Making Poem Houses as a Drama Therapy Method of Self-Care

By Mimi Savage, RDT, PhD

I discovered poem houses, an art form created by Brigid Collins (2012) during a doctoral studies seminar on leadership. I was researching the topic of supervision when I came across a paper that described how poem houses were useful for understanding the challenges of leadership in business (Grisoni & Collins, 2012). The method of mixing or assembling found objects and poetry into a box – a collage process of layering and juxtaposing images, objects, and text – was intriguing because it suggested that an “uncovering” (p. 35) of personal information could take place, and it encouraged personal reflection via construction of an object. Grisoni and Collins (2012), who are not creative art therapists, noted that “intermediality” (p. 35) exists in this assemblage art form – a co-existence and arrangement of mixed media in one object or artifact that evolves into a new art form. The intermediality borne out of the construction of poem houses resonates with my personal aesthetics, and my academic and therapeutic orientation as a drama therapist.

As a longtime student of arts and humanities, I have often appreciated the way ordinary found objects are constructed into new forms by artists creating assemblage, such as Picasso (Guitar, 1914; Bull’s Head, 1943). Rauschenberg’s composite three-dimensional  “combines” (Leoni-Figini, 2006) such as Canyon (1959), featured seemingly disparate found objects on canvas inviting broad viewer interpretation. Combines were provocative and most likely influenced by the works of Duchamp, who presented “readymades” (Howarth, 2000), such as Fountain (1917), and Box in a Valise (1966). These pieces were meant to question the making and maker of art and elicit additional layers of meaning from  the viewer.

Artists such as these open up spaces to question meaning making and truth in creative practices, and have influenced my interest in art forms that are useful to drama therapy research and drama therapy methods. Hoffman (2005) defines postmodern psychology as an approach that questions the ability to know ultimate truth and that seeks multiple methodologies in the attempt to understand experience and meaning. This is what I think the aforementioned artists attempted with their art and is what can be accomplished by using interventions like poem houses in both therapy and clinician self-care.

Poem houses also intersect with my interest in narrative research methods of generating data and deconstructing them in order to represent new forms of story for understanding meaning. The subjectively arranged three-dimensional assembly of objects and words held and perceived in a small box – a diorama of sorts, or a miniature black box theatre – complete with a storied set reminds me of the three-dimensional narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) of exploring place, time, and relationship. All of those uniquely perceived elements exist inside and outside the box. Yes, narrative inquiry, not necessarily linked to narrative therapy, is a subjectively informed process with no absolute truths.

Like Duchamp’s Box in a Valise, visual stories compacted into the framed space of a box such as the poem house invite the viewer to think narratively. It also permits an interdisciplinary way to seek truth as it echoes or represents personal and social lenses. Thus, the poem house invites us to ask, “What is the story I perceive in this container?” “What is the meaning I gather from the inside and outside of the container as it pertains to the many dimensions of the maker, the environment, the time, and my own history?”

The storied box invites me to understand personal experience (mine and another’s), which is at the crux of narrative research. The contextualized story can be experienced and viewed in the landscape of a poem house and through the use of metaphor and symbolic imagery – a pivotal tool of narrative therapeutic approaches and narradrama (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Dewey, 1934).

Narradrama and Poem Houses

Narradrama combines the concepts of narrative therapy with drama therapy and the creative arts (Dunne, 2006). It borrows from psychology, sociology, anthropology, experimental theatre, and many forms of expressive arts in order to help a person become aware of internalized narratives.

Narradrama uses the following therapeutic steps: Continue reading

Casting Shadows: Playing in the Realm of Monsters

By Doug Ronning, MFT, RDT-BCT

From coast to coast, zombies have taken to the streets! In Portland, Maine, the stumbling undead suddenly appear amidst a crowd. In a flash, the music of Michael Jackson’s Thriller begins, and the undead, made up of both amateur and professional dancers, recreate the iconic music video (WMTW, 2013).  Across the country in Portland, Oregon, a food bank is the recipient of a fundraising Zombie Walk with the tagline: “We may eat brains, but we do have hearts!” (Oregon Food Bank, Inc., 2009). And it’s not just zombies. Every October, more than 2,500 interactive haunted houses spring up around the world, where local residents dress up to gleefully terrify visitors on country hayrides, in backyard mazes, on movie studio backlots, and in abandoned prisons (Olmstead, 2013).

Zombies, vampires, aliens, and other monsters are prevalent on today’s movie screens, televisions, and book shelves. This may hint at current cultural anxieties, but there is a long history of fascination with these mysterious forms across cultures. Monsters run rampant through folklore, religion, fairy tales, and mythology, and clinical practitioners have drawn inspiration from them since the onset of psychotherapy.

Many don’t understand the allure of monster movies, particularly those pictures designed to horrify and instill dread. Even more bewildering is this impulse to spend days every autumn putting on makeup and terrifying people, even when those people are paying for the privilege to be scared. In an attempt to understand the appeal of horror, film critics, cultural analysts, psychologists, and psychotherapists have examined the genre using various psychological orientations, including psychoanalytic, existential, and postmodern views. For more information, see Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud’s Worst Nightmare, a collection of essays edited by Steven Jay Schneider (2004) and Horror and the Holy: Wisdom-Teachings of the Monster Tale by Kirk J. Schneider (1993).

The first half of this piece will explore a variety of these views. The latter half will explore monster archetypes through more embodied drama therapy approaches.

Beginning in the 1970’s, the popular essays of film critic Robin Wood explored classic psychoanalytic interpretations of monster movies, based in Freud’s linked conceptions of repression and the uncanny (Wood, 1986). Wood states “One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is all that our civilization oppresses and represses” (1986, p. 68). Stanley Kubrick, while discussing his film The Shining with film critic Michel Ciment (1980), offered, “In his essay on the uncanny, ‘Das Unheimliche,’ Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If the horror genre required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials” (para. 66).

Continue reading

Black Lives Matter

North American Drama Therapy Association Position Statement
May 2015

Black Lives Matter. Like many around the world, we at the North American Drama Therapy Association share the profound grief, anger, and pain as we grapple with the loss of Mya Hall, 27; Freddie Gray, 25; Trayvon Martin, 17; Rumain Brisbon, 34; Tamir Rice, 12; Yvette Smith, 47; Akai Gurley, 28; Kajieme Powell, 25; Ezell Ford, 25; Oscar Grant, 22, Dante Parker, 36; Michael Brown, 18; John Crawford III, 22; Tyree Woodson, 38; Eric Garner, 43; Victor White, 22; Yvette Smith, 47; McKenzie Cochran, 25; Jordan Baker, 26; Andy Lopez, 13; Miriam Carey, 34; Jonathan Ferrell, 24; Carlos Alcis, 43; Larry Eugene Jackson, Jr., 32; Deion Fludd, 17; Kimani Gray, 16; Johnnie Kamahi Warren, 43; Malissa Williams, 30; Timothy Russell, 43; Reynaldo Cuevas, 20 and countless others. Their deaths have brought international attention to the daily inequities experienced within communities of color at the hands of the police and civilians who are rarely held responsible for their actions.

We, at the NADTA, do not see these deaths as isolated events but an epidemic that affects the safety and well-being of society, our members, and those with whom we work.  We recognize that what we are experiencing is the systemic failure of our society to address our own history and legacy of colonization and slavery that continues to rationalize the domination of one racial or ethnic group over other group(s) and to maintain psychological and material advantages through the ongoing dehumanization and criminalization of people of color in every social sphere that we choose to acknowledge from our systems of healthcare, education, justice, human services, banking, and housing.  Social acceptance of the myth of a colorblindness, institutionalized racism, and a pervasive fear of the “other” are at the root of these acts of brutality (Mayor, 2012; Sajnani, 2012).

We also recognize that we are an organizational expression of society and therefore implicated in the struggle for social justice and equality. Therefore, we see this statement as a critical part of our commitment to upholding high standards of ethical practice. In the words of art therapist Dan Hockoy (2007), “There is no possibility to end psychological suffering until we work on the social disparities that result in ‘intrapsychic trauma,’ and, no matter how much political activism and community service we do, there is no possibility for social justice  until we come to terms with the forces of marginalization within our own psyches” (p.37).  Racism, implicit bias, and race-based privilege disrupt the mental health and psychological functioning of both victims and perpetrators of racial injustice and this contributes to the maintenance of racist systems and interactions (APA, 2015).

We understand the inclination to respond to this position statement with an assertion that all lives matter and, of course, they do. However, as George Yancy and Judith Butler noted in their recent article in the New York Times (Jan. 12, 2015),

If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, ‘all lives matter’, then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in the idea of ‘all lives.’ That said, it is true that all lives matter…but to make that universal formulation concrete, to make that into a living formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to mark that exclusion, and militate against it. Achieving that universal, ‘all lives matter,’ is a struggle, and that is part of what we are seeing on the streets…Only through such an ever-growing cross-racial struggle against racism can we begin to achieve a sense of all the lives that really do matter.

The current climate of violence most directly and negatively impacts people of color and it affects all of us. We condemn police brutality and the US and Canadian systems of racialized, mass incarceration. To our members who have expressed feeling invisible, forgotten, or silenced we are deeply grieved. We stand with our members who have experienced the trauma of racism and intersecting oppressions. We call on our community as a whole to bring your experience, critical thinking, research, and artful approaches to creating spaces where we can extend our understanding of the impact of racism and other forms of social injustice on health and well-being.

Towards this end, the NADTA has been and will continue to engage in a number of initiatives. These include the development of guidelines concerning cultural response/ability in ethical practice. Your input on these guidelines is critical so please click here to read them and provide your comments. These guidelines will be discussed at our next annual conference which is focused on how drama therapists draw on an understanding of dramatic reality, embodiment, improvisation, role, play, narrative, witnessing, and performance amongst other processes to promote empathy, diversity and social justice (Oct. 15-18, 2015).  Please consider participating in the online activities and conversations coordinated by the conference pre-education committee. You also are welcome to share your reflections in a blog post on the official NADTA blog, Dramascope (via email submission to or submit an article or a clinical commentary to Drama Therapy Review, the peer-reviewed journal of the NADTA. Issue 2.1 is a special issue entitled: Borderlands: Diversity and Social Justice in Drama Therapy and the deadline is August 1st, 2015. The NADTA Diversity Committee will also host community conference calls for members to share their reflections on matters of interest pertaining to diversity, mental health, and the practice of drama therapy. The first call will be focused on the impact of racism on mental health and will take place on Monday, June 1st, from 8-9pm EST. Please click here to sign up for this call and to receive call-in details.

We are also aware of the trailblazing work done by colleagues in related fields who have documented the psychological causes and consequences of racism, transphobia, homophobia, ageism, ableism, sexism, sizeism, poverty and other forms of interpersonal and institutionalized bias on mental health and invite you to make use of these resources and to contribute others by contacting Jessica Bleuer, Diversity Chair, at

We close with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, in his influential book Why We Can’t Wait, wrote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (1963, p. 87).

In Solidarity,

NADTA Board of Directors
Nadya Trytan
Jason Butler
Jeremy Segall
Whitney Sullivan
Susan Ward
Jason Frydman
Jennifer Wilson
Karimah Dillard
Kim Cohn
Jessica Bleuer
Alisha Henson
Josiah Stickels
Laura Wood
Angela Wiley

NADTA Advisory Committee (Black Lives Matter)
Nisha Sajnani
Carmen White
Britton Williams
Amber N. Smith

NADTA Diversity Committee
Jessica Bleuer
Carmen White
Diana E Jordan
Daniela Bustamante
Jami Osborne
Shyam Anandampalli
Idalid Diaz


American Psychological Association (2015). Guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice, and organizational change for psychologists. Retrieved from

Hockoy, D. (2007).  Art therapy as a tool for social change: A conceptual model. In F. Kaplan (Ed.), Art therapy and social action (pp. 21-39). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

King, M.L. (1963). Why we can’t wait. Boston: Beacon Press

Mayor, C. (2012). Playing with race: A theoretical framework and approach for creative arts therapists. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39 (3), 214-219.

Sajnani, N. (2012). Response/ability: Towards a critical race feminist paradigm for the creative arts therapies. The Arts in Psychotherapy. 39 (3), 186-191.

Yancy, G. & Butler, J. (January 12, 2015). What’s wrong with all lives matter? Retrieved from

How Drama Therapists Impact Their Work Environment

By Jason Conover, RDT, LCAT, CASAC

Drama therapists bring their unique set of skills to every employment opportunity, regardless of the actual job title held within the field of human services. I have been a working drama therapist in New York City for over ten years. Not one of my job titles included the words “drama” or “therapist.” However, every interaction I have had within the workplace was filtered through the lens of role theory, role method, psychodrama, and other forms of creative engagement learned in my graduate and postgraduate training as a drama therapist. I have been a direct support professional for individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, recreation supervisor, transition developer on the curriculum team for individuals with intellectual or other developmental disabilities, and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor (CASAC) working in substance use prevention. In all of these professional roles I have infused creative arts therapy techniques and interventions to enhance and deepen the work done with clients in related fields and disciplines.

I have played many roles in my professional career, and they have all contributed to deepening and expanding my concept of what it means to be a drama therapist. I bring a sense of play to the work environment and to the work culture in which I am a member. I run weekly group supervision with the interdisciplinary treatment team in the substance use disorders outpatient clinic where I am currently employed. In group supervision, I have used Landy’s (2009) role profiles assessment tool to promote clinician wellness through the examination of role, and transference and countertransference issues among clients and clinicians. I share a small office with two other clinicians, one a social worker and the other a fellow drama therapist. There are client-made masks and other works of art on the walls, musical instruments strewn about, and other co-workers often come in to vent, take a breath, or share a laugh. The office is cramped and chaotic: a swirl of activity and a hub of creativity.

Continue reading

Is There a Queer Drama Therapy?

By Patrick Tomczyk, MA

I write this blog entry on the heels of Wear a Pink T-Shirt day, a Canadian initiative that promotes anti-bullying initiatives, celebrated across the country annually on February 25th. This year the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA) community looks forward to a conference with the theme of Diversity and Social Justice. As a drama therapist researching homophobic bullying and working in private practice with LGBTQ adolescents and young adults, diversity and social justice concerns are very relevant to my research and practice. The nature of my work is situated within Canada: a country that has a reputation for its politeness, as its people profusely say “sorry”; a leader in LGBTQ rights as one of the first countries to legalize gay marriage; and a country that promotes international human rights. While my point of reference is the Canadian context, I do wish to raise awareness regarding some of the issues for all members within the NADTA community as there are significant similarities in themes and data surrounding bullying research from the UK, Australia, the US, and Canada. My work focuses on “homophobic bullying” (Rivers, 2011), which is an internationally used and defined term, widely accepted by NGOs and governments as: “bullying behaviours that are motivated by prejudice against a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” (Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2007; Government of Alberta, 2015;, 2015; Save the Children, 2015).

Bullying is a systemic national issue in Canada. Although our borders may be far and wide, our population is just over 35,000,000 (Statistics Canada, 2014). Consequently, news of deaths from violence or suicide, related to bullying, garner national media attention and make headlines across the country as the names continue growing on an already long list: Reena Virk from British Columbia, Jenna Bowers from Nova Scotia, Mitchell Wilson from Ontario, Jamie Hubley from Ontario, Marjorie Raymond from Quebec, Amanda Todd from British Columbia, Rehtaeh Parsons from Nova Scotia, and Todd Loik from Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, with more than 400 adolescent suicides annually, suicide is the second most common form of premature death among youths aged 15 to 24 in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2008). Bullying is often a key-contributing factor to youth suicides, and LGBTQ youth account for a significant and disproportionate number of these deaths.

Egale is Canada’s national lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) human rights organization: advancing equality, diversity, education and justice. In 2011, Egale released the findings from the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia in Canadian Schools Final Report (Taylor et al., 2011). The data illustrates a real cause for concern about homophobic bullying within Canada. The national study found that 70% of all students hear derogatory comments and normalized expressions such as “that’s so gay” or “faggot” every day in school. Moreover, 10% of students report that these pejorative expressions are used directly by their teachers. Alarmingly, more than half of LGBTQ youth feel unsafe at school, compared to 3% of their heterosexual peers. Equally important, 58% of heterosexual youth report finding homophobic comments upsetting. Almost half of sexual minority students are verbally harassed about their gender expression and/or sexual orientation. Lastly, more than 1 in 5 LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted because of their sexual orientation and 49% of trans students reported being sexually harassed at school. This data is only a snapshot of the urgency of the situation in Canada.

Continue reading

Parallel Story: Metaphor and the Trauma Narrative

By Heidi Landis, RDT-BCT, LCAT, TEP, CGP 

In recent years, the field of trauma therapy work has grown tremendously, allowing for the exploration and emergence of innovative treatment approaches. On the one hand, trauma theory underscores the importance of exploring the narrative for healing and integration. On the other, there has also been much discussion about the risk of re-traumatization when working directly with the trauma narrative. I do know that in order for there to be safety in working with the trauma narrative in any kind of therapeutic work, scaffolding, therapeutic rapport and containment are critical. Trauma–focused CBT, for example, focuses first on psychoeducation about trauma and the teaching of affect regulation skills before the therapist and client even begin to engage the narrative itself.

In our own field, trauma work and trauma-informed interventions have become buzz-words. Last year marked the publication of Trauma–Informed Drama Therapy (Johnson and Sajnani, 2014), outlining different methods, theories, and practices in trauma-informed drama therapy with a variety of populations and settings. I have the privilege of working at Creative Alternatives of New York (CANY), where we practice our own model of trauma-informed drama therapy. In regards to what we do, one of the questions I continually ask myself is: where is the place of the trauma narrative in an approach like ours, which works primarily in metaphor? I am also a psychodramatist, so I am familiar with working directly with the trauma story in action. But at CANY, we work in settings like schools, where clients have a drama therapy group and then head immediately to class, or shelters, where we see clients for a very limited amount of time – sometimes as little as two or three sessions. Although this is not ideal for me as a therapist, it is often out of our control. We have learned, however, that short term work  can be foundational for the client. It allows them to attain  some coping and affect regulation skills that can be a basis for work down the road, and  to deal with triggers in the beginning stages of  therapeutic work.

In my work at CANY, the question remains: can the trauma narrative be addressed directly in short term therapy, or in situations where the larger system isn’t trauma-informed? In my experience, I have come to believe that the answer is yes. The metaphor  not only contains the trauma, but also allow clients affected by trauma to safely access their narrative with less risk of re-traumatization.

Continue reading

Drama Therapy With Latino Populations

Artwork by Luis Nishizawa

By Antonio Ramirez, PsyD

Multicultural counseling requires knowledge, skills, and awareness (Sue & Sue, 2008). Knowledge is the therapist’s basic familiarity with the client’s cultural background. Skills are the intervention strategies that are in line with the client’s background. Awareness is the recognition of the therapist’s background that may interfere with the therapy process, for example: the social factors of privilege and cultural countertransference (Perez-Foster, 1999).

The therapy process requires clients and therapists to look beyond the obvious; to understand the roots of the presenting issues alongside the client’s strengths. Multicultural therapy requires the therapist to understand the client’s world as much as possible in order to assist in self-understanding from within the client’s own worldview. This proposition is extremely complex, because it involves not only the people in the therapy room, but also many other people who are and have been involved in the client’s life. A useful frame for understanding this concept is Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological proposal to recognize environmental influences that place the client and the therapist in a multicultural context.

Verbal therapy is relatively limited because it assumes that clients have the ability to express their experiences in words and that the most powerful way to understand is through intellectual, logical understanding. Drama therapy expands from verbal therapy and includes other types and channels or modes of understanding like somatic, symbolic, interpersonal, and mythical paradigms, among others. This expansion requires the drama therapist to be especially aware of multicultural issues that go beyond verbal expression. Therapists receive training in multicultural issues, but their knowledge, skills, and awareness may still be limited (Sue & Sue, 2008). The fact that drama therapy is an embodied approach makes the potential for misunderstanding and injury of clients greater than verbal therapy because it can occur on several levels. A strength that drama therapists possess is their ability to use their acting backgrounds and/or skills to undertake the analysis of character. The process of embodying characters from another time, place, or culture can allow us to engage in perspective taking, to imagine the experiences of others.

A Drama Therapy Group in Mexico

To demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and awareness when applied using a multicultural frame, I will share the process of preparing and conducting a drama therapy group to explore masculinity from a pro-feminist perspective.

I ran a brief drama therapy series for men in Mexico with the theme of reflecting on their experiences with the masculine role. The workshop was delivered in two eight-hour sessions at a non-profit agency. There were 14 participants and their ages ranged from about 20 to 45. I am from Mexico, so I worked from an emic, or within the culture, approach that generated advantages and disadvantages. These will become clear as we explore the group’s progress.

In preparation for the workshop, I decided to use Emunah’s (1994) Five Phase Model. Due to the collectivistic nature of Mexican culture, people’s identities are based on the idea of interdependence, creating a sense of belonging. On the other hand, collectivism in Mexico can create a sense of vulnerability because of the potential for personal information to be shared outside of the group as gossip, or chisme. The Five Phase Model provides at least two safeguards against this vulnerability. One is the intimacy built in slow increments through the first and second phases: Dramatic Play and Scenework (Emunah, 1994). The other is the way it allows the therapist to move at the group’s pace and recognize when the group is ready to move to the next phase. Notice that this relates to the therapist’s skills, including competent understanding of the culture.

Continue reading

Call for Dramascope Blog Submissions

The Dramascope is looking for voices from all over the Drama Therapy community!  If you have an idea for a blog post – fully formed, half baked, or somewhere in between – please reach out to us at All perspectives and points of entry are welcome. Final posts range between 1,000 and 1,500 words. Hope to hear from you, and in the mean time, we encourage you to comment on/respond to the bi-weekly posts when they come up.  Find blog announcements here at the NADTA’s Facebook page or follow us on twitter @theDramascope.

Continue reading

Building Response Flexibility in Clients With Eating Disorders: Improvisation and Embodying Addiction

By Laura L. Wood, MA, RDT-BCT, LPC, CCLS

Currently, statistics show that individuals with eating disorders have a higher mortality rate than those suffering from any other mental illness (Smink, van Hoken & Hoek, 2012). No single type of treatment is universally successful; rather each eating disorder type (Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder) responds to its own unique course of treatment. Even though there has been significant growth over the last twenty-five years in treatment approaches for different types of eating disorders, there is still a significant gap in what we know to be effective (Fairburn & Harrison, 2003). Unfortunately, public interest in eating disorders and common misunderstandings about the disorder far outweigh the research being conducted in eating disorder treatment. In fact, most research is housed in psychiatry department medical schools (Wilson, Grilo & Vitousek, 2007). In 2007, Wilson, Grilo, and Vitousek presented a call to researchers (other than medical doctors) to increase the research for eating disorders, declaring that we as psychologists and counselors are “well positioned to make important contributions to the study of eating disorders…including exploring psychobiological mechanisms that cause and maintain eating disorders, and identify the mechanisms (mediators) of therapeutic change” (p. 212). Answering this call, my work and current research in progress (and this blog submission!) are focused on using drama therapy to help clients with eating disorders to build response flexibility.

It is well known in the field that the cause of an eating disorder is complex. Both genetic predisposition and environmental factors contribute to the use of an eating disorder as a maladaptive coping mechanism (Fairburn, 2008). The different contributing environmental factors can be grouped into the following three broad categories: trauma and abuse, anxiety, and developmental/family of origin issues. Clients with eating disorders often have a make-up of factors from one, two, or all three of these categories. While there are different treatment tracks for eating disorders associated with each category of factors, there are also areas of overlap. All clients with eating disorders (with whatever combination of trauma, anxiety or developmental/family of origin problems), for example, suffer from issues of response flexibility. “Response flexibility enables us to pause before responding as we put a temporal and mental space between stimulus and response and between impulse and action” (Siegel, 2012 p. 33-2). Clients with eating disorders, rather than having healthy response flexibility, suffer from extremes of rigidity and chaos (Cassin and Von Ranson, 2005). With rigidity (most common in clients with Anorexia Nervosa), thought, emotional, and behavioral repetition become the primary way of coping and identifying, rather than a sense of spontaneity, creativity, playfulness, and presence. Extreme chaos is characterized by the intrusion of overwhelming and unpredictable thoughts, emotions and behaviors (most often seen in clients with Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder) (Siegel, 2010; Claes, Vandereycken, and Vertommen, 2002).

To encourage movement away from rigidity and chaos and towards healthy response flexibility, Siegel (2012) suggests we help clients increase their window of tolerance: the “span of tolerable levels of arousal in which internal or external stimuli can be processed in a flexible and adaptable manner” (p. 85).

Coming to understand the protective functions of an eating disorder is one of the first steps in formulating a treatment approach. This process is often very frightening for clients, triggering their rigid or chaotic response strategies to deal with the uncomfortable feelings that arise when exploring this material. For example, if asked to write, as a means of exploration, about the function of their eating disorder, rigid clients often become entrenched in writing and re-writing. The focus shifts from developing insight about their eating disorder through spontaneity, connection, and discovery, to writing a “perfect paper” that has outstanding grammar and punctuation. Conversely, chaotic clients use the writing as an opportunity to “purge” their feelings. They may write fifteen pages of repetitive and unorganized thoughts that perpetuate their chaotic way of coping, leaving them feeling more dysregulated and confused. I have found that in the early stages of treating clients’ eating disorders, writing is minimally useful. In many ways, this is also true for other traditional verbal methods within the group therapy process. Rigid clients sit, and think, and find a way to give the “perfect” controlled answer that won’t open them up to vulnerability. Meanwhile, chaotic clients ramble on, often getting so lost in the telling of their experience that other group members feel equally lost, and they are left feeling alone, isolated, and misunderstood. When these patterns are mirrored for clients with eating disorders, often their shame and self-hate is so rigid/chaotic they can’t tolerate the feedback. Trapped again, they turn to their soothing friend, the eating disorder, with whom they continue to play out their rigid (restriction) and chaotic (binging and purging) patterns.

Therefore, helping clients to discover the functions of their eating disorder in a way that doesn’t perpetuate their rigid and chaotic coping styles is essential. This is why in the early stages of eating disorder treatment I begin with two different types of groups that work in conjunction with one another to begin to increase clients’ windows of tolerance in order to help build response flexibility:

1) A Drama Therapy group in which we explore the role of the eating disorder through the lens of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) Model.

2) A modified Developmental Transformations (DvT) Group that allows clients to start learning to play with their rigidity and chaos (which also helps minimize the triggering of their shame and self-hate).

Wood lecturing at a recent conference in Alabama helping clinicians to experience drama therapy and it's benefits for eating disorder clients.

Wood lecturing at a recent conference in Alabama helping clinicians to experience drama therapy and it’s benefits for eating disorder clients.

Continue reading

Performing Stories of Lived Experience

Photograph/Ambarin Afsar

By Shea Wood, MA, CCC

We tell stories every day to communicate who we are and what we have experienced. The sharing of experience in the form of a story involves a personal process of meaning-making by reflecting on an experience through the telling of it (Lewis, 2011). Performing personal and family stories (as opposed to simply telling them) can provide even further opportunities for meaning-making and growth.

I am currently researching how performances based on lived experience can foster transformation in the witness. The purpose of my research is to develop theory that can aid in the creation of performances—with roots in lived experience—that may achieve an optimal balance between affective/emotional engagement and critical personal reflection. A learning experience is more meaningful when it includes both emotional content (makes us feel) and intellectual content (makes us think and reflect). Therefore, achieving this balance in performances will create an opportunity for transformative learning (see Grabove, 1997) to take place in the witness.

In preparing for this research, I have reviewed a large amount of literature about:

  1. The theory of transformative learning (Davis-Manigaulte, Yorks, & Kasl, 2006; Dirx, 2008)
  2. The cognitive/affective dimensions of engagement and response often discussed in the fields of therapy (Dalgleish & Power, 1999; Greenberg, 2008), theatre (Jackson, 2007) and education (Yorks & Kasl, 2002)
  3. Aesthetic approaches and theatrical conventions that are commonly used to present stories of lived experience (Jones, 2002; Mienczakowski, 1995; Saldaña, 2011; Smith, 1993).

It became evident after reflecting on all of this literature that I would actually need to create a performance to use in this research in order to study the impact of witnessing. I would need to be able to control and design the elements of the performance that have been discussed in the literature as being useful in bringing about emotional arousal and critical reflection in the spectator.

That is what I want to talk about here: the experience of creating that performance piece. I want to speak about this part of my process because I think it is very important for us, as drama therapists, to reflect on what it means for a person to tell his/her story through dramatic processes and performance. Stories hold the essence of who we are, what we have lived, and how we make meaning out of our experiences. As we ask our clients to express their personal material and stories through dramatic processes, it can be useful to reflect on what it is about this experience that promotes meaning-making and personal growth.

I have created a performance piece based on my mother’s experience of being the child of an alcoholic. It is a story of struggle and perseverance, trauma and healing, relationships and forgiveness. It is a story that lives in my family history and influences the person that I am. This process began with my mother writing journal entries and sending me photocopies of her beautifully expressive writing, and progressed to me writing and workshopping a script while integrating her feedback. Some of these stories I had heard before, and some had never been told within my family. As I sifted through the memories inking those pages, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the process of telling this story would influence my mother, my self, our relationship, and the individuals who will have the opportunity to witness this piece. And though I am only currently researching one part of this equation (the witnesses), I am certainly keeping detailed notes on the rest of the process in anticipation of one day exploring it in depth.

Continue reading