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University Times

California State University Los Angeles

VOL. LXXV NO. 35     Wednesday, March 8, 1978


Course offers true-to-life re-enacted experiences

By GAIL PRUITT
Staff Writer

Real life course, p. 1 Real life course, p. 3 Real life course, p. 4 Real life course, p. 5
Text of the article:

Course offers true-to-life re-enacted experiences

By GAIL PRUITT

Staff Writer

University Times

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 situations.

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 in theater.

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 said.

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 lives,"

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 situations.

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 experience."

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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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 stress.

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 underlying it.

Psychodrama is divided into three phases.

First, the warm-up. Here the group does physical exercises. Altenberg calls them trusting exercises.

"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 walls.

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 general.

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 to follow.

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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a group setting," Altenberg said.

"We see what things seem to be pressing for people and what themes the class thinks would be helpful."

The individual who is ready to work on a problem comes before the group and sets the scene in concrete terms.

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 they did.

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 may increase.

"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 ventilate them."

Of course, the protagonist is helped by the insight and feeling being expressed by someone who is in, or has been through the same difficulty.

Everyone in the group is involved either physically or emotionally. Each person becomes part of what is happening.

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, psychodrama.

"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 emotional release.

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 next meeting.

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.