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.
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.
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