J. L. MORENO AS A PIONEER OF APPLIED IMPROVISATION
Supplement to a presentation given on September 22, 2012, at the
International Conference of the Applied Improvisation Network in
Adam Blatner, M.D.
Abstract in the Program
"Applied Improv" has a number of roots but less well known is the
work of J.L. Moreno, who organized The Theater of Spontaneity in
Vienna around 1921. He later went on to develop psychodrama, which
should not be thought of only as a type of therapy, but also has
applications in business and education, etc. Not to give credit so
much as to open those attending to a whole rich bag of tricks,
psychodramatic techniques offer many angles for promoting
experiential modes of learning and active ways of exploring a wide
range of challenges. This talk and also introduction to ways of
learning role taking will make this presentation enjoyable and
While many of you know Keith Johnstone and/or Viola Spolin as
major innovators in this nascent field, there are others who are
less well-known, but whose work offers hints to how you might
broaden your range of work, add to your repertoire of techniques,
and deepen your sales pitch. There are pioneers in drama in
education, the use of role playing in business, bibliodrama— which
explores the deeper potentials for understanding in literature or
religious texts, and so forth. I want to tell you about Dr. Jacob
L. Moreno, a psychiatrist who also had an avocational interest in
drama and the philosophy of creativity. He founded one of the
first improv groups! He called it "The
Theater of Spontaneity," and it was part of the arts
activities in post-WWI arts scene in Vienna. Later on, after
emigrating to New York City area, Moreno also continued his
experiments and published a journal titled Impromptu
for a couple of years in the early 1930s. Later he did some
pioneering work that he called "sociometry," a form of applied
social psychology. However, Moreno is best known as the man who
invented the therapeutic role-playing method called psychodrama.
There are many papers on this process on this
website! My goal in telling you about Moreno is only slightly to
give him credit where credit is do; mainly, I want to tell you
that there are a goodly number of techniques and ideas that you
can modify and use in your daily work!
There is a rich theoretical foundation, for those of you who want
to be able to present what you're doing with more intellectual
justification. There are links to philosophy, sociology, and many
other fields. More, there are principles and techniques that are
primarily practical. Here are a few of them:
People like this idea: It's in keeping with where culture is
going. It stands in contrast to where we’ve been, which is a world
most of the people you will be consulting with are habituated to—a
world of "right answers." Creativity invites innovation.
Related to this is Moreno's recognition that only rarely does a
creator sit down and plot out anything closed to a workable
finished blueprint or product. More often what is needed is a
process of trial and error. There are two parts here: First,
improvisation, the trial part. Second, the attitude that attends
improvisation, which Moreno called "spontaneity." The thing about
spontaneity or the ability to tap into creativity or innovative
thinking is that it cannot be forced! It's not a matter of will,
and, indeed, if there are elements in the system that seem
pressured, hurried, threatening, and intolerant of mistakes, this
activates the deep nervous system structures that lead to a
fight-flight response. While you can make yourself memorize or
"tote dat barge, lift dat bale" in a state of anxiety, you can't
access creativity. the emotional arousal inhibits the inflow of
Another related principle is the privilege of taking it over,
trying it again, repeating the experiment. Too many people have
been negatively conditioned by school exams to expect of
themselves the one big opportunity to perform, based on study.
While this does happen in the world, far more often situations are
open to your exploring variations, in which case the skills needed
Persistence in turn requires a mixture of morale, courage, group
support, and subtle emotions that grownups are supposed to have
grown beyond such as the "vulnerable" need for encouragement, and
validation. A funny thing about creativity is that many people
focus on the "breakthrough" and tend to overlook the willingness,
the character, that allows for revision and refinement, all of
which is needed in many cases in order to generate a workable
solution. Most "creators" don’t get it "right" to begin with; and,
indeed, much that is creative turns out to be not that good! The
point is not to focus on the result, but to use the result to go
back and revise, revise again, try again, back to the drawing
board, the persistence it the key, not the focus on the polished
product. Folks are seduced and get a really misleading
understanding about creativity, a subtle impression that only
incredibly talented people do it. But the subversive point is that
we can all do it and then use the way we set up the context so
that we can fix it better and better, and better. It’s a process
not a product. Moreno uses the word spontaneity to describe this
can-do spirit. It’s not always going to come up the right idea.
But it will be lively and you can work with it, versus being dead
and nothing comes. Improvisation is the acted form, what you do;
spontaneity is the spirit of trying again.
How then to create a context where people feel safe to explore, to
experiment, to try something out repeatedly? It's a laboratory,
only not with what most folks think of a "scientific equipment."
The tools here are a special area for simulated enactment---the
equivalent of a "stage,"---, as well as an area for re-considering
strategy---"off stage." Another tool is a spirit of a kind of
gentle playfulness, of realizing that effective exploration must
be provisional, tentative, open to being mistaken. Every result is
feedback, but you can't get hung up on making a mistake being a
big deal. So a bit of not frivolousness but light-heartedness
serves as a lubrication for the process.
Moreno differed from the growing dominance of psychoanalysis in a
number of ways. Obvious is the idea of insight through action
rather than through lying on the couch. Another difference is that
Moreno always viewed people more from a social psychological
perspective, the individual as embedded in a network of roles,
preferences, contexts. Most contemporary therapists now reflect
attitudes that Moreno affirmed (but few remember Moreno's work in
We're teams, and instead of having the main investigator do all
the work himself, there was also the function of the director, who
sought to bring the "protagonist" or main player into more
consciousness, competence, or insight. Moreno also used others in
the group as "auxiliaries,"---I think the term "supporting player"
is more accessible. The point is that when responsibility for
creating a scene is distributed, the main player feels less
pressure and is thus liberated to open to more spontaneity and
creativity. Indeed, many of the techniques to be described serve
this goal: How can we think more freely about this situation?
Here I will get real brief just to note that there are many,
techniques that approach a situation from various angles. Moreno
made use of the innate potential of the imagination that is
implicit in drama, the great "what if." Improv is really
"improvisational drama," of course. So we can create scenes that
not only happen, but also scenes that never happened and perhaps
never could happen. This category of enacted imagination Moreno
called "surplus reality." It's an evocative term. How can you tell
the psychological truth of your experience when it was in some
ways more intense in certain ways than how others might see it, or
more muted. So various approaches are used to highlight these
subjective experiences. Going into details here opens the
discussion to not only the wider field of psychodrama or
sociodrama, but also the process of learning by doing.
The Significance of Applied Improv
Moreno always new that psychodrama as a method was more than a
form of psychotherapy---which is how most dictionary definitions
have it. It's a way to learn and explore and deepen, you do it by
doing it in a fail-safe context. The laboratory gain. The flight
simulator for astronauts. Some things you have to have places to
practice so that if you don't get it right it's okay---you're just
As practitioners of Applied Improv, you’re teaching people not
just to think more flexibly, but also to weave in the activity of
encouragement, and that makes teamwork click, generates
collaboration, lifts morale. We shouldn’t take this for granted
because most people are products of a school system that
emphasized competition not collaboration. We might work together,
but we might equally compete while doing so—the Dilbert cartoons
are funny and a bit dark and nasty because they have that tone.
People don’t really like each other, and they don’t feel liked,
and that, alas, is the plight of many of your customers. So
weaving in the seeds of positive psychology, of caring, of
peacemaking, of spirituality in a way—that’s what you’re doing.
You’re also gently introducing the ethos of play, and play is
about exploration—that’s part of it— but equally it’s about
safety. Exploration and safety. Can you try something and if it
goes blooey can you shrug and smile and try again or is that your
final exam, does that go on your permanent record young man, is it
a moment for humiliation?
You’re introducing cybernetics, which is a big word for this
process. You take a guess and shoot. Wherever it lands is not a
mark of your competence, it’s just feedback: Over to the right
more. Shoot again. Still off but this time too far up and to the
left. Try again and again, and each time your error is a bit less
until bang. That’s how the rocket ship got to the moon. Feedback,
adjustment, recalibration, try, feedback reiteration. It’s also
what kids do in play.
This is revolutionary stuff. Now let’s turn to drama. Drama is a
laboratory for people stuff. A chemical laboratory or a cyclotron
or something like that is a laboratory for stuff stuff. But people
stuff is far more complex. So drama allows for a multi-modal
simulation. Try it out, adjust, try it a different way, get
feedback, suggestions, build on the suggestions, stay encouraged.
Moreno was a physician who was a fiery, independent thinker, a bit
of a mystic, and he liked the theatre and hated it. Something was
great about it and something sucked. He decided it was the script.
Let ‘em improvise. He started a theatre of Spontaneity. Peter
Lorre was in that troupe. Do you remember him from
Casablanca? Anyway, it went for a couple of years. Moreno
also designed a theatre in the round. But Europe was chaotic so he
left for America and continued his experiments.
Moreno did a lot of stuff, was into social psychology and social
network analysis before there was such a stuff— a true
genius. If he was so great how come we don’t know more about
him? Well, like Mozart and Beethoven, he was, shall we say, a
difficult man. So his faults probably got in the way of his
becoming more widely recognized as a genius. Also, he was
suggesting an alternative to psychoanalysis when psychoanalysis
was on the rise, the big thing. Lots of reasons.
But the point I want to make for you is that he was after
what you are after—more creativity. Now fifty or seventy years
later the world is ready for creativity, more. But a lot of the
world isn’t. A lot of people think there are right answers and if
you know the right answers you know something important and that
should count, now shouldn’t it? But it doesn’t because 80% of the
right answers are either irrelevant or not right anymore. So
innovation and creativity and open-ended thinking is in. But it’s
risky. Maybe you’ll do it wrong.
Back to what I was saying before, mix improv with a good warm-up
and that with building the group morale of we’re all in this
together. We didn’t have enough of this when we were kids. You
can’t do bullying if we’re all in this together.
Okay, now we’ll go to a bunch of other stuff Moreno was into. The
man had insights galore, a really grand vision. Part of my life’s
work has been to make sense of it because he’s not easy to read in
his own writings.
First of all, he was into creativity way back in 1908 or
thereabouts because at the time the philosophy of Henri Bergson
was popular throughout Europe, and Bergson was into creativity,
that spirit, elan vital, vital essence. But he didn’t say how to
do it, just that it was great. This resonated with Moreno who was
a bit grandiose and he got creativity the way Mozart got music.
Obviously, do it, just do it! Not so fast... the rest grew
over 30 or more years...
Second of all, he noticed the play of kids in the part and picked
up on its imaginativeness. He never got over being a big kid
himself, and that’s true for me, too, and maybe many of you.
Anyway, he did creative drama in the parks of Vienna and noticed
that when the kids didn’t follow the story, added their own
improvisations, they giggled and got into it. More vitality. Whoa,
there’s something there! It’s not just playing the story right.
It’s varying it, it’s doing it wrong, it’s being a bit naughty.
Third, he started his own religion—he and a few other guys. Just
encounter, just meet, you’re holy, I’m holy, our meeting is holy.
This is weird California woo woo 21st century spiritual
adventuring a century ago. But the point is that there’s power in
truly being present and witnessing your presence.
But that way was unstable so he went to medical school. And he
served the community, and he noticed that the prostitutes in
Vienna were oppressed and ripped off by the police and their pimps
and he suggested to them what we’d call today a self-help group. I
mean, get together and trade stories of what helps, what works.
And it did work a bit. That was one of the roots of not just group
therapy, but the emerging idea that collaboration, group thinking,
sometimes works better than individuals. This is a recent trend
lately—not just enforced from on high, but allowing groups to
connect informally. More about that in a moment.
Next step was Moreno late in medical school and the first world
war is raging and there are refugees in camps outside of vienna
and med students get assigned to help and Moreno noticed that
people were bummed out. Now being a refugee is a bummer for
starters but when authorities assign you to cabins irrespective of
your preferences to stay with folks from your town, that’s a bit
of gummint craziness. So Moreno suggested that refugees could pick
whom they wanted to stay with in their cabins.
Revolutionary! I think he succeeded in some cabins, but the
point is that Moreno started noticing that in so many
administrative-run settings, like schools, teams are composed not
of who you want to be with but who is next to you in size or name
or some other arbitrary criterion.
Hey, why not let people work with those they feel most rapport
with? Duh! It still doesn’t happen far more often than it does.
Because you have to ask people their preference, and the idea of
people having preferences still is only infiltrating the culture.
(That’s part of what male chauvinism is about but ask me about
More about choosing people to work with based on preference rather
than some higher-up’s decision later. Now let’s note another
development. Vienna was a hotbed of creativity in 1918. Sure,
Austria was on the bad-guys list in that historical area but they
didn’t see it that way. For fifty years and more it was a center
of culture, music, theatre, philosophy, medicine, whatever. It was
the San Francisco on the 2nd decade of the 20th century.
Moreno started a literary magazine and got to know some of the
intellectual lights of the era, and they wrote articles. Martin
Buber picked up Moreno’s theories of encounter and then became
famous and wrote about I and thou. But that’s another story.
Moreno started a private practice in the suburbs and came into
town to start that aforementioned improv theatre troupe and had
adventures with it. I won’t go into it other than to say that he
discovered some interesting things when people, when his actors
and others, improvised, and it made sense. He still wasn’t into
psychiatry per se.
He moved to the USA, found a job, learned English, continued his
experiments with improv, edited a journal called Impromptu, and
then got work consulting at a school for wayward girls in upstate
New York where he started using his ideas to help girls be
assigned to cabins based on their preferences. He wrote a book
about this. Moreno called this social network analysis sociometry
back in the 1930s and wrote a book about it before he ever got
Another thing he did there was to introduce role training— a
bit of improvised drama— how to do this job or that through
Finally he build a sanitarium, started treating patients, promoted
group therapy, and did all sorts of other things.
He also was a pioneer of role theory which I’ve found to be
a really easy user-friendly language for thinking and talking
about human situations. What roles are involved here? How can we
change that role? Or that expectation? Applied role theory
would make your work so much easier.
So there are papers about a lot of these topics on my website and
you can email me and ask me more. But let’s get on with what might
be even more useful to you—psychodramatic techniques. You can
forget the word psychodrama. Use action explorations. Techniques.
One of these concepts is the warm-up. Moreno was into this just as
Spolin was warming-up to theatre games. There’s a whole rationale
for these. Lots of folks mainly use just these and I won’t trouble
you with examples. There are books and websites and all. But
Moreno realized folks need to warm up. Psychoanalysis allowed the
silence to build tension until someone gave in and talked, but
that was inefficient to say the least. Warm-ups could be a whole
Let’s go on to role playing. The key here is not to do as some
books do, assign a situation and throw the people in to struggle
with it. People feel on the spot and awkward and pushed. So key
point: If you’re feeling vulnerable or scared or annoyed, no way
can you access your creative ideas or spontaneity. The mid-brain
shuts down into fight/flight and obscures any more subtle
vibrations of ideas or intuitions. To get to creativity you need
to feel safe, relaxed and safe, liked even. Then your mind relaxes
and you can start imagining. Big point why warm-ups work.
Another major point in role playing: the director or facilitator
or coach operates to take the heat off of the main player—in
psychodrama, the protagonist—but I think that’s jargon—main
player. It’s all a person can do to stay in and follow his or her
imagination. Let the others do their share. Take the overload off
the main player. That’s what’s hard about improv—the pressure to
come up with stuff. Most folks are not talented and are afraid to
improvise so working with that fear, let them just follow their
imagery. That’s all they can do. The director does part, and a
supporting player gets empty and plays into the main player’s
story. This emptying of the ego of the coach director and the
supporting player allows for a high degree of spontaneity for the
The point is that all these efforts are united. Improv is
spontaneity. We also spontaneously click with other people. We
feel enlivened when we can come up with something spontaneously.
Let’s dare speculate on the depth psychology involved:
You have a part of your unconscious that is three times or ten
times bigger and smarter and more whatever than you, more creative
for sure, and when you open to it—it’s there always pumping
inspirations—you feel bigger, you feel good. Yogis call it the
higher chakras, but whatever. You can tap into creativity and
energy and if you do it right it’s great fun and you feel, well,
there’s no word for it but kinda sorta bigger.
Actors love this, what you’re selling is this charge. It’s
healthy, it’s not a drug, it’s natural and it’s consciousness
Okay, let’s get into techniques, because that’s what I’m hoping
you’ll be using more.
First there are techniques that use time as a flexible variable.
You can do scenes in the past to play what happened
Or to play what you should have done, or
what you wished they had done.
You can play scenes in the future to plan and screw
up and try again. Astronauts and fighter pilots use million-dollar
flight simulators. You don’t spend a penny.
You can take it over. And take it over again.
Re-enter the now. Get grounded. Then go again.
There are techniques that shift the level of
disclosure. You know the asides in theatre—you can use them here.
What I’m aware of but he doesn’t know. Play it out.
The biggest technique that expands consciousness is
the voice over. Folks sometimes don’t know what they’re feeling or
thinking. Someone else guesses. Comes over and says it. The main
player can say yes, or no, or not quite. And they work to get the
other person on track. This is empathy building and when someone
gets on your wavelength and is saying what you’re feeling as good
or better than you do, that feels so supportive.
There are techniques that change perspective. This is
important. Lots of folks never imagine what might be driving their
opponent to be giving them a bad time. They must be just mean. But
here’s a chance to change parts and warm up to what the other
person may be feeling. First, though, what is the other person’s
predicament. Warm the main player up to be in the other’s role the
way a character would be warmed up to a difficult role. There’s a
lovely art to this that has to do with taking risks, feeling
nonverbal cues, associating.
The key to empathy is imagination, and one does it like yoga, it’s
not something that just comes in a flash, it’s a process. You warm
up slowly to what it’s like to be ... and teaching folks this
skill is the single most loving, most spiritual, most
mind-expanding thing you can do in this lifetime. We’re taught to
seek right answers but not to use our imaginations to find the
right answers through our own sensitivity, our own intuition. It’s
as difficult as learning to swim, and once you’ve got the knack,
it’s as easy as swimming.
The Power of Improvisation
First, people really become empowered in re-discovering their own
creative potential. So much of this has been outsourced to
Hollywood and other media, who whomp it up to make it more
engaging and compelling than little old you could ever do. It’s
like junk food or cocaine. But it’s phony. What you come up with,
the feeling that you made it up, is something else again, and it’s
not as dramatic a performance, but it’s yours. (I hear Ringo Starr
of the Beatles singing a verse from the song, “I Get By With a
Little Help From my Friends”: “I don’t know but I know it’s
mine.”) I’ll say more about creative potential in a moment.
Second, in this world of illusory community via social media,
there’s another flavor of having real people around you in real
physical space really interacting with real you. It’s more real.
It’s easy to forget that nowadays, but presence involves an
exchange of a thousand micro-nonverbal communications that touch
and chord your unconscious in ways that no texting or email can
Third, the joining together in a group to explore
improvisationally is a kind of authenticity that also subtly
weaves in spirituality. We mustn’t call it that or people will
think of traditional religion, but when people are opening to the
creative impulse, the sense that what is coming through is
sometimes more clever and full than anything you could consciously
create when you are not in a state of full warm-up—that’s not just
you. It is somehow both you and beyond you. It’s a high, because
it reminds you that you’re more than you. Whatever the sources of
creativity are—and in the ancient Graeco-Roman world these were
called the muses or the daimones or the genius—the spirits that
guard and literally inspire—put spirit in— you were in a sense
bigger and more real when you opened to improvisation.
You may do this on stage for fun, but it’s like juggling. Most
folks don’t know how to do this. The real applied in applied
improvisation involves showing ordinary people that they can do
this, and it’s very energizing and empowering. If you only taught
people how to tap in to their natural skill of improv—never to go
on stage, never to do it for an unknown audience—but to do it with
one’s kids and spouse and friends—that would by itself increase
the quantity of joy in the world significantly.
I’m talking about improv only as consciousness raising. In
addition, you can use these skills to be better speakers, lawyers,
sales people, managers, parents, people helpers, to function more
with what kinds of skills are more needed in the 21st century.
That’s the economic market. But you’re also teaching people how to
expand the vitality in their lives—this stuff is powerful!
Moreno got this, though not in these words. He got that creativity
was operating in a true encounter with another person. Forget the
program, who are you, what are you about, let’s get down. You
strip off your phony mask and encounter—this was a word he used in
the second decade of the last century—and it can be argued that
his work led to what came to be the encounter group movement that
happened so fully in the San Francisco Bay Area.
(In case you don’t recognize this area, it has been as fertile for
the last fifty years as the city of Florence in mid-north Italy
was 500 years earlier—this town is a center of a sort of
neo-Renaissance. You’re adding to this.)
Back to Moreno: Encounter is not only psychological, but a kind of
spiritual that doesn’t directly draw from traditional religion,
although a number of theologians like Martin Buber have woven it
into what modern spirituality should be about. (Buber got his best
idea on encounter from Moreno—look it up, google Moreno &
Buber on my website.)
More than the one-to-one in encounter—and the key thing is role
reversal, daring to imagine what the other person might be
thinking and feeling—, Moreno also expanded into recognizing that
we need a social context, a group, in a sense, to make this work.
He was a pioneer of group psychotherapy but the analysts had moved
into a position of hegemony—which is a big word that meant that
everyone thought of all group work and psychotherapy in terms of
psychoanalysis even though there were 20 or more alternative ways
to bring people forth—hegemony. America in the 1950s and 60s held
a global hegemony in the West, at least.
Group work is closer to the teamwork most of you are hired to
facilitate, not what the analysts made of it, which was really
more psychoanalysis in groups. What’s all wrong with us, no
external task, but just getting our stuff worked out—one
therapist, several patients. But in actual groups in the world,
there’s a goal, win games, sell widgets, organize programs.
Introspection is low on the list if present at all. But there is a
lot of consciousness-raising to be done in those groups and you
are nibbling away at it.
Moreno’s ideas and techniques might be of help to you, and my
presentation here is sort of like an introduction to what
appetizers can do to meals. I’m not going to be able to teach you
all about this any more than if I were teaching about appetizers I
could teach you all about cooking. I’m just opening you to a
category and hoping you’ll learn on your own, as my professor over
in Berkeley said to me 55 years ago.
Other Fields of Activity
Another topic is that there are a number of related fields of
activity that you may or may not have heard of in related fields:
- In education, there are many using improv-like methods,
pioneered by some you may not know, but what they do could inform
what you do.
- In religious studies, more in Europe, there are those
using improv and sociodrama to dig deeper beneath many bits of
scripture to access the psychological and spiritual messages, or
to discern what they find to be useful. Studying literature can
use bibliodrama too.
- In therapy there is psychodrama, but sociodrama is also
useful in related fields such as community building or inter-group
- In pure recreation, for character development and
spontaneity training, people are using theatre games and what
Moreno called “warm-ups.”
- and so forth. These methods transcend any particular
discipline and with ingenuity and effective modifications, can be
applied in new ways.
become increasingly aware of the common denominators in a
number of related approaches, including psychodrama, sociodrama,
process drama in education, Live Action Role Playing (LARP),
bibliodrama, some aspects of theatre of the oppressed, playback
theatre, and other approaches to spontaneity training and theatre
games. The applied improvisation network shares this category that
seems more process than product orients, and of course more
improvised than scripted and rehearsed. I think these approaches
can learn from one another.
I also want to encourage you in knowing that you are part of a
movement in culture, an idea whose time has come. There’s an
emphasis on creativity, an emphasis on innovation—this you know—
but I want to tell you about another root of improv you may not
know much about. It’s only a little to give credit where credit is
due—to the fellow who was the pioneer of psychodrama, Jacob L.
Moreno. Far more is this: There is a lot more where that came
from, a wealth of ideas and techniques that you can artfully weave
into your work so that it broadens your role repertoire. I feel as
if I’m introducing colors to people who use pen and ink— you still
need to be a good artist, but this can make you better. Another
metaphor I use is something that happened to your parents or
grandparents—soon after the end of the Second World War, do it
yourself came into fashion, facilitated by the emergence of
electric power tools. Psychodramatic methods are like electric
power tools. You still need to know what you’re doing, and there’s
even danger if you mishandle these tools, but if you learn to use
them right, they’ll make your job easier and faster.'ve become
aware that psychodrama and its related methods belongs within a
larger field of related endeavors that I had lumped with "applied
drama" or "applied theatre,"---but now want to give it the name,
"Action Exploration" because it is more different than similar to
either drama (as most people think of it) or theatre. This
re-naming is a re-branding of sorts, a re-thinking of the wider
applications of psychodrama, beyond the medical model, along with
process drama in education, role play and improv in business and
organizations, and other approaches. For those interested in
history, Jacob. L. Moreno, M.D. (1889-1974), who also invented the
method of psychodrama, coined another term, “sociatry,” that
envisioned the application of his methods to the wider challenges
of promoting an integration of the best insights of sociology,
psychology, and social psychology---and the best methods--- into
the mainstream of human culture.
- - -
Exploration is my term for the use of psychodramatic and
other expressive arts methods as a vehicle for moving a step
beyond the confines of ordinary discussion. Discussion is good,
better than fighting or stifling, but there is another approach
which allows for more integration of mind and body, thinking and
acting, reason and emotions, and other dualities that tend not to
be included in ordinary discussion. The use of the metaphor of
drama—life as a series of scenes played by various actors—allows
for an expansion of the quality of discussion so that non-rational
elements can be brought in. More, action explorations bring into
more explicit consciousness and the interpersonal field thoughts
and feelings that had generally remained un-disclosed.
This field doesn’t simply include that which people think but, for
discretion’s sake, prefer not to say; rather, it includes thoughts
and feelings that barely register in consciousness but then are
pushed away. This is the pre-conscious realm, and it is much
broader, deeper, richer in content than ordinary consciousness.
Perhaps more psychologically-minded, introspective, and sensitive
people are a bit more aware of these depths, but the point here is
that using action techniques, more people can become more
insightful and more holistically communicative.
The problem lies in the heritage of simplistic thinking, which
suggests that we all should believe that “what you sees is what
you gets.” We collectively have agreed (in the past) that:
- people will tell you the truth (and as a corollary, they
tell themselves the truth)
- it’s not playing fair and a matter of failure of will to
be sincere that accounts for hypocrisy.
The problem is that this has been a world-view, an assumption that
people are honest with themselves, if they want to be. But that’s
not the way it works. Just as there was profound ignorance of
human anatomy five hundred years ago, there is widespread
ignorance of human psychology even today. The culture has known
about psychoanalysis for a century, but that approach has been so
problematic—its focus on sexuality being a major stumbling-block—,
that the most basic and valid insight has been too easily
discounted: Hey, folks, people fool themselves. Yeah, they lie on
occasion, and fib more often, but almost always there are layers
of self-deception that have remained opaque to the common
consensus. It’s as if we all are co-dependently agreeing that if
you don’t point out how much I fool myself, I won’t note how
obvious it is that you are fooling yourself too.
It’s time we recognized the depth of non-rationality in our life,
and took steps to begin to counter this power, at least in part.
(It may be impossible to go far in this direction, but even if we
reduce the power of irrationality by 20% that would still be a
huge expansion of our authenticity!)
Action exploration fosters this increased capacity for self
awareness, and these techniques also foster an increased ability
to communicate to others the sheer range of our mixed feelings.
First, we need to develop some gradually increased trust that we
can do this with certain groups of people. At present (in the
early 21st century), let’s recognize frankly that we cannot do
this kind open communication with the majority of people. They
just wouldn’t get it.
You sort of need to know the game that’s being played: In action
explorations, there is a conscious agreement to explore the
pre-conscious realm, the parts of the mind that protest, whine,
fume, cringe, and behave in a less mature, more childish fashion.
It turns out that half of what these parts say are transparently
immature and unrealistic; but the other half often contain
important information that needs to be woven back into the
discourse, concerns, valid feelings, acknowledgment of
limitations, areas of true misunderstanding, etc. This realm
constitutes the proverbial baby that should not be thrown out with
the bathwater, the potential for redemption of disowned parts of
oneself, the need for a more nuanced type of discernment.
An Era of Repression
Let’s recognize more vividly that we are beginning—only
beginning—to emerge from a culture in which distasteful elements,
rebellious or questioning elements, uncomfortable thoughts and
feelings were generally stifled, buried. Most folks forgot that
they even harbored such feelings. They went along. The mind can do
this and feel little or no great stress. When the consequences of
non-thinking pile up, sometimes this becomes neurosis, oppression,
or experiences of crashing, hitting bottom, and awakening.
In this light, much of psychotherapy wasn’t dealing with mental
illness as we’ve come to recognize its nature—that is, the major
mental illnesses of manic-depressive or schizophrenic disorder—but
rather the pervasive patterns of self-deception and the
consequences of this activity. That is to say, in the long run,
much self-deception leads to maladaptive behavior, actions that
compound the stress on the individual or others who are in
relation to the individual. (Sometimes it is the others—family
members, minorities, others who suffer!)
I think we are moving into an era of psychological-mindedness in a
way that is analogous to the way a century ago we moved into an
era of science-mindedness. Popular books on science and bringing
science into the mainstream of education have all happened
increasingly since the early 20th century. Psychology has followed
70 - 120 years later. (It’s a blurry cultural current.) Although
there are numerous books and programs of self-help, my impression
is that the essential realities of psychology have only penetrated
about 15% into the mainstream—not 50% or more. So it’s still a bit
weird and magical in the minds of many. “Don’t mess with my mind”
is felt if not said openly to anyone who seeks to explore the
nature of a conflict at a deeper level.
Psychoanalysis: A Mixed Bag
The entrance of psychological-mindedness—just being truly curious
about the way we think—into the mainstream has been both boosted
and delayed by the fashion of psychoanalysis in the mid-20th
century. It dominated the field and most people still think of any
inquiry into what’s going on under the surface as a kind of
“analysis.” Cartoons about the bearded shrink sitting behind the
odd patient on the couch still are the primary representation of
The positive spin-off is that psychoanalysis promoted some
systematic analysis of the ways people fool themselves. Theories
about repression and the defense mechanisms have been especially
useful, and some other theories, also. The negative spin-off is
that most of the major theories over-emphasized issues that were
in fact peripheral to most people’s actual problems, and the
conceit of the field blocked the fullest incorporation of many
developments that extended from or emerged parallel to it—themes
such as cognitive psychology, seeking to find a more user-friendly
language, positive psychology, transpersonal psychology, and so
forth. In Europe and South America there has been a bit more
expansion into the integration of action methods, group methods,
psychodrama, and so forth, but the conservative elements have held
back the overall development.
Another mis-step of psychoanalysis has been the medicalization of
the method and the effort to address and explain the major mental
illnesses—and to treat them. This is complicated by the fact that
people with major mental illnesses almost always have some
psycho-social aspects operating in their condition—but then again,
this is true of patients with major physical illness, trauma,
strokes, heart disease, and other conditions. Often what’s needed
includes physical therapy, occupational counseling, pastoral
counseling, vocational rehabilitation and other approaches. The
family and other community members need to be included in some
sessions. The point here is that psychoanalysis and other forms of
psychotherapy may not be any more the key elements in the
treatment of the major forms of mental illness than these other
On the other hand, what is included in the official APA diagnostic
manual as minor disorders are so widespread as to suggest that
perhaps they should not be viewed as medical problems at all.
Treatment for these is, if you think about it, more a matter of
education, learning ways to more realistically manage oneself in a
changing world. Perhaps an educational model fits better! And of
course this is supported by the fact that most psychotherapists
since the mid-1970s are no longer medical practitioners,
The point to be made here, though, is that while psychoanalysis
rose in part on the coat-tails of the advance in status, income,
and actual progress of medicine in the mid-20th century, and in
turn this protected the emergence of psychotherapy as a field in
the later parts of that era, the intrinsic weaknesses, jargon, and
stereotypes of the Freudian method may well have also inhibited
the acceptance into the mainstream of the basic idea that we now
have many fields developing that illuminate the processes not only
of self-deception, but also social and cultural patterns of
deception, interpersonal manipulation, pathogenic family dynamics,
misleading advertising, political propaganda, and (dare I say)
even many religious doctrines—all of which deserve to be
illuminated by individual and collective consciousness-raising.
An Inter-Disciplinary Endeavor
This approach is a bit radical in many ways. It partakes a bit of
- postmodernist philosophy (while also challenging many who
consciously ally with that approach)
- current re-thinking of general philosophies of technology,
science, and progress
- the history of communications and a projection into the
future of further trends
- current and future trends in psychology and its opening to
and fusing with social psychology, sociology, anthropology, and
- and so forth.
Action exploration recognizes the profound and extensive influence
of the non-rational, and it works with these currents rather than
discounting them. It continues a few Freudian ideas, such as the
overall benefit of helping that which is unconscious move towards
consciousness. It also weaves in a recognition of the artistic,
aesthetic, poetic, mythic, and other dimensions that are not
irrational so much as trans-rational. They are not supposed to be
reduced to language or rationality. These elements should be
subject to the test of being at least compatible with notions of
rationality and ethics, but other than that, many things—such as
finding our children cute—cannot and should not be expected to be
fully explained in rational terms.
Rather than dominating our non-rational elements of our own minds,
action exploration seeks to negotiate with them, integrate them,
find creative syntheses that direct their energies—i.e.,
sublimation. This approach is by no means a surrender to the
non-rational. Rather, it is a respect for the depth of the mind,
its non-rational elements, and it expresses a willingness to
creatively work with those elements in the direction of personal
and collective integration and harmony.
This is a term that some psychologists use to describe thinking
about the way we think. Others call it psychological-mindedness. I
might dare even call it higher consciousness. It integrates the
philosophy of science by asking, “But is it so?” I learned the
term “reality-testing” during my training, when it was noted to be
an activity that differentiated non-psychotics from psychotics.
Later I realized that this activity, as applied to psychosis, only
referred to the most flagrant and maladaptive forms; in fact, most
people don’t “test reality” much of the time, if we include a
wider range of common illusions, logical fallacies, uncritical
acceptance of authority, etc.
So part of action exploration is the bringing to the wealth of
complexes that are opened in this process some discipline and
constraint of critical thinking. And yet even this modality can be
overdone! There are some domains in which critical thinking
interferes with inspiration, surrealistic ideation, modern art,
music, drama, thinking outside the box. It’s important to learn to
recognize when and how to loosen up, become open to dreams,
symbols, poetic ideation, spiritual insight (e.g., love your
enemies), etc. Play, fantasy, humor, imaginativeness, and the like
also have functions in holistic integration, and knowing how to
keep these sources of vitality operating in the system is also
part of higher consciousness.
Lest I not be understood, I am indeed promoting both an upgrade of
the skills inherent in critical thinking, and of the skills
inherent in divergent and creative thinking, imagination,
intuition, as well as when to use which set of skills. Nor is
there a broad consensus as to what the boundaries should be,
especially in arenas of ethics, philosophy, religion, social
customs, courtesy, and so forth. However, we are only just
emerging from an era in which even the asking of such questions
was itself taboo. Common sense (of the majority of those in that
country and era) ruled.
Advances in travel technology have brought together increasing
numbers of people from diverse cultures, which in turn generates
cross-cultural friction. This also operates among sub-cultures and
regions, classes and political parties within a country. It’s time
also to shift from the ethos of confrontation, aggression, and
win/lose thinking to peacemaking, working out differences. This
cannot be attained without a critical mass of people learning
something like action exploration.
The application of methods such as psychodrama and
creativity-oriented group work was envisioned by J. L. Moreno back
in the late 1930s, at which time he used the term, “sociatry.” The
suffix “-iatry” carried the idea of healing, beyond the strict
medical model. Moreno knew these approaches went far beyond the
context of helping those in the sick role. It was a period when
whole nations and races were treating others in ways that would
later be described as “inhuman,” and the oppressors hardly thought
of themselves as sick. They thought they were righteous!
Out of these attitudes came yet another world war and several more
localized conflicts, yet ones involving untold levels of
suffering. Even today, “warrior thinking” dominates, and “love
your enemies” is for many an empty platitude, mouthed in church
but nowhere else.
How then to get to peacemaking? Sociatry, sociodrama, action
explorations, helping people not only to address conflicts, but
more, helping them to become familiar with and adept at using the
techniques and principles in their everyday lives, with their
family, in their communities, and as a growing ethos in
My hope in this endeavor is to bring together a variety of fields:
- Drama in education, and all efforts that use simulations,
sociodrama, role playing, and the like
- Improvisation in business and related efforts of coaching, etc.
- Theatre Sports and other approaches that involve spontaneity
- Drama Therapy and related endeavors, especially as their methods
extend beyond treatment of those with diagnose-able psychiatric
disorders. (I heartily respect this psychotherapeutic application,
but I want to emphasize all the applications beyond the medical
- Psychodrama and related methods, especially beyond therapy
- Bibliodrama and the use of action explorations in spiritual
- Various other forms of applied theatre
....plus the use of action techniques by other people-helping
professionals, teachers of parenting skills, and so forth.
I envision a journal—nowadays, probably an e-journal—not aimed at
anything scholarly, but rather simply as a support for the
aforementioned efforts. Articles in this journal would share in
readable and use-able form what has worked, how it has been
presented, what doesn’t work and why, relevant books that have
been helpful (and why), and so forth.
In closing, I invite correspondence, sending me ideas, anecdotes,
suggestions to adam (at) blatner.com If I
find your comments publish-able, or perhaps with a little editing,
with your consent I’ll add them to this webpage or create a