Dramatic Reality As Life
Student: California Institute of Integral Studies
Dramatic Reality is a core concept of Drama Therapy (Pendzick, 2006), but its root is represented in all forms of psychotherapy. This paper examines how drama therapy uses the concept of dramatic reality to explore the bridge between the outer and inner worlds. This paper also explores the idea that we as humans experience everything through the duality of our inner and outer worlds, thus, in some form, always existing within the realms of what drama therapists call dramatic reality. This space between reality and fantasy is not just a psychological concept, but the way in which we encounter everything. This paper will explore the ways that dramatic reality is used to safely construct representations of the real world, explore the connections between these constructs and the real world, and the paradoxes within this relationship. This paper will also examine how some of the leading drama therapists in the field use dramatic reality and play. Finally it looks at the use of transitional phenomena in play as part of the deepest journeys into dramatic reality.
Why do we play? From very early on, humans engage in games of pretend. Is it simply a childish way of relating because we don’t understand the world, something we should eventually grow out of, or is it the purest form of how we relate to our surroundings? We come into the world without the concept that we are separate (Rathus, 2006). We don’t yet have object permanence, or know that when mom leaves the room she still exists. We don’t know that there are different things going on in other people’s minds, that we all have a world inside of us. Even at this early stage we like to play. Very young children enjoy games of peek-a-boo. With the onset of language they enjoy jokes such as mom calling herself Dad and vice versa. During the nursery school years, children’s make-believe is characterized by a wildness, an anything-goes that could only exist in a world of no rules. As children age, their games become more systematized. They play sports with set rules, or make up their own games that nevertheless have specific rules. If one walks in an Elementary school playground one will hear as much arguing over rules as playing. As adults we relax by reading books or watching movies or sports. When we meet people we don’t play with them anymore, we ask where they are from and what they do. We don’t realize that we find humor the same way we always have, in incongruities. A tough person acting dainty, or even simply one person resembling another make us laugh. These incongruities reflect the biggest incongruity, the dual experience of the world through our inner and outer lenses. Dramatic reality is the bridge between the inner and outer world, the place we used to explore as children, the place where we still reside.
Different Explorations In The Playspace
There are many different ways that drama therapists help their clients create a safe space to explore their core issues. One common theme is the working out of real life issues within the creative space of dramatic reality. Beyond that, drama therapists fill the creative space with various different constructs to stand in for reality. Emunah’s(1994) Integrative Five Phase Model begins with surface level theater games and only gradually works toward working through core issues. This allows the clients to gradually share themselves in the therapeutic setting. Phase One begins with dramatic play, with the goal of building trust in oneself, the other group members, and the therapist. Emunah (1994) says that dramatic play “generates spontaneity and facilitates relationships and interaction.” These goals become the building blocks for the later phases, which employ scene work, role play, a culminating enactment based on psychodrama, and a ritual closing. All of these may not have been possible without the framework set in phase one with seemingly simple theater games and exercises.
In one session of a class I took with Emunah on Drama Therapy Process and Technique, she began by having the class walk around the room, then imagine ourselves a year ago. Next we broke into pairs and talked as if we were a year in the past. We played make-believe, embodying our past selves, yet not having to dredge up any intense experiences. At the same time we were immersed in our memories, interacting with the other participants, and pretending. Next we embodied an idea of ourselves in three years. Rather than relying on memory, now we created who we were. I found this exciting to imagine myself with a private practice. Next, Emunah had us all drink a cup of juice. At the bottom on the cup was a character trait that we had to take on at the “party” that was about to begin. Now we were becoming characters and interacting even more, exaggerating ourselves or becoming something else, and of course, having fun. Next we broke into groups of four and became a family, with each person taking on one of four roles; avoidance, angry/blamer, mediator and, attention-getter. Then without words we improvised a scene and the audience tried to guess which role each of us had embodied. Finally we broke into groups, took on one of the four family roles, and spent five minutes planning a family outing. Our simple play had seamlessly become scene work, where we explored intense family relationships. We didn’t need to bring our own lives into the sketches, but certain dynamics from our own families often bled through and informed the scenes. Emunah had taken us, in a very safe way, down the road of dramatic reality toward deep sharing. The place where we began to open up was not when we were asked “tell me about your family,” but rather when we began to play. The fictional play allowed us to expand our possibilities, get beyond our life scripts and move beyond our dominant selves (Emunah 1994). It was at the moment we weren’t trying to be who we are, that we expressed ourselves. Emunah (1994) sees drama therapy as fostering “liberation, expansion and perspective. Drama Therapy invites us to uncover and integrate dormant aspects of ourselves, to stretch our conception of who we are, and to experience our intrinsic connection with others.” The use of play, the exploration of the self within dramatic reality, clearly works toward these lofty goals.
David Read Johnson (1996), sees the encounter between the therapist and client as the most important aspect of therapy. He bases this idea on Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, which stripped away all props and costumes and even plot so that the audience and actor come face to face with nothing between them. This same encounter can be employed to connect the client and therapist. For Johnson, the therapist goes beyond the guide and actually intervenes into the playspace, becoming the client’s play object. The client leads while the therapist is there to support the client and help create an encounter between the client and therapist, but also between the client and their true self. In this way they both dive into the client’s playspace and explore what is there, letting the core issues present themselves as they will. This seems much more free flowing then the play in Emunah’s Five Phase model. Though Emunah has a model based on a process, and lets the client’s own work fuel the direction of therapy, there is still an external framework. Johnson’s poor theater approach of DvT (Developmental Transformation) evenvelops the client and therapist into the client’s playspace almost like a science fiction film, and follows the streams of consciousness that pass by. Robert Landy (1994) uses play to help the client gain perspective on the roles they take on in life. After the play is over he deeply analyzes what happened. Jennings (1992) sees the fictional realm as a place of deep, almost mystical truths that connect all of us, and does relatively little analysis or interaction of what therapy goes on there. Though these drama therapists may vary in their focus on affect(Emunah), embodiment (Johnson and Jennings) or cognition (Landy), they all recognize and utilize the power of play. This shared playspace is filled with imagined realms, hopes to grasp and fears to face.
Pretend States As Reality
The elements we bring into our play are based on the outside world. The people, the emotions, and the places are all based on what we have experienced. Pretending to be a wolf on the hunt may represent violent or predatory feelings, or ones of camaraderie. Winnicott (1971), when looking at a mother and baby, calls the playspace the potential space between them, which he contrasts “(a) with the inner world (which is related to the psychosomatic partnership) and (b) with the actual, or external reality (which has its own dimensions, and which can be studied objectively and which…does remain constant).” I take this idea a step further with the idea that even real life is a form of dramatic reality, that it is simply more objective than imagination. Pendzick’s idea of dramatic reality takes this potential space and places it within reality, rather than adjacent to it. She calls dramatic reality (Pendzick 2006) “imagination manifested. It is an as if made real, an island of imagination that becomes apparent in the midst of actual life. Dramatic reality involves a departure from ordinary life into a world that is both actual and hypothetical: it is the establishment of a world within the world.” This world within the world is not separate, but informed by the outer world that surrounds it. If these pretend states are just pretend, why do they affect us so greatly? Can’t we tell the difference between living something an acting it out. Apparently, our brains can’t. We don’t differentiate between real emotions from life and fictional ones that we feel while watching a movie. That is to say, our brains don’t. Why does this happen? Mirror neurons may be a large piece of the puzzle. A study at UCLA found that the pain neurons which fire when you poke a patient with a needle will also fire when the patient watches someone else getting a shot (Iacoboni M, et al. 2005). The same phenomenon is found when comparing the brain of a person who feels sad from a life event with one watching a sad character movie. This means that we can feel something that doesn’t happen to us, we can even feel it if it happens to a fictional character! This goes beyond sympathy into empathy. It also breaks down our idea of the barrier between the self and the world around us, making our experience of dramatic reality as real as reality itself. This begs the question; what is the difference between reality and dramatic reality?
Paradox of Existence
When we play it is in the realm of the not real. We are exploring possible worlds, yet we embody them as if they were factual (Elam, 1980). In this way, the arena within dramatic reality, or the playspace, becomes reality. At the same time, we are not in the real world. For example, a client may be in therapy to work out anger issues toward his/her father. The therapist may play the role of the father, or an empty chair may represent the father. The client is able to say whatever they want without fear of actual punishment from the real father. They are allowed to vent in a safe environment. Afterwards they may feel a sense of catharsis, or, at the very least, some release. These feelings are real. The act of expressing oneself has real effects. At the same time, the client’s father is not present. This is the inherent paradox of the dramatic space. The drama is based on reality, feeds on real emotions, and is a representation of reality. This brings about the philosophical question; what is reality? We are all inherently subjective. Our experience of the world is based upon the way our brains are formed. A bat or a whale, animals that rely on very different modes of “seeing” the world, experience reality in ways we can hardly imagine. Their experience is so different that one could call it another reality altogether. This means that even what we call reality is a construct. What follows is that the difference between the outer and inner worlds is not comparing a reality and a construct, but two constructs. If one sees reality as a subjective experience then the power of drama becomes much more understandable. The constructed reality within drama becomes the subjective reality we experience through our senses. The represented sadness or joy or catharsis can become real, because to the brain it is real. By fading into dramatic reality, a place where we have much more power to explore time and space and emotions, we can find peace in ways we never could in the “reality.”
While working with Autistic children for over half a decade I realized that one of their biggest struggles is with transitions. Waking up, coming to school, arriving at school, beginning recess, ending recess, leaving school, and leaving school are all events that could throw off a kid who is calm and focused. I asked myself how could it be so hard to make these small transitions. Then I noticed the same thing when picking up my friend’s daughter from school. She would be so quiet on the car ride I thought she was angry with me, but then she brightened up when we got home. I realized later that she was just acclimating to the change. Then I thought about myself. I get extremely nervous starting new schools or jobs, even if I’m not worried about any specific bad thing. All of these suggest that it is not just Autistic children, but all of us who have trouble with transitions, but all of us. Dictionary.com (2011) defines a transition as a “movement, passage, or change from one position, state, stage, subject, concept, etc., to another.” We usually don’t think of leaving work and coming home as a change from one state to another, but this is what is happening. Landy (1994) would say we are shedding the role of the worker and taking on the role of father, mother, lover, etc... Transitions still affect us now, but our biggest transition was from the womb. Then we went through a time where we didn’t know we were separate from the world, living in a near hallucinatory state Winnicott (1971). It sounds as if we come into the world in a state where dramatic reality, and the inner and outer worlds don’t merely overlap, but are one and the same. A primary caregiver’s love and support becomes the slow transition from being physically connected in the womb to the realization that one is autonomous. When the mother begins to leave the child for longer and longer periods, the child may hold on to a teddy bear or blanket that symbolize the mother. This is the impetus for what Winnicott termed the transitional object. The child can play with this object, engage in make-believe games, proudly show it to others, or simply clutch it close to the body. At this very young age, an infant is playing not just with a stuffed animal, but with something that represents his relationship with his mother. He has realized he is separate from his mother, and that mother exists when she is not nearby, but he is still not completely comfortable with this fact. With the transitional object he infuses reality with his inner emotions, marking an extremely early instance of dramatic reality in the child’s life. Unlike us, he is not merging the inner and outer worlds into dramatic reality, but beginning to separate them. This type of metaphoric play continues as children grow, as evidenced with Winnicott’s (1971) various case studies, including one where a child used string to connect himself to his mother, and another where a little girl represented her younger sibling and herself with two stuffed animals.
I believe that we never completely leave this metaphoric state. I believe that this dual experience creates our existential angst or the “human condition.” Smiling seems to begin as a reflex or a way to connect with the caregiver (Rathus, 2006). Later babies smile when they understand something. Maybe humor begins when we realize the paradoxes of how we perceive the world. This would explain why most humor is based on incongruities.
Playing within dramatic reality is so effective and feels real because it is real. If reality is a subjective construct itself, then it is different from dramatic reality only in degrees, not type. Because the outer reality is a much less malleable construct it feels concrete and objective. When seen in this light, dramatic reality is not a childish form of play nor a frivolous theatrical technique, but a slight exaggeration of the way in which we experience the world. This is why work within this creative space can be so powerful. Drama therapy goes beyond the speaking to the acting out, using the body, which is when we are the most truly in dramatic reality, the most spontaneous. Much of what we are isn’t in words but physical ways we experience the world, the way children play, first exploring creativity with wild abandon, then with rules. Soon these rules begin to negate the imaginary world. Exploring these feeling, which often can’t be expressed in language, in a safe place that is reflective of how we live, is more effective than simply focusing on the inner and outer world, more powerful than discussing the bridge without walking on it. The inner and outer worlds are not alone, they are always informing one another. Accepting and working within this dialectic is the most healing. To be most effective one usually needs a guide or therapist to help warm-up the mind to the task of dealing with difficult emotions, as well as navigating the wild terrain of the unconscious. A trained therapist can help keep the space safe, as well as choose the correct paths toward fulfillment.
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