This paper was published in the Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama & Sociometry, 44(3), 115-120, Fall, 1991. (It was slightly updated October 1, 2002)The skill of acting "in role" is a prerequisite to full participation in psychodrama, sociodrama, Gestalt therapy, some techniques in family therapy, guided fantasy, and approaches that encourage imagined encounters between sub-personalities (Watkins, 1986; Hillman, 1983). Psychodramatic techniques such as doubling, role reversal, responsive auxiliary ego work, role training, or using the "empty chair" require a knack for shifting easily into a role.
Abstract: Elementary skills in role playing are the basis for learning how to do psychodrama. This article describes a technique for developing such skills, beginning with a more playful approach and gradually leading to dealing with more meaningful material. Working in dyads, class or workshop participants can take turns interviewing one another with one of the pair assuming an imagined role. The interviewer uses the metaphor of being a "talk show host" as an aid to draw out what it's like to be in the partner's role.
Although role playing is an extension of the natural make-believe play of childhood, many people have neglected this ability in the course of growing up in a culture that primarily rewards rational types of thinking (Blatner & Blatner, 1997). Warming up group members will be more effective if the idea of assuming a role is treated as an explicit skill that can be learned through practice. We find it helpful to present role playing as a rediscovery of an innate capacity and to remind the group that the spontaneity evoked by this process is associated with a sense of fun and mental flexibility.
In presenting the challenge of learning role playing, we often speak of it as being similar to learning to throw and catch a ball, a basic skill in baseball. Once this ability is acquired, the more complex techniques can be more readily practiced. Assuming a role, pretending, acting as if one is in a role not in fact one's own, makes use of several principles: act in the here-and-now; speak subjectively, using "I" messages; encounter others in the scene directly, rather than narrating it in the third person or talking about what is happening. These ideas are communicated most easily through modeling. More important, the challenge is to develop habits of cognition that include a receptivity to intuition, imagination, and inspiration. The technique we describe here serves as a fairly non-threatening way to introduce people to the basic experience of role playing.
The key question is, "What is it like to be...?" This is not meant to be answered in terms of factual information, true or false, right or wrong. Knowing the correct ‘answer' is irrelevant because the aesthetic dimension is being sensed: what feels good, bad, funny, sweet, disgusting? The student is led to draw upon personal experiences and to integrate these in creative ways. This complex task is made easier by stimulating the individual's spontaneity. The dramatic situation is most effective for this. In the flow of action in a scene, participants will find themselves more able to connect with the ideas that help to fill out the role. In other words, as people play a role, the activities of others who play along stimulate the actors and increase their expression of the material that is appropriate to the situation. Actors discover what they need to know in the process of behaving as if they knew the answers.
Teaching the TechniqueA good warm-up for learning role-playing skills in groups is the "talk-show host" exercise (Blatner, 1989). Appropriate for professionals, students (mid-adolescents or older), and patients, the technique consists of having the class work in dyads, taking turns interviewing each other regarding imagined roles. In the following description, the assumption is that a class is being taught how to develop the basic skill of assuming a role.
We invite students to get out of their chairs and move around a bit, pick a partner, and sit down again in pairs. This works best in classrooms with moveable seats that are arranged in a loose circle. Picking a partner introduces the idea of sociometry, and working in pairs builds group cohesion because one then has an ally with a shared special experience (Blatner, 2000, p.45?).
The next step is to invite the group to imagine a character. We've found the most useful theme for starters is that of an occupation that is intriguing but not immediatedly familiar. If people have difficulty getting an idea, we suggest they close their eyes and allow an occupational role to pop into their minds. They may also imagine a stage with the curtain down and then note what they see when the curtains open. We have people raise one hand, then put it down when they have thought of an occupation. When about three quarters of the people have indicated their readiness, we say, "Most of you have an idea, and the others will get ideas as time passes. Now in your imagination, become a person with that occupation. For the first six to eight minutes, half of you will interview and the other half will be interviewed. Then we will change parts so everyone has a chance to explore what it's like to be in that occupation."
We may then invite people to announce their roles, which validates and acts as a warm-up to the others. "I'm an electrician," one might say. "I'm a tree surgeon." "I'm a construction worker." "I teach people how to be clowns." The variety is intriguing and tends to get everyone smiling in anticipation. In the interest of time, we allow 10 to 15 people to announce their roles.
I introduce the method further by saying, "Now, being in the interviewing role can be equally challenging. Your creativity is drawing out your partner is also fun. One way to think of it is to imagine that you're a ‘talk show host' and that this person is your ‘guest.' Feel free to warm up as interviewers by talking to the imagined television camera and the television audience it symbolizes. You can ham it up a little if it helps."
Television and its associated talk show phenomena have become a cultural institution that offers what Moreno called a "cultural conserve," a model for the role behavior of an interviewer. In addition, the implied presence of an audience to whom some of the talk can be aimed further loosens up the interviewer's spontaneity.
Every role has advantages and disadvantages and, in the course of living that role, events occur that evoke various feelings. These questions and their variations are particularly helpful for offering some structure:
• What are the advantages of the role?
• What are its disadvantages?
• What happens in the course of your day or week at work that makes you feel..
-- "glad"--happy, energized, or satisfied?
-- "sad"-- low, depressed, or drained?
-- "mad" -- angry, irritated, or resentful?
-- "scared" -- frightened, worried, or anxious
Think of these four "primary emotions" as analogous to the four primary tastes or the three primary colors; most other emotions may be thought of as combinations of the primary emotions. If possible, we write these questions on a blackboard, poster, or give them out as handouts, to serve as reminders to the group members as they engage in the exercise.
"Now decide who of the two of you will begin," we continue. "After six or seven minutes, we'll have you change parts. Are there any questions? Okay, go ahead." The group generally plunges into the exercise with animation. They pick up energy from the other dyads and sometimes engage in physical action. "Hosts" may ask their "guests" to act their roles. One said to a "ballerina" who was complaining about her feet, "Well, let's see your feet." Together the host and the ballerina took off the latter's shoes and waved them about, making jokes about the impact of toe dancing on anatomy.
After 5 or 6 minutes, we tell participants to wind down the interviews and prepare to change parts in the next minute or so. Then, after about 2 more minutes, we say, "If you haven't changed parts yet, do so soon so your partner can have a turn." At the end of the second 7 minutes, we terminate the exercise by raising our hands to indicate that it's time to stop talking and focus the group's attention again. As increasing numbers of group members become quiet, others are encouraged to finish also.
We then invite everyone to take 2 or 3 minutes to share with each other, no longer in role, what it was like to do the exercise. They may talk about how they picked each other, what questions they asked that particularly helped evoke spontaneous replies, and what questions tended to confuse the person being interviewed. This is an acknowledgment that "act hunger," the innate need to express oneself (and that includes the role of interviewer), must be fulfilled on several levels.
The exercise is most effective if done several times with different partners and different themes. Other interviewing categories include historical figures–both general (i.e., a centurion in the Roman army) or from the comics, television, or literature; animals or plants; or even inanimate objects. This last category can be a lot of fun. "We've never had an actual black hole on this show before! What do you like to eat?" "Planets. I like planets, especially the big, gassy ones. Don't like the little rocky ones. Too dry. Don't like the little blue stars, either–they give me heartburn." Accordions, old barns, mountains, clouds, all can be personified and talked about as if they had human feelings. This is useful in helping people take on the role of inanimate objects in dreams or of parts of the body in Gestalt therapy body work.
As the group becomes more spontaneous, other questions the talk show host may be suggested, such as: "I understand you've written a book on the subject of your (insert occupation or other category). Tell us a little about it." The guest may apply, "A lot of people don't appreciate what it's really like in the chicken-plucking business, and this book is an exposé of the whole sordid field."
Playful categories help to develop the knack of role playing (Blatner & Blatner, 1997). If the group needs more anchoring in practical, psychotherapeutic applications, a second category used in this exercise might be family roles, such as stepmother, great-grandfather, youngest boy with three older sisters mother of a teenaged daughter. These can be elaborated and imagined families can be generated in the course of the interview.
To bring the role playing closer to home and shift away from the idea of presenting to an audience, a further dyadic exercise may then be used with each group member playing someone in his or her own actual family or close social network. The interviewer in this case behaves a bit more like a counselor in drawing out the other's experience, but is also instructed not to try to "help" the one being interviewed. The goal is just to further disclosure and exploration via imaginative identification. This is also good practice for interviewers who are seeking to develop the ability to elicit a client's experience in a more existential and phenomenological fashion.
In using this approach, we use role playing to develop empathy, which involves an imaginative process of role reversal and an ability to consider what it might be like to be in the other person's situation. When people extend their imaginations to encompass the experience of others, they develop the habit of including others' feelings in their sphere of awareness. Ultimately, this empathy strengthens what Alfred Adler considered the sine qua non of mental health, the sense of "social interest" (Ansbacher, 1979).
Another application of this technique is as part of a program for enhancing creativity and spontaneity. We do this in our method, "The Art of Play" (Blatner & Blatner, 1997). The idea is to promote imaginativeness as a recreational form in itself, with no particular utilitarian objective. Nevertheless, this approach can be used as "role relief" and as a general way to build group cohesion, raise morale, and sensitize participants to psychological processes in a wide range of treatment programs.
Finally, the talk show method can be used to acquaint beginners with the skills of basic role playing. For those familiar with psychodramatic methods, the techniques serve as an excellent vehicle for expanding their role repertoires. In addition, this playful approach generates a good deal of amusement and group members interact with each other in an extraordinary manner. Connecting with another person in the realm of imaginative play creates a special bonding between what Eric Berne (1964) might call the "child–child" ego states of the two individuals. This builds group trust and cohesion.
Ansbacher, H. L. & R. R. (Eds.) (1979). Superiority and social interest: A collection of the later writings of Alfred Adler. New York: W. W. Norton.
Berne, E. (1964). Games people play: The psychology of human relationships. New York: Grove Press.
Blatner, A. (1989). Psychodrama. In C. Baldwin (Ed.), Instructor's manual to "Current Psychotherapies" (Fourth edition, pp. 151-155). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.
Blatner, A. (1996). Acting-in: Practical applications of psychodramatic methods (3rd ed.). New York: Springer.
Blatner, A. (2000). Foundations of psychodrama: History, theory & practice (4th ed.). New York: Springer.
Blatner, A. & Blatner, (1997). A. The Art of Play: Helping adults reclaim imagination and spontaneity (3rd ed.). New York: Brunner-Routledge-Taylor & Francis.
Hillman, J. (1983). Healing fiction. Barrytown,, NY: Station Hill Press.
Watkins, M. (1986). Invisible guests: The development of imaginal dialogue. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum/The Analytic Press.
(At the time of first writing this article, the first author was an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Louisville (Kentucky) School of Medicine. The second author aids her husband in writing and teaching. Currently–in 2002--, both are semi-retired and teaching in Georgetown, Texas (30 miles north of the state capitol of Austin). For other writings by Dr. Blatner, see other papers on this website.
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