Psychodrama’s potential for powerful catharsis is, in part, what makes it a formidable tool in psychotherapy but also limits its safe use in community groups. While psychodrama is focused on the externalization of individual issues, sociodrama dramatizes social issues. The fundamental nature of roles in psychodrama focuses on private elements of roles, while sociodrama focuses on collective elements of roles (Sternberg & Garcia, 2000). Moreno (1943) writes that social issues cannot be adequately addressed within the confines of individual psychotherapy, instead, social issues must be addressed within community forums, preferably with sociodrama. Most would agree that psychodrama is a better approach for personal growth, while sociodrama is better designed for social change. As such, sociodrama is used much more frequently than psychodrama within social activism or public spaces.
The goals of a sociodrama enactment include expression, catharsis, insight, learning, and role training (Sternberg & Garcia, 2000). A sociodrama does not enact any one person’s story, but instead puts into action a co-created story that contains elements of the entire group’s experience without using the specific details of their narratives. This creates a sense of aesthetic distance similar to the experience of watching a movie or theater play containing social themes that resemble one’s personal life experience. The major difference between a sociodrama and a movie or theater performance is that the sociodrama has no script or predefined characters, and it is spontaneously improvised and co-created by the group. Here, we also touch upon a fundamental difference between sociodrama, Playback Theater
, Theater of the Oppressed, and traditional theater. In the traditional theater, the script is written by a playwriter; Playback Theater and Theater of the Oppressed utilize an audience member’s narrative as the script; and the sociodramatic script emerges from the collective conscious of the group. In some sociodramas, the theme or issue might be predetermined, but the actual script is spontaneously generated.
Sociodramatic role-plays are being used regularly in therapy, community organizing, and social activism spaces, though most often simply referred to as “role-plays” or “simulations” (Hunter & Lakey, 2004; Jemal, Urmey, & Caliste, 2020). Activists and sociodramatists bring community issues to life using role-plays as an educational tool which provides participants with action insights, catharsis, new perspective, and role training. Below are multiple examples of both sociodramas and sociodramatic role-plays in community settings focused on social activism, beginning with a description of the first sociodrama by Moreno. It is important to note that the experiential sociometry tools from Sects. 18.5–18.10 are especially useful to warm up community groups before moving into any type of role-play or action sociodrama.
Search for a Leader of the New World Order
The first sociodrama session took place on April 1, 1921, in Vienna, facilitated by Jacob Moreno. This session took place at the Vienna Comedian House just a few years after the end of World War I and the collapse of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. “Postwar Vienna was seething with revolt. There was no stable government, no emperor, no king, no leader…And, like the other nations of the earth, Austria was restless, in search of a new soul” (Moreno, 2019, p. 206). Moreno describes the audience as consisting of around one thousand people including politicians, foreign dignitaries, religious leaders, and cultural leaders of Vienna. Moreno appeared on stage with no script, no actors, and with only a chair resembling a throne and a gilded crown. In his autobiography, he describes this experience in his own words:
I was entirely unprepared… But, psychodramatically speaking, I had a cast and I had a play. The audience was my cast. The people in the audience were like a thousand unconscious playwrights. The play was the situation into which they were thrown by historical events in which each of them had a real part to play. It was my aim, as we would say today, to tap sociodrama in statu nascendi and to analyze the production which emerged. If I could only succeed in turning the audience into actors, actors in their own collective drama, the collective drama of social conflict in which they were actually involved every day of their lives, then my boldness would be redeemed and the session would have accomplished something. (2019, p. 206)
He invited audience members to ascend from the crowd to the throne and offer a new philosophy of leadership for the new world order. “No one was prepared ahead of time. Unprepared characters acted in an unprepared play before an unprepared audience. The audience played the role of the jury” (Moreno, 2019, p. 206). Nobody won the approval of the audience—including Moreno and his spontaneous experiment. This first sociodrama resulted in newspapers harshly criticizing him, friends leaving him, harm to his reputation in Vienna, and a newfound commitment to spontaneous theater by Moreno and his theater group.
Though the session was described as a failure, it led to the production of the Impromptu Theater
, sociodrama, and psychodrama. Most trained psychodramatists, who have the benefit of the 100 years of practice wisdom since this event, would comment on the lack of audience warm-up and the value of using doubling
, mirroring, and role reversal that Moreno had not yet conceived of at that time. Consideration of the contract with the group is also significant in analyzing Moreno’s failed session. The audience attended under the assumption that they would sit quietly in the role of audience, as is the informal contract they agree to in every other theater session. Moreno changed the contract and asked audience member to become not only an actor, but the protagonist of the show without proper warm-up. Perhaps Moreno was to be the most influential leader in the building that night and the session would have benefitted from him sitting on the throne. Or, maybe the crowd’s inability to produce a leader was the perfect conclusion of the sociodrama as it symbolically represented Austria’s governmental shift from that of a monarchy to a republic.
2.2 Youth and Police in Philadelphia
The use of role-playing
techniques, psychodrama, sociodrama, and drama therapy seems to be well received by young people and has been covered by various other authors (Cahill, 2015; Cossa, 2006; Giacomucci, 2017; Jennings, 2014; Maier, 2002; Weber & Haen, 2005). The elements of play
, creativity, and social connection seem to highly compliment the developmental tasks of young people (Giacomucci, 2017). Cossa (2006) highlights specifically how sociodrama and psychodrama create opportunities for youth to explore new roles, practice social skills, express emotions, meet developmental needs, and experiment with new emerging aspects of identity.
My first personal experience of sociodramatic role-play in a community setting was as an observer at a community event in North Philadelphia. The event was focused on mitigating conflict and enhancing relationships between youth and police officers in the community. Many of the youth in the community felt as though they were being unfairly harassed by police officers or discriminated against due to their race or ethnicity while the police officers felt as though they were unfairly disrespected by the youth. The warming up process included a moderated discussion between the two groups and the voicing of difficult encounters between both groups. From there, the session moved into action enacting several of the described encounters. One of the most memorable was a described experience of youth feeling harassed by the police for hanging out on the sidewalk with friends.
The moderator invited three police officers from the group to play the roles of three youth hanging out together on the sidewalk. Then, one of the adolescents from the community volunteered and was enrolled into the police officer role. The situation was that the officer had been told to respond to a noise complaint in the neighborhood. As he approached the three kids, he respectfully asked them to be quiet, they responded telling him to stop harassing them and that they were not doing anything wrong. The police officer tried again to redirect them, this time with more firmness, asking them to go home. The kids protested louder with more energy and frustration at the officer. After multiple failed attempts, the teen playing the role of the police officer became visibly frustrated with the kids. The audience shared his frustration with outbursts of laughter which turned to nervous laughter when the kid role-playing as the police officer jokingly pretended to pull out a gun and threaten the three kids. Here, the moderator paused the scene and took the opportunity to de-role the auxiliaries and move into a discussion about the experience as it relates to the realities of the community.
The youth commented on their newfound insight into how they might unknowingly make police officers’ jobs more difficult—especially how their reactions to law enforcement might increase the likelihood of violence. The discussion shifted to the reasons why teens might spend time on the street together which included acknowledging the high rates of household violence, drug abuse, and poverty in the community. The teenagers shared about their avoidance of going home because of these issues which provided the police with a more complete picture of the lives of the youth. Naturally, this increased understanding led to enhanced compassion and a softening of the police officers’ attitudes toward the kids. The sociodramatic enactments had successfully allowed each group to role reverse with the other and enhance their understanding of the other group’s experience. Though many issues persist between police and the community, this encounter depicts sociodrama’s ability to improve intergroup relationships. Perhaps an indicator of the intervention’s success was the friendly, but competitive basketball game between the youth and police that took place in the park after the community session.
A similar program is outlined in the Center for Court Innovation toolkit for police–youth dialogues (2015) which emphasizes the role-playing
component of the program:
Role-plays—especially reverse role-plays where young people act as officers and vice versa—can help participants address challenging street interactions while having some fun. When playing officers, young people learn how difficult it can be to make quick decisions in fraught situations, while police playing young people get a taste of how intrusive questioning can feel. (p. 21)
In this publication, role-playing
between police and youth was highlighted by researchers and observers as the favorite aspect of the program by both police and youth participants.
2.3 Sociodramatic Dialogue Between Generations in Baltimore City Barbershops
Another use of sociodrama to explore and enhance intergroup relationships comes from the work of Joshua Lee, MSW, CP, a social worker and psychodramatist in Baltimore City who has created multiple innovative experiential approaches to community social work including ShopTalk: Share. Heal. Grow. ShopTalk is a project Joshua developed using Moreno’s methods in urban barbershops with the African-American community after the 2015 Baltimore uprisings responding to police brutality (Lee, 2018). In his 2018 article about his approach, Lee writes that his experiential work in barbershops has explored various topics pertinent to the community including violence, addiction, relationships, trauma, and loss. He outlines a sociodramatic empty chair dialogue that emerged between the older and younger generations due to a comment from an older man that “those young people are lost these days”. Seizing the opportunity for dialogue, Joshua pulls out an empty chair to represent young people and begins spontaneously facilitating the drama. From the role of the younger generation, someone exclaims “you all failed us!” As it emerges, the dialogue draws in participants within the barbershop as they become curious and warmed up, speaking from the various roles until the encounter moves to closure. Another enactment from the barbershop group centered on a man who wanted to psychodramatically speak to God in the other empty chair. He began to thank God for saving him from childhood trauma, addiction, incarceration, and violence as the rest of the group witnessed with reverence. Observers in the barbershop responded with a standing ovation, followed by general sharing of similarities and a sense of relief and gratitude for the chance to share their stories.
When a psychodrama or sociodrama really represents the issues in the group, it catches everyone’s attention and pulls them into engagement with excitement, interest, and anticipation. Lee writes that “action methods in barbershops seemed to pull people into the conversation quickly, thereby causing deeper connections and heartfelt-experiences with ‘strangers’ to develop” (Lee, 2018, p. 146). Joshua highlights the importance of trusting the community to support each other and find their own answers within the sociodrama structure (J. Lee, personal communication, May 18th, 2020). Joshua notes that ShopTalk sessions have, at times, broken out into spontaneous dance and music—and that attendees often attend future community-based psychodrama events. Joshua’s work within the community strongly resembles the original methods of both the social work profession and the Morenean approach of meeting people where they are at. This involves going out into the community to where people live to be of service, rather than meeting individual clients in neatly organized professional offices. The use of Moreno’s methods through ShopTalk incorporates a range of interventions focused on both social and emotional issues of individual protagonists, groups, and the larger community.
Crisis Intervention Training for Law Enforcement on Domestic Violence, Mental Health, and Addiction
The use of sociodrama and role-play techniques has been used in training programs and events with law enforcement to both challenge biases about mental illness and domestic violence while also providing role training on more sensitive ways to respond (Buchanan & Hankins, 1987; Buchanan & Swink, 2017; Moreno, 2014). This use of Moreno’s methods in training law enforcement was spearheaded by the St. Elizabeths Hospital prestigious psychodrama program which developed a collaboration with the Washington DC. Police Department in the 1970s. An objective was set to provide training for all Washington DC. police officers on family crisis intervention (Buchanan & Swink, 2017). The popularity of this type of training program is evidenced by its promotion in many major national newspapers and its adaptation into training programs for other government agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation hostage negotiation team, Social Security Administration, the State Department, U.S. Army, U.S. Secret Service, Dulles Airport security, and the U.S. Capital Police.
Advocating for a new approach to domestic violence. The most successful training program of this nature was the Family Crisis Intervention Program, a collaboration between psychodramatists at St. Elizabeths Hospital and the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington DC. It was also the most extensive training program in the United States at that time (Hankins & Buchanan, 1987). This program curriculum is outlined in the publication The Badge and the Battered, edited by Buchanan and Hankins (1987). This program emerged due to the problem of family violence, police officers’ high rates of assault or death while responding to domestic violence calls, and critiques at nature of police officers’ interventions (or lack of) (Callahan, 1987; Hankins, 1987). The program implemented sociodramatic role-play enactments so participants could experientially explore common family disturbance situations, potential family dynamics that lead to family conflict, and practice responding to these situations in different ways while also exploring their personal biases related to sexuality, gender, religion, family status, substance abuse, and mental illness (Chasnoff, 1987). The role-plays included consideration to non-verbal behavior and adhered to a five-phase intervention model—safety, diffusion, communication, resolution, and referral. Afterward, participants engaged in a discussion about which interventions seemed most effective and their own action insights during the process. Multiple studies were conducted evaluating the impact of the program which concluded that (1) there was a significant reduction of assaults on police who were trained by the program (Buchanan & Hankins, 1983), (2) significant changes in police attitudes about domestic violence and their ability to respond to it (Buchanan & Perry, 1985), (3) an increased ability to defuse conflictual situations (Bandy, Buchanan, & Pinto, 1986), and (4) an overall improvement in communication skills, role repertoire, and spontaneity in responses (Hankins & Buchanan, 1987). In describing the program, the Chief of Police commented that “I am convinced that our officers are providing more sensitive intervention; and as a result, are more capable in handling family disturbances. The significant reduction in assaults on police officers is a direct result of this new competence” (Buchanan & Hankins, 1987, n.p.). The utility of sociodrama and role training to improve behavioral responses is highlighted by this project which created lasting change in the law enforcement community and the communities in which they serve.
Challenging perceptions on mental illness and addiction. The success of the Family Crisis Intervention Program described above resulted in many later programs including the training of police in Pennsylvania using sociodramatic methods to challenge perspectives on mental illness. This project advocated for less criminalization and more human police treatment of those suffering from addiction and mental health issues. After didactic presentations are offered by facilitators on common mental health disorders, a sociodramatic role-play ensues. One such example comes from the work of David Moran, LCSW, CADC, TEP with a behavioral health crisis intervention unit of police officers in the Philadelphia suburbs.
The group is exploring their response as police officers to an escalated situation which involves an individual with schizophrenia. Police participants in the group are cast in the various roles including the responding officers, the victim, the aggressive person suffering from schizophrenia, and the multiple schizophrenia-related voices that this individual is experiencing. The impact of the schizophrenic voices on the individual become apparent when externalized through the role-play as the participant in the role of this person attempts to communicate with others in the scene while also hearing internal voices. In the role-play
, law enforcement agents have an opportunity to practice different methods of responding to the individual with severe mental illness to determine the most effective approach. This process allows the responding officers to develop an experiential understanding of the internal reality of someone with schizophrenia so that they can respond on the job with more empathy and understanding.
The training program also uses a similar sociodramatic training vignette focused on persons with addictive disorders where a similar scene is enacted but with auxiliaries playing the roles of “the voice of addiction,” “alcohol,” “drugs,” or “drug cravings”. While many have biases against people with addictions, the role-play also helps participants develop a better understanding and sense of empathy for the suffering of those inflicted with addictions. In this module, the high rates of alcohol and substance abuse within law enforcement communities are also acknowledged as a way of helping trainees cultivate empathy and prevent an “us versus them” mentality. Overall, the program helps to mitigate the tendency to stigmatize or dehumanize persons with severe mental illness or addictions, enhance understanding and empathy, and increase practical communication skills for officers when communicating with persons with addictions and severe mental illness.
Research on a similar police training program demonstrated a significant increase in recognition of mental health issues, improved efficiency dealing with mental illness, and decreased physical altercations and weapon-involved interactions with mentally ill individuals (Krameddine, DeMarco, Hassel, & Silverstone, 2013). The outcomes of this study suggested that a one-day training for police costed about $120 per officer but resulted in more than $80,000 in savings over the next 6 months because of the improved interpersonal skills of officers interacting with mentally ill individuals in the community. Other studies focused on using role-playing
simulations to improve police interactions with mentally ill individuals have also produced positive results (Bonfine, Ritter, & Munetz, 2014; Krameddine & Silverstone, 2015; Reuland & Schwarzfeld, 2008; Silverstone, Krameddine, DeMarco, & Hassel, 2013; Watson, Morabito, Draine, & Ottati, 2008).