What is a Role?: Role Play in Drama Therapy

Role theory is an important aspect of drama therapy. It is what helps a drama therapist choose which roles a client will engage with during role play.

Role theory is influenced by theories from theatre, performance studies, psychology and social psychology, sociology, anthropology, literary analysis (including dramatic literature), folklore, communications, etc.

Role as Persona

I think most people are aware to some extent of having different personas. We have different ways of interacting with different groups of people, or in a variety of situations and across time.

Some of these roles are individual.

For example, I might be very different around my family and friends than the way I am at work. Or, I might have different friend groups that meet different needs and where I can explore identities and activities that are meaningful to me.

Social and Cultural Roles

But other times roles come from my family of origin, culture, nationality, the generation I was born into, etc.

The meaning given to certain social or cultural roles can change over time. So do shared expectations about how to fulfill those roles. And who should do it. (Or who should NOT do it!)

Your Role Repertoire

Think about the aspects of your identity that are important to you.

If someone asked you who you are, what would you say? I’ll go first.

I am an artist. I am a drama therapist. I am a writer. I am an educator. I am an activist.

I am queer. I am trans non-binary. I am fat. I am neurodivergent. I am disabled. I am an autistic adult.

I was raised as a United Methodist. I am currently agnostic.

I am a nerd. I am a cat mom. I am a home cook and baker. I am a gardener. I am a crafter.

I am a sibling. I am a grandchild. I am a friend. I am a partner. I am a colleague.

I am a Millenial. I am an Appalachian. I am a U.S. citizen.

All of these are roles.

Some of those roles were given to me by my family, my culture, my society.

Others I have chosen based on my needs, interests, talents, life experience, etc.

Roles Across Time

There are different phases related to how we interact with roles in our lives.

Again, this happens both individually and communally. Some roles might be contested, as cultural connotations and expectations shift.

Role Training

This is the first stage. Think of this like onboarding for a new job. You’re learning what your responsibilities are, what tasks you are expected to complete, and how other people will evaluate your performance.

Role Play

That is when you feel confident in a given role. You know what you need to do, and how to do it. Enacting this role creates a feeling of accomplishment.

Role Expansion

But, sometimes roles need to shift!

One day, a new policy or procedure comes out. Suddenly, you have to adjust how you’re doing things. What you were doing before isn’t working anymore.

Or, maybe you start to get creative with taking on new responsibilities. You take ownership of the role, deciding what you want to emphasize.

Maybe there are aspects of your expected role that you don’t devote as much time or energy to as you did at first, because they are less meaningful to you. You are figuring out how you want to keep growing in this role. You are making it your own. Now, you have mastery of this role.

Role Fatigue and Role Lock

Eventually, you get tired of this role! That is role fatigue. This role is boring. If there is no more room for expansion, you might let this role go.

You put yourself up for a promotion, or try to find a new job. And the cycle begins again.

Sometimes, you may be “stuck” in a role. You can’t let go. It is too big a piece of your identity. Without this role, you don’t know who you are! That is role lock.

This might happen with roles like “mother” when children move away from home. Or, it might feel hard to let go of the role of “partner” after a break-up. If you move across the country, or change careers.

Transitions can make us want to hold onto roles to feel stability. Because roles carry meaning and impact our relationships with others, we can want to hold on, even when we have outgrown them.

Experiencing trauma can also make someone get stuck in a role. We keep repeating the same patterns and don’t know how to stop.

When traumas or life transitions happen, exploring a role becomes even more important! We have been knocked off course. Engaging with our roles can help us feel grounded again.

How You Relate to Your Roles

We can have complicated relationships with different roles!

That is because a lot of roles don’t belong to “me.” They belong to the culture or society I am participating in. We are all co-creating these roles together. Roles have shared meanings, and the same role might look vastly different across cultures or history.

Negative Roles

There may be roles I want to give up.

In my case, the role of “woman” is one of those. But, even if I take that role out of my role repertoire (the variety of roles I am engaging with at any given moment in time) other people may still project that role onto me. They will interact with me based on the assumption that I am playing that role. I may not be able to completely escape it.

Positive Roles

There may also be new roles I want to explore!

Here is an example. Now that I am running my own business, I am exploring the role of “boss.”

What does it mean for me to be my own boss? How is that influenced by experiences in my work history? By the current cultural context? Or my desire to change the connotations and limitations of how that role can manifest?

Where do I have creative agency to enact that role differently? How might I be the kind of boss I always wished I had? What would I need to do so I can notice if I enact paternalistic or oppressive behaviors towards myself about my level of productivity or the quality of my work?

That’s the kind of thing we can explore in drama therapy!

Everyone has a role repertoire. I encourage you to make a list of the roles that you feel you are currently playing in your life. They could be archetypes, identity markers, or roles related to occupation, hobbies, and interests. Or, they might be based on your relationship with others or membership in a community.

Identifying different roles in your life can give you agency to decide how – or IF – you want to engage with those roles moving forward.

How Can This Help?

We’re engaging in this process all the time with all kinds of different roles. But we might not be aware of it.

Drama therapy can help you decide what roles in your life are most meaningful to you, and which you want to prioritize your time in. As well as deciding if there are roles in your life you want to let go of.

And it can help you gain more agency and flexibility in shifting between roles. Or noticing if you are “stuck” in a certain role.

Role play in drama therapy is when you intentionally chose a role from your repertoire. Then, you enact it in the moment with conscious awareness.

It helps you understand that role better, and its place in your life. And gives you an opportunity to engage with that role in a different way moving forward.

Or, you can try on a new role in a safe space, to see how it would feel to enact that role. Role play is both “real” and “not real” at the same time. When you use your creativity to engage in role play, you can test the limits of a role without worrying as much about the possible consequences.

I hope that helps!

As always, if you have any questions or concerns, you can contact me! I am passionate about drama therapy. I am always happy to talk about it.

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