In the 1920s, a Romanian psychologist, Jacob Moreno, observed how role play and experimental theater freed people to reveal their thoughts and feelings. He began to incorporate drama into psychotherapy.
Psychodrama continues to be practiced as a technique to help individuals achieve resolutions to specific issues by discovering how the past impacts the present.
In the 1960s, a radical Brazilian theater director, Augusto Boal, was working on the concept of community theater, from which would emerge “the theater of the oppressed.”
Boal envisaged a theater where the audience could express themselves through becoming actors, presenting and solving the problems of their own lives. His work provided new direction for drama therapy.
Today drama therapy helps people in a wide range of contexts to achieve change, be it through shedding old habits, learning new skills or accepting a difficult past.
What is drama therapy?
The North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA), based in New York, was set up in 1979 to oversee and maintain standards in drama therapy practice.
NADTA’s Doug Ronning told Medical News Today: “Drama therapy is practiced in so many places: hospitals, recovery programs, community mental health clinics, schools, dating and career coaching, elderly care, private practice mental health, just to name a few.”
New York University (NYU) Steinhardt defines drama therapy as: “The intentional use of theater techniques to facilitate personal growth and promote health, thus treating individuals with a range of mental health, cognitive and developmental disorders.”
Louise Croombs, of Dramatherapy.net in the UK, draws parallels with music therapy, which Medical News Today have previously reported on, and dance therapy. She explains that as humans are creative beings, drama therapy takes them step by step through creative means to find solutions to their problems.
Based on the theoretical teachings of drama, theater, psychology, psychotherapy, anthropology, play and interactive and creative processes, any aspect of the performance arts can be involved in the therapeutic relationship.
Drama therapists are trained in both performance art and as clinicians. Through their skills and training in theater and therapy, they help clients to achieve psychological, emotional and social change.
Role plays, stories and improvisation
Activities aim to bring together the body and the mind. They vary according to the context, but include stories, myths, play, puppetry, masks, improvisation, role play and rituals.
Role play can help people to see themselves and others in a new way.
Doug Ronning told MNT that a closing ritual might consist of “a hand squeeze or thumb hug along with an evocation of confidentiality and self-care.”
Stories may be real, fantastical or based on the client’s own experience, providing an indirect approach to help participants explore difficult and painful life experiences.
A performance-oriented approach can involve participants working with a theme to create and perform their own plays, choral readings or poetry. Scripted plays are sometimes produced to present to an audience.
Role plays and improvisations can encourage participants to understand negative behaviors and to practice new ways of reacting and of being.
Sally Bailey, an associate professor at Kansa State University (KSU), who previously worked with recovering addicts, says:
“Role playing, rather than just following scripts, is the key to drama therapy. The first time we do anything, it feels foreign. But with practice, you can tweak it and learn to feel comfortable adapting. Through role playing, we try out different roles.”
One-to-one sessions can benefit people with autism or those who are socially withdrawn. Croombs explains that private performance gives a confidential space for the person to use their own time and own way to express themselves without being put on the spot.
On the question of feedback, Ronning told us that, while this depends on the style of drama therapy and the facilitator, “most forms would invite verbal processing if there was sharing of personal stories or culminating enactments, with the guidelines not to critique or comment on performance, but to share what feelings, memories, associations emerged for them through the drama.”
Releasing the power
Drama therapy allows for catharsis, defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as “purification or purgation of the emotions (as pity and fear) primarily through art.” It can help people tap into their emotions in their search for solutions to emotional and mental health problems.
Practitioners say it can empower people who struggle with communication to express their needs and feelings. It can help to forge relationships by enhancing confidence or bringing people together. It can provide chances to experience positive self-esteem and self-worth, and it can help people gain control over conflicts and anxieties.
Participants can develop new ways of coping with difficult situations in a safe and supportive explorative environment. They can process past events and explore painful issues and feelings without feeling threatened.
Acting out also gives practice in new ways of facing events through alternative choices, choices which may be socially unacceptable in the participant’s normal environment, without having to worry about the consequences.
People who face difficulty trusting or connecting with others in everyday life or conventional therapy may also benefit from the space that drama therapy provides.
Drama therapy has been described as “therapeutic rather than therapy.” Activities do not necessarily focus on people’s problems, but the process enables them to move to a new level of self-understanding and ability to cope.