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“Psychodrama” – a term coined by Moreno, means full psycho-realization. Under this term are included all the forms of dramatic production in which the participants, either actors or spectators, provide (a) the source material, (b) the production and (c) are the immediate beneficiaries of the cathartic effect of the production. Every session is a cooperative, communal act: no part of the production is supplied or produced by outsiders.*

Natasha Nelina, LCSW

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Overview of Philosophy, Theory and Process

History of Psychodrama

Psychodrama was originated by Jacob Levy Moreno (1889-1974) who taught, practiced and continuously developed psycho-dramatic methods in Europe and United States since 1921 until his death in 1974. Moreno was born in Romania, immigrated to Austria with his family as a child, and moved to the United States in 1925. As a psychiatrist trained in Vienna at that time, his training was psychoanalytically oriented. However, he disagreed with Freudian focus on dysfunctions, and instead, developed an approach based on human strength and potential.

He believed in innate human capacity for creativity and spontaneity that make us co-creators of our own universe and the world at large. It is said that he told Freud: “You analyze people’s dreams, I make their dreams come true.” He was a man of abound energy and charisma and was constantly involved in creating and finding new ways to heal the individuals, the society and the world.

Among his many contributions was creating the American Society for Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama and the Psychodrama Training Institute in Beacon, NY, which continued to train psycho-dramatists for 47 years until it closed in 1983. Moreno’s wife ran the Institute after his death. He died in Beacon, NY. At his request his only epitaph was “the man who brought laughter to psychiatry”. (Buchanan, 1984) His wife Zerka Toeman Moreno is in her late 80’s and continues to teach, train and write on psychodrama. Moreno defined psychodrama as the “exploration of the subjective truth of the protagonist by methods of spontaneous dramatic improvisations”.

He believed that within our uniqueness lies our strength and coined the term “normosis” which means pressure to be normal. Ironically, the less we try to constrain our uniqueness in order to conform, the closer we get to our center, to our authentic selves, the more we find ourselves connecting to the others on the level that is real, authentic, deep, the level of connection which does not require masks and pretenses. We discover that we can live successfully in the world being our true selves, and isn’t it what we all want? As children, we are all authentic, creative and spontaneous, we believe in possibilities and our dreams, we trust our own magic and the magic of the world.

As parents and society start to teach us to adjust to their norms, we start abandoning the authentic state of being in order to “survive” in the world. The threat of not being accepted, not being loved is a basic threat to survival, and we exchange our need to be authentic for the need to be loved, because we believe that that is the choice we are required to make. As a therapist I strongly believe that it is the process that is in the center of any therapy, and it is the process that heals.

The whole psycho-dramatic process is designed to bring a person into the experience of the authentic state of being. When there, spontaneity is released, and creative choices are made for bettering one’s life.

Three Phases of Psychodrama


Designed to produce atmosphere of creative possibility. This phase is concerned with establishing sociometric connections, building cohesiveness and increasing spontaneity. At this phase issues and concerns central to the group emerge and a protagonists is chosen. The protagonist may be chosen by the group, by the leader or by oneself. The group becomes the safe container, the womb within which a child is warmed up to the ultimate spontaneous act of birth.


The protagonist steps on the stage to take action on his behalf, to make changes around the issue he/she identified as a difficulty in the warm-up phase. The protagonist holds the intent and shares it with the group and the director. The action is completely unscripted; unfolding as the protagonist moves from scene to scene, unblocking spontaneity, getting closer to his center to the truth, through trance and catharsis to new insights and creative, novel ways of being. Throughout the whole process he experiences consistent support and guidance from the director who utilizes techniques such as role-reversal, doubling, mirroring, surplus reality, etc. to help the process. Other group members are involved by either playing auxiliary roles in the protagonist’s drama, or by doubling, or by holding the energy of the space for the protagonist and for themselves and by participating emotionally in the protagonist’s story.


After the enactment is complete the protagonist re-enters the group. He/she had given the generous gift of bravery and truth, and it is now his tum to rest and receive while other members of the group share with him / her their feelings and insights that were brought up by the protagonist’s drama. After taking a huge risk of exposing his inner struggles, the protagonist can hear other people share similar painful feelings and experiences, so he feels accepted, supported and understood for who he/she is. What used to be private shame becomes public victory for all involved as the real human experiences are revealed and shared..

Cultivating Change Through Creativity

The whole process moves in the form of concentric circles from the outside in, and from the inside out with the protagonist re-entering the circle, the world, carrying the treasure of hew insights, behaviors, experiences, integrating the new ways of being into his / her life.

The engine that moves the process of psychodrama is CREATIVITY, which, according to Moreno, is fueled by SPONTANEITY. Moreno defined spontaneity as the energy, which moves a person toward responding adequately to a new situation, or elicits the capacity to respond to an old situation in novel ways. He taught that anxiety and spontaneity exist on the opposite ends of the continuum, and that that anxiety sets in because there is spontaneity missing. When spontaneity is restrained our view of possibilities and choices is restricted. Within the perception of restricted choices and options we function in a robotic fashion with our creativity lying dormant. . In many instances a person can utilize their creativity in some areas of their life, but have it blocked in the others.

Creative acts generate changes; produce results, new products, and new way of doing things. Once new creations ·whether by a society or by individuals become established, they may make up a CULTURAL CONSERVE.

Cultural conserves serve to preserve culture and heritage; they can be useful in many ways until they become stagnant and limiting. If you have ever entered a new work environment, and, looking at it with fresh eyes, saw and voiced possibilities for improvements only to be told: “We do it this way because this is how it has always being done”, – you have experienced the works of a stagnant conserve. Most people have areas of their lives where they are functioning in stagnant or conserved ways. Like an actor stuck in a curse of type casting, we continue to play the same ROLE in different situations in the same way. The majority of those roles were determined and influenced by our families, our environment as we were growing up. The taking on of the roles happens in various ways. We could have been assigned a role by others or have taken on a role because that is what we perceived as available and beneficial. As we continue through life in those roles, we become really good at them, and people in our lives relate to us according to those roles expecting us to perform accordingly. We could move away from our families, or get divorced, or change countries, but if we carry the same roles, we will find ourselves caught in the same ways of role-playing, relating and expectations. Some examples of those roles are: “the rescuer”, “a good girl”, “a hard worker”, “a rebel”, etc. One of the goals of psychodrama is to expand a person’s ROLE REPEATER and to help people create new roles that are more conducive to personal growth and freedom.

So, what is PSYCHODRAMA? As a therapy method it is client-centered. It explores client’s interpersonal, itrapersonal and trans-personal relationships. It involves a person on a physicallkinesthetic, emotional/affective, intuitive, behavioral and cognitive levels. It targets beliefs, feelings, actions and social context integration. As a philosophy it teaches us to see ourselves as instruments of creativity, and as such to honor and fine tune ourselves by living in a spontaneous, open, authentic state of being. It views all of us as co-creators of the universe carrying on the Creator’s work, and as such it is inspirational, playful, magical, powerful and infinitely kind.

Overview of Psychodrama Elements and Techniques

PROTAGONIST: A group member in the center of a psychodrama enacting a theme from his / her personal life or a theme chosen by the group as a central concern. “The protagonist is asked to be himself on the stage, to portray his own private world. He is told to be himself, not an actor, as the actor is compelled to sacrifice his own private self to the role imposed upon him by a playwright … no one as much an authority on himself as himself’. (Moreno,1953) A protagonist takes action on his own behalf, and by doing that is instrumental in catalyzing changes not only for his own benefit but also for the benefit of the whole group. The group assists the protagonist in doing the work.

DIRECTOR: A therapist trained in psychodrama whose role is to stimulate spontaneity, to guide, structure, co-produce the psychodrama with/for the protagonist and for the group. “The protagonist holds the key to the inner and outer world. The director holds the door which opens and closes and the group provides the frame”. (Karp,1998)

AUDIENCE: The group watching the drama providing a safe container and supportive witnessing. Having your inner world, experiences, struggles and breakthroughs being witnessed by others dispels the protagonist’s shame and isolation. Private shame becomes a public victory; what used to be hidden in the shadow comes into the spotlight in positive, empowering ways. Members of the audience are available to play auxiliary roles in the protagonist’s drama, to double and to share their personal experiences/feelings/insights in response to the protagonist’s work in the sharing phase of the drama.

AUXILIARY: A group member who plays a role in the protagonist’s drama. Auxiliaries can be chosen for the role by the protagonist or by the director. In some cases trained auxiliaries may be used.

DOUBLE: A specialized auxiliary who takes on the part of the inner self of the protagonist. The function of the double is to provide the protagonist with the experience of being fully supported and understood, to assist the protagonist in deepening the feeling and insight. The more support and acceptance is experienced by the protagonist, the safer they feel, the more risks they are willing to take, the more spontaneous they are going to be, the more creative choices and solutions will become available to them. For group members practicing doubling allows for the experience of empathy and separating it from personal projections, it satisfies act hunger and increases relatedness. DOUBLING as a technique is used by the director for the purposes stated above. It is also a very useful technique to use in individual, couples and family therapy.

THE STAGE: The sacred space, the safe container of the psyche where the protagonist enacts his / her own perceptions of the world in which he/she lives. It is “the place of unpretend” where the truth is found and spoken.

THE MOMENT: Psycho dramatic concept of time is that everything is happening in here and now. All action takes place in the present. As we center in our awareness of ourselves in the present we become indicative of our inner blockages, areas of tension in our lives. The enactment takes us back to the place and time where we got stuck in patterns of perceiving ourselves and the world that do not serve us any more. By recreating that “present” which surrounded a past moment, we can uncover the dynamics of the moment; explore the relationships, the feelings in the context within they occurred. But this time around the “psychodrama tic cocoon” allows for new resolutions to emerge. Therefore the new experience replaces the old one overlaying our old memory of that moment, creating a “corrective emotional experience” that frees us up for the new ways of being. “Every true second living through the experience is the relief and release from the first” (Moreno).

ROLE REVERSAL: The staple of psychodrama techniques, which allows the protagonist to see themselves and the situation through the eyes other than our own.

MIRRORING: The technique that allows the protagonist to see his/her situation and him / herself from outside.

SURPLUS REALITY: Removes the boundaries between what we consider our “reality” and imagination. In fact, whatever we can imagine can happen. If it could not happen, we would not be able to imagine it. I refer to it as a fact because I see again and again my clients’ wished for scenarios, concertized and dramatized via psycho-dramatic enactments, then manifest in their lives. The same way the time collapses in psychodrama, so does the inner and outer world of a person. Our inner mind speaks in metaphors; so concertized metaphors become part of the action as they represent an important part of the protagonist’s psyche. As we are co-creating our reality, anything is possible, whether it is projecting an ideal vision of one’s future or re-creating the missing experiences from the past. Often in psychodrama people in the protagonist’s life who died or were absent are brought into a dialogue, so that what was missing could be completed and healed. “There are certain invisible dimensions in the reality of living, not fully experienced or expressed …. and for those who failed to experience them, life is incomplete … that is why we have to use surplus operations and surplus instruments to bring them out in our therapeutic settings.” (Moreno, 1966)

In Moreno’s Own Words…

“God was first a creator, an actor, a psychodramatist. He had to create the world before he had time to analyze it. He would put every part of the chaos into the melting pot. All events have equal merit, hate and stupidity are just as close to his heart as live and wisdom.”

“In the spontaneous-creative enactment emotions, thoughts, processes, sentences, pauses, gestures, movements, etc., seem first to break fonnlessly and in anarchistic fashion into an ordered environment and settled consciousness … The disorder is only outer appearance; inwardly there is a consistent driving force, a plastic ability, the urge to assume a definite form; the stratagem of the creative principle. which allies itself with the cunning of reason in order to realize an imperative intention. The poet hides no complexes but germs of form, and his goal is an act of birth. Therefore, he is not merely following a pattern; he can alter the world creatively.”

“There are many more Michaelangelos born than the one who painted the great paintings; many more Beethovens born than the one who wrote great symphonies, and many more Christs than the one who became Jesus of Nazareth. What they have in common is creativity and creative ideas. What separates them is the spontaneity, which, in successful cases, enables the carrier to take full command of his resources, whereas the failures are at a loss with all their treasures. They suffer from deficiencies in their warmup process. Creativity without spontaneity becomes lifeless.” “Spontaneity is the state of production and is the engine that drives a creative act.”

“Spontaneity is the highest form of intelligence we know.”

“Spontaneity is, as defined, the adequate response to a present situation. If the response to the present situation is adequate-“fullness” of spontaneity – anxiety diminishes and disappears. With decrease of spontaneity anxiety increases. With entire loss of spontaneity anxiety reaches its maximum, the point of panic … Anxiety sets in because there is spontaneity missing, not because anxiety rises.”

“I visualized a healer as a spontaneous-creative protagonist in the midst of a group. A healer without theories and methods is like a painter without arms.”

“There are certain invisible dimensions in the reality of living, not fully experienced or expressed … and for those who failed to experience them, life is incomplete … that is why we have to use surplus operations and surplus instruments to bring them out in our therapeutic settings.”

“A meeting of two: eye to eye, face to face And when you are near I will tear your eyes out And place them instead of mine And you will tear my eyes out And will place them instead of yours, Then I will look at you with your eyes And you will look at me with mine”

“Give truth and receive truth; give love to the group and it will return love to you; give spontaneity and spontaneity will return.”

“A truly therapeutic procedure cannot have less of an objective than the whole of mankind.”

“The moment is a loophole through which man will fare on his way. And though it may sound like a paradox, the intellectual, the artist, beings who since the advent of socialism and psychoanalysis have become doubtful entities and were doomed to death, are and will be the first carriers of the revolution which in the end will satisfy also the biological pride of man. Races of man adhering to conserved production will die out. Thus Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” will be found to be too narrow. It will be replaced by the survival of the creator.”


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