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.
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.
Danielle 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.
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.