What Is Drama Therapy? By Katherine Schreiber

What Is Drama Therapy?
Katherine Schreiber

Drama isn’t just a source of entertainment. It can also be a means of catharsis and healing (though you probably gathered this after witnessing or participating in one of Terry’s fallout exercises). As a matter of fact, there’s a form of psychotherapy that caters to the mental payoffs of character-portrayal. What is it called? Drama therapy! And yes, you can find a licensed drama therapist near you if you’re sold by the end of this article.

“The basis of drama therapy,” explains drama therapist and Director of New York University’s Drama Therapy Masters Program, Robert Landy, “is that human beings are performers of their own lives.” Just like actors, Landy says, each one of us “inhabit[s] roles as a way of contracting and expanding [our] humanity.”

None of us are beholden to, or defined by, a single, unipolar self or behavior, the drama therapy perspective holds. Rather, each of us contains a multiplicity of characters, and the person who emerges in a given moment depends on context, goals, and past experiences. Drama therapy seeks to assist clients with the reconciliation of these many selves, along with the acceptance and understanding of inner turmoil, by encouraging the projection of feelings, beliefs, hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities onto characters, objects, scenarios, and other non-self materials (i.e. puppets, fabrics, videos, dolls, etc.). Former Psych majors might consider this as a more scripted version of transference.

What’s more, drama therapy enables participants to explore the full emotional range of every self they have come to contain — especially the less desirable selves they may have sought to hide. Landy gives the example of exploring the emotions and feelings of the pariah character (a.k.a. outcast) in order to examine the parts of this self (i.e. his or her ability to love, to care, to save, and to help others) that a person may be inclined to sideline or ignore in the interest of keeping this part of him/herself hidden.

In Drama As Therapy, British drama therapist Phil Jones defines drama therapy as “involvement in drama with a healing intention. Drama therapy facilitates change through drama processes. It uses the potential of drama to reflect and transform life experiences to enable clients to express and work through problems they are encountering or to maintain a client’s well-being and health.”

Through this process, Jones emphasizes, clients “achieve a new relationship towards the problems or life experiences they bring to therapy.” Often times, he adds, “participating in drama and theatre allows connections to unconscious and emotional processes to be made.”

Aristotle first identified the cathartic and healing role of drama around the fourth century (we’re talking BC, so way, way back now). But it wasn’t until the 1970’s (AD, just so we’re clear) that drama therapy as a technique to facilitate emotional growth and recovery really began to emerge as its own trade.

Coinage of the term “drama therapy” is often credited to a former U.S. Marine Corps major Lewis Barbato, who wrote an article depicting the psychological benefits that acting out scripted plays conferred to WWII veterans in 1945.  On the heels of this publication, a Viennese actress by the name Gertrude Schattner sought to head off a drama therapy movement after witnessing the vivacity patients in a mental hospital recovered via participating in theatrical enactments. (Fun fact: To escape Nazi Germany, Gertrude had herself feigned mental illness in order to be admitted to a Swiss mental hospital during WWII.)

The drama therapy movement gained steam over the next twenty years as other pioneers in the field (like David Read Johnson, Marilyn Richman, Naida Weisberg, and Barbara Sandberg) signed on with Schattner to establish the National Association for Drama Therapy at the dawn of the ‘80s.

Drama therapy continues to be practiced today by licensed providers employed in a variety of settings — from mental health clinics and correctional facilities to homeless shelters, substance abuse programs, college counseling centers, and even some business training programs.

Important to keep in mind: drama therapy is often confused with psychodrama, a different form of therapy entailing the literal placement of characters from one’s own life history into imagined scenarios (say: putting your late mother on a chair and confronting her about all your childhood insecurities — no small task!). More on this in a later blog…

The main difference here is the degree of removal from your real situation, Landy remarks. In psychodrama, you’re working with your literal history. In drama therapy, you’re using other characters and new scenarios that relate to your own emotions, feelings, and past experiences, but that are one or more steps removed from what actually happened to you. Drama therapy involves more metaphor, more distance, more moving-beyond than the more immediate experience of psychodrama. That distance, says Landy, is precisely what allows healing to occur.

Interested in learning more? Check out the following resources!

The Couch and the Stage, by Robert Landy.

“To Be and Not To Be.” Robert Landy, Psychologytoday.com

Ancient and Modern Roots of Drama Therapy.Sally Bailey, MFA, MSW, RDT/BCT, Dramatherapycentral.com.

The Drama Therapy Institute of Los Angeles.

New York University’s Masters in Drama Therapy Program.

History of Drama Therapy.

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