Webpage Supplement to Introduction:

The More We Can Be: Drama for Role Expansion

Adam Blatner

Reposted, December 19, 2006

Drama offers a vehicle for the expression and satisfaction of a somewhat overlooked but yet obvious basic human motivation: People yearn to play roles beyond those that fill most of their everyday lives. More, people hunger to experience these roles with a fullness of affect that goes beyond the cultural norm that enforces living in a low-key, "cool," understated fashion. Both role expansion and dramatic elaboration is somewhat inhibited for many people in mid-life, so busy are they with the demands of major task-oriented roles–occupation, parenting, home maintenance, and perhaps a few avocational involvements in church, club, politics, a sport or hobby or two.

As children, though, we used to play many roles we couldn't begin to actually fulfill. We pretended to be cowboys and indians, doctors and nurses, astronauts and scary aliens, dinosaurs and ants. The full range of imagination was open and catered to through the media of children's movies, television shows, and so forth. Science fiction has expanded the range of possibilities, and recently there's been a resurgence of enjoyment of fantasy and magic, fairies and wizards. We could be a brain surgeon (pretend) while not having to really learn all that difficult anatomy or worry about malpractice insurance. We could be a mommy without having to deal with the more onerous or frustrating elements in parenting. Ah, non-reality, how liberating!

Also, we played these roles with a fullness of emotion, so that when we won, we exulted triumphantly. If we were "killed," we pretended to die in writhing agony--and that was fun, too!. We were evil villains and noble heroes, caricaturizing and exaggerating the affects of the roles, adding flair and theatricality. Drama offers a vehicle for continuing into adulthood this integration of embodiment of our imagined roles.


A brilliant Russian theatre artist, Nikolai Evreinov, suggested in a book titled "Theatricality," published around 1927, that we should recognize a deep drive towards "theatricality." He implied it was as basic as the currently fashionable interest in the Freudian idea that sexuality was a basic drive. Jung, Adler, and a host of others added to this list of basic motivations, but theatricality– or, I think, a better word with fewer unfortunate associations is "dramatization"–remains ignored. Words such as "exhibitionism," "showing off," "narcissism," and the like seem to imply that there's something wrong with a healthy desire for self-expression and the appreciation of an audience. Sure, if that dominates a person's life and there's no room for taking care of business, that's too much; but anything can be overdone. It seems to me as an adult and child psychiatrist with over 35 years of clinical experience that most people are mild to moderately handicapped by having too little drama in their lives, so they feel constricted, inhibited, and it certainly adds to any tendencies toward depression. (See my paper on an associated website that suggests that a "little bit" of this is a necessary component of health.)

Surplus Reality

Here's a term that affirms the philosophical validity of imaginative enactment. "Surplus reality" refers to the category of activities, such as dramatic enactment, whereby we experience role as if they were somewhat "real." It's not the performance of ordinary life roles, but rather the dramatic enactment of roles that exist only in the imagination (Blatner, 2000). Some examples might include:

The term, surplus reality, was coined by Dr. J. L. Moreno, the inventor of psychodrama–and there's more about this fellow in the chapter on psychodrama and sociodrama. He sought to have people utilize this domain, and asserted its philosophical validity: We should grant a measure of reality to that which is psychologically "true," from a phenomenological perspective. It's not the same reality as that which is factually so, objectively verifiable; yet neither should it be easily dismissed as "just imagination." The category should be recognized because it is practical and meaningful. Indeed, Moreno called psychodrama a "theatre of truth," not because what is enacted there represents the actually of everyday life, but because it reflects a deeper dimension, how people actually feel, what they fear, what they hope for, and all the events that exist in the subjunctive tense of would, could, might, and if-only. There deserves to be an arena where such deeply experienced psychological phenomena can be outwardly expressed.

Ontology is the philosophical sub-field that asks about what is, what exists, what is reality. The idea that reality is only that which can be seen, felt, or assessed scientifically has come to be a prevalent–even somewhat dominant element of our current worldview. Yet in the last century, an appreciation for the actuality and significance of psychology in life has been growing, and with this sensibility, a need to recognize a different kind of "reality" that reflects the workings of mind, social dynamics, and culture.

The Psychology of Role Expansion

There are many "basic"drives, more than Freud imagined. Freud reduced it to sex and tried to make it the basic or essential drive; Adler thought that the striving for a sense of effectiveness, personal power or competence was even more basic; and Jung wanted to emphasize that spirituality was another basic type of motivation. Jung, to his credit, also opened the door with his concept of "archetype," suggesting that there could be many, many types of motivation. The idea that we needed to reduce these to a single one or a precious few and make all the others merely derivatives was an artifact of the desire to make psychology "scientific," like physics in the early part of the 20th century. (There have since been a number of philosophical critiques that note how and why psychology can at best only be partially scientific, in the sense of empirical sciences like chemistry or physics; in other respects, psychology must be recognized as working with a different kind of knowledge, an approach that deals more with interpretation and created meanings.)

I want to propose that an obvious basic motivation is the desire to play more and more roles, as our minds expand. This happens fairly rapidly between around the age of 7 months and three years of age, and then continues to expand more gradually and in more subtle ways. We see this role expansion in the imaginative play of children, as mentioned, but also in the desire to experience mastery over an ever-widening sphere of influence. This expansion in to knowing and doing is most obvious in the school years. Less obvious, but pervasive, is a continuing expansion into socially fashionable and interesting roles–and we are seeing this more dramatically in the last generation or so, exposed as they are to the power of television and mass media.

Alas, in the teens there tends to be an influence of a broader cultural attitude that flagrant role exploration and pretend play is "childish." This tends to guide youngsters into a process that the innovative psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson called "premature closure of identity." Identity is the process whereby people associate certain qualities with themselves, as in "I am this way but not that way." In fact, the range of choices is broad, and in present culture, continues to expand. One can take on language or clothing styles of groups that one's parents used to be prejudiced against, which is one way to bother them and assert one's individuality. What happens too often is that people then feel some obligation to stay within their chosen role–and this is the point I'm hoping to challenge!

We might invite young people–and older ones too–to keep experimenting. Try this on, and then its opposite. Play with these, and create interesting combinations. Drama is an excellent vehicle for this, and weaving dramatic methods into everyday life could potentially fertilize and enrich its vital improvisational quality. Make it more fun, too.

Who Else Can I Be?

This was actually the proposed title for the anthology-survey of various approaches to improvisational and interactive drama that we compiled and had published. (The authors and publishers thought it wasn't a clear enough title, though.) Still, the question is there, implicit in the deepest desires of the soul. People seek to experience themselves as more!:

Indeed, much of culture can be viewed as dominated by forms of play, often more important, and lent weight by cultural custom and religion (Huizinga, 1941). This essay in a sense is building on Huizinga's ideas, noting their equivalent dynamics in the realm of individual psychology, social psychology, and even philosophy:

Enhancing Meaning

While science is about what is, philosophy tends to be about what should be–or how we should interpret what is. In this case, should we accept our lives as being required to fully live out our major actual roles, developing these, and forsaking those non-utilitarian roles? But what then of our roles that have to deal with religion and art? It gets fuzzier.

I suggest that we should expand our sense of identity to include not just those roles that can be played out in actually, but also those that can be played out in surplus reality, in drama, in pretend play. That actualizing the fullness of our human nature includes the exploration and symbolic experiencing of a far broader range of possibilities. Of course, in fact, folks are already doing this anyway, as noted above; this proposition brings it into the "serious" domain of philosophy, allowing people to feel a tad more justified to engage in these flights of imagination.

This position is a practical implication of phenomenology, and also gives some juice and the richness of imaginativeness to existentialism. It might even be recognized as a fuller manifestation of the postmodernist perspective. All these "-isms" can be woven into this proposed project. Then there's another para-utilitarian viewpoint: Playing, exploring, drama, improvisation–these are fun, and fun can also be recognized as good.

All these fairly obvious points are needed to counter the unspoken cultural residues that make drama suspect, a frill, childish, and by extension, make actors part of the demi-monde. I'm trying to redeem this most vitalizing dimension of life from its having been relegated to the margins.

As I note in Chapter 26 as well as our book, The Art of Play, we need to differentiate between those elements that we need to grow out of and away from, the "child-ish," and another set of qualities, the "child-like," that we need to preserve, refine, and carry into adulthood! (It's an example of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or perhaps, not throwing the imaginative spontaneous qualities needed in adulthood out with the baby-ish.)

Enhancing Experience

One of the fun parts of drama is a heightening of emotion, exploring behaving a bit more pompously, heroically, vulnerably, or in other slightly to broadly exaggerated formats. This is the equivalent to a painter using bolder and brighter colors instead of faded pastels. The point here is to experience more fully.

There is an appropriate dampening of the ranges of experience in real life: Maturation and courtesy require living, for the most part, a more low-key, deferential, simple existence. Rage is becoming as unacceptable as smoking or being drunk. The depths of victimization, the demonstrativeness of romantic passion, and other expressions of deep feeling are, well, un-cool. And as I say, for most roles we play in this busy world, that is probably adaptive. But we must differentiate between most roles and all roles–and too often, people come to apply the standards of dignity, cool, low-key, modesty, and other mature virtues to not 90% but rather 99% or 100% of their life–and that remaining 10% makes all the difference.

I think people need to cultivate between 5-10% drama in their lives, in the forms of a bit of silliness, outrageousness, boldness, grandiosity, showing-off, fooling around, imaginative excess, and so forth. This is like talking about the place of spices in the foods we eat, or the role of art, music, dance, poetry, drama, gardening, home decorating, and the other arts as lubricants, grace agents, in the service of enhancing and deepening our experience of life. By drama, I don't mean just going to shows, I mean being the actors, and to a small but distinct degree, also playing the roles of co-playwright, director, critic, audience, supporting actor, stage manager, and other dramatic roles. Make your breakfast a bit of a performance.

Okay, most of the time, don't engage in your sufferings with excessive drama. That can be not only annoying, but counter-productive. On the other hand, there may be occasions, with selected friends, when a clearly expressed (this is play now) dramatized "rant" of victimhood or indignation might be immensely satisfying. (It's best if the friends know this game and can occasionally similarly indulge with you.) Go beyond mere cussing to express your frustration–for most, that's become almost cheap, tacky, overly simplistic. Get into poetic imprecation, the way Shakespeare did it.

Similarly, I'll confess my gratitude at growing up when romance was really spiffy, in the 1940s and 50s, and one could imagine oneself as reciting poetry, and engaging in dramatic flourishes of courtesy and courtship. Happily, I'm with a wife who loves to play that game, so we do. It's a role dimension again that adds a dimension of richness to the experience of life, which is what this essay and enterprise is all about.

Cultivating Alter Egos

I'll go a step further: I propose that people begin to imagine and cultivate alter egos, other little part-selves or roles they play in their lives. This is a relatively new endeavor. The game isn't to overly identify with or become stuck with these other selves–that can lead to a variety of forms of individual and socio-pathologies. Rather, the challenge is to do this consciously, to put on one's uniform and create a backstory for a role that one uses in selected environments.

Looking back, we see the beginnings of this in many cultural fashions–but for these, most of the time the play was partly or largely subconscious, and overly-identified:

So what I'm suggesting here is just to be a bit more self-conscious, not in the sense of inhibiting oneself, but rather in taking responsibility to co-create our play and negotiate with others more explicitly. The game involves not imposing our game playing on those who aren't also playing along; or not changing rules arbitrarily and one-sidedly; playing nice; and being able to come off it when around those who are bewildered or bothered by this role playing.

Finally, for a joyous cartoony bit by a children's story-book author: Go to : http://www.silberbooks.com/open-your-mind.htm

These ideas are still in formation and I welcome your input: Email to: adam@blatner.com