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Becoming a Drama Therapist

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Most drama therapists begin their training in theatre at the BA, MA, MFA or Ph.D. level and often work in professional or educational theatre before training in psychology and drama therapy at the MA level. In North America there are three graduate programs in drama therapy that have been approved by the North American Drama Therapy Association: New York University (NYU) in New York City, California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, California, and Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Students in these programs study for two years full time, taking courses in drama therapy, psychology, psychotherapy, ethics, and research, and complete 800 hours of internship using drama therapy with at least two different populations of clients.  There are 2 programs that should be approved in the next year or so: one at Antioch University in Seattle, WA and one at Lesley University in the Boston, Massachusetts area.

People who already have or are working on Masters or Ph.D. degrees in theatre or mental health, such as counseling, social work, speech pathology, or special education can pursue Alternative Training in drama therapy. Alternative Training is equivalent to the MA approved programs and allows students to create individualized programs around a specialty. This program was put in place in the late 1990's by NADTA. It is not an easier way of becoming a drama therapist; however, it can be a more flexible way for people who have jobs and families and can’t move to the cities the current approved programs are in or for individuals who have already have earned advanced degrees.

Alternative Training must be overseen by a Board Certified Trainer (BCT). This is a Registered Drama Therapist who has been approved to mentor, guide, and train drama therapy students. The BCT helps the student plan out a yearly learning contract and serves as an academic advisor.

Registry: The Professional Credential

RDT (Registered Drama Therapist) is the credential that is nationally recognized in the United States and Canada as the professional designation for drama therapists. Registry is a peer review of education, training, and experience qualifications.

The clearest way to explain registry as a credentialing system is to compare it with the medieval guild system. If a young boy in 12th century France wanted to be a weaver, first, he would train as an Apprentice to a Master Weaver. When his training was completed and he passed his basic proficiency tests, he became a Journeyman. As a Journeyman, he worked in the field at a higher level of responsibility, pay, and respect. After a certain number of years, during which the Journeyman had gained practice and expertise, he could apply to join the Guild as a Master Weaver. The Guild members would review the Journeyman's qualifications and either vote him into the guild as a peer or not (in which case, he would remain a Journeyman until he achieved the appropriate level of skills).

In terms of drama therapy, a student (apprentice) completes the educational and training necessary to understand how to practice drama therapy responsibly and ethically, earning either an MA in drama therapy or completing the Alternative Training Program. Then the journeyman level practitioner works for a minimum of 1,500 hours as a professional drama therapist (for the purposes of comparison, social workers typically work for 2,000 before they can apply for licensure). In addition, all potential applicants for registry must at some point have completed a minimum of 500 hours of theatre experience. The theatre experience can be educational, professional, or via community theatre. A BA or MA degree in theatre alone constitutes much more than 500 hours of theatre, so most drama therapy practitioners have already completed this requirement before they enter the field as trainees. When all of these basic, educational and professional requirements have been met, registry can be applied for.

Peer review or registry is different from certification or licensure, the professional credentials in certain other fields. Public school teachers, for example, must be certified and/or licensed within the state in which they teach. Certification guarantees school employers that the teacher applying for the job has the education and training to teach whatever subject/age the certification covers. In many states teachers must also pass a test to be certified. Teacher certification is controlled separately by each state's Board of Education or Board of Regents. Some standards are set by the state legislature and others are set by the Board. Teacher certification is important because it protects students, employers, and, ultimately, the public.

Social workers or counselors must be licensed within the state in which they practice. Licensure guarantees potential employers and clients that the therapist has the minimum required education, training, and experience in order to adequately do his/her job. Teachers pay for their certification and must renew it every few years. Licensed social workers and counselors must do the same. Licensure for therapists is set up separately by each state through legislation passed by the state legislature and then regulated and administered by a mental health board.

Currently, registry is the only recognized professional credential for drama therapists in the United States and Canada; there is no licensure for the title "Drama Therapist.” New York State and Wisconsin have passed licensure laws that include creative arts therapists, among them drama therapists. The law in New York took a coalition of creative arts therapists and counselors twenty years of organizing and lobbying to get passed.

To learn more about the field of drama therapy, an excellent place to start with these resources: