Webpage Supplement to the Introduction: Why Drama?
Considering the Underlying Rationale for Using Interactive and Improvisational Drama by Adam Blatner
August 23, 2006
In the Introduction, there is a list of 19 reasons why interactive and improvisational types of drama foster the development of consciousness and social vitality: Here are amplifications of those points:
Drama is a relatively holistic process, integrating many dimensions of life, and engaging in drama activities in turn promotes thinking and living more holistically. This counters cultural tendencies to compartmentalize and rank order the different domains in life.
By holistic, I refer especially to the balancing of the modern world’s over-emphasis on reason and logic and language, integrating also the realms of intuition, emotion, imagination, and the subtle but profound feelings of the body in action, doing rather than just passively watching and hearing. There is great power in feeling and hearing one’s own voice speak, and also to speak directly to those to whom one has feeling reactions, rather than to explain or talk about such feelings. (This is one reason why psychodrama can evoke associations more effectively than ordinary talk therapy, in which patients often use language to unconsciously distance themselves from their feelings.)
Holism also includes a more vivid recognition of all the relevant influences, including all levels of human organization–body, mind, family, friends, various group dynamics (business, clubs, church), subcultures, the general culture, plus differences in tastes, temperament, ability, and other factors that make for individuality. These can be played out in roles, the key dynamics highlighted through drama, and the hidden assumptions, values, expectations, and such thus exposed to the possibilities of re-evaluation.
Finally, we should recognize that our culture is laced with tendencies to “privilege” or mindlessly value certain elements while “marginalizing” or mindlessly ignoring or devaluing others. In our postmodern era, though, many of these judgments are obsolete, or in need of finer discrimination. For example, competition has in many quarters been given an excessive value, and this is a source of subtle oppression. The Theatre of the Oppressed seeks to identify those cultural norms that may be in fact unrealistic or in the long run unwholesome. Holism invites more inclusive viewpoints.
These approaches are more popularized, aimed at having far more people enjoying the processes of doing drama, even if only in partial and rudimentary ways. This contrasts with tendencies towards specialization, with acting only being for the very few at the top of the pyramid of talent and dedication (Klein, 1978).
The arts in general have been undercut as frills in our culture, and are being edged out of many school systems. This trend should be challenged. The arts are vehicles for helping people to be more sensitive to not just beauty, but all kinds of sources of pleasure, and to become a bit more discerning. In a culture that panders to gross intensity of taste (in junk food), sound (in sheer loudness of music), rapidity of images (in videos and movies), this needs to be recognized as “hype,” as in the feelings generated by cocaine and crystal meth (amphetamine). We need to affirm the power of milder and more mixed aesthetic experience, more complex forms of music, art, foods, and other domains.
Similarly, the aforementioned drugs and media equivalents fill our minds from the outside, and beyond a certain point, they come dominate as the source for psychic energy. They inhibit the mind-body’s capacity to generate its own “joy juice.” This is why after a run on stimulants people “crash,” plunge into depression and anxiety. They have literally depleted their brain’s capacity to generate pleasurable emotions. Drama offers a more participatory process that generates fun from within, a more wholesome way to get “high.”
The other problem in the hype culture is the spectator demand for more fabulous and more shocking spectacles. A simple gladiator battle in the Coliseum became “ho-hum.” Let’s have a gradual increase in intensity, pathos, numbers of animals, savagery. The problem with spectator-based art is that it raises the bar of excellence so that only the best can offer their acts. But a more popularized approach counters this, affirms that we all are potentially artists in one or another mode, and invites participation not so much to impress audiences as to enjoy the experience of self-expression.
When people play roles consciously, they begin to sharpen their skills of noticing and managing their own thoughts. They are both in role and also a little apart from it, and this kind of reflective thinking can be cultivated and leads to greater psychological maturity and flexibility.
Drama–especially improvised drama, in which the actors become in part co-playwrights and co-directors–leads to not only more creativity, but also more thinking about thinking. In drama, the art of both inhabiting a role being played and yet maintaining just a bit of distance so one can modulate the performance and not become overly identified with the role is called “role distance.” Playwrights and directors also need to exercise this perspective, keeping the flow and intention, but re-evaluating whether a certain bit should be emphasized, removed, brought over into a different scene, and so forth. This reflective process is the equivalent of what psychologists have called “meta-cognition,” and psychotherapists have called, “psychological minded-ness.” Alas, there is not enough of this kind of thinking about the way we think–also known as critical thinking–taught in the mainstream curriculum, although many school administrators give it lip service. Thinking about thinking–questioning assumptions, the meanings of words (semantics), the emotional power of images (semiotics), the way language and arguments are structured (rhetoric), looking at forms of personal and cultural self-deception (psychoanalysis and propaganda analysis)–this is an unending challenge. Drama can help make it fun, and changing roles and using other dramatic approaches generate types of thinking that reflects greater mental and emotional maturity and flexibility.
Drama supports a redemption of the realms of play, imaginativeness, exuberance, and having fun. These should not be seen as only belonging to childhood, but rather these qualities need to be cultivated throughout adulthood.
In Blatner’s book, The Art of Play, several chapters are given over to examining the cultural factors that inhibit play, the excessive influence of competitiveness, the tendencies towards specialization (mentioned above in item 2), the irrational fear that if fantasy is engaged in it will carry one too far, the lack of differentiation between being childish (immature, selfish, emotionally incontinent) and child-like (imaginative, exuberant, spontaneous, etc.)–with a recognition that the latter qualities must be distilled away from the former and preserved to be used throughout life, so that we can be “young at heart.” The fields of play research are growing and support this dynamic.
Improvising opens the mind to the continuing flow of imagery and inspirations from the creative subconscious. Discovering that one has this ability to tap into rich resources of inspiration deepens identity and increases creative potential.
In ancient Greece, the source was imagined as external, a gift by the Muses. The inner guidance function was similarly imagined as the voice of the “daimon”–Socrates claimed this operated in his life. It was not a demonic or wicked voice, but helpful, warning. Blatner’s chapter on spontaneity in his Foundations of Psychodrama (2000) amplifies the value of this dynamic in culture. The point here, though, is the growth in the sense of confidence and faith in oneself when the “higher self” is known to be operating as an aid in coping with everyday affairs.
In today’s world, creativity is needed as never before. Drama–especially improvisational types of drama–develop the skills needed for creative thinking. Daniel Pink is the author of a book, published in 2005, titled A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. (New York: Riverhead Books). He notes that the kinds of work being outsourced to Asia tends to be not just physical labor, but also intellectually left-brain mental labor. What there is a potential for that can make the United States competitive is the kinds of creative work that requires a balancing of right- and left-brain functions, and that utilize and amplify the realms of design, story, symphony (i.e., the coordination of diverse elements), empathy, play, and meaning. I was excited about this as it strongly supported the points being made here and in the book!
The need for creativity will be elaborated below, and it ties also to two other points: the cultural shift in the last century from fear-based to lure-based influenced; and the way drama should be viewed not simply as an art form, but also as a technology for psycho-social growth and change.
The Need for Creativity
We live in a world that is changing rapidly, not only in the technology, but also in the social and cultural realms. Roles are being revised, social norms stretched, and people are struggling to re-constitute a sense of meaning and social and spiritual connectedness amidst all these changes. This effort requires the development of the capacity for creativity, and that in turn involves a synthesis of language, rationality, perception, intuition, emotion, imagery, and the felt sense of the body in action–the “kinesthetic” sense. In terms of neuro-physiology, this means that the left hemisphere of the brain, dealing more with language and reason, must be helped to balance with the right hemisphere, which coordinates the aforementioned qualities of intuition, imagery, emotion, and kinesthetic activity.
Since the emergence of science in Western culture–and before that, even, with the development of the technology of writing, the left-brain functions have been increasingly emphasized and the right-brain functions relatively neglected. Research in creativity in the last century has shown that both left- and right-brain functioning is needed for optimal mental flexibility, especially that which has to include considerations of human relationships, morale, motivation, and a sense of team spirit or community.
From Fear to Lure
This re-balancing of the different types of mind-functions in the service of creativity also serves another cultural shift: The way people used to influence others was mainly through fear, threats, shame, guilt, intimidation, and coercion. This works for generating a certain brute will to “tote that barge, lift that bale.” The threat of being beaten was even a motivation for learning in a certain rote-memorization fashion. The problem, though, back to neurophysiology, is that there is a mid-brain group of structures called the “limbic system” that monitors levels of emotional arousal, and under stress, this system energizes only the crudest responses, old habits, and instinctual fight-flight reactions. Shame, fear, or burning anger inhibits the more subtle input from the higher thinking centers in the cerebral cortex–and that more subtle input is the source of creativity. In other words, you can make people work in a certain way by force or threaten, but such approaches actually reduce the capacity for imaginative or creative thinking.
Since the industrial revolution, though, the needs for mere force or repetition and their corresponding virtues of blind obedience are being replaced by machines and electronic devices. What is needed is a wiser way to use these tools, and such innovations can’t be commanded, they must be evoked. Happily, there have been visionaries who have seen that there are more effective approaches to influencing others than through the negative emotions. The last century has seen the development of a goodly number of technologies for luring people to learn, develop, produce, participate in more creative and wholehearted ways. These involve more effective and positive ways to teach, encourage, manage, parent, and design tasks so that the motivation for their achievement is built into the task–i.e. foster intrinsic motivation rather than rely on external rewards. Although it has by no means fully been appreciated and implemented, this lure-based influencing has begun to change the way parents rear and discipline their children, train animals, manage people, teach students at all levels, and even offer sermons and minister to church congregations. Once you recognize the dynamic you’ll see it frequently, and also more sharply notice where the old fear-based motivation is still being used.
Drama is one of the technologies for promoting lure-based influencing. Beyond its having been mainly used as a form of entertainment, people have found that its elements can be applied as a major aid in teaching, as psychotherapy, to promote group functioning, explore interpersonal and group problems, re-consider socio-cultural and ethical dilemmas, and to cultivate a group of component skills in bodily vitality, improvisation, spontaneity, imagination, empathy, playfulness, intuitiveness, emotional sensitivity, meaning-making, and others that combine to help people be optimally effective in marshaling the creativity needed for individual and collective adaptation in a changing world.
Integrating Psycho-Social “Technologies”
Our culture has focused on the hard technologies, industry, electronics, machines. We have seen that combining different kinds of machines can release a host of technical and social innovations. The communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan, wrote about this in a best-selling non-fiction book in the late 1960s, “Understanding Media.” He was most impressed with the way the hybridization of movies (cinema) and radio, in becoming television, unleashed a host of new cultural forms, new jobs, new ways of relating to the media itself. He was the one who coined the intriguing phrase, “The medium is the message.” Had he lived, he would doubtless have commented further on the continuing extension of this principle as industrial computers gave birth to personal computers, and telephones to cell phones, and these hybridized into the internet, world-wide-web, text-messaging, and we haven’t seen the full implications of these changes yet.
More subtly, there is another mixing of technologies going on, the mixing of individual and social psychology and the arts–especially drama–to generate a far more effective endeavor that meshes with the aforementioned changes from fear to lure in schools, management, parenting, religion, and other social arenas. Applied theatre is this hybridization of psychology, social psychology, group work, organizational development, education, and drama, and it offers great promise as a more experiential way to learn, problem-solve, and develop team spirit.
Another frontier that deserves mention has been a transformation of psychology, which for a number of decades seemed to be more caught up with the problems of psychotherapy. However, many of its methods may be applied also not just to help the “sick” heal, but also to help the healthy become even healthier, and to help groups and communities, also. We have also begun to recognize that what used to be called leisure or play was not mere frivolousness, but also served as the source of literal re-creation, and we have begun to appreciate the importance of wholesome and vitalizing recreation. In this book, applied theatre expands to include such goals.
Techniques and concepts derived from drama are now being applied in business, education, community-building, personal development, therapy, professional skills training, spiritual development, and so forth, and many are presented in this present anthology. This was discussed in other ways in the preceding paragraphs.
Applied drama isn’t just an art form, but also functions as a psychological and social laboratory. In a relatively fail-safe context, dramatic techniques may be used as tools for exploration and experimentation (Blatner, 2000). Also alluded to in the previous paragraphs.
Drama in education becomes a way to learn by doing, and educators for over a century have noted that experiential learning is the most effective approach, especially for skill mastery. (In a way, this is one of the components of lure-based influenced, mentioned above. Other elements include encouragement, feedback, group support, opportunities to progress at one’s own pace, identification and respect for individual differences in ability and temperament, opportunities to practice in a supportive context until a sense of mastery is gained, and so forth. Montessori schools introduce such principles into the basic curriculum, but these principles apply also for continuing education for adults and through the life cycle. For example, as adults are being invited to master the technologies of computers, email, and the like, there are learning challenges that bring back all the old anxieties of learning in the primary grades. Drama as play makes the mastery of these learning curves easier.
There are cultural forces that tend to promote alienation and a weakened sense of self; role taking and applied drama counter this force and promote greater resilience. As I note in my paper on self-ing, the self is an aggregate experience, the result of scores of different operations ranging from body tone to decision-making. The sense of self as valued and coherent is constantly under assault by cultural forces that dilute and undercut this, such as the domination of media by advertisement and what I call “the culture of maximum discontent.” These sources suggest that there’s always more that you should do, be, have, and what you are isn’t enough.
The more you play roles, the more you begin to recognize that you are indeed playing those roles, which leads to an increased playing with the way you play the roles. You begin to introduce more variations, become more creative. Finally, as you get the idea of the game, you become capable of becoming the playwright as well as director of your life, introducing new roles, challenging and removing obsolete role, more consciously revising and creating the very way you think of yourself and the way you live. Working from the meta-role, the part of yourself that observes and chooses which roles you’ll play when, and how you’ll play them, leads to a healthier sense of self.
Interpersonal encounters are more authentic when they involve a broader range of imaginative elements. Drama thus offers yet another way to counter alienation.
Building on the item 10 above, socially, sharing one’s imaginative roles generates a higher level of connectedness than small talk or talking about one’s past real-life achievements.
Empathy can be developed through imagining what it’s like to be in another person’s role, and so this process can be used to foster greater understanding and interpersonal skills. See Blatner’s webpage on using role playing to teaching empathy: www.blatner.com/adam/pdntbk/tchempathy.htm
The need to expand the number and varieties of one’s roles is a fundamental drive in human nature. Drama offers ways to amplify this dynamic in a wholesome fashion. This point is expanded in another webpage titled: “The More We Can Be.”
The process of conscious role expansion, both of one’s own role repertoire and of one’s social networks and affiliations, should be recognized as a primary motivation. The freedom to experiment with different roles through drama also counters tendencies to “premature closure of identity,” a term that refers to the tendency to begin too soon in life to come to conclusions about who one is and how one should present oneself to others. That one may find that one entertains highly contrasting inner roles, such as nice guy and tough guy, should not be a surprise. We need to recognize that a higher degree of personal flexibility involves a capacity to say, in the words of the American poet, Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am great. I contain multitudes!”
Dramatic activities also promote the process of self-expression, responding to the need to be seen and heard. The process also offers a way for people to take the audience role, learning to appreciate and recognize others as they perform.
There is, as Aristotle noted, an element of catharsis in drama, a sense of emotional release as the unspoken and disowned emotions are re-admitted into consciousness (Blatner, 2000).
Drama opens to roles that transcend the limits of mundane reality, allowing people to fly or do other wondrous things. This, too, fills a basic desire to escape the limitations of mere existence, and opportunities to do so should not be only for children or professional actors.(Moreno called this category "surplus reality," an interesting term, suggesting that we offer a bit more respect to the stories we create in our imaginations, and note their power for healing, life-expansion, and other benefits.)
See also the paper on Creative Mythmaking.
Applied drama as described in the pages of this book is often process-oriented, and for the purposes of enjoying and learning within the experience itself, rather than needing that often extensive added requirement of polishing a performance for a possibly critical and demanding outside audience. While I acknowledge and honor the activity of traditional product-oriented theatre, the point here is that is should be recognized as only one way among many of doing drama, and that other approaches, such as those in the anthology, are also valid.
As an art form, drama constantly works with the theme of balance, not too much, not too little. This further carries over into more diversified and moderate wisdom in life planning.
Sure, clowning around, being a “drama queen,” making a big deal about things, can be overdone and annoying; what isn’t sufficiently appreciated, though, is that being understated and low-key can also be overdone, or, said another way, one can neglect putting enough drama in one’s life. There’s an optimal dose for each life situation. (See www.blatner.com/adam/psyntbk/littlebit.htm in the middle of the essay.)
One of the most important benefits of weaving principles and techniques of drama into everyday life is that it enriches the experience of living, makes it more meaningful, vivid, and fun. One of the essential elements of drama is this “aesthetic elaboration” which adds the feeling of “wow!” and other exclamations to otherwise ordinary experiences (Evreinov, 1924).
This topic is rich enough to merit several pages on this website, another related webpage supplement titled “Adding a Dimension.”
Let's make it 20! Send me a suggestion or two for yet another rationale or benefit of drama!