AT first, it could almost be confused with theater. The scenes played out are high drama -- conflicts between relatives, quarrels among friends, frustrations at work expressed in monologue. At times, it's almost absurdist. A discussion can be interrupted when the two actors suddenly reverse roles.
But it's not theater. The participants aren't actors. It's a form of psychotherapy called psychodrama.
Retired psychotherapist Folly King recently started a psychodrama group that meets weekly at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Lowcountry.
Psychodrama is more interactive than a typical group therapy session. When a participant discusses a problem, it becomes more than just sitting and talking. For example, the participant may re-enact a certain situation, as other group members play the roles of people in that person's life. The roles may then swap, with the participant and other members trading characters.
Sound a bit confusing? It can be at first, King said. But once participants fully invest in the concepts, it can provide insight that other forms of therapy cannot, she said.
"I think it's the best form of psychotherapy out there," King said.
The development of psychodrama is largely credited to Romanian-born psychiatrist Jacob Levy Moreno, also a pioneer in the concept of group therapy. Moreno had worked with children in groups and even formed a makeshift self-help group with prostitutes in Vienna, Austria, before continuing to develop his methods in America. Like group therapy, psychodrama gathers people together where they interact to gain insight into others' issues. In essence, each person is a patient and a therapist. Psychotherapy differs in how the interaction among the group members is done. Slipping in and out of roles, assuming personalities and mirroring all contribute to near theatrical experiences. New insight can be obtained into a particular situation if acted out again, then analyzed. The methodology has been used to help anyone from child abuse survivors to conflicting coworkers.
King first came across the practice in the early '70s while working at a mental health agency in northern Virginia. She started a group in 1974 that ran for about a dozen years. Members became so close that their friendships stayed even after the group ended.
"It's always amazed me," said King. "You have total strangers and yet they end up opening up to each other."
She had been in psychotherapy for about 50 years when she retired to Hilton Head Island with her husband, John. A few years ago she became the program director of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. After flings with a book club and gardening club, she hit on something that she could really get into -- psychotherapy. Despite her husband's pleas to take retirement more leisurely, she soon embarked on yet another group.
In a typical session, a member identifies an issue he or she would like to discuss then starts speaking. King offers guidance, coaxing details or eliciting the emotional cause of the issue. The group offers guidance. In one case, a woman had a conflict with a relative. A fellow group member became that relative. They discussed the issue then reversed roles, all while the other group members examined the differing viewpoints. When the woman struggled to find words that captured her emotions, another member stood behind her, speaking as if she was her. The session ends as members offer advice on how she can rectify the relationship.
Sometimes, the sessions can get even more physical. King brings two foam bats to each session. If a member's frustration runs high, she brings out the bat. To a member discussing a frustrating issue, King tells her, "Say what you really want to say" and out comes a stream of obscenities and insults.
"Does that feel better?" King asks.
"Take the bat," King says. "Now beat the chair."
The member laughs at first, the notion seeming a little silly. But soon enough she's hitting the chair as if it might turn into splinters. King said it can be a good release, as close as they can come to physically encountering the problem.
Dan Tweel has come to several meetings. The homebuilder had fallen on hard times, like most in his profession. He's frustrated with how he got into this financial quandary, concerned about what he should do.
"The more I repeat the story, the better I feel," he said.
When he's done discussing his problem, others brainstorm ideas about what he can do professionally.
To end, King offers him a three-word mantra.
"I have power."
She tells him to repeat it again and again until he says it with conviction.
"I have power."
He's a victim, she tells him. But he doesn't have to feel like one.
"I have power!"
After the meeting, Tweel says it wasn't until later in life that he would have even considered coming to a therapy group. But he reached a point when he realized that to help himself, he had to be willing to share himself with others. He repeats a personal saying that brings him back to group time and time again.
"We have the power to heal ourselves," he said. "But we do that by helping others."