Cultivating a Lasting Sense of Play: Reflections from the 2016 NADTA Conference

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By Danielle Levanas, MA, RDT, LCAT

When I moved to the Central Valley of California, I knew that I’d be leaving my progressive, liberal community in New York City. But California is a “blue state”, right? My new county – Stanislaus County – voted 48% for Donald Trump, 47% for Hillary Clinton in the recent 2016 elections. Having been here for almost a year, I’m not surprised by that election data, but I don’t feel like I live in the California most people imagine when they think of the state.

Living here, my worldview has expanded, and my assumptions are being questioned every day. I struggle to find a voice for dialogue in the midst of so much hurt and reactionary divisiveness – including my own. Each day I wake up and work in a county that feels like a swing state. It is a new experience for me. I am open to it, but I am deeply daunted by inner and outer challenges. The work is here and now, yet in my new community, my liberal activist orientation tends to push people away, shut people down, or elicit eye rolling or shrugs. I don’t have an internalized map for a new type of engagement, but I am finding breadcrumbs along the way.

I work in an environment devoid of play and the playful concept of magic. Situated in the heartland of California and surrounded by almond orchards, this might seem surprising. However, my facility is a locked adult Mental Health Rehabilitation Center with 98 beds in a rural town of 10,755 people where the impact of poverty, economic stress, institutionalization, and small town ideals is striking. As with other facilities I’ve worked in, I feel myself shut down physically when I walk into the locked gates every morning. I foster a daily practice to keep my physical orientation to the environment open, spontaneous and creative. This is something I have come to recognize as part of my process, something that weekly arts-oriented clinical supervision helps me maintain (Hodermarska, et al, 2014).

In my adult life, I struggle to maintain an ongoing sense of play in my view of the world. I was not a very playful child; I was outgoing and vivacious, but serious. Maybe this is one of the reasons I am so drawn to the field of drama therapy.

At the 2016 NADTA Conference in Seattle, this concept of “play” was explored in multifaceted and rejuvenating ways. I returned home with pressing questions. Among them was: “How do I cultivate an internal sense of play in my community and work environment in the midst of an overwhelming sense of hopelessness? How do I bring this concept of play into areas of my life that feel violent – at work and in my community?”

Lately, my work facility has experienced a number of violent outbursts by patients toward peers or staff, resulting in black eyes, concussions, and a heightened sense of panic. In the minds of many of my coworkers and the administration, the concern of maintaining an environment where staff can protect vulnerable patients and themselves from violence supersedes any commitment to play. In fact, play – especially playfulness around the concept of violence – is often met with deep distrust and judgment.  

My drama therapeutic orientation of Landy’s (2009) Role Theory and Johnson’s (2014) Developmental Transformations support me in playing with themes of contradiction in role and power dynamics. However, when working within systems of control and fear, I discover a deep resistance to play arises within me. Does this stem from my childhood attachment issues, my fear of losing control? Or might this also be a result of the shame-laden voice inside that tells me to fight playfulness in order to be taken seriously as a Creative Arts Therapist, as a woman, as an outsider? Who planted this voice hissing inside me, “I must represent a role that others find palatable? I catch myself over-thinking and second-guessing my own presence in the work environment at the exact moments I am asking my patients to open up.

Outside the facility, the world does not feel playful right now, either. I feel the need to armor up to protect myself. I drive by a Confederate flag on my way to work, one of the many daily reminders of how deep the white supremacist violence runs  in our country. The political outcomes of the 2016 U.S. election have shattered parts of me and focused others. I struggle with the question: How do I sustain engagement in a dialogue that is fulfilling and aligned with the activism which feeds and expresses my spirit without creating more polarization in my home community?

Of course, the answer is related to play.

Play, that tickle of taunting joy that activates inside at “inappropriate” times. Play, the desire to fart in the middle of a room and watch the people scatter. Play, the moments when the group room breaks out into ecstatic dancing, so loud, so joyous, so uncontained, that staff members set aside their self-consciousness and join in.

Salvo Pitruzzella (2016), in his keynote speech at the NADTA Conference stated,  “Play can exist only if it is free.” Play, then, is a practice of personal liberation. As Friere (1970) wrote, “Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it” (p. 79). Brunner and Hix (2014) explored the concept of engagement with violent play in therapeutic theatre in their thesis for the NYU Drama Therapy Program:

“Clearly, attempts to move into dangerous, uncomfortable, quasi-ethical borderlands are not only met with fear and resistance from individuals, but from institutions as well. If it is the drama therapist’s responsibility to lead the charge, so to speak, in venturing into these spaces, then perhaps the drama therapist’s greatest asset is in her ability to ease entry through the use of aesthetic distance” (p. 103).

Landy (2009) defined aesthetic distance as “a balance of feeling and thought” that drama therapists can help create in encounters with clients (p. 72). This “point of liberation, marks the moment when the client is at his most spontaeous” (Landy, 1994, p. 118). Often play can seem “magical” or as ephemeral as “catching smoke”, but the use of aesthetic distance concretizes threatening themes in forms of play that can be more easily accessed for all involved – clinical staff, patients, family and community members. For play to exist, basic fundamental human needs must be satisfied momentarily, such as “good-enough” safety, security, and sustenance. With this awareness, drama therapists can help create the building blocks that allow for play to flourish in even the most broken systems.

Still, more questions remain:

In a climate that currently feels unknown, unpredictable, dangerous, threatening, frightening, how can we keep our own sense of play, and bring that sense of play to the individuals, groups, communities, and nation that needs it so desperately right now? How do we bring play to what is so that we may continually seek the flexibility and spontaneity that empowers us and others to survive, thrive, and revolutionize?” (Margaret Powell, personal communication, December 20, 2016)

I don’t have clear answers to offer at this point, but I will respond with an experience I had at the 2016 NADTA Conference that has stuck with me and bolstered me through a few dark moments in the past couple months. In the Diversity Forum on the final day, I took part in a deeply meaningful community experience through Boal’s Forum Theatre. Led by Jessica Bleuer, MA, MEd, CCC, Psychotherapy Permit, Ordre des Psychologues du Québec, RDT, and Idalid Diaz, MA, the group explored a recent difficult exchange I had with a co-worker at work.

I described my experience in the conference workshop:

The day after the murder of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man shot by police in Oklahoma, I was sitting at the facility break room scrolling through a news feed on my phone. Feeling deep grief and anger about the ongoing murders of black men and women at the hands of U.S. law enforcement, I sighed aloud and said to a coworker sitting near me, “I am so overwhelmed by the news today. So many innocent people are getting killed.” She turned to me, and said, “I know. So many of those people coming here are terrorists. I am honestly afraid to go to the airport.”

In the moment of that exchange, I experienced a dissociation. Initially, my heart delighted in thinking that she was agreeing with me, that we would be able to engage in a meaningful dialogue. Once I began to process her words, however, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. How could we miss each other so completely? We were sitting two feet from each other, but the divide felt vast. I felt exposed, angry, judgmental, and self-righteous. I could not have felt less playful. I mumbled something about how I was referring to police brutality and systemic racism. She looked confused and defensive. I didn’t know how to start to address her microaggressive, xenophobic statement at that moment. Lunch break was almost over. The conversation – and opportunity for dialogue with it  – died.

In exploring this experience at the conference, I was asked to title the story, and I named it “Violence at Home.” Next, audience spec-actors had the opportunity to try out different suggestions for continuing the the scene differently. Interestingly, and perhaps fittingly, we ran out of time at the end of the workshop, with a few opportunities for spec-actors to jump in but without real resolution. True to the nature of both Forum Theatre and difficult dialogue, we ended at an impasse. And yet I felt changed.

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CA Presidential Voting Results 2016 

For the first time since moving away from New York City, I felt like my experience of straddling worlds in my work environment was fully validated. I wasn’t looking for answers; I was looking for a different way to sit with the realities I was confronting. Through the NADTA community’s willingness to engage my dissociation, I left with a sense of possibility and movement, if not resolution to the impasse. I left this year’s conference with a realigned sense of aesthetic distance. Nothing was fixed in the specific scene from my real life at work, but I felt more empowered to play in the dangerous spaces I was occupying. I felt less alone.

I end this reflection with beginnings, with two calls to action. The first is my commitment of action to you, the drama therapy community, toward the cultivation of a daily sense of play – in myself, in my work, and in my community. Over the past three months since the conference, I have started building a Playback Theatre company with patients in my facility. We have been exploring how empathy, dialogue, and personal stories can be processed in a playful and new way. The patients have found a sense of empowerment and fun as actors, and as I anticipated, most staff have been hesitantly supportive of the endeavor. We held a holiday show recently, allowing some of the deep and rich stories evoked by the holiday season to be processed through this form. For 45 minutes, the suppressed culture of the environment was suspended, power dynamics slightly shifted, and the patient-actors were able to emerge as “experts” of their craft and “in service” of the community. In spite of ongoing resistance to change in my work culture, I commit to continue this practice of playful dialogue within the walls of my facility.

I will also try to engage more meaningfully and fearlessly with my co-workers and community around the topic of white supremacy and racial microaggressions. I will choose daily to make space for the challenging conversations. I will speak up about the necessity of being an ally in this time. I will try to be more curious about those whose points of view I do not understand, and through playfulness, I will invite people to be curious with me.

The second call to action is an invitation, here on Dramascope, for you to share what the cultivation of play will look like for you in 2017 – in your work, in your communities, and in your inner and outer dangerous spaces. My conference experience highlights for me how we need each other more now, when so many spaces feel more dangerous for some than ever before. Others have never felt safe or allied. Share with us what you are doing to make space in your worlds for beauty, imagination, movement through the impasses, and possibilities for inclusive engagement. According to Leonard Cohen’s (1992) creative engagement, now is the time: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” We and our systems are imperfect and broken, even as we are making the cracks. Through play, we can help make spaces for the light.

14962752_10105553922576439_2534211307348275254_nDanielle Levanas, MA, RDT, LCAT is a graduate of the NYU master’s
program in Drama Therapy and holds an advanced certification from the International Trauma Studies Program. As the first registered drama therapist at California Psychiatric Transitions, she is currently collaborating to build an expressive therapies program focused on how creative expression can be used to work with severe trauma, issues of privilege and oppression, and institutionalization in order to facilitate empowerment and greater flexibility. Danielle was a member of the Big Apple Playback Theatre Company from 2008-2016, and she has studied at the DvT Institute in New York City.

References

Brunner, N. and Hix, L. (2014). Threshold of safety in therapeutic theatre (Unpublished master’s thesis.) New York University, NY.

Cohen, L. (1992) Anthem. On The Future [CD]. Columbia Records.

Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Herder and Herder.

Hodermarska, M., Haen, C., & McLellan, L. (2014). Exquisite corpse: On dissociation and intersubjectivity – Implications for trauma-informed drama therapy. In N. Sajnani & D. R. Johnson (Eds.), Trauma-informed drama therapy: Transforming clinics, classrooms, and communities (pp. 179-205). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Johnson, D. R. (2014). Trauma-centered developmental transformations. In N. Sajnani & D. R. Johnson (Eds.), Trauma-informed drama therapy: Transforming clinics, classrooms, and communities (pp. 68-92). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Landy, R. (1994). Drama therapy: Concepts, theories, and practice (2nd ed.). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Landy, R. J. (2009). Role theory and the role method of drama therapy. In D. R. Johnson & R. Emunah (Eds.), Current approaches in drama therapy (pp. 65-88). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Pitruzzella, S. (2016, October 29). The lost treasure of Paidia: Creativity and intersubjectivity in the dramatic process. Keynote speech presented at NADTA Conference 2016 in Seattle, WA.

How Acting “As If” Can Make a Dramatic Difference

Kelly Tan, I have a dream. Variety-Stock from DeviantArt, FreeImages, and personal stock.
Kelly Tan, I have a dream. Variety-Stock from DeviantArt, FreeImages, and personal stock.

Editorial, Drama Therapy Review – Issue 2.2

By Nisha Sajnani, PhD, RDT-BCT- Principal Editor

Drama Therapy Review is the peer-reviewed journal for the North American Drama Therapy Association. Dramascope will publish the editorial for each new issue to keep our readers abreast of research in the field. We hope this inspires you to read the full journal which you can access for free as a member of the NADTA. For more information on how to subscribe, please click here. Please note that references for this editorial may be found in the issue.

Dramatic reality is the sine qua non of drama therapy. It is, as Susana Pendzik (2006) reminds us, the ‘essential category of experience’ in every approach that involves dramatic means to therapeutic ends. She explains,

Dramatic reality is imagination manifested. It is an as if made real, an island of imagination that becomes apparent in the midst of actual life. Dramatic reality involves a departure from ordinary life into a world that is both actual and hypothetical: It is the establishment of a world within the world… Dramatic reality exists between reality and fantasy: it partakes of both and belongs to neither.
(2006: 5, original emphasis)

Acting as if, derived from the ideas of pioneering psychologist William James (1890) and actor and theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski (1936), has been demonstrated to invite complexity, shift perception, and change behaviour (Ackerman et al. 2010; Carney et al. 2010, 2015; Hung and Labroo 2011; Langer 2009; Laird 2007). While they each use different terms (e.g. surplus reality, aesthetic space, fantastic reality, playspace, etc.), contributors to this issue extend this research and add to our body of knowledge in that they assess and affirm the value of dramatic reality across the lifespan.

We begin with Renée Pitre, Christine Mayor and David Read Johnson who propose that participation in brief sessions of Developmental Transformations (DvT), a highly interactive form of improvisational pretend play, can reduce stress amongst school aged children. They discuss short form DvT in relation to popular stress reduction techniques and provide a case study illustrating this method with one child seen within the context of the ALIVE program in New Haven.

Dan Wiener introduces Proxy scenes that are designed by therapists for adults and which involve the client participating in a close simulation of their real-life situation as a means of removing constraints to desired behaviours. Here, an immersion in dramatic reality offers participants a chance ‘to try out non-habitual and unfamiliar role choices (for individuals) as well as unfamiliar patterns of interaction between clients (for both individuals and client relationship systems)’ (2016: 185). He offers an instructive case example that elucidates the variables that therapists may calibrate in order to achieve successful Proxy scenes.

Myriam Savage follows with a narrative study in which she asked four adopted adolescent women to create masks and make a 30-second personal public service announcement. She combined elements of Pam Dunne’s Narradrama (2009) with an i-Pad application to create a digital space in which these youth could participate in pretend play and speak about their experiences. Savage’s work creates bridges between physical, virtual and dramatic reality, and offers us an example of how current technologies may be used to create new platforms for drama therapy.

Inspired by the research of Thalia Goldstein (2011), Barrett Scroggs, Sally Bailey and Bronwyn Fees present a study in which they examine the relationship between a creative drama course and empathy among emerging adults. They found that participation in a fifteen week creative drama course increased perspective taking amongst 30 undergraduate participants.

Rebecca Versaci follows with a theoretical article in which she uses the language of drama as a framing device for the psychological process of attachment between caregiver and child. She argues that viewing this critical initial relationship as a ‘theatre of attachment’ brings into focus the importance of aesthetic distance, role and intersubjective exchange which, in turn, offers dramatherapists and participants avenues for exploration.

Alisha Henson and Marilyn Fitzpatrick also elevate the importance of attuning to clients’ attachment styles in therapy and, like Wiener and Versaci, offer a rationale for titrating the level of distance created through the use of drama therapy techniques. In their study, they assessed the attachment styles of five mothers with children diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and observed their preferences in a drama therapy support group. Consistent with the findings of drama therapist Judith Glass (2006), they found that those with insecure attachment styles were more likely to prefer over-distanced techniques.

Rachel Lee Soon offers a postcolonial reading of drama therapy while also situating drama therapy within an Indigenous Hawaiian context. She calls attention to place, embodiment and relationship as complementary spaces between Indigenous ways of knowing and drama therapy practice. Her work is an excellent example of a critical aesthetic paradigm present in our field (Sajnani 2016).

Drew Bird and Katie Tozer inhabit dramatic reality as an approach to discovery. They draw on a/r/tography as an arts-based methodological approach to ‘explore the researchers teaching practice on a UK-based M.A. drama therapy program in order to clarify, understand, and develop a teaching pedagogy to enhance and improve teaching and learning’ (2016: 274). As Bird and Tozer explain, a/r/tography is suitable approach because it invites an investigation of the tensions between roles such as the role of drama therapist and drama therapy educator. Their findings, presented as seven renderings (themes) arising from dramatic improvisation, re-connected them with hidden values and reinforce artistic practice in research and teaching.

We conclude this issue with Patrick Tomczyk’s review of Clive Holmwood’s Drama Education and Dramatherapy: Exploring the Space between Disciplines published by Routledge (2014). Like Bird and Tozer, Holmwood explores the relationships between the role of drama therapist and educator across contexts.

Finally, this issue is special because the abstracts for each article have been translated into Spanish and French. Thank you to Marie-Emilie Louis from Belgium/Montreal and Fabiola Valdivia from Chile/Cambridge for their assistance with this effort. We hope that this expands access to a growing body of research into the health benefits of dramatic reality.

Nisha Sajnani, PhD, RDT-BCT is an Associate Professor; Interim Director, Global Interdisciplinary Studies; Coordinator, Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Drama Therapy MA program; Advisor, Expressive Therapies PhD program, and fellow of the Institute of Arts and Health at Lesley University. Dr. Sajnani is also on faculty with the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma where she provides leadership on the role of the arts in global mental health and at New York University where she teaches an introductory course on arts based research. Nisha is the editor of Drama Therapy Review. 

Borderlands: Diversity and Social Justice in Drama Therapy

Photo credit: David Ward.
Photo credit: David Ward.

Editorial, Drama Therapy Review – Issue 2.1

By Nisha Sajnani, PhD, RDT-BCT

Drama Therapy Review is the peer-reviewed journal for the North American Drama Therapy Association. Dramascope will publish the editorial for each new issue to keep our readers abreast of research in the field. We hope this inspires you to read the full journal which you can access for free as a member of the NADTA. For more information on how to subscribe, please click here. Please note that references for this editorial may be found in the issue.

I sat in my car and tried to breath through a wave of anxiety. It was a morning in early December – a few days after presidential candidate Donald Trump had called for a ban on all Muslims travelling to the United States and a few months after he had called for a wall to be built along the border of Mexico to keep all of the ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’ out. Across the border in Canada, Justin Trudeau had recently been appointed Prime Minister and was busy convening an ethnically diverse, gender balanced ministerial cabinet and establishing a goal of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees. Of course, Canada has its own tumultuous history of indigenous genocide, slavery, ecological negligence and present-day examples of interlocking oppressions that remain obscured by illusions of fairness (Jiwani 2011; Razack 2004; Sommers-Dawes 2016). Yet, it feels easy to romanticize and even reinforce the borders of a homeland and the borders of identity when one feels threatened.

It has been in moments like these that the false borders between art, therapy and politics have felt the most dangerous. Brouillent clarifies this further in a recent New York Times editorial entitled ‘Why Therapists Should Talk Politics,’

Should therapy strive to help a patient adjust, or to help prepare him to change the world around him? Is the patient’s internal world skewed? Or is it the so-called real world that has gone awry? Usually, it’s some combination of the two, and a good psychotherapist, I think, will help the patient navigate between those two extremes. When therapists make the dialogue only about their patient’s life narrative, without including a frank discussion of social and economic hardships, they risk reducing psychotherapy to a tool of social control.

It is with these ideas in mind that we decided to focus our first special issue of Drama Therapy Review on diversity and social justice.

Contributing authors responded in seven ways: 1) by calling attention to the social and relational construction of identity, difference and normalcy; 2) by describing the psychological, social, economic and physical impacts of being ‘othered’ as practitioners or clients; 3) by documenting how social exclusion is reinforced in institutional policies and practices; 4) by demonstrating how drama therapy theory provides a unique perspective on collective trauma and repair; 5) by elevating the importance of the social and economic factors that influence the provision of drama therapy in mainstream mental health settings; 6) by advocating for the use of drama therapy informed approaches to teaching empathy and cultural response/ability in the training of drama therapists; and 7) by emphasizing the significance of organizational advocacy and accountability in supporting individual efforts.

This issue begins with an article by Britton Williams in which she reminds us of the past and present violence inflicted on black and brown bodies and the psychological impact of racism. She provides three exercises that might be used to challenge personal biases and internalized racism. Williams’ article resonates with current research on the presence and danger of unintentional racism amongst health professionals (CBC 2016).

Jason Frydman and Jeremy Pleasant-Segall follow with their study that examined whether gender influences rates of professional advancement amongst Registered Drama Therapists (RDTs) who work in clinical and academic settings. In a recent conversation with the authors, Frydman wrote, ‘We feel the importance of this work as two men in the field working toward social justice efforts through research’ (personal communication, 31 January 2016). This speaks to the importance of working in solidarity with each other and the critical role that research can play in reinforcing or interrupting the status-quo.

Building upon a landmark study in music therapy by Whitehead-Pleaux et al. (2013), Mark Beauregard, Ross Stone, Nadya Trytan and Nisha Sajnani contribute a study on the attitudes and actions of drama therapists regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, atransgender, queer, intersex and gender nonconforming communities. This study responds to the question, ‘is there a queer drama therapy?’ raised by Tomczyk (2015) while also embracing an intersectional perspective (Sajnani 2013). Their findings point to the need for specific training and supervision on sexual orientation and gender diversity.

Sally Bailey offers a case study in which she uses drama therapy techniques in an integrated classroom to challenge perceptions about people with disabilities. In addition to her long-standing commitment in this area, what is perhaps most striking about her study are the outcomes of a survey that she presents to her pre-professional health care students in which she asks them to rank their preferences for disabilities that they would or would not be willing to have.

Wanning Jen follows with a noteworthy example of arts-based research in which he uses Image Theatre (Boal 1995) to embody and examine the acculturation experiences of Taiwanese students living in New York City. In keeping with a fast growing literature on arts-based approaches to enquiry (Barone and Eisner 2012; Leavy 2009; Sajnani 2015), Jen demonstrates that embodied methodologies reveal the emotional landscape of the phenomenon under investigation.

Simone Klees, a drama therapist in Germany, draws upon Landy’s (2007) role theory and method in her case study of individual drama therapy in an inpatient setting. Klees draws attention to how the political economy of healthcare in Germany coupled with increasing demands for evidence-based practice has resulted in decreased access to drama therapy services.

Alexis Powell also draws on role theory and role method in combination with Pamela Hays’ (2008) ADDRESSING framework in her proposal for an embodied multicultural self-assessment for drama therapy students. Preliminary results from her two case studies point to the potential of drama therapy informed techniques in courses designed to increase cultural response/ ability amongst mental health practitioners. Finally, Christine Mayor provides a succinct example of how drama therapy theory and practice provides a unique lens from which to understand collective violence and repair in her analysis of the film The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer.

This issue also includes a report on the ‘Guidelines on cultural response/ ability in training, research, practice, supervision, advocacy and organizational change’ developed by Nisha Sajnani, Patrick Tomczyk and Jessica Bleuer in collaboration with Ditty Dokter, Mandy Carr, and Sarah Bilodeau from the British Association of Dramatherapists (BADth) and in consultation with the membership of the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA). This is followed by a commentary by DTR Associate Editors, Christine Mayor and Meredith Dean, which is written as a dialogue about the challenges and possibilities experienced during the process of planning and participating in the 2015 NADTA Conference on social justice. Sarah Pizer-Bush and Marissa Snoddy conclude this special issue with a book review of Therapists Creating a Cultural Tapestry: Using the Creative Therapies Across Cultures co-edited by Stephanie L. Brooke and Charles E. Myers (2015).

In closing, I am reminded of Marianne Hirsh’s (2014) remarkable essay ‘Connective Histories in Vulnerable Times’ in which she writes,

Aesthetic encounters, I would suggest, elicit a sense of vulnerability that can move us toward an ethics and a politics of open-endedness and mobility, attuning us to the needs of the present, to the potentialities for change, and to the future.

The articles in this special issue give us examples of how dramatic processes ‘can move us’ and also question ‘towards what?’ and ‘who decides?’ One only needs to look at the current U.S. elections to understand that a well-crafted performance can fuel fear and violence just as it might compel empathy, collaboration, and imaginative responses to the crises of our times (Johnson and Sajnani 2015; Sajnani 2013, Landers 2012; Mayor and Dotto 2014).

This collection encourages us to see diversity and social justice as central to our work as drama therapists and drama therapy educators. Sometimes the client is upset because the world is unjust and to ignore the role of justice in healing is to blame the client for their own individual failure to thrive in a world that is broken. However,

by focusing on fairness and justice, a patient may have a chance to find what has so frequently been lost: an ability to care for and stand up for herself. Guilt can be replaced with a clarifying anger, one that liberates a desire – and a demand – to thrive, to turn outward toward others rather than inward, one that draws her forward to make change. (Brouillent 2016)

Contributors to this issue demonstrate that drama therapists work across a continuum of practice from the personal to the political and use their skills with aesthetic distance in improvisation, play and performance to navigate between these two extremes. This issue gives us a sense of some of the diversity in our community in that authors identify with and prioritize different concerns. Some practitioners identify as being privileged and/or experience being on the margins. This issue also leaves many stories untold, questions unasked and conflicting views unexpressed. I hope that the perspectives offered inspire you to share your own and also give you a reason to ‘talk politics’ with your colleagues and clients.

Warmly,
Nisha Sajnani, Ph.D., RDT-BCT
Editor, Drama Therapy Review

 

Nisha Sajnani

Nisha Sajnani, PhD, RDT-BCT is an Associate Professor; Interim Director, Global Interdisciplinary Studies; Coordinator, Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Drama Therapy MA program; Advisor, Expressive Therapies PhD program, and fellow of the Institute of Arts and Health at Lesley University. Dr. Sajnani is also on faculty with the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma where she provides leadership on the role of the arts in global mental health and at New York University where she teaches an introductory course on arts based research. Nisha is the editor of Drama Therapy Review. 

Seeping Within: A View of Shame Dynamics

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By Darci Burch, MA, LCAT-P

“I’m a drama therapist… and a real therapist” the woman said to me with large eyes and over-pronunciation to emphasize her point. I was at a meet-and-greet for mental health professionals working in the arts and education. After making an initial lap of the room, I had managed to find one other drama therapist soul with whom to connect. The introduction drew me up short. “A real therapist.” I wondered what that made me. Me with my newly minted Licensed Creative Arts Therapist permit—me with an empty frame waiting for a stiff diploma in the mail—me with new business cards announcing my educational achievement and representing all my hopes for my new career. “A real therapist?” I asked tentatively. She simply responded, “Well, you know.”

No, I did not know.

That is not true. I knew exactly what she was saying. She was informing me that she was also an MFT, LMHC, LCSW, or LPC perhaps. What I did not know was why she was presenting herself in that way, especially to me, a sister-in-arms. Were we not just as “real” as these other professionals? Was my education not just as academically rigorous? My sessions with clients just as meaningful? My work just as important? I had only recently started my new job working with put-at-risk youth in public school settings. So far my day-to-day interactions with the children, the trauma stories I was hearing, and the interventions I was crafting along the way certainly felt real. Nothing felt fake about the connections I was making nor the role I was playing for these kids. And yet, here I was, being told by a new colleague that she was only a real therapist because she held a second licensure. In effect then, I was an imposter.

My mind rolled back to the first time I read drama therapist David Read Johnson’s (1994) article on shame dynamics in relation to the creative arts therapies. Johnson explored internalized shame, suggesting a number of defenses that creative arts therapists employ to combat their experience of inferiority. He identified overcompensation, redirecting shame on others, increased rigidity, and need for control as ways that we potentially “shame-prone individual[s]” (p. 176) defend against the impact of our experiences. Johnson suggested that these defenses are seen in drama therapists’ relationships with each other, with other creative arts therapy modalities, and with professionals in the larger mental health field.

I remember being deeply impacted by this article in my first semester of internship class and relating to the shame I had already begun to feel but could not name. It amazed me that 20 years after the article was originally published, the main tenets still felt so familiar, so present, as if Johnson (1994) had just written this article as a guide for me and my cohort. As I stepped into my clinical internships, I faced not only my own shame about who I was as a drama therapist, but also the shame passed on to me from my mentors and supervisors. This is not to discount the wisdom, professionalism, and countless benefits I gained from my supervisors. Still, I quickly learned my place not only as intern, but more specifically as an intern to a creative arts therapist. I learned when I was allowed to speak to the psychologists and psychiatrists at my sites and when I was expected to stay quiet because it was not my place to speak up. Add this to culturally defined gender roles and systemic oppression and I was caught in a storm from which it felt there was no shelter. Even with exceptional skill and best intentions, my supervisors could not shield me from the shame seeping within and out of our profession.

Drama therapist Eleanor Irwin (1986) wrote about her belief in the importance of the supervisor’s role in a budding therapist’s development. Irwin suggested that the supervisor is integral in the creation of the supervisee’s professional identity. It is through the relationship with the supervisor that we learn to hone our intuition, ask questions, speak up, and “most important, to listen—to [our]self as well as others” (p. 191). In my experience, these lessons are learned just as much outside the therapy room as within. It was confusing when I was taught to trust my clinical intuition with clients, yet asked to silence myself with my mental health colleagues; when I was reminded to hold boundaries for and with my clients while at the same time watching my supervisors—overloaded with work—take on tasks outside their job scope simply because they were the only creative arts therapists on their teams. Johnson (1994) proposed that shame dynamics might be at play in the lack of consistent mentoring within the field. Just as we can be influenced by our client’s affect, if our supervisors and mentors are affected by an underlying professional shame, might those of us new to the field absorb some of those feelings?

I find myself nervous asking that question, that it might be published in this very blog. In fact, writing this post in general has brought up some anxiety. I wonder: How do I ask these questions without fear of hurting or betraying any mentor I have had in this field? I know that some of those who have helped me along the way will support this line of questioning but I fear that I may be seen as ungrateful or out of place. I only just graduated and am finally understanding what others meant about the safety of being a student. I recently attended my first NADTA conference as a “professional” and I often felt unsure of where I fit. I was not back as a student, where my questioning was encouraged and my status was a safety net for exploration, nor was I a seasoned (or even licensed) therapist with a career. I was in no man’s land. How does someone new to our small field challenge and ask these questions when we are not sure how or when we will even get hired?

The shame I carry personally and the shame passed down to me in school became especially evident in the job search. Initially, I continued to utilize the spiel I learned as a student, explaining to everyone I met what a drama therapist does. I was applying for jobs titled “Activity Therapist,” “Recreation Specialist,” and “Waiver Service Provider.” My peers and I were constantly shifting the description of our skills in an attempt to fit preconceived notions of “therapist” for positions with supervisors who would not accept that we had earned a Master’s in psychotherapy with academically rigorous standards of theory and research. We were defeated by our “creative arts” title before we could even interview and prove our skills and knowledge. One job opportunity I found claimed to be enthusiastic about bringing a creative arts therapist on board but then listed “current driver’s license” as more vital to the job than “ability to serve as a positive role model to children.” Both requests seemed odd for a therapist position.

I finally landed a job with a company that employs and was founded by creative arts therapists. The job posting was explicitly for “Drama Therapist.” Seeing that title in and of itself felt supportive. This spring there will be two drama therapy interns working under two different RDTs in the organization. While I will not be their direct supervisor, I know that they will be shadowing some of my groups, watching how I work with clients, and potentially comparing their professional identity to mine. It is what I did when I was an intern. It is what I still do as I find my footing in this new career. It has me wondering: What kind of impressions will I leave on them? Will they inherit any of my professional shame?

Johnson (1994) called for creative arts therapists to collaborate and join together. Irwin (1986) spoke of the value of a guide who has journeyed upon a similar road as the traveler they lead. In reflection, I think my mentors not only imparted pieces of professional shame, but also gave me the tools to investigate it. The reason I question it now is because of the strength of those who came before me and fought their own battles in this field. I ask myself: How can I ensure that I am a part of drama therapy’s strength—not fear—and empowerment—not shame? I hunger for continued mentorship and hope to mentor others as I grow and learn. I worry that the farther away from school I get the shorter my mentor list will become and the easier it will be to slip into rigid and paranoid patterns of professional shame.

As I write this post I am very aware of the differences I feel between my role as student and my role as novice clinician. As a student, I was often encouraged to work and explore in a process—not product—oriented fashion. I was asked to create more questions than answers, to investigate myself, my practice, my clients with a postmodern lens that welcomed varying interpretations and experiences. But as a novice clinician I am asked for product. I am asked to provide solutions, explain behavior, and deliver concrete results as a means to prove my worth and efficacy. This is pressure enough in a career situation, but I find myself worried that it extends into my drama therapy community as well. Will I be accepted if I admit to not knowing the answers? Will I be guided if I acknowledge I don’t always know the way? Will I be answered if I ask questions without providing definite solutions? This is my call to the field: Can we hold each other in the liminal space? Can we admit to not knowing the answers and still commit to exploring them together? That is what I need in mentorship and support. Someone to walk the path with me, to dive into the unknown, and to sit in the muck because answers are not the same as solutions. Solutions are not always available in the difficult work that we do.

This post then, is me heeding the calls of Johnson (1994) and Irwin (1986). I am speaking up. I am seeking mentorship and support. I am asking for more dialogue about shame in our field. I am listening for the response and wondering who can sit in it with me.

 

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Darci Burch, MA, LCAT-P, is a recent graduate of New York University and is currently working in New York City for ENACT, a non-profit organization teaching social emotional skills to young people in public schools. She is interested in continuing her thesis research on dissociation in the therapist/client relationship and looks forward to continuing her work acting and writing.

 

References:

Irwin, E. C. (1986). On being and becoming a therapist. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 13, 191-195.

Johnson, D. R. (1994). Shame dynamics among creative arts therapists. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 21(3), 173-178.

A Letter from the Pre-Education Committee

MLK quote

Dear Drama Therapy Community,

As the Pre-Education Committee wrapped up our 2015 conference-focused programming we reflected on the process and also thought towards the future. We enjoyed  gathering and delivering resources via social media and engaging in the dialogues that emerged. While our work has come to an end for the 2015 conference, we realize that the there is still much to be done.

Martin Luther King told us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Sadly, every day the news is riddled with stories of injustice as the lives of people continue to be strangled by prejudice. Many in the Drama Therapy community work with people facing these injustices and/or face these challenges in their own lives. It is our hope that the dialogue around these issues will continue and the compiling of resources regarding social justice will be ongoing. With the continuing need to stand against oppressive messages and actions, let us again look to Martin Luther King’s wisdom which says, “the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Let us as a community continue to raise our voices and seek additional ways to be active participants in the fight for justice.

As a committee, we have started a resource list, which is located here: 2015 NADTA Conference Resource List. We hope this will continue to be a living document to which others will add. Please contribute resources that might benefit our communities, research, dialogue and action around social justice to the comments section of this blog post found below.

As we prepare to sign off, we thank you for your participation in the Pre-Education programming. It has been an honor to serve the community through this platform.

Sincerely,

The 2015 NADTA Pre-Education Committee

britton

Britton Williams, RDT, LCAT, is a drama therapist working full-time at Metropolitan Hospital and in private practice.

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Danielle Levanas, RDT, LCAT-permit, is a drama therapist at California Psychiatric Transitions working in long-term adult mental health care.

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Alexis Powell, RDT, LCAT, works with families in NYC.

 

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Rachel Lee Soon, RDT, LCAT-permit, is a drama therapist working in a trauma-informed model across multiple populations at Creative Alternatives of New York (CANY).

 

 

The Story: Self as Art

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By Emily Fulop

In pygmy tribes of the Kalahari, when one of the nomadic families crosses paths with another family, a line is drawn in the sand. Each family sits on one side of this line and starts telling a story – going backwards through their lives until they find the moment in the story where their families were previously united. When that moment in history is rediscovered, the line is broken and the reunion celebration can begin (Van der Post, 1958). In Southern Africa, the Xhosa tribe believes returning warriors leave a part of their soul on the battlefield. For the warrior to be fully accepted back into their community, they must be forgiven by the living and dead by way of telling their story, in a ceremony called Ukubula. The duty of the community is to take in, collectively, the pain and realities that this suffering soul has seen. Only with the telling of the story and the sharing of the pain can this warrior be welcomed back as a whole soul in the tribe (Tick, 2014). These are merely two examples of the ways story and the sharing of tales are honoured in various cultures. As I continue to go forth into the drama therapy field, I find myself constantly coming back to this idea of the importance of story.

Perhaps it is this respect and need for storytelling that makes drama so unquestionably eternal. Even with all the advancements in entertainment, life stories are what capture our collective attention – those glimmering or traumatic moments that stand out because they teach inspiring or challenging lessons. Yet when many mental health practitioners approach the concept of healing, our interest in story becomes more tentative.

It is easy and understandable to fear the potential and authenticity of story. In the process of storymaking one can consistently edit, elaborate, or rewrite the narrative, and it can be frightening to face the unknown and the unforeseeable. The stories of our clients are still in the process of being written. To work with story means engaging not only possibilities and potential, but also symbolism, individual interpretation, and nuance.

Drama therapy engages the material of our lives through projection, re-enactment, embodied storytelling, and role expectations. This can be overwhelming to clients afraid of acknowledging their own potential (Fulop, 2015); clients who have internalized narratives that devalue, dismiss or confuse the self are often afraid to acknowledge that their presenting concerns (depression, anger, trauma, subjective experience) are not all of who they are, and that there is more they can be. Instead of (or along with) reassuring our clients about the playfulness and safety of the method, perhaps drama therapists should own this fear fully. Life can certainly be anxiety provoking, so wouldn’t a chance to rehearse or test the waters ease the pain?

Life is always more frightening in hypotheticals: in the moments when, because we do not know what will happen, we are flooded by thoughts of all the good and bad possibilities. The unknown is a human fear that some meet with confidence, others not so much. It comes as no surprise then that within some academic fields, and even in some professional fields, the trauma’s unknown “power” makes it transform into the volatile, treacherous, and overly avoided (Johnson & Sajnani, 2014). Any approach that brings a traumatic story front and center is often met with tense avoidance for fear of retraumatization.

Drama therapy is an approach that provides the opportunity to project one’s material within a space that can simultaneously allow the witnessing of and reflection upon a trauma story while still being dramatically distanced from it. The therapist and client build a relationship of trust and safety, in a space of playfulness and imagination, and rules of engagement are established. In this way, when the appropriate aesthetic distance is achieved, (further facilitated by drama’s use of make believe) the story’s manifestation, and any re-visitation of trauma, can be a productive experience. It is in these cases that drama therapists’ capacity to play and hold the dissonances that appear becomes crucial to the space of effective and non-traumatic story telling. Without revisiting and then revising the trauma narratives, individuals have limited space to expand imagination of self, to reflect on life. Drama holds the space of all possible life reflections or duplications within a contained and clear recognition of make believe (Pendzik, 2006). It is better that visitation of traumatic material is done in this safe, distanced space, a space that accepts and honours the pain and embraces the difficult challenge of beginning to revise it.

Evidence for the effectiveness of drama therapy can be found in the successes experienced by highly traumatized individuals. Drama therapy gave refugee women at the International Rescue Committee a voice and place to honor their personal, interpersonal, social or political struggles (Landis, 2014). In Developmental Transformations therapy with highly traumatized children at an orphanage in Japan, the structure of play offered children the ability to rebuild their own boundaries which had previously been broken (Onoe, 2014). CODA, Inc (Comprehensive Options for Drug Abusers) in Oregon uses action therapy and finds their clients are more successful in completing and sustaining their treatment and recovery (Uhler & Parker, 2002). Issues that are treated as invisible in our society today, including the lack of children’s rights in the US (Hodgson, 1997), lack of women’s rights – especially for women of color (Sajnani, 2012) (hooks, 2000), and the ghosts of our society that haunt us but who we continue to see right through (addicts, veterans, homeless, impoverished, immigrants, refugees) have been drawn to the stage to tell their stories. It makes sense that the silenced want to be heard, that a space that honours the story is alluring to those who have been dishonoured. It makes sense that drama therapy, when skilfully used with such populations, shifts the paradigm and narrative from the idea that revealing anything could mean utter destruction and no one really hears me, to the undeniable reality that I have known the darkness and my silence has been broken.

Drama therapy has the power to make untold stories told, heard and witnessed. Drama therapists have a duty to build “collaborative relationships based on a respect for our clients’ wisdom about their own lived experiences” and to demonstrate “a willingness to make our values and assumptions transparent” (Sajnani, 2012, p. 189). In this way, our clients understand that they are honoured as the experts of their potential, their experience, their stories. In order to be brought back into the community, the frame of that respect is crucial. We must empower the disempowered by communicating that in drama therapy:

“…[the client] can come as is, that they need not be prepared or in the mood; they will be accepted regardless of the state in which they enter the session. [The therapist] must convey that at the same time that [we] perceive their potentialities, [we] also recognize the emotional challenges this process poses for them” (Emunah, 1994, p. 98 – 99).

Drama and drama therapy rely upon the body of our self – our physical presence and our lived experience – as the creative medium. The client is the art, and that is perhaps the strongest demand and risk to ask of a client: to see themselves as an art form, a being formed from sketches, erasures, colored in parts and those left blank – and that this complete or incomplete art piece is worth recognition. Our histories (as clients, therapists, therapists-in-training, people) can be reframed respectfully as a process of art making, and “Therapy is, after all, a healing process involving renewal and recreation. As such, it demands the ability to think and feel on many different levels simultaneously, connecting past to present to future, seeing beyond the reality into the world of images and symbols” (Irwin, 1986, p. 194). What bodily symbols are we carrying, what images does our magnificent but perhaps thwarted imagination bring up? What images are our own, what are those that were placed within us? What gets embraced and what is let go? Asking someone to explore the art of themselves is a high demand. It is an approach, however, that seems to have had considerable success throughout history, as with the first ritual mentioned here, which looked at the world and the self as art forms, made whole by honouring both the dark and the light, both the negative and the positive space.

 

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Emily Fulop is currently studying at Lesley University for a Masters in Drama Therapy. With a background in Waldorf Education, experience with Equine Assisted Therapy, and holding a B.S. in Expressive Arts Therapies, she wishes to apply her knowledge and training in treating rural populations.

 

References:

Emunah, R. (1994) Acting for real: Drama therapy, process, technique, and performance. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel Publishers.

Fulop, E. (2015) Perform, reform, inform: The inherent nature of theatre for transcendent social investigation. (Unpublished masters paper) Lesley University, Cambridge MA.

Hodgson, L. (1997). Raised in captivity: Why does america fail its children? Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.

hooks, b. (2000). Feminism theory: From margin to center. (2nd Ed.) Cambridge, MA: South End Press Classics.

Irwin, E.C. (1986) On being and becoming a therapist. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 13. 191 – 195.

Johnson, D.R. (2009). Commentary: Examining underlying paradigms in the creative arts therapies of trauma. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 36. 114 – 120.

Johnson, D.R. & Sajnani, N. (2014) The role of drama therapy in trauma treatment. In D.R. Johnson & N. Sajnani (Eds.), Trauma-informed drama therapy. (5 – 23). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers, Ltd.

Landis, H. (2014) Drama therapy with newly-arrived refugee women. In D.R. Johnson & N. Sajnani (Eds.), Trauma-informed drama therapy. (287 – 305). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers, Ltd.

Onoe, A. (2014) The healing and growth of little mothers hurt within: Drama therapy at a foster home in japan. In D.R. Johnson & N. Sajnani (Eds.), Trauma-informed drama therapy. (329 – 347). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers, Ltd.

Pendzik, S. (2006). On dramatic reality and its therapeutic function in drama therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 33. 271 – 280.

Sajnani, N. (2012) Response/ability: Imagining a critical race feminist paradigm for the creative arts therapies. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39. 186 – 191.

Tick, E. (2014). Healing the wounds of war: Native perspectives on restoring the soul. Parabola30 (4). 64 – 71.

Uhler, A.S. & Parker, O.V. (2002) Treating women drug abusers: Action therapy and trauma assessment. Science & Practice Perspectives, 1 (1). 30 – 35.

Van der Post, L. (1958). The Lost World of the Kalahari. Orlando, FL: William Morrow & Company.

 

Tales of Monsters in Drama Therapy

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By Doug Ronning, MFT, RDT-BCT

Whether in fairy tale (Hansel and Gretel), fantastical literature (Lord of the Rings), science fiction (Frankenstein), monster movie (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), or Broadway musical (Little Shop of Horrors), if one encounters a monster in a story, it is likely a cautionary tale. In mythology and fiction monsters are stand-ins for the shadowy human appetites: greed, eros, bloodlust, hubris, and the desire to control others. Bruno Bettelheim indicted those who sought to remove violent and destructive monsters from children’s stories, for without the models of stories, children could not face “the monster a child knows best and is most concerned with: the monster he feels or fears himself to be, and which also sometimes persecutes him” (p. 120, 1975).

Whether natural or supernatural, monsters are catalysts that alter the journey of the hero. “Monsters demonstrate, monsters alert us: whether or not the etymologies relating the word to both “monstro” (I show) and “moneo” (I warn), are correct, monsters act as a moral compass,” opines University of Essex literature professor, Marina Warner (Warner, 2012, para. 4).

The iconic monsters of cinema are as recognizable as movie and pop stars, due to their great popularity and integration into the larger culture, but also because of the familiar paradigmatic use of existing plot structures in their stories (Schneider, 1993). As Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams point out in the introduction to their anthology of essays, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature (1991), the theme of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become so pervasively popular that we may summon it in our mind when someone says to us, “I have not been myself lately.”

In a previous article for Dramascope, I offered an overview on how monster archetypes have been interpreted through psychoanalytic, existential, and postmodern lenses and outlined some of the ways monsters have been employed in drama therapy. In this article, I will offer an expanded view of how the monster story can be used in drama therapy, drawn from the work of Noga Levine-Keini and Brurit Laub (1999). By way of literature review, I will explore their model and offer ways to build upon it by amplifying the client’s somatic experience.

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