The Art of the Moment

Author: Sue Daniel

THE ART OF THE MOMENT 

(The following is an excerpt from my article on The Theatre of Spontaneity, published in ‘The Mirror’, e-Journal of the Moreno Psychodrama Society, No. 14 December 2019.)

It began in 1911, the year my Mother was born in Werribee, Victoria, 21-year-old Jacob Levy Moreno enacting and discovering his Theatre for Children (Kinderbuehne) in the gardens of Vienna, and for a time, in the house of Kaiser Josef Strauss. This marked the beginning of the first period of the Art of the Moment with its Theatre of Spontaneity. Ninety years later our Theatre of Spontaneity (ToS for short), was born and nurtured in the bosom of the Psychodrama Institute of Melbourne (PIM), christened by Zerka Moreno and carried into the public space by the Moreno Psychodrama Society (MPS). While I sowed the seed, other founding members including Helen Fryer, Lethe Gaskin and Katrina Gaskin lovingly tended it, and Gavin O’Loughlin, the ToS coordinator along with members of the MPS committee, continue to foster its life today. In 2019, a new shoot emerged, Meenakshi Kirtane, an MPS member and psychodrama trainee, living in Ahmedabad, India, created a theatre of spontaneity ‘The Theatre of Life’, under the auspices of her organisation, Psychodrama in India (PiI) and MPS. 

The Art of the Moment (to be used interchangeably with the Theatre of Spontaneity and Psychodrama) is characterised by a free form of theatre, close to life, whereby each protagonist writes their own script in the moment. No one knows what will emerge. In this Theatre of Spontaneity any idea of role clichés must drop away permitting the cast – protagonist, auxiliaries, director and audience – to be entirely spontaneous and creative. The director must know and respect this and be sufficiently endowed or trained to enter into the unknown and to trust the process. The creative genius is in the protagonist and their spontaneity is the active ingredient. In a Theatre of Spontaneity, the creative genius also lies in the director, who initiates a topic and/or guides the group, as they enact or express what is in them in the moment. An example follows: 

Recently in Melbourne, in one such spontaneous production, we experienced a scene with a blackened burnt out forest, razed by the recent fires in NSW and Qld, a curled- up koala trying to protect itself and a fire truck with its firies (crew) stuck in the raging inferno. Suddenly from the audience, firefighters came and wrapped the koala in a blanket, put out the flames around the truck, and new fuzzy apple green shoots emerged from the boughs of the tree, showing new life. The ‘spirit’ – an audience member – of this new life spoke poignantly to the people of the ever present evolving of nature. It was a picture of hope, which brought the ensemble of people relief and raised their collective spirit. 

Such is the free form of psychodrama. Moreno spoke strongly about the poetic value of this spontaneous dramatic production when he said, ‘In the place of the organizing memory of the poet enters the moment of the adventurer.’ 

Shift now to Vienna, April 1, 1921, the second period of the Art of the Moment began with the ‘Stegreiftheater’ and this Theatre of Spontaneity (Das Stegreiftheater) opened in the Maisedergrasse. Other names for it included ‘die Lebendige Zeitung’ and ‘die Dramatisierte Zeitung’. While Moreno said that influences for his own ideas came from the theatre, he claimed his ‘Leitmotiv’ were the open spaces in which he played freely with the children in Vienna. He created the structure for his theatre in an effort to duplicate these ‘free’ open spaces through architecture – liking the freedom of movement which can be found on the stage, the openness, central position and the vertical dimension. It was only later that he discovered historical parallels with the Greek Theatre. Moreno imagined a theatre to replace the conserved theatre, one which was spontaneous, with no set script, and with involvement of audience and actors. The following photo of a model for the first Psychodramatic stage illustrates this openness and expansiveness, and to my mind, is a visual forerunner of the Morenian concepts of social networks, made up by a series of social atoms. 

Photo of Moreno’s idea for the original Viennese stage: 

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The concepts of social networks, social collectives and social and cultural atom, known globally as Sociometry – another of Moreno’s inventions, have inspired most fields of endeavour, and includes anthropologists, sociologists, educators, mathematicians, social analysts and networkers, chemists, physicists, engineers, limnologists, molecular biologists, neuroscientists, and even researchers in thermodynamics. Lib Thims, Limnologist, who well-referenced Moreno in his book, The Human Molecule in 2008, put this interesting quote at its beginning: 

“People are just like particles, they behave in groups as if they were molecules in a test-tube.” 

Forbes Allan, Milton’s Progress, 1999 

Moreno said ‘It’s the Category of the Moment which gave spontaneity work and the psychodrama method its fundamental revision and direction’ (Psychodrama Vol. 1, 1946). Paul Portner, a playwright and editor of a series of books documenting modern theatre, said ‘The aim of psychodrama is a genuine organization of form, a creative self-realization in the act’, (Moreno said, ‘The interpretation is in the Act’) . . . . ‘or a structuring of space, a realization of human relationships within the scenic action . . . The theme of psychodrama is precisely the relationship of the individual to the group and to society’ (Portner, 1967). 

The Theatre of the People

Zerka Moreno was very fond of telling stories about J.L (as she often called him). She was an enlivening and fascinating story-teller. I learnt a lot about psychodrama through her stories. Moreno came alive to me through this medium and through his writing. I both saw, and felt that spontaneity and creativity was a real force in humans, and when it is tapped, WOW! Every moment is new. Spontaneity starts with each one – to be the doer, the actor – to act. Spontaneity is needed now. Each of us is response-able, able to respond instead of reacting, able to create and re-create, to enact and to act in our lives. This is a power which we all have. Spontaneity has been publicly recognised (examples next paragraph) and continues to be a healing force in the world. As Moreno said of Psychodrama, its “of the people, by the people, for the people”. 

Some Early Reviews of the Theatre of Spontaneity 

There were many reviews of the Theatre of Spontaneity (which eventually evolved into, and is widely known as Psychodrama), in Europe and the USA in the first half of the 20thC. I’ve gathered a few of these to show you the extent to which psychodrama became popular with people from many disciplines including the arts, health fields and in education. 

IN EUROPE . . . . 

The poet stands in the midst of his players and transfers his idea to them. The curtain rises immediately afterward, and they begin to play. The play, called Imagination, “was simple, gripping, and creative in its presentation.”
JOSEPH, Welt Blatt, Vienna, April 21, 1924. 

Vienna has an Ensemble made under the direction of J. L. Moreno, which, instead of reproducing written lines, improvises them on the spot. I assure you that this can be more amusing and impressive than the work of all our classicists, including Strindberg. PAUL STEFAN, Die Stunde, Vienna, May 5, 1924. 

Even the best of imagination cannot foresee coming events. Only living experience enables us to realize the full significance of their playing. It is wrong to regard Impromptu merely as a substitute for the legitimate theatre. Viewed in proper light, it is the most interesting and stimulating experiment of the day. 

RICHARD SMEKAL, Neues Wiener Journal, Vienna, June 16, 1924. They use the theatre as a newspaper! . . . 

GIACOMO BONI, Il Sereno, Rome, November 26, 1924. 

And what an interesting spectacle it is – Impromptu. Imagine dear Reader, the public suggests plays to the actors, the audience itself can play.
Haagsche Courant, The Hague, February 27, 1925. 

As a contrast to, and after the problem theatre of our day, Moreno’s Impromptu Theatre offers real recreation and completely new perspectives. . . .The spectators are thrown into a novel situation, as they are conscious of the accidental character of the developments on the stage. Like life itself, it has the thrill and excitement of the unexpected. 

ROBERT MUELLER, Prager Press, March, 13, 1925 AND IN AMERICA . . . . 

“Impromptu acting, according to Moreno, . . . . is a preparation to meet the exigencies of life with calm and poise. 

“Actual Life,” he says, “consists of endless sequences of unexpected and hence impromptu situations, and these are not chosen by the individual; they happen to him. In these situations the person either may follow a blind habit and obey the mechanism  

established in former experiences, or he may act spontaneously, radically modifying the mechanism, under the stimulus of the master key, his creative urge. 

. . . . So far (Dr. Moreno) has succeeded in projecting his impromptu idea from play creating-acting into musical composition, dancing, painting, and even child training.
New York Sun, August 8, 1930. 

. . . . Impromptu is the word. There will be a play which never has been rehearsed, never written; a play, indeed, that will be presented by actors who will not know its theme until the night of the performance. There will be an orchestra that must create its own music as it goes along. Impromptu is the word, precisely. 

New York Morning Telegraph, March 25, 1931 

“Impromptu Up for Stage Test”
Public to Have a Chance to See How It Works
(At the Guild Theatre) . . . . One of the most interesting aspects of impromptu will be illustrated by an orchestra of five players, including members of the Philharmonic- Symphony Orchestra, led by Jack Rosenberg. The orchestra will show that it is possible to improvise music in concerted form without resulting in cacophony . . . . Dr. Moreno asserted. Impromptu is an antidote for the machine age, a remedy for the robot. It aims to jerk men and women from the rut of a standardized existence, confronting them with unusual and unexpected situations which awaken the natural creative urge since they cannot be met by rule of thumb.
. . . . Pending the erection of a special impromptu theater equipped with the circular auditorium that Dr. Moreno would prefer, the organization maintains a studio at Carnegie Hall.
New York Sun, March 30, 1931. 

Physical Stages and Models for the Theatre of Spontaneity (Psychodrama), in Europe, America, India, Australia and New Zealand 

  • –  The Viennese Model of The Theatre of Spontaneity was created by Dr. J.L. Moreno in 1924, built under his instruction by Paul Honigsfeld and Peter Gorian and presented that year at the International Exposition of New Theatre Techniques in Vienna. 
  • –  Moreno’s Impromptu Theatre, at Carnegie Hall (1927). 
  • –  The Living Newspaper, established by Moreno in the Guild Theatre on Broadway (1933). 
  • –  Moreno’s stage at Beacon, his Sanatorium in Upstate New York (1936). 
  • –  Dr. Moreno inaugurated the stage at Saint Elizabeths Hospital, Department of Psychodrama (1940). According to Dale Buchanan, Director, Clinical Therapies (Retired)) ‘The psychodrama stage was in the basement of Hitchcock Hall – our auditorium so there was no room for the balcony. Instead we kind of entered and exited off back sides of the stage. It was also only two tiered rather than 3 tiered. The space between the audience and the stage was a little wider so it permitted an easy walk and talk or soliloquy between the audience and the stage.’ Dale wrote, ‘When I trained at Beacon Moreno always had a protagonist do an opening soliloquy to each scene and would interview them -How are you feeling about speaking with your son? What are your fears? What are your hopes? etc. What might be the best outcome from this encounter? Etc. After a scene was over and before sharing there would be a final soliloquy – How did you think the encounter went? Do you have any regrets? etc. – Once when the psychodrama was over and the protagonist said, “I wish I would have told him I loved him.” Moreno said, “Oh, one conversation is never enough. Would you like to go back now and finish it?” and the protagonist said, “Yes” so back onto the stage went the protagonist for an “immediate” do over. Of course, those were the days when a session often lasted three or more hours. There were also stages in many other places including St. Louis and at Harvard.’ 
  • –  The Morenos’ New York Model (1942) for the New York City Moreno Institute could hold an audience of 100. 
  • –  At the All-India Institute of Mental Health in Bangalore (1959), the Director, M.V. Govindaswamy set up a stage, mainly using it for group therapy, with a focus on socialisation, development of insight and recreation. 
  • –  Dr. Leon Fine and colleague Barbara Seabourne had a specially-built psychodrama stage, which was sunken rather than raised in St Louis (Missouri) State Hospital (circa 1962). 
  • –  In the early 1970’s a stage was created at the Wasley Centre, Perth, Australia based along similar lines of the Beacon stage. 
  • –  Meg Givnish and colleagues at the Academy of Psychodrama and Sociometry in Ambler, Pennsylvania in the USA created a ‘Problem Solving Theatre’ (1983). 
  • –  Mike Consedine, Christchurch, New Zealand, created a stage in his place of work as a nurse (1989), and probably there are others who had or experienced other psychodrama stages, from whom I would be glad to hear.  
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The stage at Beacon, upstate New York

Some other early Psychodrama Stages 

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