By Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP
This year, psychodrama is celebrating its 100th year. That’s a lot of years.
It's been an interesting century. Every serious psychodrama student knows the history of this amazing method. A young physician, fascinated by theater and priding himself a rebel to the Freudian philosophy of the time, rents a theater in Vienna on April 1, 1921. He dresses dramatically as a jester and places a throne on the empty stage. With dignitaries watching, he invites someone to sit upon the throne, willing to take leadership of still-recovering Austria, which was repairing the ravages of World War I.
In celebrating this psychodrama milestone, we have the opportunity to look at its history and evolution through the years. Indeed, it may be challenging to find a philosophy that is hardly known by the public and at the same time so firmly embedded in our culture with group therapy, support groups, social networks, role play, experiential psychotherapy and other action activities.
When we forget our ancestors...
My study and practice of ancestry healing and Family Constellations for the past 20 years teaches me that we thrive when we respect the ancestors and honor their struggles and strengths. When we forget or dismiss the ancestors, we are the less for it.
Because J.L. Moreno lived in post-war Europe, he must have been shaped by his early work tending to the sick refugees at the Mitterndorf camp located southeast of Vienna, near Fischa River. His patients must have been impacted by the great Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, and surely he must have observed that they needed healing not only from illness but also from the trauma and destruction of war and the anti-Semitism of the time. He watches children at play in the grand Augarten parks in Vienna and they act out the stories that he tells them. Then he takes inspiration from the Greek drama, from Jesus and other early philosophers to slowly develop psychodrama and its related methods.
In turn, he inspired many followers, associates and family members, including his third wife Zerka Moreno and his loyal brother William Moreno, who regularly offered financial help.
Adapting and spreading
The students who arrived at Moreno Institute in Beacon, N.Y., included many people who would take parts of his philosophy and adapt it to match their own emerging ideas – like Fritz Perls merging and adapting Moreno’s method to his Gestalt therapy. Others, full of admiration of “the Doctor,” would accept psychodrama wholly and deliver and teach it in the United Sates and throughout the world. Marcia Karp to the United Kingdom, Gretel Leutz to Germany, and Anne Ancelin Schützenberger to France – and more.
Archival films of Jacob Moreno conducting psychodramas from the 1940s to the 1960s, which may be found on YouTube today, are fascinating yet appear clunky and dated to our contemporary sensibilities. Fewer practitioners use the strict classical psychodrama method taught by the Morenos, when the enactment took place on a lighted three-tier stage with three-hour sessions. In fact, psychodrama has evolved into a sophisticated method with techniques adaptable for individual and group psychotherapy and various psychological approaches. Now most practitioners have shortened the length of sessions, and cognitive behavioral therapists pick and chose from various techniques that they combine with their talk therapy sessions.
In addition to its therapeutic uses, psychodrama has found its way to coaching, leadership development, community and social justice, play, improvisational theater and medical training. Today’s trainers are always innovating, developing special models for spiritual growth, trauma treatment, disabled persons and people with brain injury, autism and the like.
In the non-therapeutic world, practitioners have employed psychodrama in law, criminal justice, police training and business. The related field of sociodrama shows applications for management training, community building, education, faith community and political contexts. More innovations address collective trauma and collective healing. Bert Hellinger, the developer of Family Constellations, synthesized many of Moreno’s ideas, particularly tele and sociometry, with other philosophies.
Ancestors and world history
Psychodramatists who are interested in ancestor healing will benefit from learning world history. If we believe that traumatic experiences are carried from generation to generation and country to country, we must recognize historical elements from our respective nations as well as peoples’ countries of origin. This should include the history of emigration of various centuries and decades as well as the history of famine, war, religious persecution, organized racist policies, genocide, slavery, regional migration and natural catastrophes. Each country also has a history of the decimation of indigenous and other peoples which should be acknowledged, studied and fearlessly brought forward as necessary.
Clearly, there is still much work to be done. As J.L. Moreno famously said, “A truly therapeutic procedure can have no less an objective than the whole of mankind.”.
Our psychodrama organizations persist. Younger people are becoming interested in psychodrama, sociodrama, sociatry and sociometry. Books are being written and published, including Words of the Daughter: A Memoir by Regina Moreno and Social Work, Sociometry and Psychodrama: Experiential Approaches for Group Therapists, Community Leaders, and Social Workers by Scott Giacomucci, both published this year. The American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama now offers a “Young Professional” award while initiating a program that honors the elders in our midst and their stories. YouTube shows an exciting range of videos about psychodrama. Candidates for practitioner and trainer study for the exams, eager to become certified. Psychodrama, after 100 years, is alive and breathing, thanks to its ancestors.
Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is the founder of the Lancaster School of Psychodrama and Experiential Psychotherapies in Lancaster, Pa., which teaches transformational learning in a variety of experiential methods and practices, including psychodrama, sociometry, Family and Systemic Constellations, sand tray, group skills and more. Subscribe to her e-letter for professionals and get first notice of training events, Early Bird discounts, helpful links and inspiring and supportive info. You may subscribe here.
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Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is an author, trainer and psychotherapist who promotes, practices and teaches experiential methods including psychodrama, Family and Systemic Constellations, mindfulness and Tarot imagery.