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Adam Blatner, M.D., TEP

June 21, 2011 (This webpage being revised) (See other references on www.interactiveimprov.com/  website, elsewhere on this website.)


The kinds of media we use shape the ways we think and interact. Marshall McLuhan's work in the late 1960s and others exploring the impact of media have commented on this phenomenon. When "oral" cultures became "literate,"---i.e., they began to know about reading and writing---it changed the nature of culture, and it might be fair to say that this was a key in the emergence of "civilization," or the juncture between the pre-historic and historic eras around 5,000 years ago. After that, major steps in the evolution of media have included the invention of the alphabet, improved modes of travel (and therefore a more reliable system for carrying letters), books, newspapers, pamphlets, journals, the microphone, the telegraph, telephone, television, recording devices, etc. Now discourse---which is a general category for what goes on involving all modes of communication---is at a point of potentially becoming more complex, the better to catch up with the requirements of the post-modern era. I am proposing that sociodramatic role-play become recognized and used as a major communications form, one that can include more people in an active fashion.

Several points fit in with this. For several centuries communications have been mainly top-down, from those with more designated authority to those with less. But as systems become more complex, we need more feedback to correct errors; and we need more buy-in, more of a sense of active participation, instead of passive acceptance. Sociodramatic role-playing offers more promise in this regard than discussion groups, debates, and certainly through lectures (even with question-and-answer) or books.

Several factors further fit in---new trends and understandings.
   -- the more systems become complex, the more we recognize the need for intrinsic feedback systems, cybernetics, to fine-tune movements.
   -- the more human systems become complex, the more it is necessary to enable feedback from those who more often feel disempowered and keep silent, those with less status. But we've discovered that those who are oppressed end up passive-aggressively sabotaging the optimal development of the system.
   -- the growth of psychology as a technology, not just for the treatment of mental illness, but also for business, education, religion, clubs, local politics, and in all endeavors that involve people collaborating in a common enterprise
To restate, communication models that emphasize communications from higher ranking to lower ranking people in a system worked better than having no organization, but they also are more vulnerable to problems as systems become more complex. In the last half-century, increasingly, more interactive models have arisen: Seminars have become more open-ended. Dialogue is more open to the introduction of material not planned for by the leader of the discussion. As people become increasingly aware of an increasing number of frames of reference that may be applicable in life, the nature of discourse has become recognized as deserving of a more complex methodology to address a correspondingly greater complexity of what is being considered. Complexity here refers to the potential range of frames of reference, points of view, perspectives, degrees of interest and relevance, and degrees of definitiveness versus tentativeness.

Many situations in life—perhaps most—in fact are more tentative, exploratory, and elusive of fixed answers or assumptions about definite right and wrong ways of thinking about or dealing with the problem. Marriage, sex, parenting, home-making, and, increasingly, introducing innovations and flexibility into the workplace—all highlight the pervasiveness not of “right answers” so much as explorations, negotiations, provisional agreements, and an ongoing process of revision and creativity.

A second element in this cultural evolution has been the disruptive technology of the internet and the web-search-engine (e.g. Google), which makes information immediately available and for the most part, free. Fifty years ago quiz shows rewarded generously people who remembered information, even trivia. It’s just not needed anymore. The situation has shifted.

It’s a bit like the joke in which some guy manages to die but “takes it with him” and brings a suitcase loaded with gold to heaven. St. Peter examines him and his suitcase and opens the Pearly Gates, calling out: “Here’s another fool with a suitcase full of street-paving!”  (Remember, the theme is that in Heaven the streets are paved with gold.) Har har.  So information, once rare and hard to acquire, is now freely available.

What then becomes the precious commodity? What to do with the information! But this is where drama-play comes in, because information processing involves the recognition of which criteria or frame of reference is relevant—and often there may be several, as well as disagreements over which criteria are more relevant!
That’s where drama-play comes in. The problem is that drama has been distilled out from the drama-play of childhood, packaged for purposes not of exploratory play and experience, but for performance as a fixed piece for a passive audience. This is analogous to trying to package singing in the shower as opera, or jumping around for fun as formal theatrical dance. The shift in goal—performance of a fixed piece, from which the dynamism and awkwardness of improvisation has been distilled away, both polishes it, makes it more of a commodity, but at the same time stifles its vitality and immediacy. This is what Moreno objected to.

This paper considers drama-play as a medium for communications and exploration—not just for therapy—that’s only one application, and by far not the main one—but as a mode for many sectors of our culture—family life, business, local politics, clubs, religion, education at all levels, social action, recreation, etc.

To appreciate the second part of this paper (you may glance ahead—pages allow for that), remember again the cultural field from which we are evolving, the medium of one-way information presentation. (I confess that it’s ironic that this is precisely the medium being used here, but it is appropriate as one of—but by no means the only—vehicles for introducing new ideas.)

Historical Background

Writing books and giving lectures have been a major form of communication for a few centuries, especially regarding material that is supposed to be non-trivial, important, weighty, or complex. Ordinary oral communications are given less weight.

In the intermediate phase of the 20th century, people were able to engage with movie stars and sports stars symbolically and with more vividness in their own lives—what Rifkin called “para-drama” (?). However, vicarious involvement, through fan magazines, following twitter accounts, on television, spectator sports, etc. doesn’t generate authentic involvement. There is neither true encounter with the other or full bodily involvement—what Moreno called satisfaction of “act hunger.” What is being proposed here is a sublimation of childhood’s pretend play, refined and adapted for a more exploratory and participatory process of exploring situations—i.e., “drama-play.” (Perhaps it might equally well be called “play-drama.”)

Drama-play catches up with the post-modern condition: Faster interactions are possible— emphasis on the “inter-.” In the olden days, much communication was mainly one-way, A “telling” B. If A asked B a questions, B was supposed to give and “answer.” This was not supposed to be provisional, something that would be approximated gradually in the process of negotiation, but rather definitive. Perhaps you can see where I’m going: Much of actual interpersonal communication is and needs to be more interactive, and the interactivity needs to happen at several levels simultaneously and in “real time.” (It shouldn’t be much slower than real time, because too many questions go unanswered in the interval, such as “Did I annoy him with this question or statement?” Nor should it be faster than real time lest either party feel overwhelmed: “Oh, too much information coming at me too fast; I can’t keep up.”)

In the post-modern world, though, whatever A might tell B becomes problematic. First, A may be mistaken, or at least limited. There may be more to what is involved than A can express. Second, in terms of straight information-exchange, robots (in the form of computers and web-search engines like Google) can often do the job quicker and better in several ways. Getting what is needed and not having to wade through the whole package is made available by being able to quickly scan rather than having to listen in real time.)

Second, much of what needs to happen in the world is not packaged and clear. Rather, it involves negotiations, compromises, dialectic with creative new syntheses. Straight information or the whole idea of “right answers” becomes secondary if not irrelevant. The shift occurs from simply informing to co-creating.

Creativity is a profoundly subversive theme—at least in subverting the implicit structures of traditional authority. To the extent that authority (e.g., teachers, professors) identify their source of status with what they know, to that degree this is threatened by the accelerating flood of new information, broadening of horizons, shift of focus and relevance, disruptive technologies, and so forth. If authority has shifted so that it doesn’t identify with mere information, but rather with the skills of creative improvisation, exploration, critical thinking, and the like, then the creativity of the students supports the authority’s status rather than undermines it. “Right” answers are no longer the goal, but rather the sense of dynamism in the further exploration.


I’m not sure yet if we should call this play-drama, drama-play, explorations through drama, or what. The point to be made here, though, is that the process applies in many contexts: in personal and family relationships, parenting, small groups planning an event, playing a game, in larger groups seeking a goal, in religion, education, business, management, team-building, personal development, recreation, therapy, and so forth.

It’s play insofar as it’s an exploration, provisional, tentative, not merely a refined enactment. It’s also play because there’s a strong component of parallel reassurance that the social bond is being maintained—I like my playmates and forgive their not doing everything perfectly, and they in turn reassure me that they like and forgive me. This makes for greater safety which supports the emotional foundations for creativity in the exploration.

It’s drama insofar as the vehicle of exploration is simulation, enactment, rather than planning, drawing charts or diagrams, thinking about, or merely talking about how a situation might be handled. Also, the language of drama is useful:
   Scene implies that it is not the final, absolute description, but a temporary construct, the better to examine. It also suggests action rather than mere description.
   Role implies not a final, absolute description, but something that can be modified, re-defined.
   Many of the activities that open up aspects of the scene are dramatic-like: Role reversal, soliloquy (talking to an imagined audience about the level of thoughts that wouldn’t ordinarily be expressed out loud or admitted in conventionally social settings), doubling (voice-over, again a deeper level of thoughts or feelings), exaggeration (to carry the depth of feeling), and so forth.

Let’s acknowledge that this whole essay is a wordy description of what kids do naturally, multi-dimensionally, in the course of their make-believe play. It’s not play with fixed rules or roles—let’s call that “game” play. This is more imaginative or even fantasy role play. But it’s natural and easy. The point to be made is that older teens and grown-ups can capture and refine this natural modality for interpersonal exploration of possibilities, using it to address a wider range of problems:
   - negotiating  - trying out alternatives  - clarifying different points of view, etc.

Drama is a useful vehicle because it offers several elements:
  – the parties can play the roles and feel themselves in role, enjoy or empathize more fully with the roles, the interaction
  – one can play multiple sub-roles in a fluid manner:
       – in role, just learning the role, it is understood that this is just warming-up
       – backing off, actor not fully in role, open for re-thinking how the role is to be played
      – backed off further, actor not in role, willing to get feedback about role
      – out of role, as co-playwright or co-director, wondering how else the role might be
                - thought about, re-formulated
                - portrayed, with more or less of this or that quality, intensity
      – out of role as audience / critic: how did that performance work?
                - only partially, was it impressive aesthetically; did it communicate to an outside
         audience, real, partial (in the sense of being in an interactive group who want to
         empathize) or imagined audience, the depth of the predicament, the poignancy of
        emotions involved? (This is a large point of ordinary theatre.)
     – the producer: Is this the right place and time, and do we have a stage area, are there
    compassionate others around?. Does anyone need to use the toilet before proceeding with
    the exploration?

Drama as theatre tends to distort the exploratory and immediate process through script and rehearsal. The focus then becomes the impact of a performance on the audience. This is for the most part NOT the priority of drama-play.

Then dramaplay explores several facets:
    - what does it feel like to be in this role
    - what does it look like to others to see me (or anyone) play this role
    - how else can this role be played
        - what would be a worse way, better way, funnier way?
    - if better, may I try out a better way a few times until I get the hang of it?
     - how can I get feedback as to how else I could make it better
    - what’s it like for the others involved in the scene
    - etc.

To note again, play-drama operates relatively effortlessly as a complex, and trying to spell it out, subject it to words, is a bit like trying to capture a breathtaking scene in words—or trying to describe all the elements to someone who’s blind. Words often cannot do justice to the whole process. On the other hand, this present exercise is useful in analyzing the components, breaking down the whole into parts that can be identified, named. There may yet be other elements I’ve missed, but the following may be present in play-drama or an exploration of a given situation:

Sometimes A has a complete thought, knows what it is, and seeks to communicate it to B. Perhaps, indeed, A wants B not only to understand the thought, but to appreciate certain aesthetic or moral elements—not just what it is, but also that it is important, beautiful, elegant, funny, impressive, tragic, intimidating, or the opposite of these qualities.

Sometimes A wants to impose not only the thought, but an agenda or overall purpose on the situation happening at the time.

Sometimes A is willing to let B do those things and to go along with B’s leadership.

A may be disoriented and be seeking information and help in becoming more oriented.

B may respond to A with critical questioning or enthusiastic approval or some mixture.

A may enjoy or be annoyed or threatened by B’s response. If enjoyed, A may repeat or elaborate.
The aforementioned can occur in more familiar settings, in lectures, performances, even in newspapers or  journals with letters to the editor.
More in real time, though, drama-play allows for any of the following (often with several elements combined):
- checking out whether others are ready
- throwing out a general idea
- assessing the level of interest from others
- allowing ourselves to be guided by readiness, interest, or contrary desires of others
- allowing our performance to be guided by feedback
- taking opportunities to re-emphasie a point, an aspect you favor, or one you feel is being neglected
- figuratively “dancing” the dialectic (not a bad name for a dance!): thesis, antithesis, synthesis: put out an idea, hear its problems, accommodate the idea to include a satisfactory response to those problems. Repeat.
- exploring responses: e.g.: “what about...; tell me more...;  yes, and...; no, but...; yes, but...;
- showing openness and even concern for feelings of others present
- demonstrating desire to give support, reassurance, comfort, and encouragement to others
- checking to see of others feel the same, involved at the same level of play-drama and social congeniality
(this cross-exchange of indications of positive intention, esteem for the other, and care for the maintenance of an optimal tone in the relationship, is the key, most important element in play-drama. In psychotherapy it’s called the mantenance of a “therapeutic alliance.”)
- ample opportunities to take it over, try again, replay the scene
- giving others equal “room”—in terms of physical space, permission for action, or time
- being willing to modify plans, thoughts, assumptions, phrases, in light of others’ feedback, questions, protests
- going further with agreement or encouragement, taking it farther out, playing the role more deeply
- expecting others to be playing along in their roles
- indicating that others should pause a moment and watch, or wait while something is done
. . . and so forth.

Any and often all of the above may occur in the course of an exploration, a drama-play. Activities such as psychodrama, drama therapy sesssions, developmental transformations, sociodrama, drama in education, and other forms of applied drama integrate this type of multi-dimensional interactivity.

Return to Top       Comments and suggestions for revision are welcome. Email me at adam@blatner.com