Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Action Explorations

Originally posted on April 18, 2012

This is my term for a class of activities that used to be lumped with drama, psychodrama, applied drama—e.g., my anthology on Interactive & Improvisational Drama. I’ve changed my mind, though—I think it’s better to call this category “action explorations”—or, as an alternative, “exploratory enactments.” I am re-writing my two major books on psychodrama, updating them, and using that title, for several reasons:

Most people think of drama as equivalent to theatre. Among theatre artists, drama is a more inclusive term, but few else know this. Drama (or theatre) to most is scripted, rehearsed, performed by actors as a polished product to a relatively passive audience for purposes of entertainment, and our culture is full of not just stage plays, but movies, television programs, all kinds of shows, DVDs, and so forth.

There is another type of activity that utilizes a few elements of drama—enacted story, people playing roles, a special area or stage-like setting in which what is enacted counts as the “story” and not real life—but other than that, differs significantly: It is improvised, not scripted or rehearsed; it’s played by ordinary people being helped to explore, understand better, find a more creative solution; it interacts with a small group who are encouraging and interested, along with the main players, with finding those better solutions or understanding more.

I think these differences are crucial and deserve to be highlighted, not played down. Action explorations belongs in the schools as a major way for people to learn experientially. It is especially good for learning about the complexities of human problems, the art of people-helping (medicine, therapy, counseling, being a chaplain, minister, parenting, teaching, coaching, etc.), or for learning with greater understanding about history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology, communications, and many other subjects having to do with people’s minds, relationships, and socio-cultural systems. It’s good in the training of lawyers, police, and others who have to deal with more critical situations, for peacemaking instead of combat, for diplomacy and leadership. Promoting team-building and problem solving in business would be better done using action explorations, because people get more involved and learn better by doing rather than hearing “about.”

Some of the words used to describe action explorations have become problematic:

Psychodrama—I love it, I’ve written innumerable articles and some books about it, but!— journalists have begun to misuse the term to refer to any messy, psychologically-infused predicament. If definitions change by use rather than by prescription, more people are being exposed to this mis-use, and there are hundreds more journalists learning this new word than there are psychodramatists who can correct them. Psychodrama is supposed to be liberating, consciousness-raising, not reflective of just how fools can dig themselves in deeper.

Of course the parts of the word are problematic, too: Psycho seems both psychotic—and dangerously so—people think of Alfred Hitchock’s scary movie about the mad but clever killer, “Psycho.”  They also think of the caricature of psychoanalysis, the bearded guy, the couch, the subject of so many cartoons. “Drama” is associated with overly-dramatizing, with the peccadillos of celebrities, and no one wants to be known as a “drama queen.” So, squirming because these were not meant to be the associations called up, I bow to recognizing that in fact this is what most folks think about when they hear the word. I don’t think we’re gonna change that, so how about if we change the term?

I include in this umbrella category of action explorations the following: Drama therapy (which often goes beyond the sick role or medical model and deals with people who are not in “therapy’ per se); Process drama in education—building on the work of Dorothy Heathcote in England and many others—a way of learning by doing that I think has great promise; sociodrama—using psychodramatic methods to help groups explore the complexities of the roles they play; role training, helping people perform their role more effectively—similar to the simulations training of pilots and astronauts, or military maneuvers to detect and rectify glitches in planning with large systems; spontaneity training, improv classes, imagination development—wholesome activities just for fun; empathy training—skills for enhancing understanding; improv training in business and organizations; and so forth.

There are several intermediate forms such as Playback Theatre or Theatre of the Oppressed that partake of a bit more of the theatre but also are different from conventional types of drama.

So those are some of my reasons for promoting this new category. Things keep evolving when one thinks about them in a changing world.

One Response to “Action Explorations”

  • Matthew says:

    I would support your decision to change the term to action explorations. And the range of applications is broad. I tend to think that my reality needs some action explorations to help discover creative solutions. How does one begin to explore such a practice and develop appropriate skills to avoid becoming the fool that plunge people deeper into ambiguity? As a method of developing leadership and responsibility, particularly during periods of change and transition It’s a vibrant and exciting prospect.

    I initially wondered if by action explorations the activity extended into real life, as a mode of experential living. Rather than a passive, inactive relationship with one’s occupations action exploration promotes an active embeddedness; one would, for example, place themselves within contexts that imbue interest. Of course such an exploration would need marshalling, coaching. Might people be living this way? I think I live this way. The actors in the drama’s I explore and in which I’m actively involved are real but not always sincere or genuine. It’s real ambiguity. My aim is to discover a beauty to life that perhaps lays behind the acting. But of course I risk losing touch with a sense of reality that might otherwise divide one’s life into the real and unreal – but is that a bad thing?

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