Cultivating a Lasting Sense of Play: Reflections from the 2016 NADTA Conference

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.

california_presidential_election_results_2016-svg

CA Presidential Voting Results 2016 

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.

14962752_10105553922576439_2534211307348275254_nDanielle 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.

References

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.

Advertisements

Seeping Within: A View of Shame Dynamics

By Darci Burch, MA, LCAT-P

“I’m a drama therapist… and a real therapist” the woman said to me with large eyes and over-pronunciation to emphasize her point. I was at a meet-and-greet for mental health professionals working in the arts and education. After making an initial lap of the room, I had managed to find one other drama therapist soul with whom to connect. The introduction drew me up short. “A real therapist.” I wondered what that made me. Me with my newly minted Licensed Creative Arts Therapist permit—me with an empty frame waiting for a stiff diploma in the mail—me with new business cards announcing my educational achievement and representing all my hopes for my new career. “A real therapist?” I asked tentatively. She simply responded, “Well, you know.”

No, I did not know.

That is not true. I knew exactly what she was saying. She was informing me that she was also an MFT, LMHC, LCSW, or LPC perhaps. What I did not know was why she was presenting herself in that way, especially to me, a sister-in-arms. Were we not just as “real” as these other professionals? Was my education not just as academically rigorous? My sessions with clients just as meaningful? My work just as important? I had only recently started my new job working with put-at-risk youth in public school settings. So far my day-to-day interactions with the children, the trauma stories I was hearing, and the interventions I was crafting along the way certainly felt real. Nothing felt fake about the connections I was making nor the role I was playing for these kids. And yet, here I was, being told by a new colleague that she was only a real therapist because she held a second licensure. In effect then, I was an imposter.

My mind rolled back to the first time I read drama therapist David Read Johnson’s (1994) article on shame dynamics in relation to the creative arts therapies. Johnson explored internalized shame, suggesting a number of defenses that creative arts therapists employ to combat their experience of inferiority. He identified overcompensation, redirecting shame on others, increased rigidity, and need for control as ways that we potentially “shame-prone individual[s]” (p. 176) defend against the impact of our experiences. Johnson suggested that these defenses are seen in drama therapists’ relationships with each other, with other creative arts therapy modalities, and with professionals in the larger mental health field.

I remember being deeply impacted by this article in my first semester of internship class and relating to the shame I had already begun to feel but could not name. It amazed me that 20 years after the article was originally published, the main tenets still felt so familiar, so present, as if Johnson (1994) had just written this article as a guide for me and my cohort. As I stepped into my clinical internships, I faced not only my own shame about who I was as a drama therapist, but also the shame passed on to me from my mentors and supervisors. This is not to discount the wisdom, professionalism, and countless benefits I gained from my supervisors. Still, I quickly learned my place not only as intern, but more specifically as an intern to a creative arts therapist. I learned when I was allowed to speak to the psychologists and psychiatrists at my sites and when I was expected to stay quiet because it was not my place to speak up. Add this to culturally defined gender roles and systemic oppression and I was caught in a storm from which it felt there was no shelter. Even with exceptional skill and best intentions, my supervisors could not shield me from the shame seeping within and out of our profession.

Drama therapist Eleanor Irwin (1986) wrote about her belief in the importance of the supervisor’s role in a budding therapist’s development. Irwin suggested that the supervisor is integral in the creation of the supervisee’s professional identity. It is through the relationship with the supervisor that we learn to hone our intuition, ask questions, speak up, and “most important, to listen—to [our]self as well as others” (p. 191). In my experience, these lessons are learned just as much outside the therapy room as within. It was confusing when I was taught to trust my clinical intuition with clients, yet asked to silence myself with my mental health colleagues; when I was reminded to hold boundaries for and with my clients while at the same time watching my supervisors—overloaded with work—take on tasks outside their job scope simply because they were the only creative arts therapists on their teams. Johnson (1994) proposed that shame dynamics might be at play in the lack of consistent mentoring within the field. Just as we can be influenced by our client’s affect, if our supervisors and mentors are affected by an underlying professional shame, might those of us new to the field absorb some of those feelings?

I find myself nervous asking that question, that it might be published in this very blog. In fact, writing this post in general has brought up some anxiety. I wonder: How do I ask these questions without fear of hurting or betraying any mentor I have had in this field? I know that some of those who have helped me along the way will support this line of questioning but I fear that I may be seen as ungrateful or out of place. I only just graduated and am finally understanding what others meant about the safety of being a student. I recently attended my first NADTA conference as a “professional” and I often felt unsure of where I fit. I was not back as a student, where my questioning was encouraged and my status was a safety net for exploration, nor was I a seasoned (or even licensed) therapist with a career. I was in no man’s land. How does someone new to our small field challenge and ask these questions when we are not sure how or when we will even get hired?

The shame I carry personally and the shame passed down to me in school became especially evident in the job search. Initially, I continued to utilize the spiel I learned as a student, explaining to everyone I met what a drama therapist does. I was applying for jobs titled “Activity Therapist,” “Recreation Specialist,” and “Waiver Service Provider.” My peers and I were constantly shifting the description of our skills in an attempt to fit preconceived notions of “therapist” for positions with supervisors who would not accept that we had earned a Master’s in psychotherapy with academically rigorous standards of theory and research. We were defeated by our “creative arts” title before we could even interview and prove our skills and knowledge. One job opportunity I found claimed to be enthusiastic about bringing a creative arts therapist on board but then listed “current driver’s license” as more vital to the job than “ability to serve as a positive role model to children.” Both requests seemed odd for a therapist position.

I finally landed a job with a company that employs and was founded by creative arts therapists. The job posting was explicitly for “Drama Therapist.” Seeing that title in and of itself felt supportive. This spring there will be two drama therapy interns working under two different RDTs in the organization. While I will not be their direct supervisor, I know that they will be shadowing some of my groups, watching how I work with clients, and potentially comparing their professional identity to mine. It is what I did when I was an intern. It is what I still do as I find my footing in this new career. It has me wondering: What kind of impressions will I leave on them? Will they inherit any of my professional shame?

Johnson (1994) called for creative arts therapists to collaborate and join together. Irwin (1986) spoke of the value of a guide who has journeyed upon a similar road as the traveler they lead. In reflection, I think my mentors not only imparted pieces of professional shame, but also gave me the tools to investigate it. The reason I question it now is because of the strength of those who came before me and fought their own battles in this field. I ask myself: How can I ensure that I am a part of drama therapy’s strength—not fear—and empowerment—not shame? I hunger for continued mentorship and hope to mentor others as I grow and learn. I worry that the farther away from school I get the shorter my mentor list will become and the easier it will be to slip into rigid and paranoid patterns of professional shame.

As I write this post I am very aware of the differences I feel between my role as student and my role as novice clinician. As a student, I was often encouraged to work and explore in a process—not product—oriented fashion. I was asked to create more questions than answers, to investigate myself, my practice, my clients with a postmodern lens that welcomed varying interpretations and experiences. But as a novice clinician I am asked for product. I am asked to provide solutions, explain behavior, and deliver concrete results as a means to prove my worth and efficacy. This is pressure enough in a career situation, but I find myself worried that it extends into my drama therapy community as well. Will I be accepted if I admit to not knowing the answers? Will I be guided if I acknowledge I don’t always know the way? Will I be answered if I ask questions without providing definite solutions? This is my call to the field: Can we hold each other in the liminal space? Can we admit to not knowing the answers and still commit to exploring them together? That is what I need in mentorship and support. Someone to walk the path with me, to dive into the unknown, and to sit in the muck because answers are not the same as solutions. Solutions are not always available in the difficult work that we do.

This post then, is me heeding the calls of Johnson (1994) and Irwin (1986). I am speaking up. I am seeking mentorship and support. I am asking for more dialogue about shame in our field. I am listening for the response and wondering who can sit in it with me.

 

burchd

Darci Burch, MA, LCAT-P, is a recent graduate of New York University and is currently working in New York City for ENACT, a non-profit organization teaching social emotional skills to young people in public schools. She is interested in continuing her thesis research on dissociation in the therapist/client relationship and looks forward to continuing her work acting and writing.

 

References:

Irwin, E. C. (1986). On being and becoming a therapist. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 13, 191-195.

Johnson, D. R. (1994). Shame dynamics among creative arts therapists. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 21(3), 173-178.

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

When ‘What’s Next?’ is the Question

By Renée Pitre, MA, RDT

I began my drama therapy career as an intern: working for little money in a foreign country, learning an ‘often viewed as marginal’ method of drama therapy, engaging in intensive trauma-informed psychotherapy practice with a full caseload, and running groups in local schools. Fresh out of graduate school, unsure of how to really be a drama therapist and headed to the Post Traumatic Stress Center (PTSC) in New Haven, CT, I was not ready for what lay ahead. How do I diagnose someone accurately? How do I use these various drama therapy tools that I spent two years learning? How? When? Why? How do I speak about my practice – wait – how do I even practice? Let’s just say I had a lot of questions. I am sure (well, I hope!) others can relate.

The beauty of being an intern is just that: you are hired (sometimes for pay, sometimes not) to learn and to gain work experience. Everyone knows you don’t know what you are doing (whew!) and they don’t expect you to get it right. At least for a while. And while you have to do some odd jobs, you have the chance to learn some very valuable things at the same time. If you are open to it, that is.

Which I’d like to say I was. I learned how to do Developmental Transformations (DvT), an intense trauma model of psychotherapy, and I also learned how to throw pottery. Yes, I can make real things too! But most of all, I learned a lot about myself. The catalyst for this was an internship site that welcomed the huge task of training and mentoring me.

This is rare. I know. Trust me, I do. But it has also been the key to unlocking my passion for training new career therapists. During my internship I had the opportunity to learn more intensely about drama therapy (primarily DvT), I had supervision and training not just from drama therapists but also psychologists, psychiatrists, and very talented business administrators, and I was welcomed into the just-forming PTSC drama therapy team.

Continue reading

Harm and Repair in the Playspace

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.

Continue reading