by Roger SCHALLER
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
The focus of this article is on the interactions between client and therapist during the planning and execution of the scenic play in individual psychodrama. The so called „director’s commentary“ on the border of the stage facilitates the scenic understanding and activates the therapeutic process. A case study shows how the scenic play on the psychodrama stage is guided by these director’s commentaries. The repeated change from the role of the protagonist into the role of the co-director enables the client to develop his creative potential.
Director’s commentary is the primary technique for psychodramatic role play in the individual setting. The stage can be thought of as a sort of mental workshop. In role play, clients become the author and director of a real or fantasized scene. They are provided with all the time, creative space and tools they need to be able to recognize how their own mental processes (conscious and subconscious) affect how they feel, think and act in a specific scene–that is, to recognize that their feelings, thoughts and behaviours are not just the products of their external circumstances.
The director’s commentary is an essential tool for helping clients to really get in touch with what is going on inside their minds and bodies during a dramatization, which is of course the ultimate goal of role play. The scene is frozen and the client is asked to provide a short director’s commentary at the edge of the stage. The client becomes co-director and discusses the here-and-now experiences of the dramatized scene with the therapist.
From this distanced perspective, clients can reflect on their experiences in the role play and discuss how the scene continues. By pausing and discussing at the edge of the stage, clients take a step back away from their emotions and are better able to cognitively process their experiences.
Psychodramatic role play in the individual setting follows a different procedure than the protagonist-centred psychodrama used in the group setting. Furthermore, psychodramatic role play in the individual setting shifts the focus toward the director’s commentary and away from the scene’s action. In the following example from my own practice, I illustrate the central role of the director’s commentary in individual role play:
A 43-year old male client was referred to psychotherapy by his general practitioner. During the first session I assessed his life situation and current problems in an explorative discussion. The client is a logistics specialist at the post office. He is married and has an 8-year-old daughter. Four months ago, one of his daughter’s schoolmates was seriously injured after she was hit by a car in the crosswalk in front of the school. Since then, the client has suffered from intense fear that his daughter could have a similar accident while at school. He is unable to work and spends most of his time at home, worrying and waiting for his daughter to come home. His behaviour has not only created problems at work but also led to a massive conflict with his wife who cannot understand the degree of his reaction.
Second session: After a brief introduction, I suggest that the client show me a typical scene of him waiting fearfully for his daughter to come home from school. We use three chairs to set the scene: the client is sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and waiting anxiously.
Therapist: This is the kitchen where you spend many hours, waiting for your daughter to come home from school. May I ask you to come into this scene for a moment? Please show me what it looks like when you are sitting in the kitchen and waiting.
(Client sits on one of the chairs.)
Therapist: You are now in the kitchen; your daughter is at school. What are you thinking, what are you feeling right now?
(Client remains silent.)
Therapist: Why don’t you come back out of the scene. Come over here by me, let’s stand here for a moment and let’s picture the scene in our heads. How was that for you, sitting at this imaginary kitchen table?
Therapist: You are sighing?
Therapist: Would you do that again?
(Client sighs again.)
Therapist: (imitates the sigh) “It’s so hard…unbearably hard….”
Client: …yes…I don’t know…I can’t think, I feel paralyzed.
Therapist: Paralyzed…perhaps it would be helpful to find out more about this paralysis. Would you go back into this scene, back to the kitchen table and maybe speak to the side, like you are saying an inner monologue out loud?
Client: I can try. (He sits back down on the chair at the kitchen table. He remains silent.).
Therapist: (waits briefly) Come back out of your role again please. You are no longer in the kitchen, you are here with me in our therapy session. Let’s picture the scene in this room again: there is our stage with the kitchen table, the man over there at the kitchen table feels paralyzed, you said.
Client: That’s right, that is all he can do.
As co-director at the edge of the stage, the therapist and client can now discuss what the man in the scene is thinking and experiencing. They also discuss whether further dramatization would be helpful or whether they should return to the discussion chairs and continue the therapeutic process through dialogue instead.
Case examples primarily capture the verbal parts of a director’s commentary. It would be, however, a mistake to think of the director’s commentary as just a verbal discussion. Clients’ paraverbal and nonverbal expressions (e.g. pauses, silence, breathing, reddening, tone, gaze, facial expressions, gestures, posture, position in the room) are in fact often more relevant than what they actually say. Sometimes, like the sigh in the preceding example, focusing on an implicit expression and trying to translate it into words may help increase a client’s self-awareness. This kind of mentalisation can also be a part of the director’s commentary.
In sum, the director’s commentary consists primarily of implicit (i.e. nonverbal) communication and an intuitive exchange of thoughts, feelings and intentions between therapist and client. The Boston Change Process Study Group (2013), a group of psychotherapists devoted to understanding the process of change in psychotherapy, describes the nature of this spontaneous communication:
…we begin with the assumption that patient and analyst are generally working hard to intuitively grasp each other’s implicit intentions and directions. Conversation between them occurs continuously. And while that conversation has an inherent “sloppiness” to it, that sloppiness, rather than preventing communication, in fact contributes to its successful occurrence. Many levels of this conversation occur outside the awareness of patient and analyst, making a large part of their relating implicit. (…)Words, in particular, are not the medium for the perception of one person by another. Words will inevitably fail us in fully conveying our relational experience. We use words in the service of relating, and we use words in the service of reflection, in order to make these interpersonal processes available to conscious interpersonal problem solving when established procedures are problematic. However, affect and intention cues that contextualize, inflect, and modulate the words are more powerful and primary conveyors of interpersonal meaning than are the words themselves. (p. 729 / 742)
In Part A I described how the discovery of mirror neurons impacted psychodramatic work. Since then, many studies have demonstrated how important the body and movement are for the therapeutic process. The Boston Change Process Study Group (2018) again provides a nice description:
The mirror systems in our brains are constantly, though nonconsciously, registering micro-versions of the movements and affects of those around us. That is, in our patterns of synaptic firings, we constantly participate at a nonconscious level in “trying on” the movement patterns, expressions, affects, and intentions of others. Appreciating the extent of this constant nonconscious participation deepens our grasp of the profound way in which we continuously experience the bodily states of others. (p.301)
The client-therapist dyad and their mutual understanding of the different ways of seeing and interpreting a situation lie at the heart of the director’s commentary. The point is not to try convince each other of a particular perspective, but rather to explore different perspectives, latent attitudes and values. The director’s commentary therefore provides clients with an opportunity to experience a new way of relating to people and handling problematic situations in a communicative way and improve their self-management competencies.
I now try to further describe the implicit (“sloppy”) interaction that takes place between therapist and client during a director’s commentary in the following case example:
Therapist: Yes, it sounded like that to me: helpless, baffled by the world–do you know that feeling?
Client: No, but sometimes it feels like I fall into a kind of hole.
Therapist: You fall into a hole… (remains silent).
As the therapist in this example, I communicated my puzzlement without words: I recognized some sort of trauma, something that seemed unrelated to the accident of his daughter’s schoolmate.
Clients probably notice when therapists are sympathetic but also somewhat mystified. American psychiatrist and psychoanalytic theorist Daniel Stern describes such a situation as a “present moment”. Present moments last just a couple of seconds are often experienced implicitly. Stern (2004) writes:
The present moments that interest us most are those that arise when two people make a special kind of mental contact–namely, an intersubjective contact. This involves the mutual interpenetration of minds that permits us to say, “I know that you know that I know” or “I feel that you feel that I feel.” There is a reading of the contents of the other’s mind. Such readings can be mutual. Two people see and feel roughly the same mental landscape for a moment at least. These meetings are what psychotherapy is largely about (p. 75).
Based on our shared experience, as the therapist in this example I voice a hypothesis:
Therapist: This falling into a hole…is this a familiar feeling for you? What is the background here? Is there a particular image or memory that comes to mind?
(The client now describes a scene from when he was about six years old. Someone knocked on the classroom door, his aunt came in and told him she was taking him out of school. He knew immediately that something awful had happened. In the hallway she told him that his father had died.)
Therapist: I suggest that we explore this scene from your childhood. Looking back, which moment would you say was the most important? When, where precisely did you experience this “falling in a hole”?
Client: When I saw my aunt and heard her voice.
Therapist: I bet that you have a very clear image of this situation in your mind’s eye. Can you show me this image? We don’t need to act it out, we’ll just set the scene.
We symbolically set-up this second scene next to the first scene. I invite the client to briefly take the child’s position and explore the child’s thoughts and feelings. However, it is clear to me that the client has assumed the child’s position but not gone into an embodied simulation.
Therapist: Come out of the child’s position. Let’s stand here for a moment and look at this scene in our imaginations—here is the classroom and now the boy sees his aunt there at the door…he falls into a hole, you said.
Therapist: What happens when you observe these two scenes?
The director’s commentary makes it possible to focus the therapeutic process on the client’s immediate experience, the here-and-now of the session. During the director’s commentary, the therapist carefully observes how remembering and acting out an experience affects the client’s physical and mental state. Stepping into the client’s shoes, the therapist imagines what the client is thinking and feeling, and what his or her goals might be. The therapist then uses the director’s commentary to make the client aware of aspects of the experience that are currently hidden from his or her consciousness.
Continuation of the case example: During a director’s commentary, the client and therapist decide to end the dramatization. They return to the discussion chairs. The therapist praises the client for his work and explains the difference between normal, rational fear (for instance in traffic) and irrational, pathological fear.
As previously mentioned, psychodrama in the individual setting follows a different procedure and has a different focus than protagonist-centred psychodrama in the group setting. In protagonist-centred psychodrama, the group provides the topics and framework for the therapeutic process. The procedure with a warm-up, action and sharing phase does not easily transfer to the individual setting. In the individual setting, role play focuses on the director’s commentary as opposed to the dramatized action. The action phases are short and regularly interrupted for director’s commentary. As a result, the therapist and client are in a constant exchange, and the therapist demonstrates openness and curiosity. Important characteristics of a director’s commentary include:
· The therapist is unknowing: during a director’s commentary, therapists try to set aside their own frames of reference, their (automatic) professional way of thinking. They try to be open and curious for the client’s experiences, perspective and thought process.
· The therapist primarily follows a process- as opposed to solution-oriented approach. The therapist follows and leads, going along with the client’s suggestions and feelings and providing feedback about what the client’s thoughts and feelings might mean and how they might be managed.
· To the extent possible, the therapist avoids selecting, interpreting and evaluating according to a theoretical model. The therapist pays attention to the moments in which the client’s own evaluations and interpretations come to light.
· The therapist is receptive and tries to see things from the client’s perspective. Every so often the therapist physically imitates the client’s behaviour.
· Emotional and thought processes are neither linear nor predictable, and everything is connected with everything else. Both the client and therapist may therefore be surprised by some of the feelings and thoughts that crop up during a role play. The therapist selectively and authentically communicates his or her insights and feelings.
· The therapist continually assesses whether his or her own understanding agrees with that of the client.
· Continually assessing the gap in understanding requires active communication and may result in contradictions and misunderstandings.
· The frequency of expressions of uncertainty, contradictions and misunderstandings–as long as they take place within a secure therapeutic relationship–is a sign of progress toward a common understanding.
· The therapist offers suggestions for further dramatic work, cognizant that only suggestions that are just outside of the client’s current behavioral realm of possibilities will be helpful.
The intensive communication between client and therapist primarily takes place during the director’s commentary at the edge of the stage. As previously described, the director’s commentary is only partially verbal, consisting instead of a complex interaction of sensory perceptions (e.g. seeing, hearing), physical sensations (e.g. muscle tension, pain), speech (verbal and paraverbal), facial expressions and gestures, and finally the physical movement and positioning in relation to each other and the room. Australian musician and music therapist Stephen Malloch and the British psychologist Colwyn Trevarthen (2009) describe this subtle and implicit communicative process as “communicative musicality”. Based on their research on the interactions between infants and mothers, Malloch and Trevarthen concluded that humans have an innate musicality that allows them to understand each other through dynamic experiences of “bodily music”, that is, through movement, space, strength, volume, rhythm, time, intensity, and accentuation. According to Malloch and Trevarthen, communication does not take place primarily through language, but rather though the synchronisation of two people’s behaviour: a bodily music. Musical parameters like rhythm, tempo, duration, repetition, accentuation, and fluctuations characterize all dimensions of human communication (e.g. movements, facial expressions, gestures, speech, physical contact, a hand shake, eye contact, closeness/distance). They argue that humans have an innate ability to communicate and understand by perceiving and classifying the musical parameters of behaviour. In the sense of communicative musicality, the director’s commentary is the therapist’s attempt to tune into a client’s music and suggest how he or she might potentially vary their behaviour, thought, and feelings. In psychodrama we call this “spontaneity”.
Boston Change Process Study Group (2013). Enactment and the emergence of new relational organization. J.A.J.A.P.A. 2013, Vol. 61, #4, pp.727-749. Online: www.changeprocess.org. DOI: 10.1177/0003065113496636
Boston Change Process Study Group (2018). Moving through and being moved by: Embodiment in development and in the therapistic relationship. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 2018, Vol. 54, No. 2: 299–321. C William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology and the William Alanson White Psychoanalytic Society. ISSN: 0010-7530 print / 2330-9091 doi: 10.1080/00107530.2018.1456841
Malloch, S. & Trevarthen, C. (2009). Communicative Musicality: Exploring the Basis of Human Companionship. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Schaller, R. (2019). Imagine you are….Role Play in Individual Therapy, Counselling and Coaching. www.lulu.com. ISBN 978-0-359-67529-6
Stern, D. (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company.