The Psychodrama Process

by Catherine Murray & Noelle Branagan

In this article we hope to introduce the reader to some of the philosophy and
 basic concepts in psychodrama. Our purpose is to highlight what is distinctive to
 psychodrama, therefore we will not dwell on those aspects that are common to
 other forms of group therapy or individual therapy. We describe the overall 
process of a single psychodrama session illustrating that with a constituted
 example. Psychodrama is a method of group psychotherapy, by this I mean that 
the group is the route to the psychotherapeutic process, group psychotherapy is 
thus not just group facilitation, although it may be a part of the process, nor is
 it psychotherapy in a group, although this also does occur. Psychodramatists 
actively make use of this dynamic process in assisting the group and its members 
to define its major concern.

This ‘concern’ is carried by the ‘protagonist’. The protagonist is a term borrowed
 from the Theatre meaning first actor. The protagonist in psychodrama presents an
 issue for exploration within the group. The group are actively involved in the exploration by taking roles, doubling, or by witnessing and identifying with any aspect of
 the situation portrayed, and by sharing their resonances with the protagonist when
 the enactment is complete.

The group is a living and dynamic entity, it is a microcosm of society encompassing
 multi transferential relationships as well as multi telic relationships. Moreno considered the concept of transference insufficient to describe completely the dynamic process occurring in relationships. He coined the term ‘tele’ to describe the two 
way invisible link between people that is based on their actual real relationship and
 which also goes beyond conscious knowledge. It can describe reciprocal feelings of
 attraction, repulsion, distortion or indifference.

It is not unusual in a group new to psychodrama, to find some who have braced
 themselves for the experience…the word ‘psycho’ and ‘drama’ hovering in their consciousness as two of the most intimidating words in the English language… and yet 
they are drawn for the hope and promise of meaningful encounter with their psyche and their own dramatic truth.

Psychodrama is an active method of psychotherapy with a large repertoire of techniques, however it can only be ethically practised when the practitioner understands 
that these are not merely techniques but active instruments of a philosophy of 
encounter, a philosophy of existentialism. Psychodrama can only be misunderstood
 and misused if practice is separated from its philosophical base.

The Process of Psychodrama

The following psychodrama session is a constructed example based on an ongoing
 group for people in treatment with drug and alcohol problems. This account is not based on an actual client’s work but is constructed to echo themes and processes 
commonly worked within this setting.
 The purpose of this description is to provide the reader with the opportunity of
 gaining insight into the process of psychodrama at work. All psychodrama sessions
 follow three distinct phases, warm-up, enactment and sharing, with most groups lasting two and a half hours. The director is working with a group of ten people and this is their fifth session.

Warm Up

Following the warm-up, which involved group members, engaging in dialogue 
between their ‘real self’ and their ‘ideal self’, Bob is warmed up to work. His desire 
to work on his inability to assert himself and to trust his instincts has resonated with 
most of the others in the group, in doing so he works for others as well as for himself. Feeling supported by the group Bob takes on the protagonist role. Bob is a single man in his late 30’s. He lives alone and works in the Finance Department in the
 Civil Service. His father is dead, his mother is living and he is the youngest of three
 brothers. Bob’s drinking has been heavy in the past five years becoming a real problem for him in this last twelve months.

In the first few weeks of the treatment programme, Bob was quiet, took in a lot of
 information and appeared very sensitive to any criticisms or confrontations made to 
him. He then began to speak of feelings of shame about being in the hospital and
 also of feelings of anger towards others.

Now in his fifth week Bob expresses feeling some relief in being more open and 
honest. His choice to be active and take on the protagonist role reflects a significant 
move in his embracing his own treatment.

The first step in the work is for Bob and the Director to establish a clear and workable contract, in this case: “To explore my tendency to withdraw and retreat from situations where I feel criticised and to learn to deal with it differently.”


The Director invites Bob to show a recent scene where this occurred. In psychodrama all scenes past, present and future are set in the present. This gives a sense
 of immediacy and vitality helping the protagonist re-experienee feelings rather than 
just talk about them. The maxim is “show us”, rather than tell us.

Director: Can you show us where this takes place and what happens?.

Presenting Scene

Bob sets up the office – his Boss’s office, as he does so he warms up to his material.
 Bob is receiving an all too familiar reprimand. The Director asks Bob to take on the
 role of the Boss, then Bob chooses Frank to hold the role of Boss.

Bob as Boss: For goodness sake, Bob, this isn’t good enough. How many 
times have I to tell you how to present a document? This is full
 of mistakes! Do you not listen? Can you not learn?
 This is a mess! What have you got to say about it?

The director asks Bob to play his own role now to see the impact of this reprimand
 on Bob.

Bob as Bob: Emm …. well eh …., I’ll eh I’ll take it away and fix it.

Boss: You’re right, you will and make sure I don’t have to look at 
another mess. For God’s sake, man, just do the job properly, will 
you ?

Bob leaves the office feeling embarrassed, furious inside, inadequate and full of

Director: What are you feeling right now Bob?.

Bob: I feel like ripping this up and throwing it at him. I can’t let him 
see how he’s got to me. I knew this would happen. Nothing I
 do is good enough for him. I hate him. I hate feeling like this.

Director: What do you do now?

Bob: I go back to my desk. No one else notices me and I pretend to 
get on with it. Later on I get blind drunk.

Director: What about others in the office, do they have problems with the

Bob: Well, he does shout at people from time to time but…. well….
they all seem to get on with it and do the job well. Bob becomes 
tearful. He expresses frustration, asking, “Why can’t I be like the others?” and “I’m the one with the problem, what’s wrong with 
me? Why can’t I stand up for myself?’

Director: Have you experienced a situation before, Bob. where you experienced others being critical of you and you swallow your feelings,
 comply and end up feeling worthless?

Bob: Oh yes (with resignation). It’s the story of my life.

The presenting scene in a classical psychodrama, gives the Director the opportunity to explore the sequential interaction as it unfolds through the drama. We can
 pause the action at any point and ask the protagonist for a soliloquy. In this way we
 see also the normally ‘unseen’ factors, i.e. feelings that were not expressed and
 beliefs which propel the motion.

We have the opportunity to examine the context, the behaviour, the feelings, the 
beliefs and the consequences. In this instance we see a situation in which Bob’s 
work is criticised by an authority figure. Bob outwardly complies with his boss’s
 wishes, he compares himself to others and gets drunk. He feels humiliated, angry,
 and resentful. He believes that he is worthless, inadequate and inferior to others and
 incapable of making any other response to the situation. ‘Beliefs are a network of
 presuppositions that restrain a person from taking action other than the action they 
do take.’ [Williams A. 1989 P.66]

The consequence is that he withdraws, suppresses his feelings, isolates himself from 
others. His lack of self esteem is further compounded by his behaviour. The role cluster we have contracted to examine is that of the withdrawer (drinker) who feels 
inferior to others and is self condemning. We need to track how this role has developed over time and examine how it first came into being before we attempt to make 
any changes in the present.

So the Director asks the protagonist for an earlier scene in which a similar dynamic 
was present.

Director: Bob, can you show us an earlier situation in which you felt humiliated 
by the criticism of an authority figure and withdrew?

 This enactment takes place in his second year at college. He is humiliated and 
embarrassed in front of his peers, by a lecturer. This scene highlights again the three 
main features of Bob’s experience.

1. His feelings of worthlessness – “What is wrong with me?” He blames him

2. His comparing himself to others and feeling isolated from them and also 
feeling inadequate.

3. His tendency to keep his feelings to himself, not talk to anyone and withdraw.

At the end of the second enactment, in which the other group members have taken 
on the auxiliary roles, Bob is feeling almost frozen, Bob is visibly distressed, feels 
frightened, alone, rocking himself for comfort.

Director: What are you feeling here, right now?

Bob: Frightened, alone, upset, mixed up.

At this point the director recognised that Bob has ‘slipped’ into a much earlier experience. It is often said that the body remembers what the mind forgets. Here we let
 the body lead the way.

SCENE THREE. The Locus of the Role

Director: How old do you feel right now?

Bob: About six.

Director: (pauses)……….Where are we?

Bob: Outside the door of the classroom…….in the corridor.

Director: What are you doing here?

Bob as Robert: I’m here because I have to go out to Miss Black’s class with the
 infants (through tears) and I’m six…I’m wearing long trousers 
now! I’m going to look like a baby. Teacher doesn’t want me 
because I can’t sing. He said I sounded like a Cat’s Melodeon and
 the others all laughed, and they’re all laughing at me now and 
I feel so foolish.

Director: Who could help you here, and talk to teacher.

Robert: Nobody.

Director: Who could you tell about this?.

Robert: Nobody. They’d only laugh at me (upset)……and I don’t want to 
tell at home ‘cos mammy’s tired and cross she wouldn’t have time
 to come down to the school and daddy’s sick, so he’s not able to.

Director: So what do you do here?

Robert: I pretend not to care and I don’t play with the others. I m not as 
good as them so I just stay quiet and keep myself to myself, that
 way it doesn’t hurt so much.

This scene in psychodrama is called the locus of the role. In other words the place
 where the role response was created by the protagonist. Moreno defined role as “the
 actual and tangible form which the self takes…. the functioning form the individual 
assumes in the specific moment as he reacts to a specific situation in which other 
persons or objects are involved.” [Moreno J.L. 1961]

The locus of the role contains the conditioning factors that give the role life and help
 it to thrive. The conditioning factors for Bob’s withdrawer role at that time were, 
his father was dying with cancer, being nursed by a very distraught mother. This 
means that neither parent is ‘available’. He accommodates to the situation in the
 best way he can manage, not making a fuss, keeping his feelings to himself and withdrawing to lick his sores by himself out of a belief that he is inferior to others and 
that he will only make things worse if he draws attention to his plight at home or at 

We need to enable Bob to develop a different role response. Since Bob himself has 
created this role to cope with this situation as best he could at the time, he and he 
alone has the power to change his role response.

We investigate the locus to help the protagonist gain insight into the formation and
 function of their coping roles. These roles are commonly dysfunctional in their current lives. In order to help the protagonist make these changes it is important that
 the Director supports the protagonist in ventilating feelings that were put ‘on hold’
 at the time, and allows the process to challenge the beliefs that motivate the behaviour. Even if we cannot change events we can always choose how we respond to
 them. Moreno held that a true second experience can release us from the first

Bearing in mind that the original contract involved Bob ‘learning to deal with criticism differently’, the Director facilitates Bob in standing up to teacher as advocate 
for young Robert. It is important that this is done in the role of advocate on behalf
 of young Robert.

The Director takes Bob out of the role as Robert, and asks him to choose another
 group member to take on that role.

Being removed from the scene using the mirror playback technique, the auxiliaries
 re-run the scene with adult Bob observing the action. The Director asks Bob what
 he feels needs to be done here

Bob: Well, someone needs to take that teacher in hand and get him to
 see what’s happening to that kid.

Director: Who could do that for Robert?

Bob: I don’t know. I never would have said anything at home and my parents couldn’t do anything about it.

At this point the Director again has options to choose from, in finding an ‘advocate’
 role for the protagonist. She could look for a hero such as ‘Bat-man’ or introduce
 an ‘ideal Dad’, but what becomes evident is that adult Bob feels passionate to take 
on the ‘advocate’ role for young Robert.

Bob to teacher: What on earth are you doing? You are destroying this child, can’t
 you see that? He is cringing as he leaves the room and he feels 
utterly inadequate. What kind of teacher are you for God’s sake?
 Have you no imagination?

Bob catharts his anger here with the help of a batak and with sounds and words.
 Exhausted he pauses.

Director: What do you need to say to young Robert here?

Bob puts his arm around young Robert, reassuring him that he is part of the class,
 and he has an important part to play in the class. “You are just as important as anyone else in this class, your feelings are important to others and to you, you don’t
 have to hide them from yourself or anyone else, you don’t have to be the same 
as everyone else, because you are uniquely you,…and that’s pretty special, you
 are thoughtful caring and you’re a cracker with with the ball…so what if you
 can’t sing!!…It does not mean you are worth less than others.”

The Director gets Robert and Bob to reverses roles here and re-runs the scene, so 
that young Robert can experience the wisdom, healing and tenderness of his own 

Director: How do you think the teacher might hare handled this differently 
Bob? Can you show us?

Then Bob shows the teacher how he could handle this differently.

Bob as Teacher: Right, children, put away your copy books and get ready for 
singing. We must practise for the show. I need three people to play tambourines,
 who wants to? (all the children put up their hand, Robert is selected as one of the 

The Director invites Bob to role reverse with Robert in order for him to experience 
the feeling of being selected and feeling included. The group engage in a lively rendition of “I’ll tell me ma”, Bob is able to take in these feelings in the role of Robert.
 In this surplus reality scene, young Robert can develop a role of adequacy, and feel
 part of a group rather than apart from others.

Finally the Director suggests to Bob that he bring this new found positive feeling
 with him to the original scene with his boss. In the enactment portion of classical
 psychodrama, we come full circle, we always return to the presenting scene.
 This is known as role training, it gives the protagonist a chance to practise the new 
role and forms a bridge between the therapeutic situation and the outside world.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where where we started

And know the place for the first time
T.S. Eliot: Little Gidding

Bob sets the scene. Following the boss’s tirade, Bob rather than em-ing’ and erring

Bob: I really can’t think’ straight when you shout at me. Clearly I have
 problems with the presentation of documents and I need some help
 with this. I know what to say, I just have difficulty with the format.

Director: role reverse.

Bob as Boss: En……Em……

Director: What is it you want to say?

Bob as boss: Well, I ‘m just surprised to hear him talk like this.

Director: Say it to Bob not to me?

Bob as boss: I’m surprised to hear you talk like this. Bob…..mind you, it’s good 
and eh …. I’ll team you up with Peter, he’s good on format.

Bob: That ‘s great, ok, fine, (smiles noticing how when he speaks up for
 himself things can be different.)

Director: Is this a good place to stop?

Bob: Yes it is.


The group engage in the process of sharing and de-roleing. This is an opportunity
 for all group members to share and process how they were personally affected by
 the enactment, whether their perspective came from playing a role or co-journeying 
with the protagonist as an audience member. This helps the protagonist feel less
 alone and furthers the personal explorations of other group members. For example, Frank shared how acutely aware he became of his own tendency to browbeat others, particularly his wife and sons, while playing the role of boss. Being on the receiving end of this in the reverse role position gave him a disturbing experience of how
 this must be for them. Sadie shared with Bob her tears for herself as she witnessed 
the frightened child, remembering how immobilised and alone she felt at times as a 
child of a schizophrenic mother.


We hope this article has given the reader a glimpse of the process of psychodrama 
and some understanding of its theoretical and philosophical underpinnings. It does
 not attempt to provide a comprehensive account of the psychodrama theory or philosophy, we have indeed omitted some of the core concepts, as this is beyond the
 scope of the article. Reference to the bibliography will provide a more comprehensive account.

Catherine Murray is director of NEWTOWN HOUSE CENTRE in Doneraile, Co Cork.

Noelle Branagan works as a psychotherapist at THE WAVE CENTRE in Belfast.


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Moreno J.L, 1953 Who Shall Survive? Beacon House Inc

Holmes. P Karp, M & Watson, M [eds| 1993. Psychodrama since Moreno. Routledge. London

Williams, A 1989 The Passionate Technique Routledge, London

Blatner, A 1988 Foundations of Psychodrama. New York Springer