A Conceptual Framework for Therapeutic Enactment


Due to the difficulty of separating life from theater [as noted by dramaturgical theorists], the following distinctions may appear unclear or open to exceptions; nonetheless I believe they convey useful distinctions.

In the context of psychotherapy, enactments refer to activities performed by clients which are instigated by their therapists for the clinical  purposes of assessment, self-discovery, emotional catharsis, and/or  skills-training. Dramatic enactments refer to those enactments in which  the activities are understood by all those present as being staged (i.e.,  not-to-be-taken-as-real), marked by one or more of the following features”

  1. they are performed in an altered/assumed identity;
  2. there are stated rules,  instructions, or conditions for their performance which lie outside the range of clients’ ordinary experience;
  3. the context of their performance marks them as different from that of to-be-taken-as-real behavior.

Since all client enactments occur in the other-than-ordinary context of psychotherapy and at the instigation of therapists which marks them as different from “real” behavior, it might be supposed that that, all enactments are dramatic ones. However, there are non-dramatic enactments, such as parent-skills training interventions or Structural Family therapy enactments in which the performed activity is  taken-as-real.

I find it useful to classify Dramatic enactments on two orthogonal dimensions: STRUCTURE and EGO DISTANCE. Structure denotes the degree to which performance is prefigured by such devices as roles, plot,  setting, stage-directions, scripted dialogue, and/or props. At the High extreme of Structure everything is given/scripted: words, actions, even inflections.  This is employed in the use of Auxiliaries in psychodrama, who merely render faithfully another’s actions when they stand in for a Protagonist.  In descending order of Structure there then follow three levels of improvisation (Emunah, 1994): planned (roles are assigned and the scenario is given prior to  enactment), extemporaneous (role relationships only are given), and, the  least structured, impromptu (nothing given; everything discovered in the  moment).

Ego Distance refers to the degree to which clients perceive their own  performances as uncharacteristic of their ordinary selves.

At the High end of Ego Distance are performances in which the player is  barely able to identify with any aspect of the character s/he is impersonating; at the extreme Low end, the player experiences “being oneself.” Psychodramatists have developed a variety of techniques to vary ego-distance for player-protagonists, mainly doubling.

The distinction between non-dramatic and dramatic enactment rests on the degree of ego-distance experienced during the enacted performance. To make this clearer, suppose that a mother slammed the front door of her home in the face of her teenage daughter’s date last Saturday night. In a family therapy session the following week, at the request of the therapist, the mother-as-client demonstrates how she slammed the door. Although staged, this would be a  non-dramatic enactment since the client was “being herself,” albeit possibly  more self-consciously than at the time of the original event. If that client demonstrates how her own mother would have handled the same scenario when the client was a seventeen-year-old living at home, however, it would be a dramatic  enactment since she was experiencing “not-herself” during the enactment (i.e., high ego-distance).

All RfG methods are dramatic enactments that use stated rules, instructions, or conditions for their performance which lie outside the range of clients’ ordinary experience and which occur in a context that marks them as different  from that of to-be-taken-as-real behavior. RfG methods in which players are  experiencing being themselves are termed “exercises” while those performed in an  altered/assumed identity are termed “games.”