WiLP’s mission is to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness through art. Naturally, I was excited at the opportunity to interview Katlin Larimer, M.S.W. on behalf of WiLP, as she spends her time at one major intersection of art and mental health: psychodrama.

In case you’ve never heard of it, psychodrama, which was developed by Jacob L. Moreno, “is an action method, often used as a psychotherapy, in which clients use spontaneous dramatization, role playing and dramatic self-presentation to investigate and gain insight into their lives,” according to Oxford Dictionary.  

Larimer, who is a Trainer at the National Psychodrama Training Center (NPTC), explored this combination of therapy and theater in one of its most revealing forms. She started with the basics.

“First there is the protagonist. This is the storyteller,” explains Larimer. “Then you have the stage, which represents the person’s life. This is where the action happens. You also have the audience, another critical component. Moreno believed that a protagonist is the spokesperson for the audience in the same way that great theater resonates with us because we, the audience, feel that it’s our story. We connect with what the playwright has written, and we feel like the character is known to us in some way.”

With only these basic elements of psychodrama, you can already tell it’s quite different from traditional talk therapy.

“Talk therapy is asking a person to tell you what their feelings are,” says Larimer. “If I ask, ‘How are you feeling?’ you have to engage your intellect and conduct an analysis of a feelings state rather than simply feeling it.”

As you may have gathered, Larimer believes in the power of showing in addition to simply telling someone how you feel. She shared that psychodrama offers a physical venue for expression that talk therapy doesn’t typically explore.

Regarding the physical aspects of psychodrama, Larimer states, “One thing psychodrama has in common with other art forms is that it’s trying to capture and engage the parts of our brains and our bodies that respond to feelings. It allows us to experience emotions in a way that’s not intellectual.”

Similar to art, psychodrama can reveal truths we may not be consciously aware of without investigation.

“One of the big ideas of psychodrama is the concept that we carry memories of what’s happened to us in our muscles and in our brains, and our muscles don’t usually lie,” explains Larimer. “When I use psychodrama with lawyers in criminal cases, I start with this caveat: If you don’t want to know whether your client really committed the crime, don’t conduct a psychodrama with them.”

It’s not a fool-proof method of uncovering truth, rather one that makes it difficult for the protagonist to be misleading.

“I’m not saying a person can’t lie with their body,” Larimer continues, “It’s just that it’s much harder to conceal than a verbal lie. If you do a good job taking the person back to the scene, getting them warmed up and engaging all the senses, you have a holistic physical reaction. All those senses make a client’s body engage in the action, causing them to replicate what happened in the original scene. Then you see before your own eyes what really took place,” Larimer explains. 

The incorporation of the acting out of scenes in front of an audience makes it a combination of therapy and theater. While psychodrama found a home in therapeutic treatment, its developer had different intentions for the concept.

“Jacob Moreno, the psychiatrist and psychosociologist who founded psychodrama, didn’t develop it as a form of mental health treatment. For him, it was a theology,” explains Larimer. “He believed god exists in each person in the form of spontaneity and creativity. According to Moreno, when those states are embodied by people, that’s god in the universe. Eventually, psychodrama became narrowed to a mental health discipline.”

What makes psychodrama so powerful that its founder thought of it more as a religion than a form of therapy. As Larimer explains, “The more we clear out thoughts that impede our expression, the freer we are to bring our full selves to the task of life. If people can find a way to attune to their own bodies and express themselves, they will intuitively know how to heal themselves and society as a whole. This is what psychodrama encourages and allows.”

“Moreno’s form of psychodrama seeks to open up possibilities rather than narrow them,” Larimer continued. “He believed that one of the key pieces of psychodrama is role reversal. If we can understand what’s going on with another person, it allows us to have the capacity to make room for them.”

Considering all the benefits of psychodrama, you might wonder why it isn’t better known.

“One factor in the prevalence of psychodrama is that to be a good facilitator, you have to be a combination of a therapist and an artist,” asserts Larimer. “The artist aspect takes a very long time to learn. By ‘be an artist,’ I mean you have to get out of your head. You can’t memorize a set of questions or moves. There is staging involved. You have a person presenting a feeling or a problem, and you must envision everything. I listen. I let myself feel what the person is saying, and I try to visualize it in the form of a movie. I start at the beginning, giving them prompts like, ‘Show me when you started feeling this way? Where do you think this story begins?’ The artistic part is being able to visualize this story and figure out what the first scene looks like. It’s art in the form of staging, and that’s what it shares with theater. You’re visualizing an emotional state, and you’re bringing it into the ‘ordinary world.’”

What it’s Like Project

Nikki Hune