Book Review: Acting for Real

RfG Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 2, Winter/Spring 1996

Acting for Real
Renee Emunah. New York: Bruner/Mazel, 1994.

Infrequently yet unforgettably, there are those disconcerting times in life when you meet someone whose character, appearance or circumstances remind you of yourself in a way that gives rise to thoughts of how your own life, even your identity, might easily have been different. Reading Acting for Real triggered such an experience for me; Renee Emunah has approached therapy in a similar spirit, using much the same body of technique as I. Had I known her work before writing Rehearsals for Growth (both boooks were published in 1994) I doubtless would have addressed a broader range of clinical issues and expanded my point of view to encompass more of the drama therapy approach that Renee Emunah, Founder and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, sets forth in great detail in this superbly organized book.

After a concise chapter on the conceptual base of the field Emunah presents drama therapy, conducted in groups, as a course of treatment divided into five phases: I. Dramatic Play, a groundwork-laying use of interactive games and exercises that cultivate playfulness, expressiveness, and creativity and that establishes interpersonal trust; II. Scenework, generally improvised enactments, that feature taking up non-self roles without fear of being accountable for the deeds of one’s characters; III. Role Play, shifting to the enactment of concrete, real-life roles and themes, permitting experimentation with other options; IV. Culminating Enactment, moving on to deeper themes utilizing psychodramatic technique; and V. Dramatic Ritual, a celebratory process making use of rituals, stories, rhythmic sounds and poetry to achieve assimilation of learning, transition to functioning outside the group, and closure of the drama therapy experience. While no theory (in the formal sense) is presented here this book offers a more coherent, organized presentation of drama therapy than any other of which I am aware.

What makes this 5-phase sequential model valuable is that it provides a map both to the clients’ developmental process during the drama therapy experience and guides the therapist’s progressive use of techniques. Acting for Real supplies the reader with in-depth case material illustrating the application of many of the techniques described and offers frequent, practical commentary on the sequencing of these techniques.

The author devotes a chapter to scenes, distinguishing three levels of improvisational structure (in decreasing order): planned (the scenario is given prior to enactment), extemporaneous (role relationships only are given), and impromptu (nothing given; everything discovered in the moment). She also gives four common therapeutic objectives of improvisational enactment: Uncovering the Meaning of the Role (most used in Phase II); Finding Alternatives or New Behaviors (Phase III); Heightening or Containing Emotion (Phases III or IV); and Introducing and Internal Nurturing Parent (Phase IV). In the accompanying case illustrations Emunah shows how her own observations and thinking guide her choices of directing the therapeutic intervention.

Emunah borrows or modifies a great assortment of techniques from theater, gestalt therapy, psychodrama, and dance/movement therapy, classifying them according to their predominant clinical use. Many of the specific improv games and exercises described in Acting for Real are the same ones used in RfG, although their application differs due to the individual (rather than relational) focus of her work. One of Emunah’s favorite techniques, the varied use of a disconnected prop telephone, struck me as highly valuable. As she writes,

Like drama itself, the telephone as prop is almost real, treading the thin line between the actual and the imaginary- a line at which such powerful theater and therapy can take place. (p. 189)

Even though Emunah’s drama therapy takes place in groups, it is not of groups; there is only incidental mention of principles of group interaction or of group-as-a-whole process. Most of the groups she writes about are conducted with disturbed individuals in institutional settings. While Emunah displays a keen awareness of how the context of these settings affects client behavior and attitudes I would have liked learning more about the general constraints and opportunities of working with these populations in comparison with higher-functioning outpatient ones.

Currently I am re-reading this book to incorporate more of the richness and variety of Emunah’s work into my own. As you are probably reading this Newsletter out of interest in Action techniques in general and therapeutic improvisation in particular, I ENTHUSIASTICALLY recommend this book to you, not only for its wealth of organized, practical, and innovative technique but also for the caring, playful wisdom that Emunah brings to her work with some very difficult clients. Acting for Real is inspirational because it shows us what clinical artistry can accomplish when working with those whom conventional clinicians frequently write off as unreachable. The abiding lesson is that, ultimately, clinical effectiveness is not a function of how powerful or varied are the techniques at your disposal, but of your use of self in the moment.