Adam Blatner, M.D

(*This article appeared in the Youth Theatre Journal, 9, 92-96, March, 1995)
(Re-published on website, August 2, 2002)

"Mental hygiene" refers to approaches to preventive psychiatry through the development of habits of self-care. Translated into psychological terms, this means learning not just information, but more importantly, skills of interpersonal problem solving, communications and self-awareness. Active practice is necessary in order to acquire the many component skills in these three categories, and that means that an experiential form of education such as role playing or sociodramatic simulations is needed. (See also paper on Role Playing in Education on this Website.)

Drama offers a rich range of activities which can be applied in the service of developing spontaneity and a broader role repertoire. While scripted, rehearsed forms of theatre may be useful to a limited degree in this respect, more improvisational, creative drama approaches are far more appropriate (Way, 1967, 2).

In this paper I will use the term role playing to refer to the entire range of improvisational types of drama in education. However, this complex of methods can be extensively modified in order to address different developmental levels, different types of students, and in the advancement of different types of subject matter. The point I want to emphasize is that when students exercise the component skills of role playing, they are not only learning about the roles they're portraying, but more important, they are learning (again) how to play with roles, how to think a little like a playwright or director as well as actor, how to shift frames of reference in exploring problems imaginatively.

Drama in education reflects a shift from an over-emphasis on informational content to a more balanced inclusion of attention to the processing of ideas. As Postman (1990, 5) noted in a keynote speech to drama educators, cultural literacy won't suffice without a framework of meaning, "a life-enhancing story," in which facts may be rationally coordinated.

One of those cultural myths is evolving at the present time, and the term given to the intellectual streams which are converging and articulating this myth is "postmodernism." The myth is one which is particularly self-aware, a myth which states that all knowledge is based on myth, on basic assumptions which operate for the most part subconsciously (Anderson, 1990). The implication of this myth is that we must become more conscious in order to effectively participate in the creative process which represents our social existence.

Another aspect of postmodernism is a heightened awareness that values, traditions, role definitions, and many other aspects of life are significantly changing--even the basis for what we call knowledge. Role playing offers a more positive vehicle for dealing with the disorientation of modern life because it teaches people skills for participating in the creation of their own unfolding identities. Without these skills, people are in danger of reacting to the cultural pressures towards diffusion of identity by nihilistic or reactionary patterns which avoid a realistic encounter with changing circumstances (Lifton, 1993).

How Role Playing Fosters Consciousness

The exercise of a sociodramatic exploration is essentially creative in its thrust: The problem is to discover a response to a situation that is effective, and the situations are complex enough so that it's not just a matter of cognitively "knowing a right answer"--any hypothesis must then be "sold" to partners or others involved in the play--and then that must be tried out in order to see if it works. In this sense, role playing is like a laboratory in which the various techniques of staging and bringing forth feelings and ideas are the equivalent elements to the scientific equipment (Kottler, 1994, 273).

As a derivative of an art form, role playing invites the expression of novel or original ideas. Conformity is generally recognized as being less than creative, and so this approach as an instrument of group dynamics tends to validate individuality. In addition, a continued valuing of self-questioning (and a corresponding devaluing of tendencies towards complacency) becomes adaptive. Such values and habits of mind are exactly what modern business executives and forward-looking academicians are wanting in the co-workers they hire, because they recognize that in a changing world, attitudes of active curiosity and the courage to challenge the familiar or entrenched patterns within systems is precisely the key to success.

My background as a psychiatrist includes study as a psychodramatist, and the work of the inventor of psychodrama, J.L. Moreno, M.D. (1889-1974) has a great deal of relevance to the challenges not just of psychiatry, but also of education (Blatner, 1988). Moreno's contribution emphasized the importance in psychotherapy of fostering patients' creativity, and also extended this idea beyond the context of the medical model--to apply to education and the way we structure our arts and society. (Indeed, his inspiration for the development of psychodrama came out of his dissatisfaction with what he felt was the limitations of scripted and rehearsed theatre in Vienna, and in 1921 he organized one of the first improvisational troupes, calling it "The Theater of Spontaneity.")

In addition to emphasizing the core value of creativity, Moreno noted that spontaneity was the best way to promote creativity, and further that a somewhat playful context if improvisational drama provided the ideal vehicle for exploring the complexities of psychosocial situations. Applied to education, role playing--which, incidentally, is largely a derivative of Moreno's psychodramatic method--becomes a natural instrument for helping young people to learn the skills they'll need to continue to discover and create in a changing world.

Role playing is generates a postmodern type of thinking because it involves interaction rather than position, and the shifting among several points of view rather than a reliance on linear reasoning. We must recognize that there are other realities than those promoted by pure rationality--intuition, imagination, emotion, physical action or experience--these can no longer be implicitly devalued in a hierarchy that dismisses such vitally real elements in human life.

The role concept, too, is a very practical tool for thinking and communicating about problematic situations (Blatner, 1991). People are familiar with the terminology, roles may be analyzed by breaking them down into their components, and roles can be renegotiated. I consider role theory to be an ideal, "user-friendly" language for psychology and a candidate for the system for teaching a simplified approach to this subject in the schools

One corollary of role theory is that it supports a more sophisticated view of the mind: We are not one personality, but more accurately should be thought of as a confederation of many roles or parts, with a more or less effective system of management. This pluralistic model of the psyche has a number of practical applications in interpersonal interactions.

Role playing uses a variety of dramatic devices such as replaying a scene or a part of a scene, making asides, and (fairly unique to this method) especially role reversal. This last technique represents the best way to learn how to understand what it's like to be in the other person's situation, and role reversal thus is an effective method for developing the skills of empathy.

However, the most important way that role playing fosters consciousness is that the process involves a periodic pausing in the action and conferring with the director. This represents an exercise of the phenomenon of role distance, a dis-identifying with the performance and a shift to a "meta-role" stance in which the role player joins with the director, and from this position, also considers the performance from the points of view of the audience or even the position of the role player's antagonist in the scene.

From this pausing and reflecting the role player develops the capacity and even the habit of shifting viewpoints, and of gradually building an inner "observing manager" that transcends the feelings and beliefs associated with any single role. Role distance is the key to mental flexibility and creative adaptation. Many of the psychospiritual disciplines of Asia teach through meditation the capacity for a more detached witnessing of one's own mind, but role playing allows this skill to develop in the heat of action.

Developing Psychological Resilience

An essential element in effective problem solving in our postmodern era is a degree of mental flexibility, especially regarding a capacity to relinquish one's cherished (yet possibly obsolete or irrelevant) beliefs. Our present culture overvalues the association of self-esteem and the illusion of "being right," and conversely, finding oneself in error has been an occasion for humiliation, or as they say in psychodynamic psychiatry, "narcissistic wounding." The point is that many people are so defensive about their own ideas that they cannot adapt to changing circumstances, nor can they be truly open to the possibility of others having an alternative yet entirely plausible world-view.

Role playing not only fosters the ability to relinquish one's egocentric viewpoint and, through role reversal, open imaginatively to the perspective of the other, but also it helps consolidate a deeper identity which is capable of feeling comfortable in "being wrong." Role playing achieves this through the repeated exercise of spontaneity, because improvisation will lead a person to discover that the subconscious can be a great source of wisdom, inspiration, and creativity.

Spontaneity requires a receptivity of the conscious ego to the intuitions, images and impulses arising from the subconscious. These are then filtered gently through the coordinating functions of the ego, and with practice, the censoring functions become modulated so that the initial flash often retains its vitality. What people develop in time is a sense of being part of a greater mysterious process, or, putting it another way, of having profound and nourishing depths. Those oriented to a spiritual world view generally frame this source of creativity as soul, higher power, or its equivalent.

Related to this is the sheer sense of vitality and excitement which arises naturally out of participation in the world of imagery and play (Blatner, 1994). The act of creativity reinforces the healthiest source of self-esteem and makes it easier to forego the development of more narcissistic manipulations which provide an equivalent (but illusory) sense of being okay.

As a result of playfully exploring a wide range of situations in a fail-safe context, young people would be empowered in a healthy way to be open to continuously reviewing and revising their own sets of assumptions. This is what would be the ideal for an educational curriculum aimed at developing the skills needed for dealing with the changes which are inevitable in the coming years (Blatner & Blatner, 1997).


Role playing, sociodramatic explorations, creative drama, improvisationally-oriented theatre games, and other approaches which cultivate spontaneity together form a rich complex of methods for generating the kinds of skills which are part of the postmodern sensibility. Whether in business, the professions, the arts, or in personal and community life, such skills are important in fostering the group projects which lead to constructive change. Conversely, without these skills, collaborative activity tends to degenerate into the kinds of petty bickering which gives "committees" their reputation for inefficiency and interpersonal vulnerability (Blatner, 1992).

Role playing develops a capacity for metacognition, the ability to think about the ways one thinks (Weinert & Kluwe, 1987). This is a natural corollary of the exercise of role distance, the shifting between the role of the part being played and the role of the actor in conference with the director about how that part should be played. The resulting "choosing self" is a psychological complex which represents a degree of mental flexibility that is a step beyond the ordinary rational level of consciousness because it deals with the realistic capacity to shift among a number of different frames of reference. It may even be that this type of mental flexibility represents the next step in the evolution of consciousness.


Anderson, W.T. (1990). Reality isn't what it used to be. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Blatner, A. (2000). Foundations of psychodrama: History, theory & practice. (4th ed.) New York: Springer.

Blatner, A. & Blatner, A. (1997). The art of play: Helping adults reclaim imagination & spontaneity. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel-Taylor & Francis.

Blatner, A. (1991). Role dynamics: An integrative psychology. Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama & Sociometry, 44(1), 33-40.

Blatner, A. (1992). Mental hookworm: Mental hygiene and modern business. Kentucky Hospitals, 9(1), 18-21.

Blatner, A. (1994). Foreward. In, R. Emunah, Acting for real: Drama therapy process and technique. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Kottler, J.A. (1994). Advanced group leadership. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Lifton, R.J. (1993). The protean self. New York: BasicBooks

Postman, N. (1990). The re-enchantment of learning. Youth Theatre Journal, 5(2), 3-6.

Way, B. (1967). Development through drama. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Weinert, F.E. & Kluwe, R.H. (Eds.) (1987). Metacognition, motivation and understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

See Also References on Emotional Intelligence on this Website.)

For responses, email me at adam@blatner.com

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