Webpage Supplement to Introduction:
The More We Can Be: Drama for Role Expansion
Reposted, December 19, 2006
offers a vehicle for the expression and satisfaction of a somewhat
overlooked but yet obvious basic human motivation: People yearn to play
roles beyond those that fill most of their everyday lives. More, people
hunger to experience these roles with a fullness of affect that goes
beyond the cultural norm that enforces living in a low-key, "cool,"
understated fashion. Both role expansion and dramatic elaboration is
somewhat inhibited for many people in mid-life, so busy are they with
the demands of major task-oriented roles–occupation, parenting, home
maintenance, and perhaps a few avocational involvements in church,
club, politics, a sport or hobby or two.
As children, though, we used to play many roles we couldn't begin to actually fulfill. We pretended to be cowboys and indians, doctors and nurses, astronauts and scary aliens, dinosaurs and ants. The full range of imagination was open and catered to through the media of children's movies, television shows, and so forth. Science fiction has expanded the range of possibilities, and recently there's been a resurgence of enjoyment of fantasy and magic, fairies and wizards. We could be a brain surgeon (pretend) while not having to really learn all that difficult anatomy or worry about malpractice insurance. We could be a mommy without having to deal with the more onerous or frustrating elements in parenting. Ah, non-reality, how liberating!
Also, we played these roles with a fullness of emotion, so that when we won, we exulted triumphantly. If we were "killed," we pretended to die in writhing agony--and that was fun, too!. We were evil villains and noble heroes, caricaturizing and exaggerating the affects of the roles, adding flair and theatricality. Drama offers a vehicle for continuing into adulthood this integration of embodiment of our imagined roles.
brilliant Russian theatre artist, Nikolai Evreinov, suggested in a
book titled "Theatricality," published around 1927, that we should
recognize a deep drive towards "theatricality." He implied it was as
basic as the currently fashionable interest in the Freudian idea that
sexuality was a basic drive. Jung, Adler, and a host of others added to
this list of basic motivations, but theatricality– or, I think, a
better word with fewer unfortunate associations is
"dramatization"–remains ignored. Words such as "exhibitionism,"
"showing off," "narcissism," and the like seem to imply that there's
something wrong with a healthy desire for self-expression and the
appreciation of an audience. Sure, if that dominates a person's
life and there's no room for taking care of business, that's too much;
but anything can be overdone. It seems to me as an adult and child
psychiatrist with over 35 years of clinical experience that most people
are mild to moderately handicapped by having too little drama in their
lives, so they feel constricted, inhibited, and it certainly adds to
any tendencies toward depression. (See my paper on an associated
website that suggests that a "little bit" of this is a necessary
component of health.)
Here's a term that affirms the philosophical validity of imaginative enactment. "Surplus reality" refers to the category of activities, such as dramatic enactment, whereby we experience role as if they were somewhat "real." It's not the performance of ordinary life roles, but rather the dramatic enactment of roles that exist only in the imagination (Blatner, 2000). Some examples might include:
- playing a pretend role of a king or superhero
- encountering and saying goodbye to a grandfather who may have died before you could actually talk with him
- having a discussion between yourself now and yourself ten years in the future
- having your present self meet and give advice to or reassure yourself as a child
The term, surplus
was coined by Dr. J. L. Moreno, the inventor of psychodrama–and there's
more about this fellow in the chapter on psychodrama and sociodrama. He
sought to have people utilize this domain, and asserted its
philosophical validity: We should grant a measure of reality to that
which is psychologically "true," from a phenomenological perspective.
It's not the same reality as that which is factually so, objectively
verifiable; yet neither should it be easily dismissed as "just
imagination." The category should be recognized because it is practical
and meaningful. Indeed, Moreno called psychodrama a "theatre of truth,"
not because what is enacted there represents the actually of everyday
life, but because it reflects a deeper dimension, how people actually
feel, what they fear, what they hope for, and all the events that exist
in the subjunctive tense of would, could, might, and if-only. There
deserves to be an arena where such deeply experienced psychological
phenomena can be outwardly expressed.
Ontology is the philosophical sub-field that asks about what is, what exists, what is reality. The idea that reality is only that which can be seen, felt, or assessed scientifically has come to be a prevalent–even somewhat dominant element of our current worldview. Yet in the last century, an appreciation for the actuality and significance of psychology in life has been growing, and with this sensibility, a need to recognize a different kind of "reality" that reflects the workings of mind, social dynamics, and culture.
The Psychology of Role Expansion
many "basic"drives, more than Freud imagined. Freud reduced
it to sex and tried to make it the basic or essential drive; Adler
thought that the striving for a sense of effectiveness, personal power
or competence was even more basic; and Jung wanted to emphasize that
spirituality was another basic type of motivation. Jung, to his credit,
also opened the door with his concept of "archetype," suggesting that
there could be many, many types of motivation. The idea that we needed
to reduce these to a single one or a precious few and make all the
others merely derivatives was an artifact of the desire to make
psychology "scientific," like physics in the early part of the
20th century. (There have since been a number of philosophical
critiques that note how and why psychology can at best only be
partially scientific, in the sense of empirical sciences like chemistry
or physics; in other respects, psychology must be recognized as working
with a different kind of knowledge, an approach that deals more with
interpretation and created meanings.)
I want to propose that an obvious basic motivation is the desire to play more and more roles, as our minds expand. This happens fairly rapidly between around the age of 7 months and three years of age, and then continues to expand more gradually and in more subtle ways. We see this role expansion in the imaginative play of children, as mentioned, but also in the desire to experience mastery over an ever-widening sphere of influence. This expansion in to knowing and doing is most obvious in the school years. Less obvious, but pervasive, is a continuing expansion into socially fashionable and interesting roles–and we are seeing this more dramatically in the last generation or so, exposed as they are to the power of television and mass media.
Alas, in the teens there tends to be an influence of a broader cultural attitude that flagrant role exploration and pretend play is "childish." This tends to guide youngsters into a process that the innovative psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson called "premature closure of identity." Identity is the process whereby people associate certain qualities with themselves, as in "I am this way but not that way." In fact, the range of choices is broad, and in present culture, continues to expand. One can take on language or clothing styles of groups that one's parents used to be prejudiced against, which is one way to bother them and assert one's individuality. What happens too often is that people then feel some obligation to stay within their chosen role–and this is the point I'm hoping to challenge!
We might invite young people–and older ones too–to keep experimenting. Try this on, and then its opposite. Play with these, and create interesting combinations. Drama is an excellent vehicle for this, and weaving dramatic methods into everyday life could potentially fertilize and enrich its vital improvisational quality. Make it more fun, too.
Who Else Can I Be?
This was actually the proposed title for the anthology-survey of various approaches to improvisational and interactive drama that we compiled and had published. (The authors and publishers thought it wasn't a clear enough title, though.) Still, the question is there, implicit in the deepest desires of the soul. People seek to experience themselves as more!:
- through intoxication with alcohol or other drugs
- vicariously, through forgetting themselves and for a while becoming the heroes or combatants in competitive spectator sports, action movies, romances, and other fiction in a variety of media
- briefly taking on roles or, if nothing else, the costume, at Halloween, Mardi Gras (Carnival), or other dress-up holidays
- engaging in a variety of ceremonies with military or other ritual overtones
- playing with their kids, playing games
Indeed, much of
culture can be viewed as dominated by forms of play,
often more important, and lent weight by cultural custom and religion
(Huizinga, 1941). This essay in a sense is building on Huizinga's
ideas, noting their equivalent dynamics in the realm of individual
psychology, social psychology, and even philosophy:
science is about what is, philosophy tends to be about what
should be–or how we should interpret what is. In this case, should we
accept our lives as being required to fully live out our major actual
roles, developing these, and forsaking those non-utilitarian roles? But
what then of our roles that have to deal with religion and art? It gets
I suggest that we should expand our sense of identity to include not just those roles that can be played out in actually, but also those that can be played out in surplus reality, in drama, in pretend play. That actualizing the fullness of our human nature includes the exploration and symbolic experiencing of a far broader range of possibilities. Of course, in fact, folks are already doing this anyway, as noted above; this proposition brings it into the "serious" domain of philosophy, allowing people to feel a tad more justified to engage in these flights of imagination.
This position is a practical implication of phenomenology, and also gives some juice and the richness of imaginativeness to existentialism. It might even be recognized as a fuller manifestation of the postmodernist perspective. All these "-isms" can be woven into this proposed project. Then there's another para-utilitarian viewpoint: Playing, exploring, drama, improvisation–these are fun, and fun can also be recognized as good.
All these fairly obvious points are needed to counter the unspoken cultural residues that make drama suspect, a frill, childish, and by extension, make actors part of the demi-monde. I'm trying to redeem this most vitalizing dimension of life from its having been relegated to the margins.
As I note in Chapter 26 as well as our book, The Art of Play, we need to differentiate between those elements that we need to grow out of and away from, the "child-ish," and another set of qualities, the "child-like," that we need to preserve, refine, and carry into adulthood! (It's an example of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or perhaps, not throwing the imaginative spontaneous qualities needed in adulthood out with the baby-ish.)
the fun parts of drama is a heightening of emotion, exploring
behaving a bit more pompously, heroically, vulnerably, or in other
slightly to broadly exaggerated formats. This is the equivalent to a
painter using bolder and brighter colors instead of faded pastels. The
point here is to experience more fully.
There is an appropriate dampening of the ranges of experience in real life: Maturation and courtesy require living, for the most part, a more low-key, deferential, simple existence. Rage is becoming as unacceptable as smoking or being drunk. The depths of victimization, the demonstrativeness of romantic passion, and other expressions of deep feeling are, well, un-cool. And as I say, for most roles we play in this busy world, that is probably adaptive. But we must differentiate between most roles and all roles–and too often, people come to apply the standards of dignity, cool, low-key, modesty, and other mature virtues to not 90% but rather 99% or 100% of their life–and that remaining 10% makes all the difference.
I think people need to cultivate between 5-10% drama in their lives, in the forms of a bit of silliness, outrageousness, boldness, grandiosity, showing-off, fooling around, imaginative excess, and so forth. This is like talking about the place of spices in the foods we eat, or the role of art, music, dance, poetry, drama, gardening, home decorating, and the other arts as lubricants, grace agents, in the service of enhancing and deepening our experience of life. By drama, I don't mean just going to shows, I mean being the actors, and to a small but distinct degree, also playing the roles of co-playwright, director, critic, audience, supporting actor, stage manager, and other dramatic roles. Make your breakfast a bit of a performance.
Okay, most of the time, don't engage in your sufferings with excessive drama. That can be not only annoying, but counter-productive. On the other hand, there may be occasions, with selected friends, when a clearly expressed (this is play now) dramatized "rant" of victimhood or indignation might be immensely satisfying. (It's best if the friends know this game and can occasionally similarly indulge with you.) Go beyond mere cussing to express your frustration–for most, that's become almost cheap, tacky, overly simplistic. Get into poetic imprecation, the way Shakespeare did it.
Similarly, I'll confess my gratitude at growing up when romance was really spiffy, in the 1940s and 50s, and one could imagine oneself as reciting poetry, and engaging in dramatic flourishes of courtesy and courtship. Happily, I'm with a wife who loves to play that game, so we do. It's a role dimension again that adds a dimension of richness to the experience of life, which is what this essay and enterprise is all about.
Cultivating Alter Egos
I'll go a step further: I propose that people begin to imagine and cultivate alter egos, other little part-selves or roles they play in their lives. This is a relatively new endeavor. The game isn't to overly identify with or become stuck with these other selves–that can lead to a variety of forms of individual and socio-pathologies. Rather, the challenge is to do this consciously, to put on one's uniform and create a backstory for a role that one uses in selected environments.
- some folks like to dress up "in drag," in the clothes of those of the opposite gender. Some even create a name, and develop a kind of identity for this character that is played in certain gatherings
- some do the same for Star Trek or other kinds of science-fiction or fantasy conventions or other chapter activities
- this activity is part of a variety of historical re-enactment societies, some of which seek to follow an actual event, while others just play around a theme, such as the Renaissance Faires that have become popular since the mid-1960s.
- many do this informally in their intimate relationships, or in small sub-cultural groups oriented to sexual themes
- such roles may be non-sexual, just cute, funny, playful in other ways
- fantasy roles associated with Dungeons & Dragons role playing and its more complex internet role playing games since the 1970s
Looking back, we see the beginnings of this in many cultural fashions–but for these, most of the time the play was partly or largely subconscious, and overly-identified:
- With the rock-and-role, tough motorcycle, and other teen subcultures of the 50s
- The hippies in the 60s–a rich multi-dimensional sub-culture, some of whom continue today
- The "goth" subculture of the 90s, playing off the Addams Family and Munsters television shows of the 60s and 70s, who then played off the morbid humor of Charles Addams, the cartoonist, in the 1940s and 50s.
- and so forth.
So what I'm
suggesting here is just to be a bit more self-conscious,
not in the sense of inhibiting oneself, but rather in taking
responsibility to co-create our play and negotiate with others more
explicitly. The game involves not imposing our game playing on those
who aren't also playing along; or not changing rules arbitrarily and
one-sidedly; playing nice; and being able to come off it when around
those who are bewildered or bothered by this role playing.
Finally, for a joyous cartoony bit by a children's story-book author: Go to : http://www.silberbooks.com/open-your-mind.htm
These ideas are still
formation and I welcome your input: Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org