As an intern at BPAR this year, I have learned so much from our clinicians about their methods of practice and areas of expertise. Past blog posts have explored the benefits of different therapy techniques and approaches, such as group therapy, art therapy, yoga, play in therapy, and the power of storytelling in adoption. May is Mental Health Awareness month, so I wanted to share with you, the BPAR community, about my passion and the therapy modality that I practice, drama therapy.
What is Drama Therapy?
The North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA) defines drama therapy as “the intentional use of drama and/or theater processes to achieve therapeutic goals.” Though drama therapy can be practiced in many ways, storytelling, the idea of telling one’s story, is a key concept for drama therapists. I have found that clients can be skeptical of using drama or theater in therapy, and this skepticism is fair! Folks might wonder, “If I am not an actor, if I have never played an improv game, or if I have no interest in being in a play, why would I want to seek out drama therapy?”
In reality, drama therapy encompasses many approaches and is not only intended for actors or theater makers. It has been shown to be effective with people of all ages and with individuals, families, and groups. In explaining drama therapy to clients, I share that talking about yourself or your personal experiences can be helpful in therapy, but it can also be hard, uncomfortable, and/or overwhelming. When sharing doesn’t feel safe, not wanting to talk can be a protective measure in order to keep a person who has experienced loss, trauma, neglect, and more from feeling additional pain. Arts-based therapies such as drama therapy offer clients alternatives to talking directly about their experiences.
Specifically for clients at BPAR, when trauma such as adoption trauma may have been experienced early in life, a person may feel the impact of the traumatic experience without having language to talk about it. The arts-based process of drama therapy can evoke, hold, and assist in the processing of feelings when there are no words.
Examples of How Drama Therapy Can Look in Practice with Clients
Creating fictional stories with clients (through writing, improvising, or free playing)
WHY THIS IS EFFECTIVE: Story is at the heart of theater and of drama therapy. Especially for children, but for adults as well, we bring ourselves to the stories we tell. Creating stories is a way to explore what roles we play in our lives—if the world is a stage, what parts do we play? What parts don’t we play? What parts do we play and wish we didn’t, what parts don’t we play and wish we did? Working within the metaphor of a fictional story allows clients to more safely address themes within their lives that they might not be ready or able to address directly. Additionally, in taking on the perspective of a character in a story, we are able to step into their perspective. Such perspective-taking is essential to building empathy. Similar benefits can come from reading, discussing, or enacting existing plays and texts. Fictional storytelling can be a place to try on different ways of being in the world in a contained, safe way. Finally, when the client is the storyteller, the creator of something about themselves or about something else, they often feel empowered, a key precursor to transformation.
Playing improv or theater games
WHY THIS IS EFFECTIVE: It is said that feelings are grounded in sensory experiences in the body. Playing games is one example of embodiment—using the whole body—in drama therapy. Such embodiment can help clients build a mind/body connection and self-regulation skills, tools to respond to moments of stress or overwhelm. Games can also be used to experiment with creativity and spontaneity, important components of resiliency. Finally, improv and theater games can be experienced as fun and stress-relieving.
Creating and/or using projective objects—masks, puppets, objects, etc.
WHY THIS IS EFFECTIVE: Major stressors or traumatic experiences can leave the nervous system, and therefore the body, overwhelmed. In therapy, a person who has experienced trauma may not feel comfortable expressing or storytelling with their whole body. Using objects such as masks or puppets can distance a client from the story or experience they are sharing about. The puppet/mask/object can do the talking or expressing. For example, a client could make a mask that represents a specific emotion they have felt; in observing their mask, the client can investigate the emotion without directly experiencing it in their body. They could wear the mask in order to connect with the emotion more deeply while still being able to physically take the mask (the emotion) off at any point.
Drama therapy is a useful tool for many. For clients at BPAR, such as adoptees who may not have had control over their narrative, it offers an opportunity to explore, write, play out, and possibly change a person’s view of their life story. Drama therapists enroll the client as the storyteller which offers them empowerment and a stage to experiment with what is and what could be.
Written by Rebecca Elowe
Boston Post Adoption Resources