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Saturday April 30 , 2016
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What is Drama Therapy?

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Drama therapy applies techniques from theatre to the process of psychotherapeutic healing. Beginning in the early 20th century drama was used by occupational therapists in hospitals and by social workers in community programs to each clients social and emotional skills through performing in plays.  The field began to integrate improvisation and process drama methods and emerged as a separate profession in the 1970's. The focus in drama therapy is on helping individuals grow and heal by taking on and practicing new roles, by creating new stories through action, and by rehearsing new behaviors which can later be implemented in real life.

While much drama therapy aims at helping people who are in therapy, drama therapists have extended their applications beyond clinical contexts to enrich the lives of at-risk individuals, to prevent problems, and to enhance wellness of healthy people. Many of the skills for such extensions require a measure of training psychological training as well as a strong basis in theatre.

Drama and therapy have been natural partners for at least the last 350 centuries! Archeological evidence suggests that early humans began to make art paintings, sculpture, music, dance, and drama between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago at the same time they became capable of symbolic, metaphoric thought. As part of this creative explosion, shamans incorporated the arts into their religious and healing practices. Dance and drama, in particular, were used in rites to create sympathetic and contagious magic and to embody myths and rituals. That the arts have been connected to healing and meaning-making since their origins, shows how vitally important they are to health and to civilization. In fact, recent scientific research by Gene Cohen (2005), James Pennebaker (1995), Helga and Tony Noice (2004), and others is proving that participation in drama and other arts enhance physical and mental health.

Drama and psychology are both the study of human behavior - two sides of the same coin. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo acknowledges this when he says, "Drama, psychology, and therapy share a basic goal of trying to find what is essential about human nature and try to use that knowledge to improve the quality of individual and collective life.  When drama is good, it transmits knowledge about what is essential about people and between people" (Zimbardo, 1986).  Psychology studies thoughts, emotions and behavior; drama actively analyzes and presents the thoughts, emotions and behavior of characters for an audience to see and understand. Much of dramatic literature addresses the psychological, social, and cultural conditions of humanity and, thus, serves as a natural vehicle for actually helping real people with problems more consciously address their problems.


Just as psychotherapy treats people who have difficulties with their thoughts, emotions and behavior, drama therapy uses drama processes (games, improvisation, storytelling, role play) and products (puppets, masks, plays/performances) to help people understand their thoughts and emotions better or to improve their behavior. However, unlike most types of therapy which rely purely on talking (psychoanalysis was, after all, called “the talking cure”), drama therapy relies on taking action on doing things!

The drama therapist is trained in four general areas: drama/theatre, general and abnormal psychology, psychotherapy, and drama therapy. Each of these categories involves a number of required classes, many of them experiential, where one learns by doing, practicing, getting supervisory feedback, and refining skills. In the end, the drama therapist is able to facilitate the client’s experience in a way that keeps the client emotionally and physically safe while the client benefits from the dramatic process.

Because there are so many forms that drama can take, drama therapy can be considered a very broad field. The metaphor I like to use with my students is to say there is a very big “Drama Therapy Pie” which can be cut into many smaller slices:

The Drama Therapy Pie

Depending on the goals and needs of the client, the drama therapist chooses a method (or several) that will achieve the desired combination of understanding, emotional release, and learning of new behavior. Some methods, such as drama games, improvisation, role play, developmental transformations, sociodrama and psychodrama are very process-oriented and unscripted. The work is done within the therapy session and not presented to an audience. Other methods, such as Playback Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed, and the performance of plays are more formal and presentational, involving an audience. Puppets, masks, and rituals can be used as part of performance or as process techniques within a therapy session.

Certain techniques: drama games, improvisation, role play, sociodrama, developmental transformations, rituals, masks, puppets and some types of performances involve fictional work. The client pretends to be a character different from him or herself. This can expand the client’s role repertoire (or the number of types of roles that can be accessed for use in real life) or it can allow the client to explore a similar role to one he or she plays, but under the guise of “not-me-but-someone-like-me.” Other techniques, such as Psychodrama, Therapeutic Spiral Model, Playback Theatre, Theater of the Oppressed and autobiographical performances, allow the client to explore his or her life directly. Clients need to have good ego strength to be able to do this kind of non-fiction work because it requires an honest, searching look at oneself.


Most drama therapists come from the world of theatre. They are individuals who realize the healing power of drama through therapeutic experiences they’ve had in their education or career and want to facilitate change and growth in others. Many recall that in college they were torn between majoring in psychology or theatre and decided to follow the theatre path. They want to use drama to help others in a direct way or to use theatre as a social change agent, rather than only as entertainment or education.

A smaller percentage of drama therapists come from the field of therapy. They have a Masters or Ph.D. degree in social work, psychology, or counseling and realize that talk therapy isn’t enough; they want to use hands on, creative ways of exploring problems and practicing behavior changes with clients. Most have been involved in educational or community theater for many years; some have little or no theatre experience.

© Copyright Sally D. Bailey, Registered Drama Therapist. All Rights Reserved.