By Roger Schaller.
This article describes various ways of shaping the stage of psychodrama. The stage can help people rediscover themselves by reducing pressure and providing them with greater freedom to express themselves and broaden their experiences (Moreno 2008, p. 77).
The following ways are discussed: Inner stage, Paper stage, Screen stage, Table stage, Room stage, Everyday life stage.
The main types of stages in psychodrama
According to Jacob Levy Moreno, the founder of psychodrama, reality is often narrow and cramped. The stage, in contrast, is an expansive and versatile environment. The stage can therefore help people rediscover themselves by reducing pressure and providing them with greater freedom to express themselves and broaden their experiences (Moreno 2008, p. 77).
The therapeutic context already provides clients with a sort of “stage”, as it creates a space for reflection outside of everyday life. When clients enter “the stage of therapy”, that is, the room in which the therapy sessions take place, they have already taken on a first role as “patient”, “client” or “person seeking counsel”. A decisive framework is established: therapy takes place in this room.
German psychiatrist and psychotherapist Klaus Brücher (2005) explains that, in therapy, clients do not merely recite but rather demonstrate their problems in an interactive context. Therapy therefore entails not just replication of, but also confrontation with a disorder or dysfunction. Clients are obliged to observe their behaviour from a meta-level (“This is what I do”) and the behaviour thereby gains new meaning. This creates an opening in the pathological circle: in recounting their symptoms, clients gain a measure of distance from their behaviour (p. 294). Clients’ demonstration of their symptoms in therapy is already in of itself a sort of spontaneous role play, making the therapeutic context a sort of playful space. It is thus essential to distinguish the conversation space (Stage 1) from the role play space and performance stage (Stage 2).
The performance stage provides the actor with a lively space for imaginative, figurative or physical role play. A number of different kinds of stages can be defined. Regardless of what type of stage is used, the spatial and temporal parameters of a role play should always be clearly established.
Imaginative role plays might take place on an inner stage: that is, clients use their imaginations to generate a mental image. If the client participates in an imaginative role play while sitting, I invite him or her to move the chair a bit. Alternatively, clients can stand up or lie down for the role play, in which case his or her physical position acts as the spatial boundary. The therapist can provide the temporal boundaries of the role play through instruction (e.g., “Focus on your breathing…and now bring your focus back to this room.”)
A tree visualization—commonly used to bolster clients’ resources—provides an example of work on the imaginative inner stage. Here the stage is the client’s own body:
Therapist: Position yourself so that you are standing comfortably, feet slightly turned outward in a v position, knees are relaxed, straighten out your back, shoulders roll outwards, let your arms hang, raise your head. Focus now on your breath. Feel how the air flows through your nose into your body, into your chest and abdomen. And calmly breathe out again through your mouth. Picture yourself someplace outdoors, someplace beautiful where you feel good. This might be a place you know well, or a place that you make up right now. Imagine that there is a tree here in this land- scape, a tree that you like. Look at the tree – what does it look like? Its trunk, its branches, what surrounds it. And if you like you can imagine that you are this tree.
As a tree you can feel your branched network of roots buried deep down in the earth. The roots absorb nutrients from the soil. And the powerful and flexible trunk with its strong bark. And you can feel the branches, vigorously branched, ever more delicate at their tips. And you absorb the power of the sun with your leaves or needles. Let your breath travel through the whole tree, from the leaves to the roots and back. And now allow yourself as the tree, between the sky and the earth, a moment of peace: stand there like a tree. There is nothing else you need to do. Just stay there for a moment. And now bring your focus back to the room.
The paper stage is a good introduction to role play.
- After a client describes a problematic behaviour, the therapist asks the client to detail a specific incident in which he or she recently experienced the problem. As the client recalls the experience, the therapist takes out a white piece of paper and says, “Imagine that this is a photograph of the situation. Let’s imagine that someone took a snapshot while it was happening. You are in the picture, too. Now tell me about this imaginary picture, please tell me what you see. What is the scene? What is happening right now?” Together, the therapist and client can now discuss and analyse the imaginary scene on the piece of paper.
The screen stage is similar to the paper stage. Clients can project a mental image of a specific problematic situation on to an imaginary screen or canvas, for instance a blank white wall. Therapist and client sit next to each other and look at the imaginary painting, photograph or film projected on to the screen. Example: Projection of a difficult classroom situation onto the screen stage:
Therapist: Let’s imagine that we are projecting a film on to this wall. We’ll take our chairs and set them up as if we were at the movies. This movie is about a teacher in a difficult classroom situation, your classroom situation. Which scene comes to your mind? Let’s pretend that the movie is on pause, it’s a still frame. What do you see? Where are you? Please tell me what you
see…Now we have the remote, we can press play and continue the film, rewind, or fast-forward. What would you like to do? The client can either play the role of an observer or a specific character: Therapist addressing client as an observer: Please tell me where the teacher is in the picture and what she is doing. Where is she looking? What is going through her mind? What is she feeling? What would she like to do? Therapist addressing client as a character: And now imagine that you are in this still frame. Where are you exactly? Ah…here…and how are you doing in this situation? What are you feeling? What would you like to do?
A small table can serve as the stage for figurative role plays (e.g. with blocks, stones, buttons, animal or human figures).
Continuing the case example of a teacher with a problematic classroom situation, the therapist could encourage the client to pick out a play figure to symbolize herself as the teacher: Therapist: Please put the figure here on the table. And now pick out figures for your students and put them on the table, too. One figure for each person. Position the figures as they were in the situation you experienced. The client can now play her own role in the difficult situation on the table stage: Therapist: And now move the figure. You direct the figure of the teacher, you are now the teacher in this situation, speak as the teacher in this situation…
Figures 1 through 6 show scenes from role play activities acted out on the table stage using different play figures, buttons and stones:
Figures 1–6: Scenes from figurative role plays on the table stage
Part of the therapeutic room can be designated as a room stage for role play activities. Many of the examples described in this book take place on a room stage. Ideally a rug is used to set apart the stage area from the rest of the room. In small rooms a corner can also be defined as the stage. In very small rooms without space for a separate room stage, therapists can use a movement to establish the boundaries of the role play (e.g. “Let’s stand up now, step a bit to the side and imagine that we’re not here in the consultation room, but in your kitchen instead. What does your kitchen look like? Is there a table?… Now we are leaving your kitchen, let’s come out of the role play and put our chairs back how they were before.”)
Everyday life stage
Clients may be assigned a role-play task to complete on the everyday life stage (Stage 3) outside of therapy: their home, their workplace, their usual routes, the shops they frequent, where they spend their free time. For example, after an in-session social competencies training, clients with social anxiety disorders might be asked to seek out as many anxiety-provoking situations in their everyday lives as possible. The therapist and client prepare for and evaluate such real-life behavioural experiments in the therapy sessions. In a first step, the therapist might accompany the client to guide role-play activities conducted on the everyday life stage.
Role play activities played out on the client’s everyday life stage are a central instrument of behavioural therapy (i.e. in-vivo exposure). The everyday life stage also plays an important role in systemic therapy and coaching, in which clients are often assigned not only concrete behavioural tasks but also behavioural rituals to integrate into their everyday lives.
As previously described, the everyday life stage can also include the consultation room itself, as the therapy, counselling or coaching is already in of itself a sort of stage in which the client plays the role as a “person with a problem”. However, role plays on the consultation room stage seldom take place in the individual setting.
Brücher, K. (2005). Therapistische Räume. Zur Theorie und Praxis psychothe- rapeutischer Interaktion [Therapeutic spaces: Psychotherapeutic interactions in theory and in practice]. Munich: Elsevier.
Moreno, J. L. (2008). Gruppenpsychotherapie und Psychodrama. Einleitung in die Theorie und Praxis [Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama: Introduction to Theory and Practice]. 6th edition. Stuttgart: Thieme.
Schaller, R. (2019). Imagine you are….Role Play in Individual Therapy, Counselling and Coaching. www.lulu.com.
First published in: Schaller, R. (2019). Imagine you are….Role Play in Individual Therapy, Counselling and Coaching. www.lulu.com. ISBN 978-0-359-67529-6. p.