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Gestalt Theatre - Integration of Applied Drama into Gestalt Therapy


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Gestalt Theatre is an integrative approach to psychotherapy. It stands firmly grounded in the conceptual framework and philosophy of Gestalt therapy, into which it brings the best practices and principles from drama therapy, applied theatre improvisation and the theatre of the experience. The article defines the underlying theoretical framework for Gestalt Theatre. It argues for the natural proximity and connection of Gestalt therapy and applied drama and useful principles of their interconnection in therapeutic practice. English translation of the article published in peer reviewed journal Psychoterapie in Czech language. To cite: Andrášik, T. (2020). Gestalt Theatre – Integrace aplikovaného dramatu do Gestalt terapie. Psychoterapie. 14(2). pp. 147-169. ISSN 1802-3983.
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Gestalt Theatre Integration of Applied Drama into Gestalt Therapy
Original publication in Czech language: Andrasik, T. (2020). Gestalt Theatre Integrace
aplikovaného dramatu do Gestalt terapie. Psychoterapie 14(2).
Keywords: Gestalt Theatre, Gestalt therapy, drama in therapy, theatre of experience, expressive
therapy, improvisational theatre.
Abstract (EN): Gestalt Theatre is an integrative approach to psychotherapy. It stands firmly
grounded in the conceptual framework and philosophy of Gestalt therapy, into which it brings the
best practices and principles from drama therapy, applied theatre improvisation and the theatre of
the experience. The article defines the underlying theoretical framework for Gestalt Theatre. It
argues for the natural proximity and connection of Gestalt therapy and applied drama and useful
principles of their interconnection in therapeutic practice.
Tomáš Andrášik
MA., is psychotherapist in private practice from Brno, Czech Republic and facilitator of
self-experiential groups of Gestalt Theatre. He participates in the supervision part of training in
the integrative Gestalt psychotherapy INSTEP. He also works at Masaryk University, the Faculty
of Education, where he focuses on the topic of self-experience in pre-service teacher training and
applied drama. He has been active in improvisational theatre for ten years and explores its
applications in education and psychotherapy.
Masaryk University, Faculty of Education, Brno, Czech Republic
Gestalt Theatre Integration of Applied Drama into Gestalt
1. Introduction
Gestalt Theatre is an integrative approach to therapeutic work. The author of the underlying
basic ideas is a Spanish Gestalt therapist and acting coach, Claudia Fres
, who introduced it in her
final thesis
(Fres, 2013) within the Spanish Association for Gestalt therapy
. In 2014 she started
a three-year post-graduate training programme for Gestalt therapists
. One of the graduates of the
programme is also Diego Marín, who has regularly been facilitating workshops in the Czech
and other European countries since 2017.
Claudia Fres based the method mainly on her own professional experiences. She linked 15
years of practice as a Gestalt therapist with 25 years of experience in the field of theatre, acting
training and directing, which she built her method on. Her specificity is that she integrates elements
of acting training, namely Theatre of the Experience
, into the framework of Gestalt therapy.
Further sources for this text are workshops, materials and discussions with the Gestalt therapist
This is English translation of an article originally published in Czech journal: Psychoterapie 14(2).
Her full name is Claudia Beatriz Shifres Berenstein. Claudia Fres is the name that she has regularly been using
professionally, which is why we will be using it in this work in harmony with the wishes of the author.
With the kind agreement of the author, the work is currently in the process of being translated into the Czech
language at the Department of Social Education at Masaryk University. Selected passages have been consulted with
a translator.
Asociacion Espanola terapeutica Gestalt (
Escuela Espanola de Teatro Terapia Gestalt (
Since 2017 we have organised three weekends with Diego Marín, and the fourth is planned for autumn 2020. A
two-year course is being prepared to take place between 2021 and 2022.
Teatro de la Vivencia, Theatre of the Experience, in Czech “divadlo prožitku“, refers to The System of K. S.
Stanislavski, The Method of Lee Strasberg and further authors and approaches to acting training which are based on
Diego Marín, with whom we have co-operated intensively in the last four years. Moreover, I am
also offering my observations and experience with teaching/learning through applied drama,
theatre improvisation, Gestalt therapy and my research in the field, where the approaches overlap
The text integrates the above-stated knowledge.
This article aims to introduce the basic principles of the Gestalt Theatre to the Czech
professional society, and, especially, to offer the integration of Gestalt therapy and applied drama
to be used in practice. It is a relatively new approach which is at the stage of postulates being
formulated, and of being understood at both the theoretical and the practical level. One of the first
steps of this process is that I put forward the theoretical framework, which illustrates the mutual
complementarity of Gestalt therapy and applied drama. I will focus on what drama and theatre can
offer in the service of Gestalt therapy. I believe that this article will illustrate the therapeutic
potential that lies within this integration.
Applied drama and improvisational theatre were at the beginning of my journey to Gestalt
therapy. When I look back in time, I believe that ten years in an improvisational group and many
courses and seminars on applied drama were my first self-experiential training. In the process of
selecting psychotherapy training, I was browsing through the book by J. Mackewn (2004) and I
realised that she was describing my experience with theatre improvisation, simply using different
words. The same principles apply to the Gestalt therapy approach “here and now, a holistic
approach to people, a focus on the process, creativity. The principles of improvisational theatre
correlate very closely with the dimensions of creative adjustment (Parlett, 2003), which will be
dealt with below. Those mentioned above enabled me to understand my previous experiences with
By January 2020 two self-experiential groups of Gestalt Theatre had been set up in Brno, and a third group is
halfway there. In January 2020 a group was launched in Prague. The students of the Faculty of Education at
Masaryk University can take part in several courses that include the above-stated topics.
drama and realise its therapeutic value, which I had been encountering for some time both in the
role of a drama educator and as a psychotherapist.
In the following chapter, I will first explain the key terms and the title Gestalt Theatre. I
will describe the concept of the Theatre of Experience, improvisational theatre and further
phenomena linked with drama and theatre which are therapeutically significant. I will introduce
the processes of Gestalt Theatre in the context of a group arrangement, describe the role of a
psychotherapist and ground Gestalt Theatre in the theoretical frame of Gestalt therapy.
2. Through Key Terms to Gestalt Theatre
First, let me take you for a short excursion into the terms drama, theatre, drama therapy,
theatre therapy, and subsequently, I will explain the term Gestalt Theatre, as it holds specific
terminological difficulties.
The term drama has many meanings and connotations, not only in the Czech language.
Jones opens his book on drama therapy with a citation from Esslin (in Jones, 1996): Drama is
mimetic action, action in imitation or representation of human behavior.” (p. 1). Machková (1998)
states that it is mutual action of people within a drama play (p. 32)”. If this activity is used for
other purposes than aesthetic, e.g. psychotherapy or education, we can, for clarification, speak
about applied dramaas an umbrella concept (Remsová, 2011, p. 19). From now on, the text will
be talking about drama within this meaning. Also, theatre has applied forms and can be used in
therapy, education, or when addressing and dealing with social problems. The critical difference
is that drama focuses on the process; it aims at the group (or its individuals). The term theatre is
used only if the aims are exclusively aesthetic, or one of the goals of the work is a theatre product,
a performance. The target group in such a case is not only the creators of the performance but also
its recipients. Analogically, in the therapeutic context, drama therapy is defined as an activity
procedurally focused on a group or individuals, where drama is used with healing intentions
(Jones, 1996, p. 6.). Valenta (2011) offers the definition of the National Association for Drama
Therapy in the United States of America: Drama therapy can be defined as the intentional use of
dramatic/theatrical processes for reaching a therapeutic aim of symptomatic relief, psychological
as well as physical integration and of personal growth (p. 23).” In his own definition (ibid.) he
emphasises its therapeutic and formative dimension, the focus on group work, and also the support
of personal and social growth and integration of personality. However, besides the process, theatre
therapy also focuses on the product (Valenta, 2011). According to Polínek (2012), it lies in the
overall preparation and the subsequent theatrical performance.
In this regard, Gestalt Theatre is not theatre therapy; it focuses exclusively on the process
and on the group itself. When applying it, we will find many analogies with dramatherapeutical
work and the word Theatre in its title may give a misleading impression to a Czech reader. Our
terminology is not shared with the Spanish language literature as the terms applied drama or drama
therapy have their origins in the English language tradition. The original term Teatro Terapia
Gestalt started to be translated into English as Gestalt Theatre
. Therefore, the decision was made
to keep the term Gestalt Theatre as the name for the method, which is applied in the context of
psychotherapy, but also in education, self-experiential courses, development of emotional
intelligence, and so on. The use of the term drama appears at first glance to be more accurate
terminologically; however, the term Gestalt drama is also used by Polínek (2016) for his approach.
In his text he describes the essential principles which link drama, theatre and Gestalt therapy, but
at the same time, the text clearly shows the differences between the two concepts (comp. Polínek,
Therapy is not in the title as Gestalt Theatre is currently used also in the context outside psychotherapy.
2016). In an effort to avoid confusing the terms or introducing new ones, the English language
title, under which the approach is presented in Europe, has been kept in the Czech environment.
3. Gestalt Theatre
Epistemological and philosophical closeness of Gestalt therapy and arts
The idea that: “psychotherapy is as much an art as it is a science (Perls & Rosenfeld in
Amend-Lyon, 2001, s. 229)” has been expressed by Laura Perls. Roubal (2019) describes
psychotherapy as a “mixture of art, craft and science (p. 221).” The “art & science” concept is
observed in both in the original and contemporary theory of Gestalt therapy. Aesthetic and creative
values and closeness all forms of art and art activities have had a solid place in the philosophy of
Gestalt therapy from the beginning (Amendt-Lyon, 2001; Mackewn, 2004; Parlett, 2003;
Spagnuolo Lobb & Amendt-Lyon, 2003).
Bloom (2003) considers aesthetic values to be the key aspect of the theory and practice of
Gestalt therapy (p. 63) and states that, This same aesthetic attitude that creates art and appreciates
beauty accounts for life's harmonies and rhythms (ibid).” Parlett (2003) speaks about the art of
living well. He creates parallels among arts, life, and the Gestalt therapeutic approach as its ideas
and methods overlap with the world of the arts and artists (s. 51). Similar parallels can be found
through the whole book Creative License: The Art of Gestalt Therapy (Spagnuolo Lobb &
Amendt-Lyon, 2003). The work of an artist, as of a Gestalt therapist, arises both from their skills
as well as from the creativity that they put into their creation. Zinker (1977) says that for him
“doing therapy is like making art (p. 37)”; he expresses the regret that many therapists do not see
themselves as artists (ibid. p. VII) and emphasises the creative approach of a psychotherapist.
Spagnuolo Lobb (2003) develops the idea further: the therapeutic encounter needs to be developed
creatively, following the principle of improvisational co-creation, by both its active agents. Laura
Perls declared that “good therapists are simultaneously good artists (Amendt-Lyon, 2001, p. 229).
The topic could be discussed ad infinitum. In Parlett’s (2003) words: Epistemologically, Gestalt
psychotherapists are engaged in an enterprise that is art and not medical science (p. 51)”.
Thus, philosophically and historically, the connection between the Gestalt therapeutical
approach and the arts makes a lot of sense. Drama and theatre are forms of art. Fritz Perls loved
theatre (Amendt-Lyon, 2001, p. 228) and took up elements from Moreno's psychodrama into the
new psychotherapeutic approach (ibid.), and Paul Goodman was active within the Living Theatre
in New York (ibid.). The famous two chairs comprise an element of dramatisation (Jones, 1996,
p. 63). In experiments, a Gestalt therapist frequently offers situations that, from the point of drama
therapy, involve work with a role and fiction. Drama has the potential to be a means for raising
awareness, creating contact with ones self and ones life experience in the situation in the “here
and now, and therefore the potential to become a useful tool in the hands of a Gestalt therapist.
Offering a client the role of an actor is one of the ways to enable them to explore the art of living.
According to Jones (1996), the very act of participating in drama and theatre allows connections
to unconscious and emotional processes to be made (p. 3). Drama does not serve the therapy. The
drama itself is the therapy (ibid. 4).
Gestalt Theatre as an integrative approach to therapeutic work
Gestalt Theatre is the result of the assimilative
integration of applied drama into the
theoretical framework of Gestalt therapy based on their mutual complementarity
. Their
Assimilative integration: the psychotherapist draws on one or two main theoretical orientations, takes techniques
from elsewhere and assimilates them into his / her approach so that the therapeutic procedure is as useful as possible
for the client. (Vybíral, 2010, p. 279).
Evans and Gilbert (2005) Complementarity is based on the premise of the use of strengths and for the client useful
complementarity of several therapeutic approaches.
interconnection lies in the systematic use of expressive
processes in the context of the Gestalt
therapy approach. Gestalt Theatre differs from Gestalt therapy in the fact that expressive work is
intentionally foregrounded before verbal processing within a therapeutic encounter. The
psychotherapist integrates in their practice the techniques, processes and exercises from applied
drama and uses them in an experimental way within a dramatic play (see chapter 3.6). The process
resulting from such a dramatic play can be either directly transformed into an experiment, as we
know from the theory of Gestalt therapy (Roubal, 2009, 2019), or it can be reflected on verbally
and further worked upon therapeutically (Šupa, 2010, p. 513). The Gestalt therapeutic approach
provides solid theoretical and practical support for therapeutic work within Gestalt Theatre. Drama
offers a practical and safe way to experience contact within a dramatic play, support awareness,
and it opens space for experimental work. Gestalt therapy allows this experience to be explored
phenomenologically, to understand the strategies of creative adjustment and to identify unresolved
matters, and subsequently to process them and direct clients to personal growth. The next chapter
will clarify the principles on which the complementarity of Gestalt therapy and applied drama lie.
By applied drama we mean especially the concepts that come from drama therapy, the Theatre
of the Experience and applied theatrical improvisation.
The purpose of the message in this text is not that Gestalt therapy would not be able to exist
without drama and vice versa. Both Gestalt therapy and drama therapy have undergone more than
half a century of dynamic development, practice and research. Gestalt Theatre draws on this
experience and seeks complementary elements that can be useful to certain clients and client
groups. The practice and research of the use of applied theatrical improvisation in therapy is still
in its infancy and the principles of the Theatre of Experience with Gestalt therapy have been
The essence of expressive approaches in therapy is self-expression. (Šupa, 2010, p. 513)
connected by Claudia Fres (2013). Gestalt Theatre is an alternative way to approach therapeutic
work. Drama offers primarily work with the body. Dramatic projection, play, role and fiction open
an imaginary back door for many clients to access their themes.
3.1 Use of drama and theatre in psychotherapy
For drama therapy as for all expressive therapies the following applies: “It does not matter
if we use movement, sound, image or words, it is always a process in which the form emphasises
the core. Creative action in time and space becomes a reality, which can be perceived, confronted
with, and changed. The activity as such awakens healing forces and evokes a state when a human
being gets in contact with themselves, others or with the world (Šupa, 2010, p. 513)”.
Drama work in the context of drama therapy contains several phenomena, which
fundamentally influence the process of therapeutic work in Gestalt Theatre.
Drama is an action, and this action is foregrounded to verbal processing. It is a process
taking place at the physical, emotional and cognitive level simultaneously. It is a short cut towards
an emotional and physical experience. A psychotherapist working in a traditional context
sometimes faces the problem of how to get the client from their head to their emotions and body.
With drama techniques the whole personality is involved immediately, which is the necessary
starting point also for Gestalt therapeutic interventions (Spagnuolo Lobb & Amendt-Lyon, 2003).
Embodiment is closely related to dramatic action. Acting out a situation involves the
physical experience of the material in the present. That is to say that through embodiment, the
client presents and encounters their issues in the here and now (Jones, 1996, p. 113). The body
experienced through the senses and emotions can be a source for more abstract reflection (ibid. p.
Playfulness. Jones (1996) indicates that playfulness is the primary framework for drama
therapeutic processes. A group meets in a space, where they can play, be creative and spontaneous.
We support playful relationship with reality (ibid. p. 116)”. This all contributes to a relaxed and
safe environment. Experiencing playfulness in psychotherapy also “enables authentic self-
expression (Amendt-Lyon, 2001, p. 225).
Dramatic projection. In Gestalt therapy, we describe projection as non-acceptance of one
own's characteristics and its unconscious projection of it onto one’s environment (Roubal, 2010).
In drama therapy, the dramatic projection is a process, in which clients project aspects of their
personality or experience into a dramatic situation (Jones, 1996, p. 101). This is how they
externalise their inner processes and conflicts through action. Dramatic expression creates a unique
representation of the material of a client and offers an opportunity to explore and gain insight
through the created dramatic situation. It is useful for Gestalt Theatre that conscious as well as
unconscious characteristics are integral parts of dramatic projection. The group arrangement of
Gestalt Theatre even amplifies the projective potential.
Symbol and metaphor allow self-expression and a different form of approaching the
therapeutic material of a client. Working with symbols provides an opportunity to access
unconscious contents and externalise inner conflicts. Dramatic expression adds form to symbols
through embodiment. Metaphors provide the sometimes needed distance from problems which the
clients are facing. Thanks to that, metaphors allow clients to relate to the problem in a creative
way and gain a new perspective, which would not be possible without the distance (Jones, 1996,
p. 242-243).
The triad of the great alibi of therapeutic drama fiction, role
and immorality
these are the three principles which are the most highlighted by Fres (2013). Fiction can induce
the feeling of impunity in an actor. It enables them to explore emotions which are normally avoided
in their daily life or take actions which they do not normally allow themselves to take. They know
that there will be no judgment or harm as nothing from what happens on the stage will influence
their life (ibid.). The clients get the freedom to do what is generally forbidden by their introjects,
follow customary retroflected impulses or in general, to try new ways of relating to themselves
and the world. They can experience first-hand how they would react if they found themselves in a
given situation. Fiction allows dramatic projection, symbolism, metaphors and security. Fiction is
the primary framework for dramatic work in Gestalt Theatre.
Jones (1996) described three forms of identification with a role - summarised in Valenta
(2011): (1) The client is working with a fictional identity which is unfamiliar to them (another
human, animal, objects, abstract phenomenon), so they can say it is not me”. In Gestalt Theatre
these roles serve mainly for exploring the phenomenon of dramatic projection and figures which
arise from it. (2) The client plays him/herself (in the present, past or future), in Gestalt Theatre in
this form the client explores mainly “roles they play in the theatre of life” and the possible ways
of handling them. (3) The client plays some aspects of themselves. In Gestalt Theatre these can be
characteristics, desires, polarities, introjects and so on. An important effect is the embodiment and
externalisation of these aspects so that the client is able to explore them in creative way. The work
is directed towards the support of awareness and integration of the suppressed characteristics.
The term role is used in the meaning “dramatic persona assumed by an individual within theatre” (or drama, note
from the author) (Jones, 1996, p. 196). The term role, as understood in the context of cultural anthropology and
social psychology, in relationship to drama therapy, is written about by Valenta (see 2011, p. 104-107).
Dramatic work in Gestalt Theatre takes place primarily in a fictitious situation, which
offers space for projection and exploration. Real situations (the clients represent themselves, and
the situation is real) are entered into only rarely and only within therapeutic interventions. The
psychotherapist should be aware of the risk which lies in real situations from the past, especially
considering traumatised clients or clients of whose personal history we do not have sufficient
awareness. When working with trauma we need to anchor in the “here and now”; it is possible to
work with symbols, at a distance, not through abreaction. One of the ways to create an anchor in
the “here and now”, is to stay in a role and a fictitious situation this is not me, and it is not
happening to me”.
Amorality means a morally indifferent situation and/or character. Morality is not relevant
(as is a political belief or religion); it stops being a reference point and does not fall into the
categories of right/wrong (Fres, 2013, p. 19). What happens, is the function of the field. The
principle of amorality has two significant effects on the concept of Gestalt Theatre: (1) It allows
for a phenomenological exploration. We can explore the experience with sincere interest. (2) It
evokes the existential dimension in Gestalt Theatre. The individual is confronted with the concept
of existential freedom (cf. Yalom, 1980, part II) and taking over responsibility for their own life,
way of being in the world and related choices in the dramatic action. It is as if we imagined that
there were no rules, ethical systems, values, no external reference or universal design (Yalom,
1980, p. 221). It is like taking away a safety net
(Philippson, 2018). The individual finds
themselves in a world without any external support for decision making, without guarantees of
what is right and what is wrong, which causes anxiety. Drama provides the clients with the
opportunity to try out how they would react if they were in a situation in which they would not
Yalom (1980) also speaks of a “feeling of groundlessness".
normally find themselves, i.e. to face the problem in an as ifsituation. Fiction and role offer a
probationary safety net, which is present at least in practising life situations in a dramatic play.
A person is responsible for their own being on the stage of the world, and therapeutic work aims
at accepting this responsibility.
Dramatic improvisation
is denoted by Valenta (2011) as one of the fundamental tools
of drama therapy as it better than a structured play reflects the inner state of the client, their
conflicts, free associations, and allows the expression of the current state and feelings, develops
spontaneity improvisation is closer to real life than any structured form (p. 41)”. Improvisation
is one of the fundamental building stones of Gestalt Theatre. Its therapeutic potential is used and
reflected upon by Claudia Fres (2013), who bases her work on the principles of the Theatre of
Experience, created by Stanislavski and Strasberg (see chapter 3.2). Further principles and
knowledge are derived from applied theatre improvisation
(see chapter 3.3).
3.2 Theatre of Experience System, Method and Gestalt therapy
Theatre before Stanislavski
had been a theatre of representation, which mimicked,
exaggerated and was pompous. It had focussed only on the external aspect of acting. Stanislavsky
lived at the beginning of the 20th century in Russia. His work is based on the assumption that the
credibility of an actor is directly connected to their inner experience. He sought a natural approach
to creative stimuli within man, often hidden below the threshold of consciousness (Lukavský,
1978, p. 9).” Stanislavski created a work known under the name System or psychotechnique, and
he changed the approach to acting forever.
Mutual activity of people within a dramatic play without any prior preparation (script, role and so on.)
also: improvisational theatre, improv theatre, improv comedy
Konstantin S. Stanislavsky was an influential Russian director and acting coach.
In the United States, his work was continued by Lee Strasberg, an acting coach and director,
who was inspired by his insight into psychoanalysis (Fres, 2013, p. 14). His legacy is known under
the name The Method. Strasberg (1988) described the therapeutic effects, essentially side effects,
of acting training through the Method. He worked in the Actors Studio, and he coached stars like
Paul Newman, Al Pacino and Marilyn Monroe (Strasberg, 1988).
In Stanislavski’s and Strasberg’s concept an actor approaches a role in a fictitious situation
as if it were their lived reality. They use their own experience as well as emotional states by which
they reach a higher level of authenticity and reality of the characters. The actors had to undergo
systematic training to be able to devote themselves fully physically and emotionally to the service
of their characters. Furthermore, if we focus on the process of the training, we come across
interesting parallels with therapeutic process.
The first building block of the bridge to Gestalt therapy is organic acting, which is
characterised by the experience of “here and now”, comprising the emotional as well as physical
experience in the service of the character (Fres, 2013, p. 14). The emphasis lies on the credibility
of actions and the authenticity of emotions (ibid., p. 15). In the practice of this form of acting,
something intimate and personal moves in the performer, new inner spaces open, old memories
emerge from sensory, emotional and bodily memory (ibid., p. 18).”
The key aspects of this training were the work with relaxation, emotional memory
improvisation (Strasberg, 1988). Its goal was to evoke a natural creative process, or not to interfere
with naturalness, if it creates by itself (Lukavský, 1978, p. 10). To be capable of the above, an
actor has to explore and understand their rigid patterns of experiencing and behaviour in order to
Strasberg (1988) states that what he calls emotional memory has three components motor, sensory and
emotional. On the basis of his description (pp. 94-122), we believe that his term overlaps with what is now called
implicit (procedural) memory/knowledge (cf. Levine, 2017, pp. 25-38; Stern, 2003).
be able to change them in the service of a character. In this training, the actor needs to "brush up"
his acting "instrument", which is the actor himself. He needs to become aware of his deepest
emotional experiences. (Strasberg, 1988, p. 104). “His instrument responds not only to the
demands of the actor’s will, but also to all those accumulated impulses, desires, conditioning,
habits, and manners of behaviour and expression. They are so automatic that the actor is not aware
of them and is, therefore, unable to deal with them (ibid. 103). The self that the actor presents to
an imaginary Juliet is the same as the self he uses in his most private and intimate experiences
(ibid., p. 122) of his life because he uses the same areas of his emotional memory.
Strasberg was sometimes criticised for embarking on a journey that might belong more to
an analyst, psychiatrist or physician (ibid., p. 103). Strasberg does not deny that he “crossed areas
that are dealt with in other contexts (p. 104)”. He describes how some traumata manifests itself by
an incapability to relax muscles in specific areas, and he explores methods how to achieve that. He
is aware of the fact that it is not possible by mere physical exercise.
As a consequence of the intensive work on the awareness process and the approach through
embodiment, implicit memory becomes activated. In Gestalt therapy, we focus on the process of
creative adjustment through which an individual strives to meaningfully organise themselves in
the field and fulfil their needs (Spagnuolo Lobb & Amendt-Lyon, 2003). As a result of creative
adjustment to difficult situations in clients’ past, fixed gestalts emerge. These are behavioural
patterns which have once been creative, but became rigid and are, automatically, without choice,
applied even in situations that require a new approach. A fixed gestalt can be therapeutically
affected only if it is activated, which can be achieved only through activation of implicit memory
processes in the “here and now” (Roubal, 2010, p. 174). Strasberg had his own term for these
patterns - mannerism. He thought that the actors did not understand “the behaviourof their
emotions and the means of their expressions, and they expressed their emotions in very limited
ways. He also noticed that these habits resulted from specific life experiences, which led to
unconscious habits. “I had to find ways of dealing with an actor’s mannerisms that obscured the
truth of expression” (Strasberg, 1988, p. 95).
The Theatre of Experience is an instrument, through which, using the process in the
“here and now”, we activate the patterns in implicit memory. And that opens the gate for
therapeutic intervention and the possibility of corrective experience.
3.3 Improvisational Theatre
Improvisational theatre, i.e. improvisation as a stage art, has its roots in North America.
These are theatre performances of mostly a comedic nature. Actors do not have any scripts, roles
or story prepared in advance; however, they build these on the basis of incentives from the
audience directly on the stage and during the performance. Even though the performances are not
rehearsed as is known from the practice of theatre plays, the art of improvisation is characterised
by regular training built on clearly defined principles and the development of improvisational skills
without which the improvisational acting will not work. Romanelli, Moran and Tishby (2019)
claim that it might seem paradoxical to maintain that improvisational spontaneity can be taught.
(p. 299), but regular training leads to the creation of a holistic set of improvisational skills (ibid.).
The principles and skills from theatre improvisation proved to be useful in other areas of human
development too. We can find them being used in formal as well as non-formal education
(Machalíková & Musil, 2015; Spolin, 1986), and in the development of organizations (Van Bilsen,
Kadijk & Kortleven, 2014; Tint & Froerer, 2014). In the Czech Republic, the first group focusing
on theatre improvisation was established in 2000. These days there are dozens of such groups.
After 2012 the first courses of theatre and applied improvisation
for the general public with a
focus on personal development started to appear. The popularity of these courses is on the increase
to such an extent that in spring semester 2020 there are about a thousand people entering either
semester-long or weekend courses across the republic
. Applied improvisation found its way into
corporate education in areas like the support of collaboration in a team or development of creativity
and soft skills
as well as into universities in undergraduate teacher training
Over the last ten years, events and articles started appearing in the professional discourse
linking improvisation with psychotherapy. In the spring of 2019, a symposium of Improv in
Therapy took place in Berlin. Terms like CIT comedic improv therapy (Felsman, Seifert &
Himle, 2019; Sheesley, Pfeffer & Barish, 2016), Medical improv or Thera-prov
Murphy & Bink, 2019) were introduced to the discourse. These articles are related to
psychotherapy primarily on two levels: a) improvisation as a therapeutic intervention in work
with clients (Felsman, Seifert & Himle, 2019; Krueger, Murphy & Bink, 2019; Sheesley, Pfeffer
& Barish, 2016); and b) benefits of improvisational training for the development of
therapeutic skills (Kindler, 2010; Kindler & Gray, 2010; Romanelli, Moran & Tishby, 2019;
Romanelli & Tishby, 2019).
, This text treats the term applied improvisation analogically to the term applied drama (chapter 2), i.e. as an
umbrella term for using theatre improvisation in contexts other than theatre performance and acting skills training.
The estimate of the author on the basis of personal communication with the organisers of these courses and online
research: Škola improvizace (Praha), Paleťáci – kurzy Improve yourself (Hradec Králové, Litomyšl, Pardubice,
Praha), Bafni kurzy improvizace pro osobnostní rozvoj (Brno, Praha), Rozlety kurzy aplikované improvizace
(Brno), Divadlo Odvaz Impro Academy (Ostrava) and others
Courses for business are offered, e.g. by. ImproVISION s.r.o, Improvizuj s.r.o, Yes and, s.r.o.
Masaryk University in Brno Faculty of Education: course of Improvisation for personal development since 2015
found its way into the set of the compulsory courses in the discipline of Social Education (since the spring semester
2020) and on the basis of it another compulsory optional or optional course came into being: Gestalt Theatre
course of personal development. The Institute of Pedagogical Sciences at the Faculty of Arts has been offering
improvisational workshops since 2016. Meanwhile, these became compulsory options courses for students of the
MA programmes at the Faculty of Natural Sciences.
Abbreviation from therapeutic improv
Krueger, Murphy and Bink (2019) published a replicable clinical study of a short
intervention programme with psychiatric patients suffering from anxiety and depressions. The
results show a comparable efficacy in symptom reduction as in treatment using the CBT approach
(p. 624) in a shorter period of time (p. 625). Two research studies focus on the treatment of social
anxiety (Felsman, Seifert & Himle, 2019; Sheesley, Pfeffer & Barish, 2016). Krueger, Murphy
and Bink (2019) formulate the assumption that improv-based interventions show “great promise
in the field of mental health treatment to address common psychiatric conditions (p. 625). These
processes already have strong theoretical support (Felsman, Seifert & Himle, 2019); however,
empirical research is in its infancy.
A lot has been published about the need for creativity, spontaneity and the capability of
improvisation on the part of a psychotherapist in the literature on Gestalt therapy (e.g. Amendt-
Lyon, 2001, 2003; Parlett, 2003; Spagnuolo Lobb, 2003; Zinker, 1977) and the cultivation of these
skills presents a challenge for educational institutes as well as for psychotherapists in practice. The
explicit connection between these skills in psychotherapy and improv theatre comes from the
psychoanalytic environment (Kindler, 2010; Kindler & Gray, 2010; Ringstrom, 2001). Kindler
and Gray (2010) point to the fact that there are compelling parallels between the creative and
spontaneous moments that occur in the therapeutic encounter and in a two-person drama
improvisation found in theatre training (p. 254) and they point towards the idea that
improvisational training could be a method to enhance therapeutic skills. Recent research supports
this hypothesis (Romanelli, Moran & Tishby, 2019; Romanelli & Tishby, 2019). Romanelli,
Moran and Tishby (2019) highlight that theatre improvisation and psychotherapy share the same
focus of relational, co-created action (p. 296). Such a dialogic principle in Gestalt therapy is called
improvisational co-creation by Spagnuolo Lobb (2003) and she links it with implicit relational
knowledge (Spagnuolo Lobb, 2013a, p. 29; Stern, 2003). If the client and the psychotherapist are
fully in the present moment, i.e. devoted to the mutual contact that they co-create, so-called now
moments may arise from the implicit relational processes (Stern, 2004). Now moments
in psychotherapy are the critical moments which contain the potential of change through contact
with the contents of the implicit relational knowledge. Romanelli, Moran and Tishby (2019)
introduce the term I'mprovisation experiences for those moments, which are essential for the
therapeutical process, because these are situations which open the space for therapeutical
experiment. In their research, they reach the conclusion that theatre improvisation skills can
increase psychotherapists ability to “achieve and create I’mprovisational moments in their
sessions (p. 299). A pilot study in the education of social workers (Romanelli and Tishby 2019)
suggests that improvisational training increases flexibility, therapeutic presence and other factors
supporting the therapeutic alliance. Kindler and Gray (2010) state that the skill of improvisation,
essential in theatrical training, contributes significantly to the psychoanalytic process (p. 264)
because it supports the spontaneity and authenticity of the therapeutic encounter aspects highly
valued in the Gestalt therapeutic approach. Bermant (2013) creates a parallel between the basic
improvisational stance and the concept of unconditional positive regard and assumes that
improvisational training can help psychotherapists to develop this ability.
The core improvisational principle Yes and…” is improvisational co-creation at its core.
It is precisely this principle that Bermant (2013) links to unconditional positive regard in the
humanistic approach (p. 3), and yet there is more involved in the principle. “Yes and…” involves
attentive listening, full acceptance of situation and the partner. Improvisation is mostly practised
in a group. Sheesley, Pfeffer and Barish (2016) describe the support of group cohesiveness as an
essential part of improvisation training and, simultaneously, the most crucial component of CIT.
If we transfer the principle “Yes and…” to the group process, we obtain an accepting supporting
environment (ibid.). It is also true in improvisation that play is an essential phenomenon, which,
with increasing security in the group, opens up space for humour and laughter. The procedures
in CIT explicitly highlight humour and laughter as a component of the therapeutic process (ibid.).
3.4 Improvisation in the theory of Gestalt therapy supporting the dimensions of creative
Improvisation encourages the release of inner creativity and supports individuals in their
distinctive way of self-expression (Spolin, 1999). “Being creative is synonymous with normality
in human nature (Spagnuolo Lobb & Amendt-Lyon, 2003, p. VIII). “Creativity characterises the
individual’s spontaneous adjustment to his or her environment (ibid.). In the concept of Gestalt
therapy creativity is “considered to be a quality of spontaneous adaptation in interpersonal
processes, as well as an important ingredient of healthy social living (ibid., p. IX). Regarding
improvisational principles and skills, we have already mentioned flexibility, spontaneity, the
ability to react to a new, unexpected situation and improvisational co-creation. The list is
remarkably similar to the Gestalt therapeutic concept of creative adjustment. Parlett (2003)
emphasises the importance of creative adjustment by declaring that the whole of life is
improvisation. He describes five abilities dimensions of creative adjustment: (1) the ability to
respond to the existing field and the ability to self-organise within it, (2) the ability to interrelate
with others, (3) the ability to self-recognise, (4) the ability to embody, (5) the ability to experiment.
Even the simplest improvisational games contain these five elements. Improvisational spontaneity
contains the essence of creative adjustment, i.e. “the moment of personal freedom, when we are
faced with a reality and see it, explore it and act accordingly. In this reality the bits and pieces of
ourselves function as an organic whole. It is the time of discovery, of experiencing, of creative
expression (Spolin, 1999, s. 4). With a little exaggeration, we could say that practising
improvisation is something like attending a creative adjustment gym as improvisational
training develops and activates its dimensions.
Improvisation enables us to observe what happens at the contact boundary, raise our
awareness and identify problems in the five above mentioned areas. It reveals contact styles, fixed
gestalts, addresses unfinished issues that are dormant in the background so that they can be
activated in the newly organized field of the improvisational scene. We agree with Parlett (2003)
that improvisation, as we know it from jazz or improvisational theatre, is a pure experiment (p.
61)”, and experiment is a method that is suitable for the therapeutical processing of fixed gestalts
(Roubal, 2009). The focus on “here and now” allows us to be fully present in situations with the
qualities of "now moments", when a possibility to influence the implicit relational memory occurs
(Romanelli, Moran & Tishby, 2019). In western societies, it is typical that many people have over-
active self-critical thinking patterns that lead to self-degradation (Parlett, 2003, p. 55). The
environment of an accepting group leads clients to question their conviction that they are “basically
repugnant, unacceptable or unlovable (Yalom in Sheesley, Pfeffer a Barish, 2016, p. 160). In CIT
the clients are deliberately exposed to the possibility of experiencing embarrassing feelings
because the improvisational exercises intentionally aim at confronting the barriers of creative
expression. “Creativity is an act of bravery. It states: I am willing to risk ridicule and failure…
(Zinker, 1977, p. 3).” Becoming aware of the processes resulting from introjects and shame that
some clients are bound by is the first step towards disrupting them. A natural part of the process is
the integration of such experiences in the context of an accepting group (Sheesley, Pfeffer and
Barish, 2016, p. 163).
In her description of the last generation of clients, Spagnuolo Lobb (2013a) talks about the
absence of intimate relationship, as most of their contacts take place in the virtual space of social
networks, they lack physical contact, have problems creating bonds and are disconnected from
physical experiencing. For many, it is difficult to perceive the other as the field is full of anxiety
and worries. The response of the therapy is supporting the process of contacting, re-sensitisation
of the body and awareness to what is happening at the contact boundary - being healthy means
experiencing the warmth of intimate relationships, emotional and bodily responses towards
another human being (Spagnuolo Lobb, 2013a, p. 27-28). The improvisational practice responds
by providing a safe space that is characterized by playful approach. It consists in an atmosphere of
unconditional acceptance, in which the fear of failure loses its sting" (Bermant, 2013, p. 4). To
enter into improvisation means to be in contact with another person with your whole personality,
in a way that is not threatening. This enables anxieties to recede into the background and frees the
space for creative expression, experiment and experiencing intimate feelings of interrelatedness,
mutuality and co-creation in one-to-one contact. Work with the body compensates for
desensitization and allows safe physical contact.
It is for these reasons that improvisation is (in all its forms described in chapters 3.1-3.3)
the basic instrument of Gestalt Theatre. It can be supportive, interconnecting, offering excitement,
contact and the joy of creativity, which clients sometimes find difficult to allow themselves to
experience, if there is not the protective bubble of a role, fiction and play. On the other hand, it
provides the opportunity to raise awareness concerning the problems in contact either with others
or with ourselves and to influence the implicit relational memory. The characteristics and skills
connected with improvisation, such as creativity, co-creating, experiment, spontaneity are also
desirable in Gestalt psychotherapy (cf. Parlett, 2003; Roubal, 2009; Spagnuolo Lobb, 2003;
Zinker, 1977) and dramatic improvisation has tools to develop them.
3.5 Gestalt Theatre in Group Arrangement
In the rest of the text, we will refer primarily to the group arrangement, which is very
advantageous for the Gestalt Theatre. Using Gestalt Theatre in the individual therapy is possible,
though still somewhat uncommon. However, Fres (2013) offers examples of individual therapy
using Gestalt Theatre approach.
The group has high projective potential; group dynamics support the process, and
possibilities for contacting and interrelating are significantly wider. Improvisation provides a
secure, accepting environment for spontaneous and authentic self-expression (see chapter 3.3). A
group can move towards becoming a social microcosm (comp. Yalom & Leszcz, 2007, p. 51). In
Gestalt Theatre, we emphasise in group process “both symbiotic layers described by Yalom and
Leszcz (2007). Through experimental work with drama, we focus on here and now, which is
“the key concept of group therapy (ibid., p. 49). We focus on what is happening in a given moment
in a dramatic situation in the field of the group. The second symbiotic layer is reflection, the verbal
processing of the material which emerged in the process. “The reflective loop is necessary if the
emotional experience is to become a therapeutic force (ibid.). Working with both the layers is
inherent in Gestalt therapy: it is the creative movement between the dialogue and the experiment
(cf. Roubal, 2009, 2019; see chapter 3.6). Clients, therefore, can go through the pure experience,
live in “here and now”, experiment and reflect on this experience, explore it phenomenologically,
understand it and integrate it.
3.6 Experimental Process Arising from Dramatic Techniques Induced Experiment
In chapter 3 it was stated that in the Gestalt Theatre “we integrate techniques, processes
and exercises from applied drama and use them in an experimental way within the dramatic play.
The differences between exercise/technique and experiment are defined by Roubal (2009, 2019)
and Zinker (1977).
The authors (ibid.) talk about the techniques and exercises in such a way that they do not
primarily emerge from the process; they are prepared in advance and have established procedures
and a purpose. A psychotherapist can employ [techniques]
if they want to induce a particular
state or to direct the client to a particular aim (Roubal, 2019, p. 224). Their overuse or
inappropriate application poses a risk of rigidity and may reduce attention to the processual aspect
of the work. On the other hand, the experiment emerges from the process, and its result cannot be
predicted (Zinker, 1977). It is a joint “creative adventure (Roubal, 2019, p. 224) of a
psychotherapist and a client (or a group), requiring curiosity, acceptance of uncertainty and a
willingness to take risks. The therapist suggests to the client, “Do this, to see what you experience,”
and not, “Do this in order to change” (Greenberg in Roubal, 2019, s. 224) while accepting
responsibility for actively offering the structure and task which develops into the experiment
(Roubal, 2009, p. 266). The experiment is integral part of Gestalt therapy (Roubal, 2019, p. 221).
In the same place, Roubal (2019) further states that techniques can be used as an
inspiration for experiment (p. 225). If the therapists stays open in the here-and-now therapy
situation with the client… the ‘frozen technique’ can be ‘warmed up’ again into a creative
experiment (ibid.). In Gestalt Theatre we use dramatic techniques, exercises and processes;
however, we work with them in the spirit of try, and you will see what you experience”; we do
author’s note
not expect any specific outcome, but a new experience. We invite our clients on an adventurous
journey, which activates creative processes. Coming back to Parlett (2003) improvisation is a
pure experiment (p. 61), we do not know in advance what is going to happen, what we will
experience or what the result will be.
In Gestalt therapy the experiment emerges from the process. In Gestalt Theatre the
process emerges from the experimental approach to dramatic techniques. With the use of
fiction, roles, and play we create a new projective field, within which through the offered structure
we create an opportunity for experimenting. It is as if we built a playground for our clients,
indicated the basic rules, but did not say how exactly the game should be played or how it is
supposed to end. And because the literature does not offer a suitable term for this procedure, I offer
my own: induced experiment.
experiment initially has the attributes of a technique; it does not necessarily
emerge from the process, but it is offered to clients, and it can be prepared in advance. It is a
particular structured task” with “open outcome” (cf. Roubal, 2009, p. 268). Through the magic of
fiction, clients can, using symbols and metaphors, go through an imaginary door to another
dimension of the group field, e.g. become an animal for a while and spend a day in its skin (see
chapter 3.7 C). By creating such a context, we create an experimental space, in which the clients
improvise. Thanks to the dramatic projection, the figures that organize the field begin to emerge
from the consciously and unconsciously projected contents. The distance through the symbolism
and metaphors allows the clients to safely widen their awareness, get in touch with their needs,
and experiment with relating differently to the problem by creating new perspective (Jones, 1996,
p. 243).
Intentionally created
Such an experimental process can either be allowed to take place and further worked
through therapeutically after completion, or the process can be directly developed as an experiment
in the spirit of the theory of the Gestalt therapeutic approach. An indispensable part of Gestalt
Theatre is, however, preparation for the experimental work and its subsequent integration. We
work carefully on finding an optimal balance between the supportive dialogic approach and the
experimental approach, which brings novelty, challenges, excitement, uncertainty, risk and
creative process. According to Roubal (2009, 2019), these are the two opposing poles of the same,
and the task for the psychotherapist as the facilitator of the process is not to let the imaginary
pendulum swing too much to one side or the other. The contribution of the Gestalt approach is
the therapist’s flexibility in the differentiated use of both of these polarities, the continuous creative
movement between them, depending on the situation “here and now” in the therapeutic
relationship (Roubal, 2009, p. 269).
3.7 Structure of Gestalt Theatre Encounter in a Group Arrangement
Group work within the Gestalt Theatre method is structured into units, which are in
accordance with the contact cycle. In the case of long-term groups is the typical length of one
encounter is between four and five hours at a frequency of once every three weeks to a month. For
weekend and intensive training courses, the daily work is also structured into half-day or all-day
units. The encounters can be both thematic and processual.
In the background of Figure 1. is the contact cycle
(Roubal, 2010, p. 182); the upper layer
is the typical structure of an encounter (described below). On the bottom line is the intended path
Roubal uses Zinker’s model (2004) revised by other authors (Mackewn, 2004; Woldt, Toman, 2005; Joyce, Sills,
from the dialogical principle through experimental structured activities back to the dialogical
principle in the group (cf. Roubal 2009, also a focus on the relationship and a focus on the task).
Figure 1: Structure of Gestalt Theatre Encounter
A) A moment of mindfulness. The meaning of the introductory part is to enable clients to
disengage from the day and its worries and joys (withdrawal), with which they come. To
concentrate for a moment on the breath, get in contact with themselves and notice the sensations
which come from the body, emotions and mind. The meditation leads to awareness: Realise how
you are right here and now.Subsequently, every participant has the opportunity to share what
they become aware of. It is their first step into a group space. It gives us information about which
figures are emerging / are present within the field. This may be followed by space for sharing what
are the participants coming to the group with or the ongoing processes from the previous sessions.
B) Warm-up. The aim is to involve the body and senses in the process, to deepen the awareness
and mobilise energy for the main part of the encounter. This section usually contains very few
words, is interactive, invites the participants to make contact in the field of the group. It can have
the form of a dance, interactive dramatic exercises, improvisation. Ideally, it gradually prepares
the ground for the third part. The imaginary pendulum swings slowly in the direction towards an
experiment. For example, if the main topic of the encounter is going to be polarities, the clients
can be invited to a Mirror activity. The work can then take place in pairs, where one person makes
a move or offers an activity through pantomime, which the other reflects as a specific mirror (e.g.
mirror of anger or sensuality). After the end of the second part, there is usually space for reflective
diaries, work in smaller groups or whole group reflection.
C) Drama. Through dramatic action, usually improvisation, which aims to activate the implicit
memory in the process of “here and now”. In this main part of the encounter, we use the induced
experiment described in the previous chapter. The psychotherapist offers a structure (task), to
allow a group process. The members of the group enter the field through improvisation and co-
create the experience from which the figures emerge (contact).
Examples: (1) in controlled imagination, clients find an animal which they transform into.
This is followed by group improvisation called a day in the life of the animal”, when the clients
meet in the roles of animals in the nature. Such a setting offers huge space for dramatic projection.
(2) The psychotherapist offers the topic of polarities. Within their work in small groups, the clients
themselves choose the polarities with which they want to work. These are first sculpted as statues
of both poles
. We continue with group improvisation called night in the museum. Each client
first places themselves as one of the statues in the museum and with music the whole exhibition
“comes to life and thus the clients enter an improvised experiment. In the role the clients represent
. We invite the clients to try to go to extremes in their polarities. We start from the principle described by Zinker
(1977, p. 202-206) "stretching the self-concept".
an aspect of their personality. We repeat it also for the second polarity. During the whole process,
we aim to raise awareness through physical and emotional experience.
At the end of the dramatic part, there is room for the integration of experience in the main
part of the encounter. From the experimental work, we go back to dialogue. The contact cycle
curve points downwards, and the assimilation phase begins. Space opens for reflective diaries,
reflection on the activity in smaller groups and creating connections between the experience in
“here and now” and life experience outside the group.
D) Integration. In Gestalt Theatre it is essential to pay proper attention to the assimilation part.
When looking at the contact cycle, it is spread over almost a third of it. We leave the roles and
fictitious space to bring the processes to closure. We calm the body, emotions and the mind. An
integral part of the final phase is usually some form of physical relaxation, massage, diaries or
drawing. Group sharing follows. It provides space to therapeutically develop the processes from
the previous part and bring them to closure. The imaginary full stop at the end is a small ritual.
3.8 The Role of a Psychotherapist in Gestalt Theatre
The basic task of a psychotherapist in the Gestalt Theatre process is to hold the ground for
group work, i.e. to take care of safe space, relationships and to create a favourable base, from
which figural elements can later grow. The psychotherapist offers a structure but does not enter
the process with a defined goal. It is favourable if they can step back and trust the group process.
Psychotherapist works phenomenologically, focuses attention on the field of the group and helps
to sharpen the figures.
They get into a more active role in moments when the clients are in contact with their issues
either in improvisations or during the reflective part. The psychotherapist can support the figure
using interventions, help to raise awareness, foster an experiment and offer support for a corrective
experience. They can also enter the process in a role and become a partner in a scene, as is common
in drama therapy practice (Dočkal, 2010).
3.9 Target Groups
For the time being, it is common practice to work with clients who come to support their
personal growth. The above-mentioned studies from the field of applied theatre improvisation also
show promise for working with clients with less severe psychological difficulties, specifically with
anxious and depressed clients (chapter 3.3). In general, Gestalt Theatre seems to be a suitable and
accessible method for clients, whom we could describe as clients with difficulties in the neurotic
spectrum. For clients who survived a trauma, it depends on the type of traumatic experience and
the difficulties they experience. Here we advocate for an individual approach and assessment.
The use of Gestalt Theatre with patients with more severe psychiatric diagnoses has not
yet been the subject of practice or research. We assume that working with clients with a disturbed
relationship to reality would be risky. Caution is appropriate with clients with PTSD, and strongly
aggressive behaviour on the client's side can also be considered a barrier to joining a therapeutical
group (Dočkal, 2010).
3.10 Summary of the Functional Principles of Gestalt Theatre in the Context of Gestalt Theory
This chapter is based on the relational approach of Gestalt therapy (Francesetti, Gecele &
Roubal, 2013a), which views healthy, neurotic as well as psychopathological ways of being in the
world as “a co-created phenomenon of the field that emerges at the contact boundary (Greenberg,
2013, p. 12). We can say that experience is as healthy as the persons ability to be present and
aware at the contact boundary, and that neurotic and psychotic experiences are two different ways
of being absent from the contact boundary (Francesetti, Gecele & Roubal, 2013b, p. 63), this
absence is a result of creative adjustment to a difficult field (ibid., p. 67). For the purposes of this
text, we will focus only on the dimensions of healthy and neurotic contacting.
The Gestalt therapy approach in diagnostics “focuses on the modality of contact
(Spagnuolo Lobb, 2013a, p. 49-50). It operates with an intrinsic criterion
to evaluate the
experience (Francesetti, Gecele & Roubal, 2013b, p. 63). We can directly feel how good is the
Gestaltung - the process of figure forming (ibid., p. 64). “A healthy experience is an experience of
a good Gestalt that has grace, strength, harmony, rhythm, fluidity, intensity, etc. This criterion is
aesthetic because it is an implicit knowledge that comes immediately from our senses (ibid., p.
64), it has its genesis before language (Francesetti, 2012, p. 6) and is not “a cognitive judgment”
(Francesetti, Gecele & Roubal, 2013b, p. 64). Therefore, when we talk about contact that is
(Francesetti, 2012; Francesetti, Gecele & Roubal, 2013a, Spagnuolo Lobb, 2003), we
are talking about the capacity to be awake to ones own senses and feel the excitement at the
contact boundary (Francesetti, 2012, p. 5). A healthy experience is a process of contact with
continuous novelty of life, which is nurturing and the result of which is the growth of an organism
(Francesetti, Gecele & Roubal, 2013b, p. 61). The function of creative adjustment allows us to
repair relational blocks and to correct our movements toward the other. The freer our senses are,
the more we can openly perceive the field, the more we are able to adjust creatively. (Spagnuolo
Lobb, 2003, p. 38). A healthy experience has an aesthetic quality. In neurotic experiences contact
with novelty at the contact boundary is dimmed: there is reduced contact with the potentialities
In English: intrinsic criteria intrinsic (coming from inside) diagnostic criteria. Used in contrast to “extrinsic
criteria”, which are the criteria given from outside (e.g. DSM).
English: aesthetics, Greek "aisthesis" means "perception" and aesthetics, therefore, represents perception through
senses (Francesetti, 2012, p. 5).
present in the field. This limitation is realised by the so-called contact interruptions
. These were
healthy protections of the organism when they were established, the best way to be present in past
relationships, but then they became unaware habits - fixed Gestalten (Francesetti, Gecele &
Roubal, 2013b p. 62).” The originally creative adjustment turned into neurotic adjustment and, as
a result, presence at the contact boundary is diminished (ibid., p. 67). The aesthetics of contact is
interrupted, and the capacity to be present is replaced by the absence that is evident in contact. The
distortion of the attributes of aesthetic “are the ways through which we can perceive in the here
and now’ the contact interruptions: the suffering of our co-constructed experience, the limitations
of our present contact, the degree of our absence (ibid. 64). A neurotic experience is not unique
and nourishing because it does not allow full contact. The goal of therapy in the case of neurotic
adjustment is to restore awareness of broken contact, to assimilate this experience, and to renew
the possibility of a new creative adjustment, i.e. full spontaneous contact (Francesetti, Gecele &
Roubal, 2013b; Spagnuolo Lobb, 2013a). “People grow and develop through contactingand
through assimilation of the experiences that come from these contacts (Mackewn in Roubal 2010,
p. 166).
Drama in the relational approach of Gestalt therapy
Drama is an action/process that takes place at the level of the whole personality, which
begins with embodiment. Spagnuolo Lobb and Amendt-Lyon (2003) emphasise that therapeutic
interventions have to be created in such a way that clients can experience them holistically, i.e.
not me rely cognitively, but also senso-motorically and emotionally (p. IX). Self-expression in
the form of drama, repeated improvisational encounters offer opportunities to perceive the process
of contacting. In other words, thanks to the embodiment that precedes verbal conceptualisation,
Also, the other contact styles (cf. Roubal, 2010, p. 184-185), e.g. projection, introjection, retroflexion, confluence,
implicit relational knowledge is activated (Stern, 2003). According to Stern (ibid.) implicit
relational knowledge includes ninety per cent of what we rely on when we relate sensorimotor
skills, affects, thoughts, anticipations, ability “how to be with somebody” (p. 22). It all comes from
implicit knowledge, and all this is reflected in the process of contacting, in the aesthetics of the
contact. Drama evokes primarily implicit relational processes in the situation of “here and now”,
which has significant implications for use in Gestalt therapy.
Through dramatic play, clients enter a newly emerging field where the safe space is
provided by role and fiction. As the agents are creating the content, the layer of fantasy, symbols
and metaphors have a similar effect on the field as if we placed a filter on a photograph, i.e.
emphasising some phenomena in the field and suppressing other. Supporting awareness enables
us to understand how creative adjustment works, to perceive contact interruptions and to map the
course of a contact cycle while meeting needs. Abilities and their deficits related to dimensions of
creative adjustment are reflected in the aesthetics/absence in the contact. Therefore, creative
adjustment and the development of the abilities associated with it are an organising principle of
Gestalt Theatre. These five “key dimensions of human development(Parlett, 2003, p. 61; see
chapter 3.4) are incorporated in every improvised dramatic situation, and recent practice and
research suggest that dramatic improvisation understood within the principles of Gestalt therapy
can contribute to their cultivation. This is also supported by the playful relationship to reality,
which is characterised by a more creative and flexible attitudeThis enables the client to adopt a
playful, experimenting attitude towards themselves and their life experiences (Jones, 1996, p.
116). At the same time, the quality of the client's presence in improvisation can also serve as a
diagnostic tool through which the psychotherapist can observe how the client copes with the
challenges brought by the new situations. They can perceive whether the process of contacting is
aesthetic or what is behind the absence at the contact boundary.
What arises in the dramatic situation in “here and now” is “the creative Gestalt, that
summarizes the physical and socially relational schemas assimilated in the preceding contacts
(Spagnuolo Lobb, 2013b, p. 103). Thus every “here and now” (and therefore every dramatic
situation) includes reflections of many “elsewhere and another time”, some of which we identify
as unfinished businesses or fixed gestalts. And because unresolved figures organise the field
(Mackewn, 2004, p. 38), we can assume that, when contacting, the client will first rely on their
more rigid relational patterns from their implicit relational memory. The dramatic situation offers
the opportunity to focus on the figures, manifestations of neurotic adjustment, in “here and now
and therapeutically turn them into corrective emotional experience (cf. Yalom & Leszcz, 2007).
We use experience of contact in dramatic situations and the emphasis on sensory perceptions to
expand awareness. Through it, we lead the clients to a phenomenological exploration of the
process and verbal understanding of the phenomena in a dramatic situation as the functions of the
field. Gestalt therapy approach leads through awareness to greater freedom of choice and to
taking the responsibility for the way in which one relates to the world around as well as to oneself.
(Roubal, 2010, p. 166). This responsibility touches the existential level of being in the world,
and the weight of the choices associated with it can prevent some clients from accepting this
responsibility in life. Drama offers a so-called fail-safe" laboratory (Sheesley, Pfeffer & Barish,
2016, p. 162) and allows the clients to project themselves into unknown situations (Spolin, 1986).
Through experimentation, they try out living in various situations in a fictional, low-stake
environment. Therefore, experiencing dramatic situations does not involve an existential threat
even though the clients are confronted with existential reality. In addition, the distance resulting
from dramatic projection, symbols and metaphors offers a different perspective and creates space
for new creative possibilities of relating (Jones, 1996). This is how Gestalt Theatre implements
Laura Perls' concept of “three Es for therapeutic work (cf. Spagnuolo Lobb & Amendt-Lyon,
2003). Finally, the triad of the great alibi fiction, role and amorality of drama allows us to
approach polarities. And polarities provide ground for work with intrapersonal as well as
interpersonal conflicts (Zinker, 1977). An alibi of a drama simplifies the process of stretching the
self-concept (cf. ibid.), and thus the client can experience acting from the poles they normally
suppress, the emotions that they inhibit, they can overcome the filter of introjects, and try new,
non-stereotypical ways of relating and, therefore, step forward towards the integration of their
personality. In short: Through drama we reconnect to our inner selves, make them come back to
life and thus re-integrate ourselves (Dočkal, 2010, p. 530).
Strasberg (1988) said that he helps “each individual to become aware of the deepest sources
of his experience and creativity and to learn how to recreate them at will in the process of achieving
an artistic result (p. 104).” Gestalt Theatre strives to turn these sources of creativity towards the
art of living.
4. Conclusion
The implicit connection between Gestalt therapy and drama has existed since the moment
Gestalt therapy saw the light of day. The continuing interest in aesthetic values, creative processes
and art as such confirms that Gestalt therapy can be defined as a scientific as well as an artistic
field (Spagnuolo Lobb & Amendt Lyon, 2003; Zinker, 1977). It is only logical that a form of art,
which is an integral part of the cultural development of humankind appears as one of the sources
for its practice. Gestalt Theatre is essentially a creative adjustment of drama and theatre to Gestalt
therapy, and it brings the connection explicitly into the therapeutic practice. And since the dawn
of time, drama has been not only the bearer of aesthetic values but also the channel to experiencing
emotions and reflecting on them. Thus, it had a therapeutic dimension and function even in times
when psychotherapy had not yet come into existence.
I have already mentioned in the introduction that the direct connection of Gestalt therapy
and drama, represented by the Gestalt Theatre, is at the beginning of its journey into the
professional discourse and there is a need for it to be validated by practice and research with
various client groups. I believe that through this text, we have managed to take one of the first
steps on this path.
Gestalt Theatre offers new possibilities for approaching the art of Gestalt therapy. It
supports work with the body, brings an element of playfulness, support and appreciation of the
individuals creative approach to the situations in which they find themselves. The framework of
play, fiction and a role can bring ease even to difficult topics: it allows for distance and insight.
And these are promising prerequisites for the symbiosis of drama and Gestalt therapy in the service
of our clients. Especially for those for whom, through drama, the door opens to a more creative
adjustment to existential reality, awareness and growth.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Improvisational (or now) moments can serve as important change mechanisms in psychotherapy. Yet there is little understanding of the therapists’ subjective experiences during those Improvisation Experiences (IE). In this pilot study, 17 clinicians reported on their clinical IE following theater improvisation training. Reports were analyzed in relation to three constructs: peak experience, flow, and peak performance. Results show that during IE therapists experience dimensions of peak experience and flow, but not of peak performance. Additional unique dimensions of IE are discussed in relation to different constructs, leading us to name therapists’ IE as I’mprovisation. Recommendations practice and training are discussed.
Flexibility, Therapeutic Presence (TP), and collaborative tendency are core capacities in clinical social work as well as in theater improvisation. This mixed-methods pilot study studied the effects of theater improvisation training on 35 graduate-level social work students, who participated in an experiential, semester-long ‘theater improvisation skills for clinicians’ course, compared to a control group of a similar cohort. These variables were measured before, after, and at a three-month follow-up to the course. Additionally, Follow-up semi-structured interviews were conducted with 17 course graduates. Quantitative results showed a significant increase in flexibility and TP immediately following the course compared to the controls, which was not maintained at the three-month follow-up. The qualitative findings indicated an increase in flexibility, open-mindedness, TP, and self-awareness following the training. Triangulation of both sets of data suggests that improvisation training contributed to changes in participants’ general attitudes and perceptions regarding their clinical work. However, longer training is needed in order for these skills to effectively impact their clinical work. The findings suggest that improvisation skills can help clinical social workers increase their flexibility and TP, as well as other important alliance abilities. Implications for teaching and research are discussed.
Adolescents who have Social Anxiety Disorder do not receive the support they need. Improvisational theater involves regular exposure to social performance situations, and is recognized as a potential psycho-social support to enhance well-being and symptom reduction. The current study examines whether participating in a school-based improvisational theater program predicts reductions in symptoms of social anxiety. A total of 268 middle and high school students who participated in a ten-week school-based improvisational theater program completed surveys in a single group pre/post design. Adolescents who screened positive for social phobia at the beginning of class reported reduced symptoms of social anxiety at post-test. This change predicts increases in social skills, hope, creative self-efficacy, comfort performing for others, and willingness to make mistakes, along with marginal decreases in symptoms of depression. Given that no prior study has examined school-based improvisational theater training and its relationship to social anxiety, this work offers an important early contribution to the empirical literature on improvisation and mental health. School-based improvisational theater training offers an accessible, non-clinical alternative for addressing social anxiety problems among adolescents.
To answer the question, “What developmental theory is coherent for a Gestalt therapist?” the author states that, as clinicians, Gestalt therapists are not interested in a theory of development in itself, but in a “developmental mind” (a map to understand how the past reveals itself in the present) that can help them intuit both the evolution of contact modes in clients and their interrupted movement – the blocked intentionality for contact that calls to be freed in the present moment. She presents a model to observe how the resources of our clients have either kept their freshness or have become dormant. As a key theme in this work, the author proposes the concept of polyphonic development of domains, a suitable way of looking at the client's development in the here-and-now of the session, in order to support the excitement for contact which has lost its spontaneity in development. She describes Gestalt domains, with their characteristics and risks. Finally, she illustrates these concepts with a clinical example.
Background: Improvisational theater exercises (improv) are used in various settings to improve mental health and medical outcomes. However, there is little documented evidence of the effectiveness of these interventions. Aims: We developed a short-term, group intervention that used improv exercises in a therapeutic manner to treat psychiatric patients. Methods: We evaluated the feasibility, acceptability and five clinical outcomes (depressive symptoms, anxious symptoms, self-esteem, perfectionism and satisfaction with social roles) of this intervention in an outpatient setting. Participants were 32 patients with symptoms of anxiety and depression and who had variable exposure to psychiatric treatment. Results: In paired samples t-tests, participants demonstrated reduced symptoms of anxiety (t(31) = 4.67, p < 0.001) and depression (t(31) = 3.78, p = 0.001), and improved self-esteem (t(31)= −3.31, p = 0.002) following the intervention. There was a trend towards reduction of perfectionism (t(31) = 1.77, p = 0.087), but no substantial change in rated satisfaction with social roles. Effect sizes were medium for reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Conclusions: The results of this study indicate that a brief intervention based on improv exercises may provide a strong and efficient treatment for patients with anxiety and depression.
The aesthetic is central to Gestalt therapy.Its particular organization of sensation includes - without being limited to - the experience of beauty itself. This same aesthetic attitude that creates art and appreciates beauty accounts for life’s harmonies and rhythms. Aesthetic qualities animate the lifework of an artist as well as the quotidian events of ordinary life. The theory and practice of Gestalt therapy is infused with these qualities. It is no accident that the first and most comprehensive elaboration of Gestalt therapy theory was written by Paul Goodman, whose efforts in creative literature (fiction and poetry) were as ambitious as his works in psychology and social theory. His collaboration with Frederick Perls is the coming together of European psychoanalysis, phenomenology, Gestalt psychology, and existentialism with the American pragmatism of William James, George Herbert Mead, and John Dewey (Richard Kitzler, “Three Lectures”, article in preparation).
Merely encouraging play and artistic production as a therapist, or working with a patient who exhibits exceptional artistic talents, does not adequately define creativity within the therapeutic relationship. A more appropriate definition of this type of creativity must include interpersonal aspects, such as the daring, creative interaction, or that which happens in the no man’s land between us. This implies venturing beyond self-expression as an end in itself and entering the dynamics of the fertile complexity within the therapeutic relationship. Creative interchange can best be encouraged in Gestalt therapy when those involved in the therapeutic process are productively curious and willing to experiment; as a consequence, the chances for optimal results with the givens of the situation are much higher. Drawing from my experience as a therapist, I have realized that achieving this goal implies the use of precisely those individually designed experiments that both take the uniqueness of each patient into account and require the therapist to dare to take creative leaps. My aim is to make a passionate plea for the spontaneous development of “custom-made” interventions that risk articulating something novel, unexpected, or outright eccentric, be it in individual, couples, or group therapy. Only these unique “experiments”, born out of the process of the therapeutic relationship, can stimulate the liveliness, innovation, and meaningfulness necessary to call them creative in the Gestalt therapeutic sense of the word.
At a recent meeting of about twenty experienced Gestalt practitioners in Britain, someone asked the question: “What attracted us to Gestalt therapy?” The responses varied, but there was one recurring theme - that the Gestalt approach made sense in a real-life way. It was a philosophy and method to be lived, not just a theory to be talked about, and not merely a specialized approach to psychotherapy. Rather, it was suggestive of a way to be in the world that we had independently discovered to be richer, truer, and more satisfying for ourselves than other paths tried. It offered a means of cultivating “the art of living well”.
In our times, it seems clear that psychotherapy, even Gestalt therapy, is not only a matter of supporting the patient’s creativity, nor just a matter of being creative as psychotherapists. We think more in terms of co-creation, since our whole culture has acquired a new perspective on human nature, which takes the “relational”’ and the “relative” as the basic hermeneutic code. If 50 years ago the New Age Movement supported personal growth as a way of emerging from the authoritarian model of the culture of that time, and therefore the concept of creativity was seen more in terms of personal development and freedom from cultural schemas, today, living in the post-modern era where no point of reference is secure or stable any longer, the concept of creativity has to be seen as a matter of the relationship, the only experienced phenomenon where a momentary truth can be found.