I am a drama therapist who believes that people can change when engaging fully in a process of drama therapy. And I am a person who embraces the role of the perpetual beginner, ever in search of new ways to do old things. Like J.L. Moreno, I am committed to the principles of spontaneity and creativity in my work and life.
And yet, on some days, I lose my way, and without an effective guide, I walk the path of the well-worn question: Is change really possible? On my walk the other day, I run into the generalized other, an old friend who I haven’t seen since I was 15, and ask what has become of him. He responds simply: "Nothing much. I’m the same person that you remember. Same goofiness. Same outlook. We are what we were, nothing more, nothing less."
In contemplating the paradox of change and no change, I am drawn back to the theatre, especially to the archetype of the tragic hero, who, like Oedipus the King, attempts to discover some hidden truth about his identity, or like Blanche DuBois, attempts to re-discover a lost innocence, a sense of home. Before all the literary tragic heroes die, most realize that in the end, rather than reaching a desired intimacy, they are lucky to have been embraced by the kindness of strangers.
All the real people will die as well, and some, in their capacity to live heroic lives, will do so in a less tragic fashion, choosing change even as they recognize the pull to the other side.
Over the years, I have conceived of the process of drama therapy as a hero’s/heroine’s journey, not unlike Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero with a thousand faces. The hero is the client in treatment who commits herself to a therapeutic journey toward some goal, an often unknown destination. The destination is intimately connected to the process of journeying and is sometimes as literal as: ‘I want to commit to an intimate relationship and have children.’ Traversing the path toward relationship and family, however, can be tricky and deceptive, opening up side excursions toward unwelcome obstacles such as confused or abusive family dynamics.
When the obstacles become too difficult to overcome, the hero might recognize the need for a helper to move her along the path. For many, this guide figure is shadowy or false or absent. But once recognized and accepted, the guide can help the hero move closer toward the destination.
The hero’s journey in drama therapy is about the therapist as guide helping the client as hero move toward her destination by means of working through one or more obstacles. When the process is optimal, the client or group of clients is able to internalize all the roles and guide themselves through their own life obstacles toward existential destinations, with their internal cast of helpers intact. The journey, again when optimal, is about change, whether that change is manifested in understanding, behavior, thought, feeling, belief or choice of relational partner. The optimal journey is not linear, but of different shapes, veering as well into the necessary contours of stasis and doubt, of shame, loss and hopelessness.
In my new book, Theatre for Change: Education, Social Action and Therapy, written with David Montgomery, I take a look at many of the attempts world-wide to apply drama and theatre to forms of personal, social and political change. In discussing the therapeutic aspects of drama and theatre, I provide brief clinical vignettes. Several of the following exemplify aspects of the hero’s journey:
Caitlin at 6-years-old is so frail that she can barely walk or talk. She is hospitalized and dependent upon constant medical treatment to sustain her bodily functions. In working with her drama therapist, she creates the role of a soaring bird. For the first time in her brief life, she is able to transcend her physical limitations and soar unencumbered through a beautiful expansive sky, with limited movement but unlimited imagination.
Caitlin, the hero, creates a guide figure in the bird to help her move through the deeply troubling obstacles of a failing body and a hospital with its medicalized domesticity. Guided by the therapist and her own invention of a soaring bird, Caitlin moves toward her destination—unencumbered movement. Even though the experience is one that occurs in the imagination, it provides a change from a state of stasis and dependence to one of flights of fancy and hope.
An American drama therapist, Armand Volkas, collaborates with colleagues in Japan to organize an encounter between a group of Japanese students and professionals and their counterparts in Nanjing, China. The purpose is to create a ritual to begin to heal the pain of the past. In 1937, the Japanese army slaughtered and raped many thousands of Chinese civilians in Nanjing. The encounter is held at the Memorial to the Nanjing Massacre. Through this experience in Drama Therapy, Japanese and Chinese participants are able to express their deep feelings of loss and shame, address the wounds of their common historical trauma, and understand how it continues to be played out in present generations.
The heroic group is comprised of former enemies who had colluded to retain a painful and shameful historic moment. Volkas and his Asian colleagues are able to guide the group toward several destinations—one, the literal space of past trauma, and two, the virtual space of reconciliation. Along the way, the group confronts many obstacles that include historical trauma, shame and guilt, silence and denial.
Shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, J.L. Moreno directed a sociodrama representing the event and its aftermath. Trained Psychodrama auxiliaries played the roles of JFK and Jackie Kennedy. Others were chosen from the audience to play Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. The sociodrama was held during the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association and 400 people attended. Moreno said to those gathered: ‘We are all suffering from a tremendous amount of unresolved guilt and confusion over what happened to President Kennedy. After all, if you can ‘kill the father”, anything goes.’ The full group experienced an intense moment of connection and catharsis in their shared grieving.
Again, a group takes on the collective role of hero to address a troubling moment within their community. The hero is epitomized in the roles of John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy. Moreno guides the heroes as well as the audience toward its destination, a need for making meaning of the tragedy. Obstacles are personified in the auxiliary players who take on the roles of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. In the group catharsis of integration, a balanced form of thought and feeling is obtained.
In a drama therapy group in Greece, a woman arrived very late. The participants debated whether or not to allow her to remain in the group. The therapist asked the group to imagine the latecomer as a role type. The group named her: the intruder. The therapist asked members of the group to create stories about intruders. One woman told a story about an idyllic isolated island where an intruder suddenly appeared and terrorized the population with displays of aggression and sexuality. The group dramatized her story, and she became aware of her need for a figure that can inject passion into her cloistered, tradition-bound life. Although this figure was an intruder, it was one whose qualities could help her live a more fully integrated existence.
In this example, there are several heroic figures—the woman who arrives late, the storyteller, and her subject within the story, the tradition-bound woman. The destination is somewhat different for each figure, and yet, they all want a sense of change in relationship to the actual therapy group and to the fictional community group on the island. The intruder serves first as obstacle and then as guide, a role-reversal not uncommon in drama therapy. The therapist as guide holds the various levels of meaning together until the storyteller is able to hold them herself. At that moment she becomes aware that the role of the cloistered, tradition-bound woman can change if she makes room for the life-giving qualities of aggression and sexuality.
As a peripatetic drama therapist and teacher who has just completed another academic year, I am about to leave home for a series of talks and trainings abroad. I go with the same goofiness and outlook as always, open to the pulls of the passage and the roles I encounter and witness. In future blogs, I will report further on my journeys toward understanding the meaning of a theatre for change.