Animal Howls and Pink Blankets

A Subjective Impression of Psychodrama Training

By Frances Kay

I once heard a radio reporter giving a live broadcast from an aeroplane as he took part for the first time in a free-fall sky-diving display with a team of experts. As he waited to jump his voice was controlled but nervous; we all shared his anxieties about his parachute failing to open, about leaving it too late, about not safely catching hold of his minder’s hand. Then the order came: JUMP! and his prepared commentary broke off. As he launched into nothingness, a sound leaped from his mouth, an animal howl of terror and excitement that had the listeners holding their breaths until he safely made contact with the rest of the team, the relaxed old timers.

Psychodrama training is a bit like that. It feels exhilarating, risky and dangerous at times, and you reach out for the hands of your team scarcely daring to believe that in a vast empty sky, you will somehow float towards each other as you drift gracefully above the clouds, conscious that there will come a time when you can no longer put off the moment of pulling the ripcord, testing your parachute, and finally making ungainly contact with solid earth again …

As a performer and director I came to psychodrama from a theatre back­ground. My previous experience was small: a voluntary Cruse training for bereavement counselling, and some one-to-one counselling I sought after a family crisis. I liked the idea of moving away from theatre work with its buzzy energy demands and adrenalin highs into something more soothing, quietly mature and gentle. Why not train in counselling? But during a fortui­tous enrolment on a week of ‘Classical Psychodrama’ I was attracted by the suggestion of Greek tragedy, as well as the solemn, heavyweight assurance of its being ‘classical’, and I was hooked.

First of all, I like the way a whole group of people work together, each one at their own pace. The unpredictability of the way the work develops, the spontaneity and flexibility needed by the director, and the way members of the group arc chosen by the protagonist to act out given roles, gives each psychodrama the excitement of a theatrical improvisation but without the unreality and artificiality of a stage play. I like the fact that psychodrama is led by a director (who is a therapist), and that many of the terms we use derive from theatre; role, protagonist, scene, stage. I like the powerful effect of getting up and acting the work out, using the best elements of theatre (the most exciting moments in acting arise when you hit on the core of a truthful emotion which you channel intensely into your role). I admire the way psychodrama seems to shift a lot of stuff very quickly and it goes deeper too. And what touched me most was that, unlike a theatre performance whose memory soon fades, leaving emptiness and sometimes a feeling of worthlessness until the next job arrives, the after-effects of a psychodrama are real; a sense of achievement, of the possibility of real changes to be made, and of positive effects on the rest of the group who have shared the work with you.

Having been working with the same group for six months now, I can see how watching and taking roles in one person’s work triggers off another’s. Every member of the group can come to the work in their own time, there is no pressure to ‘take turns’. Indeed, the emotional ‘warm-ups’ we do at the beginning of a session can unpredictably unleash a flood of emotion in one person while not affecting another at all.

The skill of the director lies in listening to the protagonist, in selecting a crucial scene, in making it real: sometimes by asking that we become a chair, a bed or a window in a familiar room and talk from that object’s viewpoint about the family who lives there. Props are used; chairs, mattresses, blankets and a soft-ended stick with which we can whack the walls as hard as we like and not do any damage when we need to scream and rage. And sometimes we regress and demand to be wrapped in the big pink blanket while the rest of the group sing, hold our hands, stroke, or rock us, depending on our requests, because in this group you can ask to have your needs met and know they will be. In fact, there is room for quite a few of us under the pink blanket and, with cushions tucked all around us, we can create a nest or a nursery that helps to heal some of the damage that has been done, or undo some of the punishments we inflict upon ourselves.

I began training to be a psychodramatist last October. The course lasts four years, and in our first year the emphasis is on personal work. We have some purely experiential weekends and some that are a mixture of therapy, seminars, practical work and processing (where the director explains the techniques used during that day’s work). It is not always easy. A practical training session can be the trigger for overwhelming, inexplicable emotion – as happened to me during the week at Easter – and sorting out the lesson to be learned is a Zen exercise in paradox. ‘If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not working’ versus ‘let sleeping dogs lie’? The consolation is that I don’t have to do this alone, that the rest of the group, all at a similar stage in training, are there to understand and support me when needed.

In our second year we will concentrate more on practising our own skills, using the rest of the group; in the third year we will have clinical practice with supervision. The fourth year consolidates all our practical and theore­tical work, and we will continue with personal therapy throughout the training. But that final stage seems to me now to be a very long way away.

We did an exercise called ‘Behind your Back’ at the end of a recent training week, where each person sits with their back to the circle and listens to what the group has to say about them, as if they were not there. I was amazed to hear them talk about me as a person who does not put her needs first, and who does not ask enough from the group. Could this really be me, I thought, the insatiable greedy child, forever demanding attention that I perceive myself to be?

Our first year seminars explore the theory and philosophy of psychodrama, a system that was first described and developed by J.L. Moreno, later working with his wife Zerka. It embraces existential philosophy, drama and Moreno’s own highly individualistic theory of human development. To understand the particular merits of psychodrama we are expected to have an understanding of other therapies, and our initial struggles to understand the unnecessarily obscure jargon of the discipline were greatly helped by dis­cussing ‘non-metabolised object relations’ and ‘the arrival of the unconscious’ with the rest of the group, enacting these concepts whenever possible.

Understanding the concept of spontaneity is vital to our work in psychodrama; in one of our seminars recently two students demonstrated the diff­erence between a ‘spontaneous’ person and a ‘robopathic’ one, by inviting us to watch a cake-making demonstration:

ROBOPATHIC PERSON: It’s exactly three o’clock on Friday afternoon. I always make a cake at three on Fridays. And I know exactly where to find the recipe.

SPONTANEOUS PERSON: What shall I do today? I feel like cooking some­thing … I know! I’ll make a surprise!

ROBOPATHTC PERSON: Here’s Mother’s recipe, handed down by her mother. It always works. Take six ounces of tradition, a tablespoon of convention, and a pint of prejudice …

SPONTANEOUS PERSON: What’s in the cupboard? Ah, a bit of fun! I’ll put that in to begin with – then a dash of inspiration and maybe a couple of spoons of excitement.

We were all invited to ‘taste’ the final products and agreed that both recipes were successful – only, maybe, the spontaneous one was a little more interesting.