Course offers true-to-life re-enacted experiences
By GAIL PRUITT
California State University, Los Angeles
VOL. LXXV NO. 35 Wednesday, March 8, 1978
All university courses are taught. Only a
few are also experienced. Psychodrama, a
course offered at Cal state LA., is an experience, as totally grounded in real-life
Psychodrama fits into a student's world
somewhere between academic achievement and everyday living.
The course deals with yesterday and
today in people's lives. It combines
psychology with dramatic form. Together,
psychodrama emerges as a re-enactment of
life situations and problems.
It turns on the idea that yesterday's
problem is significant because it affects a
person today. By re-enacting the past
psychodramatically. people can come to
terms with yesterday and learn to deal more
effectively with today—and tomorrow.
Psychodrama was brought to CSLA by a
person who is dedicated to it. Dr. Roger M.
Altenberg, associate professor of drama,
began developing the class around 1970.
His interest in It evolved from his interest
Altenberg was attracted to theater as a
child. Later, "I got quite interested in
therapy and mental health, l began pursuing
studies towards psychiatry, and I actually
went to medical school. But I came into
conflict because my artistic interest was
still strong. I didn't see how I could do
both," Altenberg said.
He left medical school and began to get
back to theater "I was always interested In
the social issues, and of drama being useful
besides being entertaining."
Altenberg was interested in combining dramatic experience with the
psychological one. "I was invited to attend
an American Psychiatric Association
Conference in Los Angeles in 1964.
"I saw Dr. Jacob L. Moreno, a Viennese
psychiatrist, who was the founder of
psychodrama. He gave a demonstration and
I was absolutely fascinated,' Altenberg
Moreno invented psychodrama in 1921
from work he was doing in group
psychotherapy and improvisational theater
Moreno wrote, "I have always tried to
show that my approach was meant as much
more than a psychotherapeutic method—my
ideas have emphasized that creativity and
spontaneity affect the very roots of vitality
and spiritual development, and thus affect
our involvements in-every sphere of our
He realized the value in allowing people
to act out, in a dramatic format, real-life
situations, and thus have a chance to vent
emotions and learn how to handle
Altenberg trained In New York with
Moreno and in Los Angeles with Dr. Lewis
Yablonsky he began to see how
psychodrama worked. "After two years of
training, I had played every kind of
therapeutic role. I played fathers, brothers,
angry husbands, just a tremendous range of
He also trained in a project developed by
psychologist Carl Rogers, called Intensive
Encounter Training. There, Altenberg
learned a group leader (or facilitator) must
be part of the group, not an authority figure.
In his psychodrama class, Altenberg is a
participant as well as the director.
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Continued from p. 1
Dr. Howard A. Blatner, author of
"Acting In," says psychodrama
helps a person "explore the
psychological dimensions of his
problems through the enactment of
his conflict situation, rather than by
talking about them. •
"Many of the most powerful
active approaches in contemporary
psychotherapy and education are
derived from the method of
psychodrama, in which a person is
helped to enact his problem."
The key then in psychodrama is
allowing a person to set up and reenact situations that caused him
stress, and letting him work out
different ways of handling that
By involving other people in the
reenactment, the individual benefits
from the thoughts and feelings of
several people about his difficulty.
"A lot of it," Altenberg said, "is to
express what was not sufficiently
expressed by the person at the time,
or over the long period of time."
"Besides providing a release for
feelings, psychodrama can also be
used as a rehearsal for future
situations, or as a forum to practice
changes of behavior.
"The other side of psychodrama is
that people want to change how
they act so they can try different
ways of handling things. They can
say, "If I were to do it again, how
would I do it? ," Altenberg noted.
Psychodrama helps individuals recognize just what their feelings
about a situation or person are.
"By playing this role, you're in it.
Your get very drawn into it and it's
very real. But there is a part of you
that can stand back and look at
what's happening," Altenberg said.
While it's good training for actors, few of the people in
psychodrama are actors.
Who takes the course? All kinds
of people. People who want to
share, who want to help others, who
want others to help them. They're
students, husbands, wives, career
people and singles.
They are different only because
four hours a week they come
together and allow themselves to be
open, honest, caring and critical.
They leave their protective facades
outside the class.
In the class they help one another
and they help themselves in the^
process. Such lowering of barriers
can leave group members feeling .
vulnerable, but it can result in a very
real learning experience.
Altenberg's class is run informally, but there is a structure
Psychodrama is divided into
First, the warm-up. Here the
group does physical exercises.
Altenberg calls them trusting
"We do things to get the students
in contact and developing,gradually, a sense of knowing each
other in a more intimate way than is
usual in a classroom."
Such exercises help students
develop a sense of being in tune
with one another. Because
psychodrama is the enactment of
life experiences, it is imperative that
members of the group trust and feel
at ease with one another.
One trusting exercise is to have a
person stand, eyes shut, in a circle
formed by the rest of the group. The
person in the center moves around
the room while the group protects
him from bumping into furniture or
Another warm-up is the mirror
exercise. In pairs, facing each other,
one person begins moving and the
second person follows, mirroring
his movements. The lead is exchanged. Finally, the movements
may become leaderless and the two
move instinctively together.
After warming-up, the group sits
in a circle and the director begins a
relaxed conversation. His topic is
The director may also pose a
question to the group such as,
"What good thing did you do for
yourself last weekend?," after
which people begin to talk.
Gradually, the group begins to
slip easily into a deeper discussion
and exchange. One person may
want to talk about a problem and he
will be the protagonist in the action
i "The discussion material comes
out of the lives of the students,
something they want to try out or
something that's going to happen.
Or, it may be something they want
to come to terms with and try out in
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Continued from p. 3
a group setting," Altenberg said.
"We see what things seem to be
pressing for people and what
themes the class thinks would be
The individual who is ready to
work on a problem comes before
the group and sets the scene in
For example, if the protagonist
says, "Well, I called my father,"
Altenberg has him describe where
he was when he made the call; how
the room looked. After the scene is
set-up, the protagonist picks
someone to play the role of father.
The action phase begins.
After the scene is set and the role
filled, the protagonist explains what
type of person his father is, at which
time the protagonist gives the
person playing a role in the
psychodrama an opening lines
typical of the character.
Quickly, the person in the scene
catches on to what type of
character he is portraying.
There is a potential in
psychodrama for a great range of
emotion. As the protagonist reenters the experience and relives it,
all the emotions he felt then reemerge.
Blatner says of the action, "In psychodrama, the protagonist
presents not only what happened in
reality, but more importantly, what
may never have actually occurred
except in his own fantasy."
Re-enactment gives the
protagonist a chance to try different
ways of handling things, and in so
doing to better understand why
everyone in the situation acted as
This process requires Intuition.
"As the director, I have to keep
sensing where the characters are
going The important thing is that
the protagonist is in charge. If he
doesn't want to go into something,-
he's not forced to," Altenberg said.
With the psychodrama unfolding,
the next step is to get a double for
the protagonist. Someone who is
"in tune" with him.
"I may just come around the
group and ask someone to double.
or someone may be so ready they
just go up and start speaking for the
protagonist," Altenberg said.
People also double for the other
characters in the action.
Blatner calls doubling the "heart
of psychodrama." "Because the
expression of the protagonist's
deepest emotions can be one of the
main purposes of the use of psychodramatic methods, and
because the use of the double is the
most effective technique in
bringing out emotions, this
technique may well be called the
heart of psychodrama."
A double who is into the action
can say things and express feelings
the protagonist cannot, or isn't
ready to. Also, doubling adds a
second or third input to a character.
With several people speaking one
role, the chance of a breakthrough
"The purpose," Altenberg said.
"Is to help the protagonist get all
the feelings out. And in the process.
someone who is having similar
feelings Is getting a chance to
Of course, the protagonist is
helped by the insight and feeling
being expressed by someone who is
in, or has been through the same
Everyone in the group is involved
either physically or emotionally.
Each person becomes part of what
Regardless of how the action and
situation varies, people can identify
with it somehow because it is all
part o' the human experience.
During the action, it is quite
evident why the group members
must trust each other. Emotions
and gut-level exchanges take place.
Such exchanges can happen only
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when each member has confidence
in the others.
"Late in the session the rest of
the group gives feedback about how
the protagonist came over. The
main thing they do is share, instead
of trying to analyze and give a lot of
advice," Altenberg said. This is the
third phase of psychodrama.
Advice is not the point of,
"In psychodrama, we don't encourage advice What we want is for
people to share what happened to
them. And then. the protagonist can
see how others saw the problem. If
it's useful they will remember and
use it," Altenberg noted.
The sessions can cause upset.
Re-enactments may bring strong
Upset may also come with a
conflict between group members. In
such a situation, the conflict itself
becomes a basis for a
psychodrama. Motivations for the
difficulty are explored, and the
conflict can be cleared away.
After the sharing of thoughts and feelings, the session is closed. The
director discusses what has happened and plans are made for the
Before the meeting ends, all the
members of the group form a circle,
arm-in-arm. It's like a reaffirmation
of their concern for one another.
and their single purpose for being
there. The message is, "Hey, we're
all in this together."
Psychodrama is a powerful, useful experience, whether the
action that occurs is vivid or quiet. It
provides a structure by which
human beings can come together
and share their burdens; their
difficulties and solutions, their
insights and intuitions.
It Is without doubt the most
educational course a student could
take because it teaches what can't
be transcribed in a book — how to
share, and how to care.