by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace
John Rasberry went to school in the late ‘60’s, “which was the time of the hippies, and so I still am (a hippie), but I don’t have as much hair as I used to have,” he joked. That’s where he first found a class his roommate was excited about: group therapy. Looking for an easy A, Rasberry signed up, and “took to it like a duck to water.” He changed his major, and hasn’t looked back since.
But Rasberry wasn’t looking for a career in the standard talk therapy; in fact, he doesn’t really believe talk therapy is effective.
“You can’t get away from it by talking about it,” he said. “That’s why we see the vast majority of people stuck in their life, because all they know to do and all they’ve been told to do is just talk about it.”
Instead, Rasberry practices psychodrama and sociometry as a certified Trainer, Educator, Practitioner (TEP). This type of therapy involves 10-12 years of school, a five-hour written exam and the candidates have to direct a drama. The American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy have certified a little over 400 psychodramatists, compared to the over 20,000 Licensed Professional Counselors in the U.S. So what is psychodrama?
“I practice the most exciting form of psychotherapy there is,” he said. “(It’s) the use of guided, dramatic action to help people deal with their problems.”
Essentially, his clients will come to him with a moment in time where they feel depressed or maybe threatened, and then he asks them to act out that moment. He said this is a particularly good form of therapy for people who have suffered “trauma, sexual abuse, assault, terrible situations.” His clients — of which Rasberry estimates 70% have tried traditional therapies to no avail, and come to him as a last resort — don’t necessarily have to have a background in theatre or even enjoy acting.
“All they need is the support and the permission,” he said. “And once they have a therapist that says, ‘Get up out of your chair and show me, let’s play. Show me what you’re talking about,’ they are just delighted, even when it’s painful.”
The way it works: A client will decide on a scene to act out (either in a group or in individual sessions); that client will become the protagonist and more or less the main character, and Rasberry will always be the director. Throughout the scene, Rasberry will direct the actors as needed, and they know there are only two rules: 1. No physical violence and no sexual contact; outside of that,they can ad-lib however they see fit. At the end of the scene, “the protagonist and I collaborate on what scenes we’re going to look at, what things we’re going to re-do and what the goal of the session is.”
During these scenes, the protagonist will have a chance to encounter, “and that’s different from confront,” their adversaries — whether it’s a boss, a parent or perhaps an abuser or aggressor. Role-playing, which was actually invented by this therapy’s founder, Dr. J. L. Moreno, is also a crucial element in psychodrama.
“You cannot understand another person by talking, you can only understand another person by being them,” Rasberry said. “Go be the very person you hate, go be the very person that hurt you, go be the very person that you’re having tension with, and therein lies your answer and the cure.”
Rasberry said that since opening his own practice, The Mid-South Center for Psychodrama & Sociometry in Tupelo in 1989, he’s seen countless “ah-ha” moments and breakthroughs with his patients, when their troubles start to make sense.
“They’re not scared anymore, they’re not grieving anymore,” he said. “They’re not so angry and taking it out on their husband anymore or their kids or the dog — their behavior changes.”
But in the throws of their scenes, emotions are high, as it’s an incredibly raw type of therapy. This can prove true even on the clients who don’t know it’s coming.
“Before the session’s over, they’re screamin’ and cussin’ like a sailor with snot dripping out their nose from the tears, and they’re looking at me like, ‘Oh my God, I did not know that these kinds of feelings were there,’” he said. “But the same is true for laughter. I have some clients that come in that haven’t laughed in 15 years, and by the time we’re finished, both of us are cracking up, the whole group is cracking up. Scared, confused — all the feelings.”
During sessions, his clients can scream and do whatever they need in order to experience a cathartic release. Thinking back, he thinks his office has likely had the cops called two or three times since opening, just to make sure everyone’s okay. He even has a foam block that clients can use a baseball bat on when their emotions get high.
“I used to have dishes and let people throw dishes up against the wall,” he chuckled. “But my insurance carrier said, ‘You got to stop that, because one of them is going to ricochet off and hit somebody in the eye.”
A tip from the pros: John Rasberry tells people psychodramatists “are the best kept secret” in psychotherapy. He doesn’t believe in passive things like journaling is an effective method of therapy, and knows that humans “make time for what is helpful; so come see me, come do psychodrama.”