By Adam Reynolds, MFA, RDT-BCT, LCSW, CASAC
Over the years I have run hundreds of Developmental Transformations (DvT) groups with children and adolescents in acute crisis. While their play was often challenging and full of dark and fierce energy, reflecting their chaotic home lives and turbulent inner selves, it also had within it all the colors and vibrancy of the play of healthy, happy children and teenagers. Often those groups were discordant with the desired air of calm and restraint that many clinicians felt was the preferred stance for working with these kids. The physical and emotional freedom of Developmental Transformations generated in some staff members a fear that the patients would use the opportunity to do harm to themselves or to others.
In reality, episodes of aggression and violent outbursts were far more likely to happen during structured periods of the day: the community meeting or within gym class. The playspace (like most drama therapy spaces) allowed for feelings and ideas that could otherwise be overwhelming to find a safe and transformative expression. The group often found beautiful and eloquent ways to play with even the most difficult impulses.
So while I am a strong advocate for the playspace as a device that reduces the threat of real harm, I did continue to think about people’s fears and anxieties about play: about what could happen; the Boogeyman in the Magic Box. And I had to square that with the truth: that many people have experienced feelings of being ‘harmed’ in the play: not so much bruised toes and poked eyes – but hurt feelings and wounded egos, the ache of loneliness when offerings go unnoticed or rejected, the sting of being misunderstood, the shame or guilt of being witnessed when playing a role that had previously been private or unknown to the enactor.
These sorts of ‘wounds’ are not unique to Developmental Transformations: they can happen in any drama therapy encounter (any human encounter, actually) – but within the DvT encounter they are particularly useful because they open up the capacity for repair within the play. We mis-align, we mis-interpret, we miss: and as therapists we are seen in our failing and flailing bodies. We try again, we speak into the fragments and the silence. We repeat. Relationships are re-built and re-storied. Sometimes it happens in the here-and-now, in the play – sometimes it takes place afterwards, in reflection. Other times, these feelings fester, they colonize, they grow.
To explore this landscape of dis-ease, I have been trying to assemble a taxonomy of the experience of ‘harm’ within the playspace:
- Discomfort when experiences in the play overwhelm or challenge us physically or emotionally and we don’t feel safe.
- Disharmony when there are ruptures in mutuality, where people playing together may actually be playing quite far apart.
- Distrust, when insufficient discrepancy makes us anxious about the motives or meaning of an element of the play.
Normally these experiences are momentary, and the play transforms, leading to another encounter and a different experience. But at other times, these feelings can pull people out of the play and remove the ability to bring the feelings forth in a way that allows them to change and transform. A part of us is feeling sore and we shield it, preserving the bad feeling and pulling us further from the play. Part of DvT Practitioner Training is learning the personal discipline of placing these experiences back into the play and allowing them to inform what comes next.
Within this shape, ‘harm’ is when the hurt happens, but there is no chance given for repair: when we don’t share that our feelings were hurt, or we refuse to make space for the failings and frailties of others. This withholding can make us feel safe, but ultimately keeps us stuck in the impasse; nursing our wounds.
This ability to tolerate that I might be ‘hurt’ but also be able to play with that feeling; that I might ‘harm’ someone else but then have the opportunity to mend that rupture; these lessons learned from practicing and teaching DvT have been crucial to me being more present in all my relationships, both personal and clinical. I take greater risks both within and outside of the play, more aware that there is greater value in the mending than in never risking the harm.
Adam Reynolds, MFA, LCSW, RDT/BCT, CASAC, is a drama therapist and social worker in New York City. He is currently one of The Training Directors at the Institute for Developmental Transformations in NYC and a PhD Candidate in Social Welfare at the CUNY Graduate Center. He works with children and adolescents with mental health and substance abuse issues and their families, and teaches at the New School and Hunter College. He enjoys musical theatre, t-shirts with cartoons, and collecting letters to put after his name.