or expressing the pain that went unheard, or the longing that remains for unrequited love or cursing the gods. A catharsis of abreaction is a catharsis brought about from previous experiences. A catharsis of integration is where the learnings, insights, new experiences and thoughts integrate in a protagonist.

Spontaneity and creativity

Spontaneity and creativity in psychodrama are central concepts (J. L. Moreno & Z. T. Moreno, 1944). Spontaneity is seen as an energy that can be built up in a person, in the moment, through a warm-up process that then allows them to create a new response to an old dilemma or an adequate response to a current situation. Moreno considered that creativity required spontaneity and the greater the creativity the greater the spontaneity required. Creativity, in the human sense, is the capacity to develop new ways of responding to the world that did not exist before. In my own case it was a matter of getting ‘unstuck’.

An example of the application of psychodrama

This example is drawn from more than 1000 groups that I have run over the preceding two decades: some focusing on self-development, some on training, some in-between, some public and open, some residential and closed, some focused on illness and healing, and others focused on fostering a good future. I have brought together details from a variety of sessions so that they remain unrecognizable to either the protagonists or other group members. While not a transcript they nevertheless capture the spirit of what was being worked with through the application of psychodrama.

The warm-up phase

The group of eight participants and myself begin with everyone seated in a half circle. I have placed myself at one end of the half circle. This group has been invited to come and work on issues of importance in their lives. These issues run from developing self-confidence to overcoming depression to family matters to overcoming traumas and finding purpose. This is the fourth evening in an eight-evening series. As I sit in the group I am aware of the interactions of the group members. They are chatting with their immediate neighbours and catching up since we last met a week ago. We are in a warm-up phase of the group.

I orient myself to the way the group is operating. It is operating in small sub-groups. There is life in these groups. There is animation, verbal and non-verbal flares of colour. From time to time one or other of these groups pauses and looks at me, as if for permission, guidance, or in a cooperative spirit of ‘let us know when we are starting’. From my perspective, we have already started, and are well underway. However, I am the group leader, and structure is sought from me, which is different from permission. Clear structure frees participants while permission tends to reduce participants’ spontaneity, at least at this point in a group’s development. My task is to create a group warm-up, which up until this evening I have created through a leader-led process where I craft a question and then we set out the responses and answers to the question on the stage; questions such as ‘What relationships in your current life remind also remind you of relationships in your original family system?’ Thus I create the provocation from which the group warm-up emerges. Leveton (2001) and others have crafted many starters for the new group leader such as: ‘I’m going to give you a sentence to finish. The sentence is “The next step I want to take in my life is…”’. Tonight, however, I will create a group-centred warm-up, which requires that the group members pay attention to one another in the moment, and allow themselves to be affected by one another. This is a very intimate form of interaction and most people have ways of staying safe rather than connecting with one another, despite that being the expressed intention of everybody here. From the connection will likely emerge a theme which all participants will find value in working with.

I look over at Jean, whom I have already noticed is paying attention to and slightly intrigued by a pair in the group. ‘Jean, you’ve noticed Craig and Doug over there? Let them know your response as you experience them getting on in the way they do’. I phrase this direction in a voice of command rather than of request as I am trying to forge new group norms. A voice of command makes my intention clear: that I am requesting her to act, in the here-and-now, rather than to engage in a discussion. Responding in the moment to the relationships and actions taking place in the group is not new, but it is new at the beginning of the group. Jean responds: ‘You guys look like you are having a ball’. I add in ‘Let them know how this is affecting you’. Jean pauses and then continues and is pointing a finger at them. ‘I want to go over and tell you to calm down. You look like you about to leave the planet. Aren’t we good enough for you?’ I add further ‘You want to toss a bucket of cold water on them and tell them to chill?’ At this point I am imaginatively reversing roles with Jean and my expression is designed to enlarge or maximise her expression. Jean responds, ‘Yes. Get a grip, we are waiting for you to finish!’ She pauses, looks at her hand again and adds in a slightly amused voice, ‘Boy, am I a wet blanket!”

I notice that others in the groups are now focused on this interaction and are looking like they have responses that would add to the group’s warm-up. I invite Lily to bring herself forward by saying, ‘Come on Lily, before you burst’.

Lily says ‘Phil and I were just saying before that…’. I interrupt and say ‘And now, as you watch and listen to and notice Jean, Craig and Doug’s relating; what is happening now?’ Lily says ‘Well, I get your point, Jean. I think I am like you a lot with my kids. But when you do it here, I want to stop you, and tell you to give them a break and stop being such a hard arse.’

Jean laughs quietly and responds with ‘Yes I am like this with my husband, who I call my third child’. She pauses, looking over at Craig and Phil and blurts out ‘Don’t stop, you guys. Whatever you do, don’t you dare stop. I’ve stopped too many people this week, and perhaps in my life.’

The group looks at Jean as one. Jean has tears in her eyes, her fists are clenched on her knees and her body appears very tense. Craig and Phil are still full of life, looking bright and shiny and accepting of Jean. I am aware that there is a theme developing in the group around  the area of finding freedom in the face of our own desire to restrict ourselves, or others. This theme is one that all the group members have related to at one time or other over the group’s life. I prepare to continue with the group-centred warm-up with an intention to make sure others present their responses.

I have focused on the here-and-now responses, or in the moment responses, of group members to themselves, and to one another. This has the effect of reducing intellectualisation, talking about the past, or theoretical ideas which can create a kind of armchair philosophy group or a history group, or even a travel group, if someone tells stories from their past. This focus on immediacy and the moment creates vibrancy and vitality in a group, and increases spontaneity.

The action phase

The group has chosen Adrian as the protagonist. His avowed purpose is to thank his father for what he gave him. His father died while Adrian was in transit to his deathbed. His purpose was developed through a short interview I had with him while sitting centre stage immediately prior to standing up here with him.

‘Choose someone to be your father’, I say to Adrian as we stand together centre stage. Adrian looks around the group to choose one of the group members to be his father. He takes his time. The process of choosing can be daunting in itself. The protagonist can go for someone with similar features, someone who acts in certain ways like their father, someone who they feel friendly towards, or someone who they think can act the role well, or has experience as an auxiliary. Finally he chooses Duncan to be his father. Duncan comes on stage and stands in a neutral posture awaiting further instructions.

‘Here you are with your father’, I say. ‘Let him know what it is you want him to know’. I use nondescript language because I notice Adrian’s response to the auxiliary playing his father is changing by the moment. ‘Um…urrrr…’, Adrian mumbles. He wrings his hands and looks down at his father’s feet. It appears to me that Adrian, who started with a strong, clear desire to thank his father, has come undone, and is now conflicted. He is warring in himself as to what he should do next.

‘You appear to be conflicted’, I say to Adrian. ‘You want to thank your dad and at the same time you want to not thank him, or you want to do something else. Is that right?’ I do not suggest to Adrian what he does want, but I could if I knew him better. ‘Yes, I do want to thank him but now that I see him here before me I just want to hit him. He was such a bastard. But he gave me so much and I am also grateful’. He says this while remaining subdued, continuing to wring his hands. This type of internal warring is something that occurs often in psychodrama. This is due to many people avoiding certain types of expression in their lives because it doesn’t feel safe, or the repercussions are unknown, or they simply don’t do that in their family or business. A person warms up simultaneously to two different ways of being in response to the situation they are in. This simultaneous warm-up leaves them conflicted and they tend to lose spontaneity and become stuck.

‘Choose someone to be you who wants to hit your father’, I say. He chooses quite quickly, and chooses a feisty group participant. ‘Now you be Adrian who wants to hit his father and the auxiliary will be you who wants to thank your father’. They swap places and I instruct Adrian with the direction, ‘Off you go, Adrian, let your father know how much you want to hit him’. I am staying true to Adrian’s language and I direct him to do what he said he wanted to do, to tell his father of wanting to hit him. This is different from suggesting he actually hit his father, which is not what his language implied. A person who wants to hit his father and a person who does hit his father are very different animals, or roles, in psychodrama jargon. Wanting and acting are not the same. Action may come of his wanting, but until that comes from him, I will not insist on it, or even encourage it. While there can be great advantage to trying out forbidden but dreamed-of actions on the psychodrama stage this does not appear to be the case here.

Adrian, as himself, warmed-up to wanting to hit his dad, now almost jumps on his father. He stomps up to him like he is trying to monster him like a front row forward in a footy match, and looks him in the eye, has a scowl on his face, and shouts, ‘You bastard! How could you do that to me?’ His arms are moving out wide, looking like claws grabbing something, and he looks like he wants to hit him. This is one of those times in psychodrama where safety is important. No-one wants to be injured and no-one wants to injure, and in cases like this the protagonist looks like they could do damage before they know it. So I say in a loud voice of command, ‘Reverse roles with yourself over here who wants to thank your father’.

Adrian immediately stops his movements, looks at me, and then comes over into the other role of himself. The built in safety of this method is remarkable. In mid-shout, Adrian completely drops the role and walks in a normal manner across to himself in another role like he was at a Sunday afternoon cricket match in the park with family, pressure-free. The auxiliary immediately takes up the role of shouting at his father and repeating the gist of the role, saying, ‘You rat bag. How could you do that to me?’ Adrian moves over to protect his father, moving between himself who wants to hit him, and says back to himself, ‘Leave him alone. He’s not that bad. He did his best’.

‘Reverse roles’, I say again in a loud clear voice. When the role reversals are done crisply the dramatic effects are enormous. The entire group, audience, auxiliaries, protagonist and myself, are all enthralled by the aesthetic and poignant drama before us. None here are actors yet the acting is true to life. When the protagonist inhabits their role it is real; they are not acting. The auxiliaries do not have to try to make anything up; at this point they can follow the creativity of the protagonist and assist him to continue to warm-up to himself and his relationship with his father. Later, the auxiliaries may have the role clear enough to bring in the extra intuitions and hunches that naturally flow from being part of such a vital dramatic process. At this point I encourage the auxiliaries to be true to what they have seen the protagonist demonstrate, because I want the father to be Adrian’s father rather than a generic dad. This method allows it to be so.

The auxiliary repeats the lines she has been given to the best of her recollection, ‘Let him be, he’s okay. He’s not that bad. He’s done his best for you’. Adrian, now in the role of himself who wants to hit his father says back to himself, ‘I always let him get away with it. Why do you make excuses for him?’ He pauses, straightens up and brings his hand to his chin. He looks over at me. I notice this is a different warm-up that he has going. Something else has emerged because of the particular timing, staging, and dialogue. This has caused his warm-up to shift such that other memories flood into him and he begins to be able to see this scene through other eyes. This is not a problem. I am not wedded to anything Adrian has presented so far. I move over next to him and ask, ‘Who is this person who makes excuses for him?’ ‘My mum. She always tries to say “He is okay”, and “He does his best”. She always tried to make peace after he had been a bastard. She never allowed us to be how we were. My brother and I were mad and sad and she just kept making excuses. She was all we had, so we couldn’t lose her as well as our wild dad, so we went along with her story.’

Adrian is in touch with a time when he lost his sense of authority to express and present himself. In the context he was in, as a young, dependent and vulnerable child, that very capacity to restrain himself must have been invaluable. Now it did not serve him at all. This theme is linking back to the earliest expression in the group-centred warm-up discussed above.

I don’t get him to be his father, or do any further role reversals. His warm-up has taken him to another time and another place in his life. In psychodrama directors are taught to follow this warm-up process as it arises, to use the psychodrama method rather than rely on interpretations or theories about what is occurring. So at this point in the proceedings having him thank his dad would be counter-productive. We can return here easily enough and I have in the back of my mind doing this, but in the meantime there is to be an excursion into the past. At this point the stage becomes like a Dr Who TARDIS. It can be used to create other times and other places. And whereas Dr Who was caught in real time and real space, the psychodrama stage can go anywhere the imagination needs to go In surplus reality things that never existed can be brought to life.

‘You look like you have a scene in mind where this takes place.’ Adrian nods sombrely. ‘Please clear the stage. Thank you auxiliaries, you may sit down. Adrian, please set out the scene where this takes place.’ The stage is cleared and Adrian gathers objects and starts to set up a scene on the stage. I ask Adrian, ‘What age are you here?’ ‘Five’, he replies with conviction and clarity as he sets out the toys that were in his room…

The sharing phase

The drama has concluded. Adrian and a few of the group are putting away the objects, and the participants are again in a half circle, this time with Adrian and myself sitting beside one another on the stage. Adrian looks exhausted and delighted. The group has worked hard; some members played very challenging roles, and some cried as audience members. There were five further scenes in the psychodrama.

I say to the group members, ‘Now is the time to share your experiences with Adrian and others. You have all been working hard at different times and contributing a lot to Adrian’s psychodrama. Now you are invited to let him know what has touched you, what you learned, or what is still affecting you from his psychodrama. Adrian has been working hard, and in many ways he has been working on our behalf as well as his own.’ I can see that some members are bursting to express themselves. Others are quietly thoughtful. Some are slightly glazed over.

Jennifer pipes up, ‘That was wonderful Adrian. Everything you did, it was as though you were doing it for me’. At this point my ears prick up and I am preparing to ask Jennifer to be more specific as she presents an assessment and a travelogue about what she enjoyed without bringing herself forward with the same spirit Adrian did. She goes on, ‘I just loved the resolution you came to with your dad’. ‘Let Adrian know what it was that touched you in the way it has’, I say. ‘Oh. Well, I am completely torn inside as I saw you enter into your dad’s world and get to know his appalling father.’

‘Let Adrian and the rest of us in on this part of your story, Jennifer.’ I am conscious that this is asking a lot of Jennifer, but in this context it is appropriate and matches the level of vulnerability Adrian has just displayed. Without this from Jennifer we will be all left wondering what she is talking about. She has an absolute right to keep it to herself but my judgment is that with this small encouragement she will bring herself forward. Jennifer looks down at her hands, looks at Adrian and me and says, ‘My father was an absolute pig but my mother always set him straight. When he got verbally abusive she simply kicked him out. I was so impressed at the time’.

Jennifer is sitting up, looking proud, with a slight smile as she looks around the group. ‘I was twelve years old and while I missed him, I was glad he was gone. Now seeing your work I realise that maybe I have taken on some of my mum’s ideas about him.’

Jennifer looks wistful, rubbing her hands together in a gentle manner, looking down at her feet. ‘Maybe I need to explore more of where he came from. I don’t remember much about his dad, my granddad, apart from him being an alcoholic. My dad wasn’t an alcoholic. He was a bit pathetic. So the idea of taking mercy on him seems way too hard. I feel so rejecting of him. This is very hard for me, I feel torn…thank you.’ Jennifer falls into silence.

I do not inquire further as she has fully presented herself. There will be time to work on this area as the group progresses, and it is highly likely that she will find ways of her own to deal with this dilemma. In psychodrama, the assumption is that the work continues between sessions as people’s warm-ups continue to develop between and after sessions, and there is not necessarily a ‘tying up of loose ends’ or trying to finish on a high note, or having all things signed off and completed.

When Jennifer finishes, quietness settles on the group. Breathing slows.

I say, ‘Thank you, Jennifer’. I notice that Duncan is ready to share his responses and nod in his direction. ‘As your father I felt so proud of you. I felt so sorry that I hadn’t stood up for you more. I felt, as your dad, that your mum was such a tyrant. But in the role I kept silent just like your dad learned to do.’ Duncan is sharing some internal responses he had in the role of Adrian’s father that were not expressed in the drama itself. This is offered not as a truth but as something that may be pertinent, i.e., these are hunches of Duncan’s, rather than Adrian’s, which may be highly accurate or not. And for Duncan it was real that in the role he thought these things. Adrian is not required to respond to what is being offered, and is actually encouraged to relax rather than continue to work. In this case Adrian simply nods. ‘Thank you Duncan’ I say, ‘Maybe you have some of your own sharing as well? Maybe in a bit, eh?’

In this manner sharing happens. It serves many purposes here. Firstly, it allows Adrian to understand that he is not the only one who has been working. He has been fully engaged in the psychodrama and it is unlikely he has had any awareness of what others have been up to. Secondly, the group members see that there are many ways of making sense of Adrian’s drama. Thirdly, group members get to hear more about one another and see one another in new and different ways. Fourthly, Adrian has been centre stage, and now the other members get to have a ‘moment in the sun’ and be centre stage as they reflect on their recent experiences and how they relate to their larger lives. Lastly, it can stimulate folks for the next psychodrama.

Final scene

This psychodrama caper is a lot of fun, in the sense of it being a rich area of exploration and creativity. It is done in concert with fellow travellers, the other group participants. They bring their extraordinary lives and capabilities, and the psychodrama director brings their skills and abilities in the method. Together light and magic happen. The group participants and the director are unified in their co-creation of places where difficulty and challenge are welcomed, where deep engagement and encounter are hailed as friends, and where intimacy is encouraged to blossom. Such work is not for everyone.


Blatner, A. (2004). Foundations of Psychodrama (3rd Edn). New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Carter, P. D. (2005). Spontaneity made explicit. Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand Psychodrama Association Journal, 14, p.9.

Leveton, E. (2001).A clinician’s guide to psychodrama. New York: Springer.

Moreno, J. L. (1965). Therapeutic Vehicles and the Concept of Surplus Reality. Group Psychotherapy, 18, pp.211-216.

Moreno, J. L. (2010). Theatre of Spontaneity (4th Edn). United Kingdom: Lulu.

Moreno, J. L. and Moreno, F. B. (1944). Spontaneity Theory of Child Development. Sociometry, 7(2), pp.89-128.

Moreno, Z. T. (2006). The Quintessential Zerka: Writings by Zerka Toeman Moreno on Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. New York: Routledge.

Moreno, Z. T.;Blomkvist, L. D. and Rutzel, T. K. E. (2000).Psychodrama, surplus reality and the art of healing. London: Taylor and Francis.

Nolte, J. (2014). The Philosophy, Theory and Methods of J. L. Moreno. London: Taylor and Francis.


The Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand Psychodrama Association:

Psychodrama Australia Limited:

Recent Books of Significance

Reading is always personal, however the following texts have been chosen for readability and thoroughness.

Nolte, J. (2014). The Philosophy, Theory and Methods of JL Moreno: The Man who Tried to Become God. Routledge.

Moreno, J. D. (2014). Impromptu Man: JL Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network. Routledge.

Blatner, A. (2004). Foundations of Psychodrama (3rd Edn).New York: Springer Publishing Company. A great overview.

Dayton, T. (2005). The Living Stage: A Step-by-step Guide to Psychodrama, Sociometry, and Experiential Group Therapy: Deerfield Beach: Health Communications Inc. A great how-to.