The transmogrification of warm-up: from drama to psychodrama

This paper, The transmogrification of warm-up: from drama to psychodrama, will be published in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy Volume 44 in July. It was written by Peter Howie and Richard Bagnall. The reference will be: Howie, P, & Bagnall, R. (2015) The transmogrification of warm-up: From drama to psychodrama.The arts in psychotherapy, 44, 35-44.

Download the author copy of the paper by clicking here: The transmogrification of warm-up: from drama to psychodrama.


The Transmogrification of Warm-up: From Drama to Psychodrama


The purpose of this paper is to present a critical analysis of the concept of warm-up by tracing its historical development from early colloquial uses, through its uses in drama, to its current use in psychodrama. It begins by examining the usage of warm-up in the early twentieth century, followed by its usage in general theatre, impromptu theatre, therapeutic theatre and psychodrama. It follows the particular usage to which Moreno put it, and shows how this led to its educative and therapeutic usages. It shows how warm-up is principally valued for its utility amongst practitioners as a workable heuristic. It concludes that, as a heuristic in psychodrama, it has transmogrified into four importantly different concepts, which, although evident in its use, have not been explicitly recognised, limiting its practical and theoretical usefulness. Keywords: warm-up, psychodrama, spontaneity theatre, impromptu theatre, de-conserving, Moreno


The Transmogrification of Warm-up: From Drama to Psychodrama



This paper traces the ubiquitous concept of ‘warm-up’ from its early colloquial usages through to its current highly specialised usages in psychodrama, to examine how it has come to have such a specialised and specific form in psychodrama. Warm-up is a concept capturing fundamental relational consequences and effects present in all human activity, but is poorly described and conceptualised, and what conceptualisation there is lacks clarity and consistency. In most forms of its usage in the literature it is used by experts in psychodrama to articulate a readiness to get engaged, or a process for getting individuals or a group ready to engage in some form of action and is not defined with any rigour (Carter, 2014; Lai & Tsai, 2014; Leveton, 2001; J. J. Moreno, 1999; Somov, 2008; Yaniv, 2011). Non-psychodramatists’ use of the concept – for example, Long (1999), Wilkinson, Srikumar, Shaw, and Orrell (1998), Eren et al. (2014), and Jang and Choi (2012) – while much less extensive, follow the same pattern.

The critical analysis in this paper starts with an overview of the concept of warm-up as it is currently used in general scholarly and professional literature, before briefly looking back to its early colloquial use. Then follows an examination of its usage in mainstream or ‘legitimate’ theatre and in the impromptu drama theatre of J. L. Moreno, as the original developer of psychodrama and group psychotherapy, in the early twentieth centuryThis section is followed by an examination of how Moreno’s unique use of the concept made the leap from drama to therapy, its relationship to spontaneity and therapeutic group work, and its place in modern psychodrama. Finally, it is argued that there are four distinct concepts embedded in that of warm-up. It is suggested that the conflation and confusion of the four concepts in psychodrama goes some way towards explaining the lack of consistency and clarity in explications of the concept to date.

Warm-up’s ubiquity in sport, music and other settings

Warm-up, as a concept, is used in a very wide variety of contexts. The gymnastics journal, International Gymnast and the British Journal of Sports Medicine each has an editorial called ‘Warm Up’ (Highwire Press et al., 1969; Normile, 2008). Physical education is continually developing and modifying warm-up routines (Walter, Quint, Fischer, & Kiger, 2011). In physiology, there is research into whether or not a standard warm-up causes fatigue and less warm-up permits greater power output (Tomaras & MacIntosh, 2011). In cardiac surgery, there is research into the effect of an exercise warm-up on heart recovery for injured hearts (Tomai et al., 1996). Strength and conditioning training investigates and researches the value of physical warm-ups (Sweet & Hagerman, 2001). There is research investigating the value of a surgeon warming-up to surgery by playing video games before cutting (Korkes et al., 2009). In opera, choral music, or pop singing, there is warm-up for a musical ear, for listening and there is warm-up for vocal preparation (Cetto, 2003; Gish, Kunduk, Sims, & McWhorter, 2012). In the discipline of history, the concept of warm-up is used to consider the relationship of bystander nations to others’ wars and battles such that consideration is given to whether bystander nations will warm-up to interfering (Marolda, 2011). In astrophysics and chemistry, the concept of warm-up is used extensively as part of each discipline (Hassel, Harada, & Herbst, 2011; Woodside, 1996). Solo musical instruments all have their own ways of warming-up the performer to their music and their instrument, as do ensembles (Garcia, 2009). Warm-up is a central concept in all forms of dance and is used extensively for preparation for practice and performance, including more specialised forms such as ballet and improvisational dance (Diana, 2011; Franklin, 2003; Reeve, 2011).  Warming up an audience is considered essential for live music, comedy and TV (Hambright, 2009; Leader, 1992; McHenry, Johnson, & Foshea, 2009). Actors have warm-up processes for their voices, their bodies, their role and for relationships within performing ensembles (McHenry et al., 2009). Storytelling is used as a warming-up process in a variety of settings, such as public lectures and speeches as well as teaching (Pennino, 2009). Group facilitation has its own term, ‘icebreaker’, for warm-up (West, 1997). Various psychotherapies, such as psychotherapy with children, group counselling, using art, play, dance and other art forms, as well as psychodrama, utilize warm-up (Dayton, 1990; Guyer & Matthews, 1981; Lowenstein, 2010; J. L. Moreno, 1956; Nylund, 2000; Wilkins, 1995, 1999; Xia & Grant, 2009; Yalom, 2005). Drama therapy, a closely allied therapy to psychodrama also relies on warm-up processes for individuals and groups (Emunah, 1994). Similarly, playback theatre uses a warm-up practice in rehearsals and in performance preparation of individuals, their relationships and the ensemble, as well as in performances to assist the audience in being interactive with the performers (Dennis, 2004).  

These examples demonstrate the prevalence of a concept of warm-up in a wide range of areas including, but not limited to, psychodrama. In dance, sport and health, as well as a variety of medical and physiological research, the concept is applied to areas that relate to the preparation of muscles (in fingers, legs and arms), nerves (response time), membranes (vocal chords), organs (lungs and heart), or ligaments (in arms and legs) for exertion of some type. For instance, ballet performers might spend more time on their warm-up than on performance and often up to 25 percent of rehearsal time on warm-up (Williams, 2011). Warm-up is used as a concept in the vocal preparation of the larynx and vocal chords for performance by singers, dramatists and public speakers. Likewise with musicians, in preparing their fingers, lungs and bodies for performances. Warm-up is also used in drama as part of the preparation by an actor for taking on a particular role: For getting ‘into role’. In an acting ensemble, warm-up exercises are also used for developing a bond between the ensemble cast and developing a spirit of liveliness or flexibility (Mohler, 2012). In most live music and comedy performances, there is usually a ‘warm-up act’. Levine (2011), for example, discusses his professional role of conducting the warm-up of the audience for live TV shows.

These uses of the concept of warm-up have in common, firstly, the idea of something being done to an individual or a group, by either an individual or a group, in preparation for some action, and secondly, by implication, that a person or a group has a given level of warm-up at any time. These concepts of warm-up are discussed later in this paper.

Warm-up in colloquial historical use

The concept of warm-up was used colloquially for some time prior to its use in theatre or psychodrama, but its use was not extensive. The examples below are included to show both its historical use and that this has not changed substantially.

“… warm up the soul with the love of Christ … ” (Cuyler, 1901, p. 37); “ …the author cannot warm up to his subject …” (Thompson, 1906, p. 746); “... will warm up the child nature, the play spirit, in the old man and the old woman” (Jerome, 1910, p. 132); "much slower to warm up to the occasion," (Bruner, 1914, p. 384); “the happy faculty to warm up to people … ” (Jacoby, 1919, p. 583); “I have known her to warm up – to resent something that was said … ” (Whitman, 1919, p. 30) ; and “ he gradually warms up to his work during the forenoon ...” (Dockeray, 1922, p. 365).


The uses of the term warm-up increased substantially following the initial publication of Sociometry: A Journal of Inter-personal Relations, in 1936, which included papers about sociometry, psychodrama, and other action research and therapy methods, including  a number by Moreno (e.g. 1937a, 1937b). Warm-up was, and remains, an integral part of such methods. Once again, these examples have in common, firstly, the idea of something being done to an individual (by themselves or another), and secondly, that a person or a group can be said to have a given and recognisable level of warm-up at any one time.

Mainstream theatre

Warm-up is what people do in the legitimate theatre, by which Moreno meant mainstream theatre, which here refers to theatre where the actors enact prepared, deliberated, designed, planned, premeditated and well-rehearsed roles. It could also be called ‘formal theatre’ or ‘the theatre’, as we know it more generally (Hodge, 2000; Moore, 1984; J. L. Moreno, 2007; Wangh, 2006). It is what an actor does to get ready to be an actor (June, Teresa, IsabelleZita, & Tiagoroth, 2013). It is done in the theatre to get the actors ready to go out and act a role that is ‘not them’, for a period of time. In the legitimate theatre, the warm-up process is strongly related to the preparation of lines for performance, trying out the scenes with the other actors, and to telling a pre-defined story, in a pre-defined manner, and with continual input from the theatre director. There are warm-ups for the voice (Lanklater, Stanislavski, Hagen, & Carnegie, 2006). There are body and movement warm-ups (Garrett, 2010; June et al., 2013). There are warm-ups for acting ensembles to assist them to work well as a dramatic team (McGee Wilson, 2011; Price, 2011). A person playing Hamlet, for instance, would learn the lines, practice reading the lines on their own, and, with a partner, practice looking the part and practice delivering their lines with the other actors. The warm-up is to try to be as ‘Hamlet’ as possible, or the particular version of Hamlet for which the theatre director is aiming. Part of the warm-up is to have the actor leave as much as possible of themselves and their personal fears, worries, concerns and distractions behind, in order to be ‘Hamlet’. The more effective the warm-up in legitimate theatre, the more familiar are the performances to the general audience and these familiar performances may even be imbued with the odd novel, yet acceptable variation or dissimilarity from other versions of the same play, as determined in advance by the director. As Moreno (1956, p. 39) wrote somewhat condescendingly, the purpose of this form of warm-up is to ‘fill him [the actor] again and again with clichés, the clichés of Romeo, King Lear or Macbeth.’ In ‘legitimate theatre’, where a conventional drama is being performed and the audience knows what to expect, they actively expect not to be surprised, imposing restraint against significant ad-libbing, any surprises coming from the quality of the performance (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 390).

Impromptu theatre or the theatre of spontaneity

The terms ‘prepared, deliberated, designed, planned, premeditated and rehearsed’, as used above to refer to the legitimate theatre, are literally opposed to ‘impromptu’. Moreno wrote that:

Entering a legitimate theatre meant to witness the most rigid and unyielding presentations of role conserves one can imagine. The moment of creation was not free and spontaneity was forbidden to the roleplayer. (J. L. Moreno, 2007, p. 690)

Nevertheless, warm-up is also what people do in impromptu or spontaneity theatre (J. L. Moreno, 2010b). It is done in spontaneity theatre to get actors ready to go out and respond in the moment with no preparation: no preparation as regards rehearsed lines, pre-planned, prepared, designed, premeditated or deliberate responses to other actors, others’ actions, themes, stories or tales that night emerge in the performance from the audience, or even the formalism of actors and an audience. The actors warm-up to ridding themselves of as much preparatory thought and feeling as possible and, at the same time, create a heightened sense of themselves as creators or to put themselves into a pre-conserved state (as is discussed later), where each action is new and in response to the immediate situation. In this heightened creative sense of being, the spontaneity state, as Moreno (2010b, p. 55) termed it, they are able to create new and novel responses to the challenges of the spontaneity theatre.

The more effective the warm-up in the spontaneity theatre, the greater the capacity for the impromptu actors to create new responses, perhaps significant and inspiring responses, not simply novel versions of old stories such as the Commedia dell'arte, which ‘is a theatrical form characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colourful stock characters that emerged in northern Italy in the fifteenth century and rapidly gained popularity throughout Europe’ (Meagher, 2007; J. L. Moreno, 2007: 66). The warm-up process leads actors to be ready to create. In impromptu theatre, where unconventional dramatic enactments are being performed, the audience knows to expect the unexpected: that the restraint against ad-libbing is lifted. The audience actively expects not to be surprised by witnessing prepared, designed, planned, premeditated, or rehearsed performances because, in contrast to legitimate theatre, the quality of the ad-libbing is generally a major marker of success in impromptu theatre (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 390).

As Moreno (2010b) worked progressively with his impromptu actors, he began to observe that there was a warm-up process within an impromptu performance, not only in the preparation for a performance. This meant that, amongst other things, the spontaneity state was not permanent, but a phenomenon of the moment. He noticed that the warm-up process continued within a performance to a more or less successful degree, but largely out of his control. At times, one actor would be in a spontaneity state but without a role, and another actor, with less spontaneity, would be taking the lead, and this ongoing warm-up would be in the hands of the actors, who would also be authors and directors at that point. It was also noted that the warm-up of individuals and the audience was more important at certain times than at others, as sometimes a person was presenting something consequential, such as dramatising a scene from a battle in an ongoing and current war, and at other times, something less consequential, such as dramatising an amusing personal anecdote (J. L. Moreno, 2010b).

Warm-up process as a by-product

Moreno (2010b, p. 19) wrote of experiencing ecstatic states and at different times being carried too far by his own warming-up process; that his head was with the gods; and he encouraged others to join him to play there. When he became more grounded, he wrote that he decided that a religious life was problematic, and out of date for the times. He instead took another direction: the theatre. As he wrote (his italics):

... no one can play in a materialistic age the roles of gods and saints without getting the slur of madness or criminality thrown at their heads. The theatre was a safe retreat for unsuspected revolution and offered unlimited possibilities for spontaneity research on the experimental level. (J. L. Moreno, 2010b, p. 19)

Moreno proposed that his foray into theatre was a result of his ecstatic states developed through his own spontaneity development work and that this flamed a desire to create revolution. In the theatre, his revolution was against the formal, normal, or legitimate theatre, as much as against the conserved nature of the culture of which he was a part. He wrote, ‘It was an important departure when we decided to drop the role clichés altogether, to permit the cast to be entirely spontaneous-creative, and to develop roles in statu nascendi [as they are born]’ (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 39).

While not creating the revolution he longed for, it did allow him a period of novel social experimentation of a type not found in more formal theatre or scientific situations. He wrote of this time:

The central task of the Viennese Theatre of Spontaneity between 1921 and 1923 was to bring about a revolution of the theatre, completely to change the theatrical events. It attempted this change in fourfold manner:

  1. The elimination of the playwright and of the written play.
  2. Participation of the audience, to be a “theatre without spectators”. Everyone is a participant, everyone is an actor.
  3. The actors and the audience are now the only creators. Everything is improvised, the play, the action, the motive, the words, the encounter and the resolution of the conflicts.
  4. The old stage has disappeared, in its place steps the open stage, the space-stage, the open space, the space of life, life itself.  (J. L. Moreno, 2010b, p. 10)

Moreno was constantly experimenting in this troupe with ways to develop his actors to perform on demand, in the moment, in new and novel ways. He wrote of his love of the state of spontaneity in others, which could lead actors to create new, novel and, most especially, authentic and truly aesthetic and entirely original forms of dramatic enactment on the stage. He (1956, p. 39) wrote, ‘I was fully aware that the task of production had thus been complicated enormously and formulated an art of the moment in contrast to the art of the conserve which has dominated ... the theatre and its offshoots.’

Moreno’s day job was as a physician, psychiatrist and scientist. His vocation was as a social activist and a dramatist trying to create social change, primarily through drama (Marineau, 2013). He was living in Vienna, then a thriving cauldron of enlightenment thought and radical philosophy. Convening the group of actors of the Viennese Theatre of Spontaneity in 1921 was one of the many non-scientific vocational activities that absorbed this young doctor. The members of the acting group called themselves the Stegreiftheater.  Moreno (1956, p. 190) translated this title as the ‘Theatre of Spontaneity’ but also suggested that it might equally be translated as ‘warming-up quickly’. This troupe was committed to script-less performances. In it, Moreno experimented with ways to develop his actors so that they could perform in the moment, in new and novel ways. As an example of this experimentation, he developed a theatre form called the Living Newspaper. In this form, the actors, on a stage, took daily news events from newspapers, and acted them out, on the spur of the moment, with no preparation, as well as exploring underlying social themes and issues, also invented in the moment, in response to the stories. The actors took on roles explicitly stated in the newspaper articles, as well as implied or deduced roles, and other elements were dramatically produced.

Because of this situation, where the success, or failure, of the troupe relied on Moreno keeping the actors and their creations alive to the moment, fresh, reaching spontaneous states during performances, warming-up well and on time, he was forced to take seriously the process by which actors warmed-up to this special craft of being what he called impromptu actors. In writing about the dilemmas of keeping a novel form of theatre alive and prosperous he wrote:

The talent for spontaneity was rare and undeveloped; that the spontaneity of an individual was for tasks unknown in advance not dependable and unpredictable as to their adequacy. The pressure of performance, daily before new audiences, provoked the invention of new methods of production and prediction and the cruel elimination of methods, however worthy, if they did not produce results. The study of the warming up process of actors as well as of audiences ... [was] a by-product of keeping a theatre of spontaneity alive with new ideas and arousing in people attending it spontaneous enthusiasm. (J. L. Moreno, 2010b, p. 19)

Moreno (1956, p. 244) wrote further that his experiment with the warming-up process was as a direct result of trying to develop spontaneity, rather than focussing on either the investigation, or the implications, of the warm-up phenomenon itself, as this example shows: 

“Warming-up process” is a technical term deriving from discussion of spontaneity work. Spontaneity is explored through the study of spontaneous states, states or roles into which an individual throws himself suddenly. Such states are usually felt by the acting subject as completely novel experiences, frequently, in fact, there is no concrete precedent in the life history of the subject for the role portrayed. A stenographer may be called on to express anger in the role of a policeman. These spontaneous states are brought into existence by various starters. The subject puts body and mind into motion, using body attitudes and mental images which lead to the attainment of the spontaneity state. This is called the warming up process.

0Thus, the investigation by Moreno of the process of warming a person up, and the nature of a person’s individual in-the-moment warm-up, were incidental by-products of his experiments to develop warmed-up actors for the theatre. The study of warm-up began in the setting of the theatre, its natural home, as a consequence of trying to keep a novel form of theatre alive, and trying to make it financially viable (J. L. Moreno, 2010b).

Moreno (2010b, p. 59) wrote that there was a problem when warming up his actors such that when a person attempts to be spontaneous they also have an ‘an inner counteracting (participant) observer’ and, thus, getting them to a state of spontaneity where they were free of old conserves, or ways of thinking, feeling and responding, was hard work. In such situations he suggested that a person was often at war with themselves about whether or not they were doing the right thing, and hence, that they often appeared stilted, tentative, or simply inauthentic, and certainly not immediately capable of producing novel and highly aesthetic forms of drama. 

Moreno (2007, p. 41) wrote that he considered regular actors from mainstream theatre, as having been trained out of the capacity to be spontaneous. This happened through constant rehearsals of fixed scripts, as is required in normal legitimate theatre. He found that to get them to be impromptu actors, he had to find out how to get them to be ‘untrained and de-conserved before they can become a spontaneity player’. He wrote further that:

When we removed, by a process of de-conserving, one conserve after another from an actor, and nothing remained but their naked personality, the pre-conserve person came closer to our understanding. They must have been guided by the warming-up process inherent in their own organism, their master tool, isolated in space, unspecialized yet, but working as a totality, projecting into facial expressions, sounds, movements, the vision of their mind. (J. L. Moreno, 2007, p. 41)

In his experimentation, he wrote that he found that anyone could become ‘de-conserved’ and that non-actors were more easily de-conserved than actors. He wrote (this authors italics):

The step toward complete spontaneity of the actor brought about the next step, the intermittent de-conserving of the actor from clichés which might have accumulated in the course of his production or of his living, and then finally the third step, conscious and systematic spontaneity training. (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 40)

In this regard, Moreno had explored what it took to warm a person up to being prepared to face a situation afresh, even the same situation, and to do so again and again, not relying on previous responses learned from past occasions. From there he developed a whole series of practices and experiments on how to warm people up, how to throw them into unfamiliar, and familiar, situations, increasing their capacity to relate to the moment afresh, not as a reproduction of the past, not only in terms of what they already knew, and not only in terms of their own beliefs and world views. And, remarkably, ironically, or at least counter-intuitively, he found that people not trained as stage actors were better able to do this. 

It is a small further step to claim that Moreno developed the whole psychodramatic panoply of rules and techniques, which, according to Zerka Moreno (1965) comprised about 15 rules, 13 techniques and six adjunctive methods, all of which, according to Blatner (2004a), could be used individually or combined with the others, and each of which could be further defined or combined, in order to develop a warm-up in the people with whom he worked, so that they could de-conserve themselves, generating the potentiality to create new responses to old and difficult circumstances, and other situations that they faced. He wrote:

It was this methodology of training which prepared the way for the psychodrama. Once we had permitted the actor a full spontaneity of his own, his full private world, his personal problems, his own conflicts, his own defeats and dreams came to the fore. I recognized gradually the therapeutic value this kind of presentation had for the actor himself and when properly manipulated, the therapeutic value it had for the audience. (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 40)

Moreno was successful in transferring the warm-up process from spontaneity theatre, where he had been experimenting with it, into the psychotherapy milieu as a therapeutic process. In so doing, he bridged the concept of warm-up processes, and a person’s individual, in-the-moment, warm-up. He took warm-up from the theatre, where it served the purpose of creative aesthetic dramatic enactment, to therapy, where it served a therapeutic purpose by allowing individuals to try out new and novel forms of behaviour in life-like situations. That therapeutic form of warm-up has progressed significantly and been developed further since that time, though, principally, only in the milieu of psychodrama.

Warm-up to spontaneity

Moreno developed his own conception of spontaneity, which continues to dominate psychodrama practice and thinking (Kipper, 2000, 2006; Kipper & Buras, 2009). This conception was rooted in the impromptu theatre with which he was actively experimenting. He wrote of perceiving the need to develop spontaneity in a person in order for that person to become creative, which he saw as a monumentally important activity (J. L. Moreno, 2010a). Thus, attaining a degree of spontaneity, attaining a spontaneity state, or being spontaneous meant being creative. As he wrote (J. L. Moreno, 2007: 45), ‘Spontaneity propels a variable degree of satisfactory response which an individual manifests in a situation of variable degree of novelty.’ He conceived of spontaneity as being a catalyst of creativity. He developed conceptualisations for differing levels of spontaneity and creativity and the interplay between them. For instance, a high level of spontaneity was seen as producing original art forms such as paintings or musical scores, and in his case truly unique and original theatre pieces. A low level of spontaneity though might only produce a novel variation of an existing form, such as a musical performance or the presentation of a role in the theatre. Moreno (1956) in his writing referred to spontaneity as the ‘S factor’ and suggested that it was an un-conserved and un-conservable energy. Much of his writing and theorising focusing on his notions of spontaneity and their application remains relatively unchanged (Kipper & Buras, 2009).

However, he also wrote (J. L. Moreno, 2007: 42) that he considered warm-up as being ‘the operational expression of spontaneity’; and the two concepts as largely inseparable: ‘Spontaneity and warming up process operate on all levels of human relations, eating, walking, sleeping, sexual intercourse, social communication, creativity, in religious self realization and asceticism’.  Moreno’s pairing of warm-up with spontaneity and his conclusive focus on only significant theorising about spontaneity and its importance in human life, and in psychodrama, led to written conceptualisations of warm-up being inadequate (Kipper, 1967).

Post spontaneity theatre applications of warm-up

Moreno immigrated to the USA from Austria in 1925, where he continued to take his unique expertise from the theatre to psychotherapy and psychotherapy groups, from the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. During this time he also continued his experimentations, using the concept of warm-up and many other concepts that he had developed. He creatively explored ways to apply them, in such places as the Hudson School For Girls, a reformatory where truancy had become a chronic problem (Hare, 1992)  and in the social structure of prisoners at Sing Sing Prison (Alexander et al., 1932).

Warm-up as a concept proved its utility in the realm of psychodrama where it was used to describe a number of processes that were routinely applied to psychodrama groups and their participants. These processes can be traced back directly to Moreno’s early work with spontaneity theatre and his development of the de-conserving warm-up process or, to put it in the more popularly expressed psychodramatic vernacular, the development of spontaneity. One of Moreno’s initial therapeutic uses of the concept of warm-up was as a process for developing a level of preparedness, or spontaneity, in a whole group, prior to selecting one or two people with whom to work more individually, still in the larger group setting: ‘Psychodrama consists of three portions: the warm-up, the action portion and the post action sharing by the group’ (J. L. Moreno & Moreno, 2011a, p. 211). In psychodrama writing, this is referred to, these days, as the warm-up phase (Blatner, 2004a; Kipper, 2005; Wilkins, 1999). Such a beginning for a group can be seen as having a degree of equivalency with the dramatic warm-up processes Moreno used with participant groups at his spontaneity theatre productions. As Borgatta wrote (notes added by paper’s author):

The director's function in psychodrama [the group leader in psychodrama is called the ‘psychodrama director’ or simply ‘director’] is manifold. First, the director initiates and conducts the warming up process. If it is an educational demonstration, the director may begin with an introductory talk, indicating the purposes and ramifications of the techniques. (Borgatta, 1950, p. 246)

And to highlight the movement from dramatic to therapeutic group purposes, continuing the quote from Borgatta highlights the development of different types of warm-up, depending on the group’s purpose:

If the psychodramatic session is therapeutic, the type of warm up used is different from that utilized in the educational demonstration. In the therapeutic session, while it is necessary for the patient to be aware of the purposes of the session... (Borgatta, 1950, p. 246)

Borgatta continues by highlighting the range of purposes of a group warm-up process:

The warming up process not only serves to introduce the director to the members of the session, but it also allows the members of the audience to become acquainted with each other, to respond to each other as social stimuli. Again, those present identify themselves with the questioning situation and expect to be questioned, and generally become more prepared to be active participants in the session. (Borgatta, 1950, p. 246)

Along similar lines, Yablonsky notes that, when working with a group to discover or uncover elements of the groups functioning:

An adequate "warming-up" process is the foundation of a successful group experiment of this type. An attempt is made to actively: (1) Create a "warm" feeling between all interacting members of the group. (2) Interest and involve the group into the experimental situation. (3) Have the experiment contribute something of personal value for all members of the group. (Yablonsky, 1952, p. 177)

            Yablonsky (1952, p. 177) further noted that ‘The accuracy and the "honesty" of each subject's reaction to the other depended on the extent to which the group members were "warmed-up" to give their response.’ It can be seen that here the use of a warm-up process has begun to be seen as a necessary instrumental process that is required for a variety of group work situations to be effective and successful.

Moreno (1941, pp. 22-23) wrote in a more prosaic manner when he related warm-up to the emergence of a creative process that would lead to greater and greater levels of creativity followed by a quiescent period. He wrote that the initial state was one where the group, and the group relationships, individual feelings and responses were in a ‘nascent state’ or ‘in the course of being formed or developed’ and he called this the status nascendi (the state of being born). This is conceptually quite similar to his theorising about a ‘pre-conserved’ state in which little or nothing is conserved in a person and each moment is new, and for which he developed his warm-up processes to achieve. To put Moreno’s perspective on the use of warm-up at the time in context, he wrote:

The hard labour which is linked to almost every creative effort is the "perspiration" to which Edison referred when he said "Ten percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration". Perspiration is the folk word for the warming up, preceding and accompanying the creative acts. The warming up process is not always a straight line to the creative act; the track to it is full of handicaps and hazards, blind alleys and retreats. (J. L. Moreno, 1955: 386)

Moreno’s theoretical formulations of warm-up also began to be focused on the performance, or preparation, of individuals from a therapeutic perspective, rather than either a dramatic or a group perspective. The following paragraphs show examples of Moreno’s use of the concept of warm-up in a group sense and an individual sense, much as he had used it when developing his Spontaneity Theatre (J. L. Moreno, 2010b).  

When writing about a protagonist ( the person on whom the psychodrama session is focused and with whom it is working) being given a direction that provokes no response, Moreno (2007, p. LXXIV) wrote ‘The suggestion of the director may not evoke an adequate response in the protagonist, either because he is already acutely warmed up to a different situation...’, which highlights Moreno’s conception of applying a warm-up process as well as an individual already having had a warm-up.

And further, when reflecting on how to warm-up a person, he wrote (J. L. Moreno, 2007, p. 83) ‘The warming up process of the subject to psychodramatic portrayal is stimulated by numerous techniques’: indicating that warm-up is neither a one-size-fits-all process, nor certain in its outcomes.

Moreno further suggested that the warming-up process was eminently accessible to observation:

The objective was the study of the warming up process involving one or more individuals, regardless [of] whether it results in sensations, perceptions, emotions or acts...[It] led us first to the observation of warming up indicators. (J. L. Moreno, 2007, p. 337)

He began to consider how to warm up an individual, not just to being able to portray different provocations in an impromptu theatre setting, but how to do it in a therapeutic setting where the individual’s warm-up is of crucial importance to that individual:

 The degrees to which the subject warms up to an experience and expression of himself and others is a measure of the autonomy of the self. It is useful to study the degree, the range and intensity of warming up which individuals attain in the course of various operations of learning. (J. L. Moreno, 2007, p. 337)

And when writing about his experiments, he noted his intention to create this pre-conserve experience, the person being free to enact things anew, in very similar form to his work with the actors in his impromptu theatre:

In one experiment the subject throws himself into a state, into an emotion, a role or a relationship with another subject, any of these operating as a stimulus, or, as we say, he "warms up" to it in a fashion as free as possible from previous patterns. (J. L. Moreno, 2007, p. 337)

Zerka Toeman (later Zerka Moreno, Moreno’s third wife) wrote further about the value of being able to warm-up a person to new forms of action on the psychodrama stage and to then use that as a basis for further reflection and work:

Diagnosis and guidance can thus go hand in hand, at the same time. By throwing the subject into action, warming him up to the maximum of spontaneity, and analyzing the performance immediately after completion, the subject is given insight into his reactions. (Toeman, 1944, p. 206)

And further in the same paper she wrote about how the warming-up process could be used repeatedly to stimulate a person to reflect, to learn and to try out new ways of operating:

It is possible to stimulate the subject 'into action and to stop him, right there, to point out where his action is inadequate.' It is possible to make him start again, to warm him up along a different track, to make him realize that his old warming up process would lead to the same conflicts that brought him to the psychodrama laboratory. He is given records of his past actions, and is able to analyze his present performance on the stage in the light of what he has learned. The subject is given fresh opportunities to warm up into a different spontaneous state which would permit him to live as a more fully integrated, better adjusted person. (Toeman, 1944, p. 206)

Moreno (1956), when he experimented with individual warming-up processes, discovered a range of factors on which he commented in his writing. These are relevant for anyone, such as a practicing psychodramatist, who might be working to assist an individual to warm-up fully to themselves and their sphere of interest.

There are many avenues for stimulating a warm-up in an individual might work immediately for one person may not do so for another (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 120):  The element of ‘warming-up’ to a state has in different persons a different influence upon the result.

Moreno wrote that focusing on the process of warming-up could produce heightened states in clients that could perhaps not be reached by other means, for instance:

In the course of such exercises the subjects go through a process of warming up, which facilitates their production so that it is characterized by an abundant fullness ordinarily not reached by them. The form and richness of their production comes as a surprise to them, as does the physical and mental alertness that they experience. (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 123)

Moreno by this stage (the mid 1950s) appeared to consider the concept of a person’s personal warm-up process to be an inherent human function. He saw a person’s ways of operating and behaving as different types of warming-up processes. For instance, rather than looking at a client in the more familiar terms of their being overly excited or lacking motivation he suggested:

... that students who suffer from "rudimentary warming-up" or from "over-heated warming-up" can learn how to warm up more adequately. The most striking therapeutic effect is the general increase in flexibility and facility in meeting life situations, within the organic limits of the particular individual. A pupil may warm up to some states, for instance anger and dominance, but be insufficiently able to reach other states, such as sympathy. Treatment has to be modified accordingly. This one-sided reaction is often the result of corresponding behavior in actual life. It can hardly be remedied through life itself, as in life the perseverating tendencies drive the individual to repetition. (J. L. Moreno, 1956, pp. 137-138)

In this passage, Moreno highlights one aspect of his theory behind his psychodramatic endeavour: to create a dramatic milieu where a person can warm-up anew to their dilemmas and in that space create new ways to warm-up and act.

            Moreno continued to relate his work with the therapeutic theatre to the warming-up processes with which he had experimented in his earlier theatre life, as well as the use of warming-up processes in sport and physical culture:

In spontaneity work and psychodrama the psychopathology of the warming up process has, if possible, a still greater importance than in physical culture. Every role needs for the sake of its proper performance to focus and start off with a different set of muscles which carry along during the exercise many auxiliary systems. (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 224)

Throughout Moreno’s writing there are what could be termed idiosyncratic uses of the concept of warm-up to describe and relate to whole group and individual processes. His writing, and those of his collaborators (J. L. Moreno, 2010b, 2011, 2012; J. L. Moreno & Moreno, 2011a, 2011b) make it abundantly clear that they utilised the concept of warm-up with dexterity in both these situations. For a professional trained in the methods he developed, his multiple use of the concept of warm-up can be determined from the context within which he was writing. For others, his writing may appear dense, jargonistic, enigmatic, or simply incomprehensible (Blatner, 2004a). This difficulty with his writing and his flexible use of the concept of warm-up has screened the concept from adequate consideration. Carter (2003) pointed out that there are many aspects of psychodrama theory in need of further explication, even ‘spontaneity’, and in consequence, the concept of warm-up has languished even in the milieu of psychodrama.

Analysis of uses of warm-up described by Moreno

Moreno’s writing reveals that he used the term ‘warm-up’ in the following four different ways: 

  1. The group warm-up process: Warm-up as a process applied to groups of people to generate a certain level of energy or spontaneity that would enable them to engage collaboratively with the group leader and with one another.
  2. The group warm-up state: Warm-up as a heuristic for determining or measuring the preparedness, or the level of spontaneity, of a group.
  3. The individual warm-up process: Warm-up as a process applied to an individual to prepare them, or by an individual to prepare themselves, in some specific manner, or as a response to a context.
  4. The individual warm-up state: Warm-up as a heuristic for determining or measuring an individual’s total state of functioning, or state of being, at a moment in time, in a context.

These fours concepts of warm-up are inextricably interlinked, and each is addressed briefly below, before showing these linkages.

1) The group warm-up process

A group warm-up process is what Moreno was working with in his efforts to keep his spontaneity theatre alive.  It was a way, a process, to warm-up his troupe. This concept of group warm-up process has been rendered into a wide variety of group settings, particularly, and in the case of this paper, into therapeutic group settings. For example, ‘Every lecture is like the warm up in group therapy, just opening up the discussion…’ (J. L. Moreno & Moreno, 2011b, p. 9) and ‘The first step in the grouping procedure is to "warm-up" the students to the process …’ (Borgatta, 1950, p. 256). The first section of a Moreno psychodrama is ‘the warm-up phase’. A group warm-up process is something that is applied by the group leader to the group. It can range from the group setting itself being set up in such a manner as to create a warming-up process, through preparatory statements about what is to come, to the application of a range of dramatic or playful physical, vocal or engagement processes.

2) The group warm-up state

      In applying a group warm-up process, there is also a need to make in situ assessments and analyses of the efficacy of the process with respect to its purpose, for example: ‘In group psychotherapy, the director is always aware of the degree and the stage of warming up in his group of patients’ (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 326); ‘The ice began to break very fast now and the warming-up process spread from mother to mother’ (J. L. Moreno & Moreno, 2011a, p. 37); and ‘One of the important aspects of the … session is the problem and process of warming up the inactive spectator to full and beneficial participation’ (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 314). The group warm-up state needs to be determined and the development of one or more heuristic measures is usually required to do this. Such measures include the level of engagement amongst participants, involving the group leader in attempting to assess the level of mutual discussion among group members: whether there are no, some, many, or strong and persistent mutual discussions (Braaten, 1991). Or measures such as the degree of mutuality and reciprocity of relationship choice amongst group participants (Treadwell, Kumar, Stein, & Prosnick, 1998).  Or the degree of social exchange in a group such as friendliness measured by different types of attention from participants and between participants and leaders (Brown, Tang, & Hollman, 2014; Treadwell, Lavertue, Kumar, & Veeraraghavan, 2001). More complicated forms of heuristic measurement can be applied using one or another variety of group theories, such as ones to determine the readiness of a group to work (Bion, 2013), the themes individuals are dealing with as a consequence of being in the group (Whitaker, 2000), or rough and ready stage theories such as Tuckman’s (Tuckman, 1964; Tuckman & Jensen, 1977). These types of heuristics are usually taught at a theoretical and experiential level as part of training in psychodrama or group psychotherapy, and to a lesser extent in many teacher training programs.

3) The individual warm-up process

The individual warm-up process is the application of a warm-up process to a person in a pre-determined or pre-agreed fashion, to assist them to develop in a particular manner, for example: ‘The director warms-up the subject by … ' (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 96); and ‘The chief point of the technique was to get the patient started, to get him warmed up so that he might throw his psyche into operation …’ (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 164). Generally, this individual warming-up process is for the specific purposes of un-conserving them, or developing flexibility, in the area of concern or improvement with which they are working. It is also taken from Moreno’s early work with his spontaneity theatre, for instance, applying psychodrama techniques as an individual warming-up process.

4) The individual warm-up state

An individual presents as having a warm-up, which can be used as a way of measuring, or assessing, their total state of functioning, or state of being, at a moment in time, and in a specific context, for example: ‘the warming up process manifests itself in every expression of the living organism as it strives towards an act. It has a somatic expression, a psychological expression and a social expression' (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 56), indicating that an individual’s warm-up is always present and, potentially, noticeable; and, more basically ‘He warms up to a rudimentary act’ (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 186) indicating Moreno’s capacity to notice or we could say ‘measure’ the individual’s warm-up and finally ‘There are other types of patients who cannot warm up easily to a task, or at times cannot warm up at all ...’ (J. L. Moreno, 1956, p. 219), indicating his usage of the concept of the individual warm-up state as a measure of a person’s functioning. The warm-up of the individual needs to be determined and heuristic measures are required to do this. Such measures include: the tonus of the participant’s body, their stance, their eye movements, their attention, their postures and gestures and any sudden or slow changes on these measures. These types of heuristics are developed through experiential training as part of becoming a psychodrama practitioner. The capacity to use them effectively is highly valued. The individual warm-up state is potentially available as a measure, as it changes and develops, during the entire individual warming-up process (O'Rourke, 2006).

From these four concepts of warm-up it can be seen that the group warm-up process and the individual warm-up process are about applying processes that lead to an effect that is measured by the group warm-up state and the individual warm-up state. Thus the group warm-up process comprises activities (such as questions, lectures, presentations, discussions, pictures, interactions in small or larger groupings, games, problems or problem solving, drama processes, body movements and activities) that are carried out and the subsequent group warm-up state is estimated, which permits in situ estimation of a group’s capacity for subsequent action or processes, and estimations of an individual’s warm-up state within the group can also be made. This concept of a group warm-up process is equally appropriate for use with a variety of other therapies, such as: group counselling; art, drama, dance, and music therapy, and; play therapy. The application of individual warm-up processes, psychodramatic techniques, to an individual is based on their existing individual warm-up state, which allows for a tailored approach to the individual, such as occurs in a psychodrama, and their individual warm-up state is monitored and measured to ascertain the effectiveness of such tailored interventions and the nature of subsequent individual warm-up processes. The concept of an individual warm-up state might equally be applied to individuals undertaking art, drama, music, or dance therapy as, in each case, the therapist would be ascertaining the individual warm-up state of their client within the constraints, concepts, and training of their therapy speciality and tailoring their response appropriately. An application of an individual warm-up process in a group can also act as a group warm-up process and have a profound effect on group’s warm-up state, which is the nature of the psychodramatic group process where one person’s work as the centre of a psychodrama stimulates others in the group to warm-up to their own issues and concerns. In other art therapy forms, when working in group settings, this would also be true: such as when, following an intervention by a dance therapist in response to an individual’s warm-up state, the therapist effectively encourages the client who then presents themselves in dance in a life enhancing and consequently group stimulating manner. 

The use of the term ‘heuristic’ is important, as warm-up is largely ill-defined but applied as a rule of thumb. It can be taught, effectively learned, and examined for proficiency, as is indicated in the Training and Standards Manual of AANZPA (2011), which, amongst other areas of professional development required to be a psychodramatist, concerns itself in with the four versions of warm-up defined here. Numerous examples of these four uses of the concept of warm-up being used without consistency and clarity can be found in current psychodrama literature (see Blatner, 2004b; Carter, 2011; Densley, 2004; Leveton, 2001; Z. T. Moreno, 2006). It is unclear from the literature that other non-psychodrama training organisations and associations, such as art, dance, or music therapy organisation or associations place an emphasis on warm-up as demonstrated in these texts. As a practitioner’s heuristic, it appears that warm-up can be taught in experiential settings. However, outside such settings where psychodrama is taught, the concept languishes and is relatively unknown. It is difficult to even find a modern reference in any of the many dictionaries of psychology, apart from very general ones such as written by Corsini (2002).


It is argued here that the concept of warm-up has expanded and evolved since its initial conceptualisation by Moreno in the early part of the twentieth century. There are now four recognisably different concepts functioning under the umbrella concept of warm-up: (1) the group warm-up process, which is a concept used for considerations of generating different group-as-a whole effects (e.g. ‘How will we warm-up the group today?’); (2) the group warm-up state, which is a concept used to determine how a group-as-a-whole’s state of functioning applies to its purpose (e.g. ‘has the group warmed-up to the task at hand?’); (3) the individual warm-up process, which is a concept used for considerations of generating individual states of functioning, variously applied to others (e.g. ‘allow yourself to take the shape of the person as you warm-up’), to one-self (e.g. ‘trying out exercises in order to warm-up for an examination’), or for determining precursor conditions for functioning leading to the current state (e.g. ‘what was the warm-up process that led you to being this way?’); and (4) the individual warm-up state, which is a concept applied for the purposes of making sense of a person’s current functioning in a given context (e.g. ‘they are warmed-up and ready to go’ and ‘their current warm-up is not adequate to their task’). These four different concepts are evident in the psychodrama literature, but that literature lacks evidence of explicit recognition of the importance of the differences on the part of either practitioners or researchers. This failure inevitably creates confusion about what is being done and said in the name of warm-up, and it thereby limits the opportunity to use the concept of warm-up as a vehicle for generalising and sharing experientially and research based knowledge of it use and functioning in psychodrama: limiting, in other words, its practical and theoretical usefulness.




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