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Key Principles


A typical drama therapy session begins with a “Check-in” in which clients share how they are currently feeling. This provides important information to the drama therapist about how to lead the group that day, what issues are ready to be worked on, and what resistances will need to be worked past to get the group to function openly and smoothly. Next, the “Warm-up” gets everyone focused on each other and on being in the “here and now.” A warm-up also loosens muscles that may be used in activities later in the session so no one gets hurt and prepares imaginations so everyone is ready to work together creatively and safely. Each session usually has at least one major drama therapy activity that is participated in and then discussed by the group. Those who have taken on a role need to “de-role” afterwards in order to reconnect with themselves. The group ends with a closure activity: a game, a ritual, a review of the session, or a song.

Renee Emunah (1994) has identified five phases through which most drama therapy groups progress. Her Five Phase Model parallels established wisdom from group dynamics on how successful groups form and grow. The first phase is Dramatic Play where the group gets to know each other and the therapist through playing together to develop trust, group cohesion, and basic relationship skills. Then they move on to the Scenework phase where they continue playing, but begin focusing on developing a lot of the dramatic skills they will need as they continue in treatment. All humans develop basic dramatic skills at the ages of 3-5, a time when they naturally begin learning about the world around them through imitation and dramatic play. As they grow older and begin school, children are encouraged to develop their abstract reasoning skills and use them to the exclusion of hands-on forms of learning. However, drama is like riding a bike. You never forget how to do it. The Dramatic Play and Scenework Stages allow clients to get back in touch with those skills and feel competent and confident using them again.

Phase Three focuses on Role Play, exploring issues through fictional means. Perhaps the group acts out a generic family conflict or a familiar character from a fairy tale or legend that goes through a crisis or challenge shared by group members. When the group is ready, they can move on to Phase Four: Culminating Enactments, where personal issues are acted out directly through psychodrama or autobiographical performance.

The final phase is Dramatic Ritual, which usually involves closure to the work of the group. This might be the sharing of a public performance that has been created by the group or the sharing of a private ritual within the group or an evaluation session where clients can review what they’ve learned, how they’ve changed, and where they can say goodbye and thanks to the people in the group who have helped them and to whom they have become close.

Not every drama therapy group works its way through all five phases. Some groups aren’t together long enough to develop the skills and trust to reach the Culminating Enactment phase. This is especially true in this day of limited reimbursement by health insurance for mental health services.

Age and developmental level makes a different, too. Children often get the full benefit of emotional healing through play and fictional work alone, so there’s no need to move on to some of the later stages. Some adult groups dealing with severe trauma or anger or who are extremely immature may not work through their trust issues enough to move on to Phase Four. That doesn’t mean that they have “failed” as a drama group; it means they needed more time to heal at one particular emotional developmental level, perhaps because their wounds in that area were very deep.

While drama therapy techniques may differ from therapist to therapist or from session to session, there are concepts which are common to all forms. The first is using metaphor through action. Behaviors, problems, and emotions can be represented metaphorically, allowing for symbolic understanding. A certain set of behaviors can be looked at as a “role,” such as the role of mother, victim, student, or hero. These roles can be played out in a dramatic situation, leading to a greater understanding of the role as helpful or harmful, safe or dangerous. An emotion can be represented with a metaphorical image: anger displayed as a volcano, an exploding bomb, or a smoldering fire. These images can be dramatized, allowing the client more insight into the qualities of the emotion and how it functions positively or negatively in his/her life.

Concrete embodiment allows the abstract to become concrete through the client’s body. We all experience life first through our senses and our bodies, and only later, at older ages, through language and abstract thoughts. Acting out an idea or an experience allows it to become “more real” so it can be dealt with in fact rather than in the abstract, through feeling rather than only through thought, in the moment rather than through past or future projection. Embodiment allows clients to “experience” or “re-experience” in order to learn, to practice new behaviors, or to experiment with how to change old behaviors. This is particularly important for clients who are kinesthetic or visual learners (estimated to be at least two thirds of the population).

Distancing allows the therapist to change the degree to which the role being played is like you symbolically or like you actually. Children intuitively use distancing to protect themselves from shame and guilt in play by acting out characters similar to them, but not them. Pretending to be Gretel, abandoned in the forest by her mother and father, allows a child to explore her feelings of being punished or emotionally abandoned by her parents or a significant adult in her life.

Playing a role quite different from oneself often feels more comfortable than playing oneself directly. In some cases an experience is too “close” to us for us to see our part in it. We need to take a step back (metaphorically speaking) and see the experience in a wider context: to see the forest in order to see the tree.

Sometimes a situation is too emotional or intense for a client to encounter in therapy without becoming overwhelmed emotionally. More distance, through fictionalizing a situation, using a metaphor to represent the problem, or using a technique like puppets, removes the situation a step from flesh and blood reality and can help a client work on the issues without falling apart. On the other hand, some clients will create so much intellectual distance from an issue that they can’t get in touch with their feelings (see the story of Henry later). They need less fiction and more emotional involvement to be able to face the issue honestly and directly.

Certain drama therapy techniques tend to create more distance and others tend to create less distance. For example, psychodrama, which deals directly with the personal, nonfiction history of the client, is less distanced. Puppets, theatre games, and improvising fictional characters are more distanced. Some techniques can go either way, depending on how they are used. The performance of an autobiographical or self-relevatory play is less distanced than performance of a play about fictional characters. Role play can be very close to oneself or distanced, depending on the role being portrayed. (A note here: as every actor knows, the emotions in any role can feel very real while the role is being portrayed!)

Dramatic Projection is akin to concrete embodiment and employs metaphor. It is the ability to take an idea or an emotion that is within the client and project it outside to be shown or acted out in the drama therapy session. A client’s difficulty asking for help (an internal problem) can be dramatized in a scene with other members of the group, with puppets, or through masks, so the problem becomes an external problem which can be seen, played with, and shared by the therapist and the group.

The creation of Transitional Space is an important component in many therapeutic and learning environments, but it is essential in drama therapy. Transitional space is the imaginary world that is created when we play or imagine together in a safe, trusting situation. It is a timeless space in which anything we can imagine can exist: dragons can be vanquished, castles can be built, raging rivers can be crossed, acceptance and love can be experienced. Transitional space is the place where change and healing can happen because it is potential space, a magic play space, Stanislavksy’s “Magic If.” It is created jointly by the therapist and the clients playing together and believing in the possible: that anything can happen.

Incorporating the other Arts. Drama therapists use music, movement, song, dance, poetry, writing, drawing, sculpture, mask making, puppetry, and other arts with their drama therapy activities. Just as the theatre is a crossroads where all the arts come together, drama therapy allows all the arts to meet and work together, too. Starting with writing and then enacting the story or poem or beginning with drawing and then embodying the art through movement, body sculpting, or drama is a natural way to progress. This is one reason drama therapists are required to have training in the other creative arts therapies and why many drama therapists have credentials in one of the other arts therapy modalities.

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