Perhaps the most important contribution of Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis is that its immense popularity raised hope that our psychological woes might be treatable. On the other hand, from the earliest days its many apparent deficiencies stimulated Freud’s contemporaries and disciples to try to do better. Jacob Moreno, a rumanian-born psychiatrist who practised in Vienna in the 1920s, was one such.

Moreno felt that psychoanalysis, with its relentless quest to unearth and resolve past conflicts, fails to take advantage of the client’s creativity and spontaneity. His response was to invent a therapy in which creativity and spontaneity are at a premium. In psychodrama clients literally create dramas in which they use roleplay to explore the ways in which they feel, think and act and the ways they could change their habitual feelings, thoughts and actions in order to resolve their difficulties.

Psychodrama is classically a group therapy, according to Julia Howell, secretary of the British Psychodrama Association, although it can also be used successfully in one-to-one therapy. The essence is that the protagonist, as the client is known, acts out problem situations using the role that they have in real life and explores ways of moving towards the role that they would like to have.

A group session will always begin with a warm-up. This takes the form of a discussion about the problems of the different members of the group in order to choose the theme of the drama and the group member, known as the protagonist, who will take the central role. Other group members will be what are known as auxiliary egos: they will take significant parts in the drama. Members of the group who do not have a direct role will form the audience.

The drama is based on the protagonist’s explanation of a problem situation. For example it might act out a humiliating encounter with an overbearing and critical superior at work. The protagonist might be invited to explore – by acting them out – better ways of dealing with the encounter. These could range from adopting a more confident posture and tone of voice or imitating a more assertive colleague. It might even involve reversing roles with the oppressive superior in order to gain an insight into their view of the situation. “It allows you to rehearse your life without being punished” says Howell.

The drama always finishes with a debriefing session, known as the sharing. Members of the group comment on the drama, especially on its relevance to their own situation.

Quite apart from allowing clients to practise behaving in ways that will enable them to resolve their problems, dramas can also be used in ways more reminiscent of the Freudian approach. Clients can explore the roots of their problems by acting out traumatic past events. “The beauty of psychodrama is that it can be used with all sorts of orientations” says Howell.

Part of the skill of the director, as the therapist is known, is to manage the group so that all the members gain as much as possible from the drama that is enacted. Often the drama can be designed in a way that enables several members of the group to play roles that are important to them. The director may also have to steer events in order to protect someone from reliving a trauma before they have the resources to deal with it.

One-to-one therapy uses similar techniques with the client playing roles in dramas. In this case the other roles will be played by inanimate objects or by characters simply imagined to be present. One technique is to use “surplus reality” in which, for example, a supportive character from the client’s past, such as a dead grandparent, is assumed to be present and participating in the drama. In such cases it is important to “derole” the client – to bring them back to normal reality – at the end of the session.

Psychodrama has been used to help clients with a huge range of problems including depression, eating disorders, alcoholism and addiction. The general approach also lends itself well to group situations that are really more training than therapy, such as teambuilding in industrial organisations.

With such a wide range of applications and therapeutic settings it is impossible to describe a typical course of treatment. Group sessions may have from 6 to 16 participants and would typically last for three hours. However they could be taken as an intensive week-end workshop or as a series of weekly sessions lasting several months to a year. Individual sessions would normally last an hour and would be repeated weekly. However in all cases therapist and client will negotiate an agreement about how the goals of the therapy, its likely timecourse and how its progress is to be reviewed.

For individuals in distress the best way to locate a therapist is through your doctor or through one of the registering organisations – the UKCP in the UK or the APA in the US. For specific information about Psychodrama consult the British Psychodrama Association or the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama (ASGPP).

UKCP Tel: 0207 436 3002
British Psychodrama Association 01436 831838 [CORRECT!!]
APA Tel: 1 800 964 2000
ASGPP Tel: 609-452-1339