Borderlands: Diversity and Social Justice in Drama Therapy

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.

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. 

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