Saturday, 24 February 2007

Dramatic approach to the personal story:


Daniel Feldhendler, J.W. Goethe University (Frankfurt am Main, Germany)

When setting up training structures, we are confronted with the question of the appropriate methods to use for dealing with the complex dynamics of intercultural phenomena. It is becoming evident that the use of transversal practices is as much a necessity as a challenge for educational systems. Certain practices used in training in intercultural relations propose establishing a balance between cognitive and emotional learning and giving greater weight to experiential processes. Relational approaches and psycho-theatrical practices can be valuable training tools. They borrow from psychodrama and sociodrama (method of J.L. Moreno) and theatrical practices (the methods of Augusto Boal and Jonathon Fox, expression and dramatic enactment). We will first highlight the importance of these processes in intercultural training work, before focusing more particularly on the dramatic approach to personal stories.

1. Psychodramatic and theatrical approaches in training

The theoretical and practical framework for applications suitable for integration into the practice of action research and intercultural training was originally developed in the social psychology work of J.L. Moreno (1889 - 1974).

Moreno, physician, psychiatrist, sociologist and philosopher, better known as theoretician and practitioner of sociometry and psychodrama, developed a method whose aims were to:
- improve understanding of the dynamics of interpersonal relations
- help resolve inter- and intra-personal conflicts (individuals in their relationship to themselves and to the group)
- increase awareness of the socio-emotional structure of individuals and groups
- improve relations with others, where necessary.

J.L. Moreno's approach found its origins in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century and developed in the United States from 1925. His method came into use in Europe after the Second World War, when it was used primarily in therapeutic applications. From the 1970s, it began to spread to many other fields: social work, socio-cultural work, teaching, professional training (Cf. Schützenberger, 1981; Bosselmann et alia, 1993) and even the teaching of foreign languages (Dufeu and Feldhendler, 1991; Dufeu 1992).

Today, in the English and German-speaking world, the term psychodrama covers a very wide field of activities and its applications are both therapeutic and pedagogical. Its origins can be traced back to work on spontaneous play-acting and experimental theatre around 1920. Influenced by these practices, Moreno went on to develop, in turn, the theatre of spontaneity, the living newspaper, sociodrama, axiodrama, ethnodrama, sociometry, action research, role playing, group psychotherapy and psychodrama.

For Schützenberger: "Pyschodrama is a tool for exploring and modifying one's own attitude faced with that of the Other, training in spontaneity and creativity, a means of liberating conflicts". (1970, p. 88)
These practices are based on the philosophy of encounter and dialogue as an antidote to alienation and its attendant evils. A theory and practice of action were developed to this end, a praxeology of qualitative development of human relations. This approach aims to encourage what Moreno calls the encounter and which "expresses that two people are not only together but that they experience each other, apprehend each other, each with their entire being". (Ibid., p. 161 ).

The qualities that facilitate this encounter with the Other in congruent and authentic relations are:
- empathy ("Einfühlung") to develop an aptitude to communicate
- greater awareness of the Self and the Other
- role flexibility (through the experience of changing or reversing roles)
- handling and resolving conflicts
- developing attitudes that allow openness to the unknown and the foreign.

The philosophy of the encounter is based on the principle of man as an actor in situation: by definition, a relational being in constant evolution. The central concept of Moreno's work is that of creative spontaneity, where spontaneity is understood as "this response of an individual to a new situation - and the new response to an old situation". (1987, p. 93)

We took these concepts and practices developed by Moreno to build the foundations of a relational pedagogy for use in training work (Dufeu, Feldhendler, 1991).

This pedagogy emphasises more particularly:
- the development of the person in the group
- empathy, listening to and awareness of oneself and others
- harnessing creative potential by recourse to the imaginary
- play-acting, spontaneous expression and involvement of the self
- the concept of role as a basis for interaction
- the idea of congruent encounter in the action
- metacommunication processes.

Psychodramatic approaches also encourage active observation of group phenomena. Metacommunication processes (feed-back/retroaction, verbalization of lived experience, the work of integration and perlaboration) develop the attitude and faculties of the observer in a situation of active participation. These processes are effective tools in training work.

We can show very clearly that psychodramatic approaches can help illuminate intercultural phenomena, in situation, and meet the objectives of training in intercultural learning processes in the field of international relations.

After undergoing psychodrama training in the Moreno Institutes in Germany (cf. Leutz, 1974, 1985), I then integrated these approaches in my work as teacher and trainer, supplemented by the theatre-based processes which, in one way or another are directly or indirectly related to the Moreno tradition (Feldhendler, 1991, 1992). I refer more particularly to the following methods and processes:

• the tradition of play-acting and dramatic expression
These practices encourage improvisation and creativity in a given situation (Ryngaert, 1985, 1991; Barret, 1992) and, by extension, spontaneous expression and personal development (Oberlé, 1989).

• the Theatre of the Oppressed
This dialogue-based and transitive method developed by Augusto Boal (1977, 1980, 1983, 1990), aims to encourage awareness, deal with societal themes through group experience and develop ways of resolving present or future conflicts.

• Playback Theatre
Developed by Jonathon Fox (1993, 1994) and Jo Salas (1993), this practice involves a tangible approach to everyday life, real experience and ambiguities/conflicts through the enactment of fragments, personal stories and histories. Fox, himself trained in psychodrama, is positioned directly in the Moreno tradition and his community theatre process constitutes a kind of renaissance, an adaptation and extension, of the traditions of oral transmission and collective creation.

In the work of training in intercultural relations (cf. Feldhendler, 1990, 1999), interdisciplinary approaches - which integrate the psychodramatic approach with specific theatrical forms - are used as instruments of analysis, intervention and change, acting as "cultural and social mirrors", as relational indicators and catalysts for people involved in intercultural exchanges. These processes suggest a different approach to training and tie up with other methods of intervention amalgamated under the term "techniques of involvement" in the Guide de l'interculturel en formation published under the direction of Demorgon/Lipiansky (1999).

These processes require use of interdisciplinary approaches that aim to increase awareness of the complexity of the field being tackled and integrate the affective and intersubjective dimension in experiential-type practices, i.e. practices that bring into play, in a more direct and spontaneous manner, the actual experience of individuals and groups.
We can identify a didactic progression in the different phases of this work of increasing sensitivity to transcultural relations.

We distinguish between:

• work on representations supported by images and photo techniques, along with recourse to imagology (dynamics of self- and other-representations)
• work on metacommunication (perception of the implicit and intersubjectivity)
• mediation as an approach to proxemia, ambiguity, polarity, tensions and conflict resolution
• work on lived experience.

In this last category, I would like to highlight applications using biographical and narrative identity approaches.

2. The use of personal stories and histories as a pedagogical approach

Literary genre, scientific research, social and cultural practices: personal stories and histories constitute a living and flourishing culture. Many books and reviews explore this approach and the great diversity of practices employed (Pineau and Le Grand, 1993 ; Lejeune, 1998 ; Gaulejac, 1999 ; Delory-Momberger 2000). This fascination with personal stories in their different forms is linked to feelings about and awareness of the changes taking place in industrial societies that have led to a crisis of meaning and the search for identity. The biographical approach directs attention to the everyday, the individual and the group. It tackles issues in our societies by providing a means of representing, shaping and structuring life trajectories. It also aims to give meaning to lived experience as a significant dimension of the search for identity.

Theoretical reflection around these personal history practices brings into play an interdisciplinary approach, and alongside history, sociology and linguistics, other disciplines, such as social psychology, anthropology and philosophy, are increasingly being integrated. On this point, Paul Ricoeur (1985) looks at the importance of the narrative function in constructing the identity of the human subject. He notes that both individuals and communities construct their identity through narratives which become their effective history. For Ricoeur, being the historian and narrator of one's own life introduces a particular dialectic: subjects are both reader and scriptwriter and recognise themselves in the story they tell themselves about themselves. In this way, the history of a life is continually refigured by the narration and this activity may induce qualitative changes. The constant refiguration of the subject's own story, along with its gradual transformation, results in a "narrative identity". The narration activates the awareness of Self and Others, and according to Ricoeur (1990), knowledge of Oneself as Another, i.e. of one's otherness. This should be considered as a dynamic and structuring factor in the search for identity.

A pedagogy of the personal history as an education in complexity is emerging, gradually, in training for intercultural applications: "The intercultural dimension is one of the salient points in implementation of this biographical approach and the themes that it uncovers in autobiographical itineraries act as a central 'hook' for individual and group work". (Delory-Momberger, 2001) Carlo (1998) proposes integrating the work of narrative identity as didactic activities with an intercultural purpose by referring back to Ricoeur (unpublished conference text – Rome, 1997) :

"We can speak of education in narrative coherence, education in narrative identity; learning to tell the same story in another way, learning to let it be told by people other than ourselves, submitting the personal story to the critique of documentary history: all these practices can be used to deal with the paradox of autonomy and fragility".

Carlo argues that "the becoming-aware of the subject and the dialogical nature of the process are the two aspects of narration which we feel are the most relevant to our situation as teachers and didacticians of language-culture".

Rémi Hess (1998, 1999) distinguishes between several forms of writing to explore intercultural lived experience: the personal history, keeping a diary, correspondence, the monograph. He lays particular emphasis on writing down intercultural moments as an ethnographic act, where this writing is organised around intercultural "moments" that can be synonymous with the here and now but may also signify something more complex: an intercultural space-time continuum as a sedimentation of lived situations over a longer period. The dialectical process and method of investigation which he suggests through the writing of personal histories reflects the need to go back in time to understand the present and imagine the future. The viewpoint he suggests is to see the autobiography as a work of regression-progression that can be taken up and worked on at different times in a person's life.

3. Theatrical approaches to the personal story

A novel approach to personal stories that can be used as an instrument for exploring intercultural phenomena is the method of improvisation known as Playback Theatre, created in 1975 in the United States. Its founder, Jonathon Fox, proposes a spontaneous enactment of the lived experience of members of an audience or group. Perceptions, moments, fragments, slices of life and personal stories narrated by spectators or members of a group are enacted, by turns, using a specific theatrical process. On the stage, a group of actors trained in these practices instantaneously reflects and plays back what the members of the public have expressed and shared (hence the name Playback).

In the course of a performance, a dialogue is established between actors and spectators. A channel of communication is opened up by the narration; invisible links are woven through the stories of the "tellers" (Fox prefers this expression to narrator) and the enactment of their respective stories by the actors. Collective themes emerge. Fox's goal is to give a social and personal dimension to our personal stories and histories.
An overall view of the different practices of this method shows its flexibility of use and the variety of its fields of application, whether in public performance or workshops aimed at specific groups of participants, from schoolchildren to retired people. Playback Theatre is at the meeting point of many fields: society, education, art, therapy. In the USA and in the English and German-speaking world, this process is attracting the attention of agencies involved in training for education and the social sciences. A training school was set up in 1993 in the state of New York; an international association bringing practitioners together in a network has been operative since 1990 and can now be consulted on the Internet. Every year, this form of community theatre attracts new enthusiasts -- today it is practised in more than 50 countries on five continents.

The method of Playback Theatre which we will refer to here by the term Théâtre-Récit (Story Theatre) (Feldhendler, 1997) operates on a model of constructive social dialogue. In a workshop situation, participants are by turns actors and spectators "on the alert", engaged in a process of dialogue and communication through telling and enacting their stories. In this way, the members of a group enact their lived experience; they express their feelings and emotions. Individuals are revealed in word and image, in the constant reflections sent back by the intersubjective mirror. There is a connection here to the philosophical hermeneutics of Ricoeur, whose work is guided by a central conviction: the shortest path from self to self is the word of the other. The philosophy of this form of improvisation resides in the challenge it sets itself: to translate in images, in a condensed and metaphoric form, the essence and quintessence of what the teller/narrator has expressed. In other words, the "receiver" must comprehend the literal and figurative meaning of a message and its connotations and re-enact it meaningfully, as authentically, congruently and empathetically as possible, to allow the "sender" of the story to receive it in turn. The process is very demanding, but the rewards are development of reciprocal listening and reflexive communication.

The concept of narrative identity is operative here and I believe it is applicable to the method of Théâtre Récit, in that it designates configuration of the action provided by the story as a "refoundation of the productive value (poïetics) of the story, re-presenting (mimesis) the action and transforming it by conferring order, meaning and complexity (muthos)" (cf. Pineau, Le Grand, 1993). Moreover, as Ricoeur notes, "the notion of narrative identity proves its fecundity in that it applies as well to the community as to the individual" (1985); it is "the sort of identity which the human subject attains by mediation of the narrative function" (1988). Specular (performance-as-mirror) mediation, as found in Fox's method, adds an appreciable dialectic to these considerations.

4. The forms and principles of the method

A Playback Theatre session (whether performance, workshop or training session) is traditionally structured around different theatrical forms. The principal forms are:

- Fluids (fluid sculptures)
These are short situations, tableaux vivants in the form of moving sculptures (hence the term fluid). They aim to represent all the facets of a feeling, an attitude or thought expressed by a spectator. This form establishes contact and breaks the ice of the traditional, static relationship between actor and spectator. It acts as a warm-up, gets the current flowing and blurs the symbolic boundaries between active and passive participant. The word takes form.

- Pairs (representation of polarities)
The actors divided into groups of two (pairs) and take turns to represent the opposing attitudes inherent to a real-life situation as expressed by a spectator. This form highlights certain relational arrangements present in any interaction, such as ambivalence of feeling, and reveals the dynamics of the relationship between these opposing feelings.

- Stories (personal story scenes)
Once an atmosphere of openness and exchange has been created, the conductor of a session, in his/her role of intermediary and catalyst, invites someone to sit down next to him/her in the teller's chair. Conductor and teller are seated in a space midway between actors and spectators.
The conductor then invites the teller to tell his/her story. This interview is organised according to a clear ritual structure:
* Where and when did the story take place?
* Who are the important people in the story?
* What happens?
* How does the story end?

As the interview unfolds, the teller is invited to choose the actors to interpret his/her story. The actors then "come into play" and improvise the story. During this phase, conductor, teller and spectators watch the enactment, in silence and without intervening. The story can be represented in a variety of ways. The actors may use words or tell the story in mime, with or without musical accompaniment (cf. Salas, 1992), and there may be one or several scenes. When the enactment is finished, the actors once again turn their attention to the conductor and the teller. The teller may comment on the way the story was played, correct or rectify certain aspects. The outcome of the story can be transformed. It then takes another course and the teller discovers how his/her story could have or might turn out differently.

The content of the stories told by the different tellers emerge from the "here and now". The themes are not generally determined in advance. However, depending on the circumstances of the performance or workshop, a particular theme may be chosen in advance and in this case, the theme will guide the course of the session.

Fox emphasizes that the spontaneous nature of the process and the constant switching between the reality of the situation and that of the dramatic transposition authorises use of many other forms of intervention and structuring. Depending on the situation and the context, forms that encourage exchange and sharing of common experiences, such as verbal sharing, arising from the psychodramatic tradition (cf. Leutz, 1985; Moreno 1987), can be integrated into the process.

5. Applications in intercultural training

Théâtre-Récit gives active encouragement to reflexive communication. It integrates different phases: listening, understanding, expression, action, interaction, retroaction and sharing. It encourages the emergence of relational attitudes between "sender" and "receiver". My practical experience of the method and its use in the university environment and in continuing education for teachers confirms this hypothesis.

Its specific forms foster:
- a capacity for listening and understanding
- receptivity and expressiveness
- spontaneity in speech and action
- making an adequate response
- using other registers to convey a message
- integration of verbal and non-verbal expression
- expression of affectivity and emotions
- perception of the self and others
- openness to new situations.

Since 1991, Romance language students have been offered regular workshops using the Théâtre-Récit method as a dynamic approach to intercultural situations. Their presentation in the study programme stresses development of global expression in an open and personalised working environment. In these classes, students are involved in different ways in encounter situations with others: they are, by turn, narrator, actor, spectator and conductor/presenter. Entering into the role of teller brings the foreign language to life through narration of one's own intercultural experience while at the same time allowing the student to appropriate the linguistic tools necessary for relational expression. It also involves entering into contact with oneself and seeing oneself in another way. The teller becomes an observer during the enactment of his/her story, which is mediated by the "observation" of others. In parallel, taking the role of actor means entering into sympathy with the teller, i.e. becoming closer to that Other. It also means respecting the Other and learning to use the imaginary sphere to represent an aspect of the teller's reality in a symbolic form.

The enactment of lived experiences or future experiences in intercultural situations encourages expression and perception of underlying feelings, what is unsaid, what is culturally implicit. It also raises awareness of different ways of managing time and space (e.g. proxemia or polychrony). The expression of ambiguity and affective polarities, likewise moments of conflict, opens up new perspectives for intercultural work. Through workshops and seminars which I have led in the university context and in continuing teacher training (Instituts Français, Goethe Institutes, Popular Universities and adult education in Germany, summer school at the International Centre for Pedagogical Studies at Caen University in France), I have discovered that the dramatic enactment of personal stories and histories brings a new dimension to intercultural communication: authenticity and relational involvement.

Since 1997, we have been carrying out work of experimentation and action research in the university framework, with the aim of contributing to emergence of the subject and narrative identity by bringing together written personal stories and dramatic enactment. The brochure of our Institute of Romance Languages and Literature presents this workshop in the following terms:
Practical work: Autobiography, writing about the self, life dramaturgies.
This workshop aims to train students in writing and enactment of personal stories and histories. The biographical approach is understood as a dynamic training process based on:
• writing a personal diary of stories and histories to encourage emergence of a "narrative identity"
• enactment of fragments of life using theatrical processes (in particular, the Théâtre-Récit method).

In 1999, the workshop encouraged students, more particularly, to:
- write about the "I" by keeping a diary or log book
- seek the "WE" by identifying thematic and collective connections
- undertake joint work on the texts written by participants using dynamic processes (creating images, modes of stage representation, theatrical and relational work).
Working with this group of students, we established a thematic web as a guiding thread bringing together individual and group trajectories. This web included the following concepts:
My life today and my key themes.
My life as student. How did I become a student?
My first experience at the Romance languages study institute.
My relations with the foreign language (French).
My underlying motivation in studying the French language (transgenerational influences).
My discovery of the Other and the other culture.
My experiences of the Other abroad (in France).
My first intercultural experience.
My experiences of socialisation at school.
My first moments in learning a foreign language.

At the summer school organised at Caen University in 1999 by the French language department of the CIEP (International Centre for Pedagogical Studies, Sèvres), we also presented a module entitled: Dramaturgy, personal stories and intercultural relations.
In this workshop, we focused more particularly on the following themes:
- the forms and principles of the Théâtre-Récit method
- the experiential approach to personal stories
- exploration of lived experiences in intercultural situations
- integration of written situations by keeping a diary of intercultural stories
- the practical arrangements for using this approach in language classes.

The presence of French teachers from all over the world revealed to me the complexity of the multicultural encounter (Demorgon, 1996, 1998) and the fundamental need to go further in developing active listening structures, based on reciprocity and creating connections between individual experiences. When these conditions are in place, expression becomes personal and significant for the participants and the themes tackled tend to organise themselves in a structured way. Here for example, is the thematic thread of this module as revealed at the end of the workshop:
Leaving the native country. Being homesick. Travelling for the first time without the family. Arriving alone, Being a foreigner. Being well or badly received. Being frustrated by certain aspects of the welcome given. Being confronted with racism or latent rejection. Feeling protected. Being able to express one's real feelings (such as sadness, stress and tiredness, fear, attraction). Discovering the deep-seated oral tradition and collective transmission culture of one's native country. Examining the role and position of man and woman in one's native culture. Experiencing, in situation, acknowledgement and respect of the Other. Recounting one's intercultural story using one's own first name.

The greater the affective involvement of participants, the greater the need for structure in framing the work. The trainer must develop new attitudes: flexibility, professional know-how and relational know-how to accompany this liberation of the word.
Very often, the only tool available at the place of training to allow the trainer to monitor and structure his/her attitude in an adequate manner is the log book. The practice of writing this training log book becomes a process of self-training, a work of deliberate self-reflection. In these situations, the log book becomes an effective tool, encouraging greater awareness of the trainer's own level of involvement and generating the necessary distancing and differentiation. After work in the field, the practice of individual or group supervision as professional follow-up gives the trainer the tools required to analyse his/her own practice and continue to progress in the future (Buer, 1999).

A field of research and application

The theatrical approach to personal stories opens up a wide field of investigation, as I can observe in my current fields of application, as practitioner of the method, co-founder of the German company Spiegelbühne (mirror theatre), and trainer at the School of Playback Theatre (N.Y.), as a teacher in continuing training institutes and the Moreno Institutes in Germany, likewise in teacher training and in the university context.

Restitution of fragments and personal stories through dramatic enactment opens up potentialities as a dialogical process and transversal approach. It contributes to understanding of "existentiality" and in this way can be seen as a self-creative (poïetic) practice, i.e. creating the self to serve the narrator. Likewise, actors and conductor are called on to practice formative methods, apply a "comprehensive" approach as "midwives" and "interpreters" (maieutics and hermeneutics) of the present moment. There is also an additional challenge: individual personal stories must be linked together in a collective story, or in the words of Bellah (1986) in a "community of memory".