Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Standing in the Fire

Originally posted on January 5, 2012

In the Fall, 2011 issue of Dramascope: the e-newsletter of the National Association for Drama Therapy, a mini-essay of mine was published and I thought I’d put it up here, too.  What’s said here applies also to the challenge of leading a psychodrama.  Essentially (as an abstract of what I say), I note that one way drama therapist find themselves “in the fire” is that they engage in an exploratory process without a guarantee that where it will lead is known or controlled by the therapist. There is a trust in the creative process. However, this role conflicts with traditional (and unrealistic) expectations that therapists should know what is right for the patient, that they “should” know how to “fix” things. True creative exploration requires a resistance to this old norm. So, with that introduction, here’s what was in the Dramacope:

In considering this year’s conference theme, “Will you stand with me in the fire?,”  I started to think about the unique way that drama therapists incorporate client feedback in the therapy session: We employ action-based and interactive methods. While familiar to our own community, such interventions may appear somewhat foreign and threatening to other mental health professionals and clients. Thus, it is worth considering how drama therapists bring certain elements to the therapeutic process that many people may not have previously encountered and also contend with prevailing stereotypes about therapy and the dramatic arts.

In classical therapy, the idea of getting out of one’s chair and expressing oneself in action could seem scary. The degree of self-exposure and commitment involved in embodiment is akin to the pervasive fear of public speaking. Sometimes it seems safer to "just talk" about feelings, though for some, even just talking about feelings can be anxiety-provoking! Lessening one’s defenses enough to listen to one’s instinct and creative energy may feel alien to some people; this activity involves becoming more sensitive to intuition and imagination, skills that are not fostered by most school systems or mass media outlets but are often developed in dramatic training.

The popular image of what "drama" entails is problematic, because what most people imagine is a highly polished performance with all the right lines in place. Also, even for patients who may be open to this modality, drama therapy has other image problems. Actors are further imagined to be self-centered and histrionic. If the tabloids are to be believed, all actors live out dysfunctional lives characterized by single-minded ambition in a highly-competitive world or the scandalous partner- hopping of celebrities. It can be difficult to let go of stereotypes and forget that these pervasive images apply only to a tiny fraction of those involved in theatre.

Stereotypes about psychotherapy also affect patients and their families. We should not underestimate the power of the impression given by the cartoon caricature of the odd patient lying on a couch near an often even odder therapist. Some people still think a "shrink" can magically read their minds and judge their secret thoughts.

Many also hope for a kind of magical relief from their predicament, which is contaminated by vague fantasies from their early childhood about parents or God. These "transferences" are also tainted by mixed feelings associated with other memories of being both helped and confused by other helpers: parents, teachers, ministers, and even past therapists. The key point here is that many clients have not been exposed to a kind of help that really incorporates the client’s feedback, and lets them know that this level of attunement is possible.

We are emerging from an antiquated cultural world-view in which so-called "experts" were respected because they knew answers and, for a fee, would tell you those answers. The new world-view better recognizes the cybernetic nature of personal development, a back-and-forth dialog that explores-without preconceived answers-what creative solutions might work best for the individual client. Therapists in the 21st century are trained to be open to client feedback and adjust their responses accordingly. The expert in such a context is the client rather than any "know-it-all" therapist. There is an art to evoking feedback and to fostering a client’s creative potential; not knowing answers, but knowing and applying this artful skill should be the drama therapist’s justification for the fee charged for service.

In my many years as a therapist, I have noticed that there has been a paradigm shift about what helping people is about, and that drama therapy offers a more post-modern approach to the helping process. Learning theory and practice is not irrelevant, of course, but I think our clients respond more favorably to drama therapists who operate within a framework of paradoxical openness. For example, the therapist might say (through action, words or both), "Let’s make this situation safe for you and then explore gently what you want. If you aren’t clear yet, then we can discover that together; then we can explore your creative resources and how they can be combined so that you can cope more effectively."

This way of thinking and practicing therapy contrasts with the role of the expert in the 20th century ("Tell me your problem and I’ll tell you what to do."). Admittedly, this is a shallow caricature, but it speaks to an educational system that implied that wisdom was merely the product of an accumulation of information; this was based on a common belief that there were indeed "answers" and that they could be learned. In contrast, I am suggesting that there are very few actual "answers" in daily life and that much of adulthood involves more open explorations, negotiations, compromises, diplomacy, and working things through. It is not a matter being "right" or "wrong", much less holding on to such attitudes. I am not sure that the shift to the more process-oriented reality of human relations ever becomes clear for most people.

The "fire", then, results from the collision of early modern and post-modern cultures, the misleading over-valuation of knowing right answers and the recognition that most situations need to be creatively negotiated. Drama therapists understand that creativity is heightened through the activities of creating safety, getting into action, offering repeated opportunities for rehearsal, operating at the edge of risk, letting go of perfectionism, and so forth. (What many folks do not know is that 90% of drama has little to do with the final performance for the audience’s benefit and more to do with creative interactions among the actors, script, directors, and others. The rehearsal phase is the real dynamism-and this was Moreno’s point: valuing the creator and the creative process more than what is created).

To stand in the fire as a drama therapist means to be a representative of a more interactional process. In order to be an effective clinician, one must allow one’s ego (the part that takes pride in knowing answers and being right) to risk being wrong-which is a kind of burning in a purifying fire. This back-and-forth creativity is the fundamental unit of communication and problem-solving. It shifts away from the role of expert as one who knows answers to one who facilitates a mutual creative process of discovery and learning.

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