When I tell people that I am a drama therapist, they often ask: “Is that therapy for actors?” “Could be,” I say, “but trained actors can be difficult clients.” “You mean because they are so good at playing roles?” “No, because they are so self-conscious about playing roles when they are not on stage.”
The basis of drama therapy is that human beings are performers of their own lives and, like actors, inhabit roles as a way of contracting and expanding their humanity. Contrary to the common wisdom, the act of playing a role is an assertion of a truth about the role-player, whether an actor on stage, a participant in Dungeons and Dragons, a child at play with dolls, or an adult who uncharacteristically expresses anger toward a friend then later repents: ‘Sorry, but that wasn’t me.’ Who, then, was it? Certainly it feels like an alien body, but isn’t it the same person experiencing an uncommon persona?
A drama therapy perspective implies that a person is not essentially tied to a single, indivisible self but is a multitude of selves or roles. In everyday life, it is more preferable to be a character actor than a lead, as the former is capable of developing a richly variegated identity. And it is optimal to search for balance between a problematic role and its counterparts. The goal of drama therapy is not to get rid of anything that defines one’s humanity but to help people live among their polarities and to discover new ways to do old things. In AA meetings, the ritual begins: “My name is Jane and I am an alcoholic.” Through the process, Jane discovers new ways of being a non-alcoholic, even as she retains the role of alcoholic.
Although drama therapy as a clinical profession is relatively new, some 33 years old in the US, marked by the establishment of a professional organization, the North American Drama Therapy Association, its hybridity as a form of dramatic art and psychotherapy is ancient and ubiquitous. This form is practiced universally within traditional cultures by shamans, who navigate the liminal space between the natural and spiritual worlds through role play, storytelling, puppetry, song, dance and trance. The roots of drama therapy in Western culture are evident in ancient Aesclepions, healing centers in the Hellenic world where the theatres were built proximate to temples and hospitals. In some cases, as part of their cathartic cure, celebrants/patients participated in the theatre as audience and performers. The most celebrated of Aesclepions are found in Greece at Epidauros and Delphi, and in Turkey, in Pergamon.
The same generalized other that asked the first question in this blog, also asks: “I know a thing or two about psychodrama. Is drama therapy the same?” “What are the things you know?” I respond. “Well, in a treatment center for eating disorders, there was an empty chair, and people were asked to sit in it and speak about painful memories.” “And thing number two?” “A young woman in the group choose an older woman to be her mother and they enacted a scene where the mother scolds the daughter at age nine for stuffing her face.”
Psychodrama and drama therapy live within the same frame of clinical treatment through a process of role-playing and dramatic enactment. However, psychodrama is predominantly the invention of one man, J.L. Moreno, in collaboration with his second wife, Zerka T. Moreno. Moreno, a Viennese psychiatrist, immigrated to the US in 1925 and established a psychodrama institute in Beacon, New York. Psychodrama proceeds as a protagonist takes on the role of herself within a particular time and place and chooses others in the group to play roles of significant others. The dramatic actors play out a specified scene led by a director who guides the protagonist to a heightened moment of catharsis and awareness. Following the enactment, group members articulate their own experiences stimulated by the drama. Psychodrama tends to be reality-based and often emotionally charged. Its primary aim is to help individuals and groups develop creativity and spontaneity. Although Moreno’s early work in Beacon was with mentally ill individuals, it has been used most often in the treatment of normal neurotics as well as specific groups struggling with addiction and various forms of post-traumatic stress.
Drama therapy was developed by several pioneers in the UK and US, although there is evidence of early 20th century experimentation in Russia. In my book, The Couch and the Stage: Integrating Words and Action in Psychotherapy, I discuss ways that drama therapists, like their psychoanalytic predecessors Jung, Ferenczi, Rank and Reich, broke away from Freud’s orthodox talking cure to create an approach that integrates mind, body and spirit, language, gesture and image.
Drama therapy tends to be more theatrical than psychodrama and leans more heavily upon metaphor, fictional roles, storytelling and distancing of emotion. Rather than playing the roles of an actual daughter and mother in a group, participants might spontaneously create and dramatize a story about a make-believe mother and daughter or play a scene between characters from a story, e.g., Cinderella and her step-mother.
The various forms of drama therapy, although somewhat different in aims and methods of treatment, all tend to help people discover complexity, balance and transformation. Drama therapy is used often to treat mental illness, dementia, trauma and the effects of depression, incarceration, war, aging and stress.
Over the years, I have treated people who claim to have lost, inflated or deflated something important—power, success, faith, beauty, independence, relationship, wisdom, health, freedom. I ask them to give form and language to their feeling, portraying loss of power, for example, as a hunchbacked pariah, like the fictional Quasimodo. As we work, I help them find polarities, other sides of the pariah—lover, child, wife, hero--roles that can be difficult to imagine and more difficult to enact. At some point, I introduce them to a transitional guide figure who can help integrate the polarities; in fairy tale terms, a kind of Fairy Godmother. Drama therapy treatment is optimal when the integration has fully occurred, and the client has internalized her own ability to hold together embedded contradictions.
Back to the question that frames this blog. Although drama therapy is not generally a therapy for actors, it leans heavily upon theatrical traditions. And so the generalized other queries: “When you talk about polarities in drama therapy, it reminds me of the famous line in Hamlet, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’? I always wondered, what is the answer?”
Embracing the polarities that subsist in drama therapy, I reply: “To be and not to be.”
In future blogs, I will comment upon national and international practices of drama therapy and reflect upon some of the many presentations of self and role in everyday life.