2.2. The Method of Bibliodrama
Bibliodrama is performed in a restricted space, a ‘stage’ set up in the middle of the room where the participants gather. Before the drama can start, in a prephase, the participants are introduced into the concept of bibliodrama, the possible interaction of a character’s qualities and interpretations with one’s own (in)competencies and experiences, the right not to play a part in staged scenes and the restrictions regarding sharing the experiences outside the safe space of this particular group of participants. The first phase of the enacted drama is the so-called ‘warming up’. A ‘warm up’ may include some physical exercises, a round of ‘how are you today’ or—if the bibliodrama session is part of a series of sessions—a review of the previous meeting. In the example given below, the bibliodrama session starts with offering a story to the participants, followed by an invitation to open up to the narrative and letting themselves be touched by it, and to reflect on why it has that effect and what the possible relation is with their own life story.
The second phase of the role-playing and performance of the narrative starts at the moment when one of the participants identifies with one of the ‘roles’ in the story, and positions her/himself on stage (see also Sundèn [10
]). The role-playing ends at the moment when the participants distance themselves from the character they have played.
The final phase of bibliodrama is the sharing phase, during which the participants exchange experiences and tell each other about the personal meanings they assign to the performed (fragment of the) narrative.
At the end of the day, a bibliodrama continues after the actual bibliodrama session took place, by establishing relationships between and gaining (better) insight in the staged story and situations in the participants’ daily lives.
In the phase of role-playing and acting, participants on stage relate to narratives and characters in a structured and playful way. The rules of the game, in this case the structures of bibliodrama, guarantee the intimacy/confidentiality of a safe, constructed space, and, accordingly, provide each participant with the possibilities of ‘doing as if …’. The leader of the play, the so-called ‘director’, monitors compliance with the rules, and, by extension, watches over the safety of the created space; a safe space that offers the possibilities for exploration and creativity. Within this safe space elements of the real lives of the participants come to the fore, tensions can be experienced, laughter can be part of the play, frustration may arise, or feelings of relief may be experienced. ‘Safe spaces are ‘contentious’ and ‘risky’, yet ‘playful’ and ‘pleasurable’ and ripe with educational possibilities …’ (Stengel & Weems, in [11
] (p. 58)).
Once the playing stage is over, the participants put aside the role of the character they played and reflect upon the play from a personal perspective in the sharing phase. The (re)presentation of the experiences during the play are not discussed, nor the lessons learned for a participant’s daily life. The impressions that are shared during the third phase are never addressed again during informal conversations ‘outside’. Literally: neither outside the safe space of the bibliodrama nor outside of the room where the play was performed are these impressions ever revisited. Nevertheless, there is of course an effect on the daily activities of the participants. A lot can be learned from an executed bibliodrama, which is precisely why people are eager to be included in a bibliodrama: to literally practice another perspective, to reflect—from the historical perspective of a biblical/Qur’anic character’s point of view—on existential dilemma’s that are age-old, and that emerge just as well in the contemporary lives of the participants. In this sense, bibliodrama can be regarded as a laboratory for imagination, experimentation and exploration that creates awareness of concerted actions and resistance, narratives and counter-narratives.
Bibliodrama is not about the literal role-playing of a narrative from the Bible or the Qur’an for example. Nor is it about performing a well-designed script, like in a theatre play. Bibliodrama is a form of natural improvisation, a spontaneous exchange between the narrative and the participants. The participants give shape to their character or the situation by including elements from the selected parts of the narrative, while simultaneously—unconsciously and intuitively—including their own biographically related interpretation. It is precisely in this way that the encounter between the individual life stories of the participants and the narrative is facilitated. In bibliodrama, both body and mind are activated on stage, but also real-life experiences and memories, dreams and longings, doubts and strict convictions.
Bibliodrama is a creative method for participants who are looking for spiritual experiences and meaning in life. The focus is on shared meaning construction within the encounter between personal experiences and narratives (for example from the Bible, the Qur’an or national and international literature). The method aims at exploring existential issues in a creative and playful way by incorporating contextual information from the participants’ own lives and the societal context in which they exist [12
]. Through use of imagination and by having a lived, theatrical experience of situations, bibliodrama brings narratives into existence and turns inspiration into a bodily experience. Imagination, drama, role-playing, puppet play and a variety of bodily arts are all ‘research instruments’ in bibliodrama. The participants role-play a character from a selected narrative and ‘stage’ this character according to the way this character’s position has become/is becoming a ‘voice’ in their ‘society of mind’ [3
Bibliodrama connects today’s real-world experiences with age-old stories. This is why sharing the experiences—at the end of the play, during the sharing session—is given full attention. The participants are assisted in recognising the—until now probably unnoticed—connections between the narrative, their role-play and own daily experiences. Recognising own experiences in the shared remarks can lead to a feeling of relief, or even result in a confirmation of the ‘rightness’ of their emotions for the participants. New lines of thought may develop out of the sharing stage, new relations that were previously invisible to the participants they may now notice. Mutual support may emerge from the recognition of not being the only one to have these kinds of tense experiences. The sharing phase is the moment to link the play experiences with experiences in daily life, and the societal reality in which the participants live. Every bibliodrama session needs to wind up in a sharing session.
2.3. Bibliodrama: A Safe Space—Freedom within Boundaries
Although in bibliodrama improvisation is the core element of role-playing, the structure is clear and a professional ‘director’ is needed. Bibliodrama is characterised by an open and inductive approach to narratives, and by a group-oriented approach that facilitates interaction and the collaborative expansion of a repertoire of thoughts, feelings and actions. Preconditional is an open attitude towards intergroup and inter-worldview conversations. Each participant is given the space to play/perform a character or situation, and has the right to interpret a character in her/his own unique way.
The playing space has clear boundaries—literally and metaphorically—safeguarded by the ‘director’, the facilitator. The participants play/represent a character, an object or specific scene from the narrative, which is demarcated from their actual ‘I’, while at the same time interpreted on the basis of their real ‘I’ and actual biography. The facilitator’s task is to support the ‘actors’ in their emotionally charged experience of the play, to guarantee that they are able to withstand the fullness of the performance. If necessary, the facilitator must be able to protect the ‘actor’ against her/himself, making sure that they can—at any time—remain the master of their own expressions, emotions and actions.
Not only the ‘actors’, but also the text of the narrative itself are safeguarded during the role-play. The ’director’ preferably is an expert in hermeneutics, that is, she/he is familiar with different ‘schools’ of interpretation of texts—be their origin in religious, philosophical or other narrative traditions. The ‘director’ monitors the bibliodrama session and at the same time offers possible interpretations and favourable action patterns that are implicitly included in the story. The facilitator presents these patterns as mirrors, as mere possibilities for playing/acting. There is never any persuasion or coercion. In all circumstances, the players/actors are given the freedom not to follow the comments, remarks, instructions or whatever else the facilitator provides. The ‘director’ never disqualifies the comments of the participants but follows the interactions and counteractions with an open mind.
In bibliodrama, each participant has her/his own pace. While for some people a breakthrough occurs on the spot—during the performance, for others clarifying insights emerge in the days following the bibliodrama session. In the next section, we will look more closely at this aspect of ‘lifelong learning’, which is induced by bibliodrama.
2.5. Characteristics of Bibliodrama
2.5.1. Living and Learning through Emotions
Bibliodrama offers a language for experienced feelings. While playing and sharing experiences, emotions, memories and images emerge. The language that is about and takes place through emotions—emotionally charged language [14
]—needs to be taught, just like reading and writing and arithmetic. Emotional intelligence, as researched by Goleman [15
], is the personality dynamic or the potential that needs to be nurtured and developed in a person; “emotional literacy is the constellation of understandings, skills and strategies that a person can develop and nurture from infancy throughout his or her entire lifetime” [16
] (p. 11). In our view, illiteracy with regard to articulated expressions of emotions can be seen as a problem of our time [16
] (p. 9). Facilitators in bibliodrama have an important task in offering verbal formulations and concepts for identifying emotional experiences during play. A vocabulary is needed to answer questions like ‘How do you feel right now, in this scene of the play?’, or ‘What kind of emotion do you feel right now?’ and ‘Tell me, where in your body do you notice the physical reaction to the situation, and how would you qualify it?’ In an emphatic way, the facilitator can offer words to enable a participant to express verbally what is at stake for her/him at a given moment, words which are just as applicable to moments in real-life that may coincide with the situation enacted during the bibliodrama session.
Physical changes in a person’s appearance, pointed out by the facilitator, increase the awareness of the meaning of the situation—of the situation during play, as well as similar situations occurring in real-life. For example, observations like ‘You’re looking away’, ‘You’re fiddling with your skirt’ or ‘I see your hands are shaking’ increase the awareness of the meaning of emotions at stake in the situation for that person. By making explicit what would otherwise remain implicit, the possibility of exploration arises, which results in an increased level of awareness during day-to-day concerns.
In our view, becoming emotional literate regarding careful and nuanced expressions of emotions is an important aspect of education for children and young people in their development—in particular the development of life orientation—during puberty and early adolescence. Bibliodrama contributes to the development of emotional literacy, and subsequently to the articulation of a life orientation.
2.5.2. Living and Learning through Action
Performing, playing and acting out (different fragments of) a narrative breathes life into the story’s characters. They are given a voice by the participants—now ‘actors’ on the stage. The ‘actors’ behave as if they are the characters themselves. ‘As if’—the childlike competence to play and pretend—is crucial in bibliodrama. ‘As if’ denotes the participant’s personal truth about the character from the narrative. While moving their bodies, the ‘actors’ are—in a figurative sense—moved to explore the words and actions of the character, and of their co-actors. The ‘actors’ learn to listen, to see other people’s needs, to feel free to touch each other, to ask for help and to offer assistance. In bibliodrama they experiment with looking after others and taking care of them—a kind of behaviour that can be practiced in the daily lives of all the participants.
2.5.3. Living and Learning through Topical Matters
Bibliodrama can be seen as a method to explore the meaning of texts from religious and secular narrative traditions for individuals living in a secularising/secularised age. The meaning of a story emerges in a person’s (listener’s) encounter with a narration (respectively read or told out loud). The re-told narrative is performed by the ‘actors’ in their own unique way, colouring the narrative with their own language, attitudes and actions. The tradition comes to life, acquires a flavour of actuality and becomes real for every ‘actor’ involved. The past becomes a present for the player(s), indicating ways to deal with future situations.
2.5.4. Living and Learning in Life Orientation
By playing their role in ancient stories from various religious and secular traditions, the ‘actors’ experience and gain insight (‘action insight’) into what is really at stake in these narratives. Simultaneously, they may also become aware of the similarities and differences with their own life. Role-playing means recognising, exploring, purifying and practicing, creating new images and possibly expanding one’s repertoire of interactions, which can serve as an orientation in daily life, a life orientation.
The narratives, being told and retold in bibliodrama, reveal tracks for giving ultimate meaning to life, and salvific paths as these are experienced from generation to generation. The ‘actors’ follow these tracks, position themselves in the narrative tradition, and discover new orientations and new horizons for themselves.
2.7. Encounter(s) in Bibliodrama
By way of its inductive and open communicative character, bibliodrama (in its broadest sense) creates a space of encounter for individuals with all kinds of religious and secular backgrounds and their personal search for meaning. The way in which this is done is described in the following sections.
2.7.1. Linking Up with the Participant’s Life World
The starting point for the bibliodrama session is the person’s initial reaction to the story, even if this is a negative reaction, such as ‘what a dull story’ or ‘this story does not appeal to me at all’. During the first encounter with the story—after a collective reading—attention is paid to these initial reactions: questions asked, feelings of anger, sadness or happiness that arise, remarks that are made or emerging doubts. These first responses indicate how each participant can participate in a common theme, and how this theme might contribute to the development of the personal life orientations of the participants. For the facilitator, the initial reactions of the participants are also an indication of the level of support and coaching that will be needed for this specific group. The facilitator’s own biography in turn plays a role in this process of signalling/diagnosis, coaching and offering support.
2.7.2. Exploring the Richness of the Narrative
A story is constructed out of a variety of perspectives and actions of characters, vividly coming to mind with the help of objects, images and experiences—any of these might touch upon the memories of the participants. Bibliodrama makes room for a diversity of possible meaning constructions, and offers possibilities to identify with a variety of aspects included in the narrative. Of course, not all possibilities can be explored in one bibliodrama session. During each session, however, priority is given to the elements of the narrative that the participants are willing to explore in collaboration.
2.7.3. Exploring the Interpretation(s) of the Participants
In bibliodrama the ‘actor’ is allowed, and even stimulated, to shape the characters and situations from the narrative according to her/his own unique interpretation of the character. In this way a connection is established between the ‘actor’s’ self-understanding and the character. In this process, she/he is assisted by the other participants. The confrontation between the participants’ interpretation of a character and an ‘actor’s’ staging of this character stimulates a deeper understanding and strengthening of the participant’s own positionality in life. It opens up the possibility of rewriting the script of one’s life. In this way the participants develop their self-understanding and positionality in the group, in their network, and ultimately in the larger society.
2.7.4. From Chronos to Kairos
In bibliodrama, time changes from clock time to experienced time, from chronos to kairos. The ‘director’ of the bibliodrama slows down the actions of the participants, for example, by repeating out loud what they say, by asking them to physically adopt the posture they think fits their line or by asking another participant to do so. In the latter case, an ‘actor’ is invited to ascribe words to what she/he sees and what kind of emotions she/he feels by watching the ‘scene’. Decelerating the performance in this way facilitates the awareness of the ‘actor’ and stimulates interaction and communication with the other participants. By proceeding in this manner, more than just one interpretation and meaning of the story comes to the fore, enlarging in this way the repertoire of points of view and the flexibility of all the participants.
2.7.5. Acting out a Story—Stories in Action
In bibliodrama, a story is retold and relived in the ‘staging’ and the interactions between the participants. Participants’ memories of earlier experiences with people or objects shape the staging in a playful way, and conversely, the staging enriches their perspective on earlier experiences and their memories. Each participant has to make ‘acting’ choices, has to position her/himself vis-à-vis the particular articulation of the theme that is the subject of the session. These moments exert influence on their life orientation and inspire and motivate their positionality in real-life—sometimes in an impressively radical and far-reaching way.
2.7.6. The Communicative Frame of Reference
A (religious or secular) life orientation perspective sheds its light on everything that moves the ‘actor’ in bibliodrama to choose a ‘role’ and to identify with that ‘role’. The personal experience becomes part of a larger whole, which includes the other ‘actors’ and their counterpositions in guise of the opponents in the play. The way in which the other participants give meaning to their counter-role further shapes the ‘actor’s’ own role interpretation and stimulates further self-understanding. The personal worldview identity is communicated—within the framework of the staged narrative—alongside others point(s) of view, giving way to the reorientation and reconstruction of their personal positionality in terms of life orientation.
2.7.7. Giving Way to Existing Frames of Reference
It is obviously possible in bibliodrama that the interpretations of a narrative by scholars and by participants do not align, in the same way as the interpretations of scholars who conduct exegesis do not run parallel and even change over time, possible even in the course of a lifetime. By creating a space for young people/students to freely represent a narrative, the possibility is created to explore traces of interpretations and to go off the beaten track. New ways of interpreting may arise immediately as the ‘show’ is being put on stage. It is also possible that at a later point in life the intensity of the staging experience suddenly emerges in a surprising way, at an unexpected place and time.
2.7.8. Interreligious Communication
In bibliodrama narratives from a variety of worldviews/life orientations pertaining to the participants’ cultural or religious backgrounds become recognisable and understandable, leading to more respect for each other’s background. Similar stories from different life orientation traditions can be explored—not for the mere activity of exploration but to contribute to the mutual enrichment of the thinking and acting repertoire. The different perspectives that emerge—due to the diversity of the participants and their life orientations—likewise offer many new angles, both for the participants and for the ongoing narrative tradition(s).
The method of bibliodrama, in particular, creates space to deepen one’s positionality in a familiar religious or secular worldview tradition—be it Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam—through interreligious encounters. In that sense, by mirroring, the development of one’s own worldview related identity is articulated and the commitment thereof strengthened.