Sociodrama and role-play: method and applications
by Roger Schaller
While psychodrama focuses on the individual and their interpersonal relations, the method of sociodrama, also developed by Moreno, focuses on group phenomena, collective ideologies, social values and norms. A sociodrama role-play allows participants to work on social problems by enacting an issue from the perspective of a particular group (or groups). The issues adressed in sociodrama are always related to relationships and conflicts between different groups. It is an excellent tool for dealing with social problems, promoting political awareness and finding solutions to ethnic conflicts. Mutual trust within the group is critical for an effective sociodrama session. Indeed, the participants should know and accept each other relatively well, as the topic usually has a strong social and emotional impact, and is presented through improvisational role-playing. The director also needs to be perceived by the group as supportive and protective. Otherwise, it is unlikely that anyone will engage in an improvisation on issues such as racism, jealousy, abuse, unemployment, etc.
There are many different possibilities to chose a subject for a sociodrama roleplay, here are some examples:
- Gathering and selecting themes in a plenary discussion session.
- Gathering themes in groups of three – then presenting and selecting them in plenary.
- Each participant writes a keyword on a card (maximum of three cards) about what has bothered them most lately – the cards are hung on a pin board and then the selection is made.
- The director distributes different newspapers inviting the participants to leaf through them and identify where the attention is the highest. Afterwards discussion and selection again.
- Imagination Museum visit: The participants imagine they are statues in a museum, they select a place and adopt a chosen pose – the director now walks through the museum and interviews each statue: “Why are you standing there like that? What are you trying to express? What do you think when you stand like that all day?”
- Picture Imagination: each participant receives a large white page and imagines looking at a picture of a particular problematic social condition (poverty, oppression, discrimination, etc.). The white page thus acts as a projection surface for the participant’s imagination, it becomes like a tangible snapshot; subsequently, everyone hangs their “photograph” (i.e. the blank page) on a wall. In a kind of vernissage, each “photographer” presents his picture and the group then agrees on a theme.
If a lot of emphasis is put on the process of theme selection, it’s because sociodrama is only possible if the participants are somehow concerned by the subject and interested in exploring and elaborating it. While this is the case for any form of role-play, it is particularly important in improvisational group play, where little is known beforehand where the session will lead. However, sociodrama might not be particularly suitable for a company training program with participants who work together in different hierarchical levels.
Sociodrama in training
An example of sociodrama in teacher training on the theme of “Violence in Schools”: The sociodramatic procedure consists of the following steps:
- Theme selection: Participants share in small groups what preoccupies them most at the moment. In the plenary discussion, we then agree to work on the following case study: “The parents of a violent teenager defend their son with verbal violence and blame the incompetent school administration and the provocative victims.”
- Role distribution and setting the scene: The following questions are asked: – Where and when are we? – On what occasion do the people come together? – Which persons are involved? Who is playing whom? – Each participant briefly describes his role and his life situation. – The stage is set up with simple props; rooms, paths, places are defined, the setting should be recognisable to everyone. – What is the starting situation, where do the individual characters stand?
- Storyline: The director gives a signal to start the improvisation. Parents, young people ( offenders and victims) and teachers meet in the workshop on the occasion of an internal school exhibition of student work. After a rather formal and friendly calm initial greeting phase, the atmosphere begins to heat up: a mother inquires about the condition of an injured student. The mother of the latter describes the brutality of the attack, triggering a reaction from the parents of the student in question, and so on. After about 20 minutes, the leader ends the role play feeling that the energy of the game is beginning to decline.
- Evaluation: At first, the participants share their experience in their role: “How were my feelings during the game? What did I notice? What did I like a lot or what bothered me a lot? How were my relationships with the others?” In a second step we analyse the progression of the play: “What was the beginning like? What behavior gave the decisive impulse? What were the consequences?” etc. Finally, we collect feedback from the participants’ point of view: “What did the role play show me? Did I find it easy to play this role? At what point did it most affect me? What questions do I ask myself?”
In the evaluation, a term that came up very often was “justice”. Almost everyone felt unfairly treated in their role, students, parents and teachers. So we decided to continue working on the concept of justice.
Issue related sociodrama
The method of sociodrama is essentially process-oriented: The theme is introduced and developed by the participants. However, it is also possible to work with predefined learning objectives and conduct a sociodrama play on a specific issue. An example might be political refugees.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2010) has developed a simulation game in which groups of 15 to 67 participants are placed in fictional life situations of refugees. The objective is to discover the concrete problems that refugees face on a daily basis, to understand the psychological difficulties that arise, and to promote political awareness of the refugee issue. The simulation game “Passages” runs as follows: At the beginning, family groups are formed and each family receives a family card, which include a short family biography a description oft he political context and a list of their belongings. The families must now go through various simulated escape situations and constantly develop decisions and plans of action and negotiate solutions. For example, in the episode “Emergency Shelter”, the families are confronted with difficult living conditions: Living in a tiny space with strangers, inadequate sanitary installations, lack of beds, health problems of a family member, etc. They have to try to adapt and organise themselves as well as possible. The conductor changes the course of the simulation: the conditions change and there are new difficulties and tasks. At the end of each episode (which lasts about 15 minutes), the families make an account of their experiences in their roles: “How do we feel? How do we experienced the new living conditions? What would we like to change? Do we still have hope?” A description of the simulation game “Passages” with the corresponding game instructions and role cards is available (so far only in French and English) from the UNHCR Education Department.
Further information on the sociodrama method can be found in: Leutz 1974; Kellerman 2007; Sternberg & Garcia 2000; Torrance et al. 1988; Wiener 1997; Wittinger 2000.
This article is a translated excerpt from the book: Schaller, R. (2001): Das große Rollenspiel-Buch. Grundtechniken, Anwendungsformen, Praxisbeispiele. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz Verlag
Leutz G. (1974) Psychodrama. Theorie und Praxis. Berlin Heidelberg New York: Springer
Kellerman, P. (2007). Sociodrama and collective trauma. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Schaller, R. (2001): Das große Rollenspiel-Buch. Grundtechniken, Anwendungsformen, Praxisbeispiele. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz Verlag
Torrance, E.P., Murdock, & Fletcher, D. (1988). Sociodrama: Creative problem solving in action. Buffalo: Bearly Limited.
Sternberg, P., & Garcia, A. (2000). Sociodrama: Who’s in your shoes? Westport, CT: Praeger.
UNHCR (2010). Passages: an Awareness Game Confronting the Plight of Refugees. https://www.unhcr.org/publications/books/473dc1772/passages.html
Wiener, R. (1997). Creative training: Sociodrama and team-building. London: Kingsley
Wittinger, T. (ed.) (2000). Psychodrama in der Bildungsarbeit. Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag