20th edition of The Encyclopedia of Social Work

Psychodrama is an experiential and action-oriented method which, like social work practice, aims toward exploring and resolving psychological and social problems. Postulating that humans learn by action and interaction in a given context, pscyhodrama works by having participants enact problems issues or concerns rather than merely talk about them (Blatner 1996, Moreno 1946). It is part of the Triadic System, along with sociometry and group psychotherapy, created by Jacob Levi Moreno,MD (1889-1974) in the early decades of the twentieth century and developed further by many of his students (Blatner 2000).

Moreno began exploring his innovative ideas as a medical student in Vienna in 1911-1917 (Marineau,1989; Hare & Hare1996). During his training as a psychiatrist, the prevailing school of thought was psychoanalysis. Moreno considered this approach as too narrow. In a meeting with Freud, he stressed the importance of working with people in their homes and their “natural” surroundings, not to analyze their dreams, but to “encourage them to dream again”. Working with people in their context was a radical departure from the predominant psychoanalytic method, which involved one patient in the analyst’s office. During these years Moreno observed children at play in a city park and was fascinated by their creativity, freedom of expression and ability to resolve conflicts. Watching closely, he also noted the positive emotional effects on those engaged in enacting their fantasies, emotions and concerns. He then would tell them stories and have them play various roles. This led to future experimentation in improvisation techniques, involving the children and, at times, their parents. At age 22, he created The Theatre of Spontaneity, which was open to the community. Creating and enacting dramas relevant to people's lives that were neither scripted nor rehearsed was viewed both as artistic and therapeutic.

Another concurrent venue where Moreno continued to develop his ideas, reflective of his originality as an independent thinker, creator and activist, was his work with prostitutes. Appalled by their living conditions, humiliation and harassment by the police, he initiated what may be defined today as community organization and group therapy. Along with a physician specializing in venereal disease and a newspaper reporter, Moreno visited their homes “not to reform the girls or analyze them, but rather to return them to some dignity” (Moreno, 1946). He felt driven to help them, he wrote, “because the prostitutes had been stigmatized for so long as despicable sinners and unworthy people…they had come to accept this as an unalterable fact”(Moreno, 1989 p.48). As the initial meetings with their group focused on concrete problems such as lack of medical care, Moreno discovered the healing power of group sharing, noticing that they were feeling less isolated, more identified with each other and empowered to seek medical treatment when needed. This experience led to more elaborate formulations of what later became known as group psychotherapy.

As a young doctor Moreno held posts of medical officer in the Mittendorf refugee camp for Austrians fleeing the invasion of the Italian army. Prior to that he informally craeated the House of Encounter in Vienna, where volunteers aided homelss and needy people anonymously (Marineau, 1989).

In 1925, Moreno immigrated to the United States and continued the theoretical work, which he named Sociometry (Moreno, 1934) While working at the Sing Sing prison and the Hudson School for Girls. Serving as the scientific backbone for Psychodrama, Sociometry set out to measure experiential networks of connectedness through attraction, repulsion or neutrality, which are all present in social interactions. During the 1930’s he researched his ideas and explored their applications in many clinical settings and professional conferences. Challenging contemporary axioms of psychotherapy, which followed the medical models of pathology and cure, Moreno’s ideas were to be co-opted decades later by Family Therapy theorists and practitioners as basic tenets of System Theories. “The change of locus of therapy…means literally a revolution in what was always considered appropriate medical practice. Husband and wife, mother and child, are treated as a combine, often facing one another and not separate, because separate from one another they may not have any tangible mental ailment”.

In 1932, Moreno introduced Group Psychotherapy to the American Psychiatric Association as a viable therapeutic method. As he always viewed patients in their context, Moreno is also considered one the earliest pioneers of Family Therapy. His theories and methods represented a departure from traditional psychoanalytic thought and postulated that we learn through action and interaction and thus we heal. Moreno stated that interpersonal and intra-psychic issues leave an imprint on the body long before the body-mind paradigm became widely accepted. In demonstrating how the drama of the body can reveal and heal both physically and emotionally he famously said: “The body remembers what the mind forgets.” He described the goals of psychodrama as threefold: achieving a perceptual shift, emotional expression and behavioral change. Moreno developed many techniques, aimed at facilitating spontaneity and creativity, which, in his formulation, were the cornerstone of mental health.

In spite of its status of a method that remained out of the mainstream, psychodrama has had direct influence on various important schools of thought in sociology, psychotherapy and social work. Its indirect impact is reflected by adoption of many of its ideas and techniques by various schools of psychotherapy and in training and consultation (Hare & Hare 1996; Gershoni 2003). Research on the methods impact and effectiveness is an ongoing endeavor (Kipper & Ritchie2003; Kipper & Hundal 2003) testing the hypothesis that concretization of internal and external realities in the form of role playing or behavioral simulation has therapeutic advantages (Kipper.1986).

As a group model, psychodrama involves enactment of internal or external issues and past, present or future conflicts. The process consists of three distinct phases:
Warm Up – Group exercises aimed at facilitating safety, openness and spontaneity.
Enactment – Staging of the scene(s).
Sharing – Closure, and deepening of group support.

In conducting the session, the therapist (director) utilizes group therapy, sociometric and psychodramatic techniques (e.g. doubling and role reversal). Revisiting problematic scenes with the help of a skilled director and group members has a powerful healing effect on three levels that are essential for therapeutic change: cognitive, emotional and behavioral. The protagonist whose drama is enacted not only benefits from emotional expression and new insights, but also has an opportunity to acquire new behaviors relative to problems from the past or in preparation for anticipated difficulties. Group members, who play parts in the drama (auxiliaries) as well as other members (audience) also benefit from it directly or indirectly (Dayton, 1994). By sharing their reaction to the enactment and how it touches their own lives, the audience supports the protagonist and paves the way for future work.

Psychodrama has attracted many social workers to seek training in this method, whether to apply it to other modalities or for clinical and supervision practice. The training and examinations for certification are rigorous, and about one third of certified psychodarmatists( 128 of 403) are social workers (American Board of Exminers, 2006-2007).


American Board of Examiners in Psyhodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy, 2006-2007. Directory and Certification Standards, P. O. Box 15572, Washington D. C. 20003-0572.

Blatner A. (1996). Acting In: practical Applications of Psychodramatic Methods (3rd ed.) Springer, NY.

Blatner A.(2000). Foundation of Psychodrama; History, Theory and Practice (4th edition), Springer , NY.

Dayton, T. (1994). The Drama Within, Psychodramatic and Experiential Therapy, Health Communication, Inc. Deerfield Beach, Fla.

Gershoni, J. (ed.) 2003. Psychodrama in the 21st Century: Clinical and Educational Applications, Springer , NY.

Hare, P. A. & Hare, J. R. (1996). J. L. Moreno, Key Figures in Couseling and Psychotherapy, Sage Publication, London.

Kipper, D. A. (1986). Psychotherapy through Role Playing, Bruner/Mazel, NY.

Kipper, D. A., Hundal, J. (2003). A survey of clinical reports on teh application of psychodrama, Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama and Sociometry, 55, 141-157.

Kipper, D. A., & Ritchie T. D. (2003). Group Dynamyics: Theory, Research, and Practice. 7, 13-25.

Marineau, R. (1989). Jacob Levi Moreno (1889-1974), Routledge, London.

Moreno, J. L. (1946). Psychodrama, Vol. 1. Beacon House, NY.

Moreno, J. (1989). The Autobiography of J. L. Moreno, MD, Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama and Sociometry, v. 42, no. 1, Spring.

Moreno, J. L. (1993). Who Shall Survive? Foundations of Sociometry, Group Psychotherapy and Sociodrama, American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama, McLean, VA (first published in 1934).

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