What is Drama Therapy?

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 hospital and by social workers in community programs to teach clients social and emotional skills through performing in plays.  Later in the 70’s, these techniques were integrated with improvisation and process drama methods as the field emerged as a separate profession.

The focus in drama therapy is on helping individuals grow and heal by taking on and practicing new roles, by creating new stories, and by rehearsing new behaviors which can later be implemented in real life. 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. 

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, 2009), James Pennebaker (1995), Helga and Tony Noice et al (1999, 2004, 2008), and others are proving that participation in drama and other arts enhance physical and mental health.

Drama and psychology are both the study of human behavior: you could say they are two sides of the same coin. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect, 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 uses talking to treat clients 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 clients understand their thoughts and emotions better or to improve their behavior. However, unlike most types of therapy which rely purely on talking, drama therapy relies on taking action. This creates for the client an embodied, concrete experience of the issues being explored, making them easier to understand and change.

Because there are so many forms that drama, drama therapy is a very broad field, including many different approaches and techniques. The metaphor I like to use is to say there is a big “Drama Therapy Pie,” which can be cut into many smaller slices. The slices of the pie below represent only a few of the more well-known drama therapy approaches in order to provide a general idea of the variety available; it is not exhaustive.

Within the pie are two different directional continuums. The up to down continuum ranges from fictional enactments to ones which are more true-to-life. Fictional work (drama games, improvisation, role play, Sociodrama, Developmental Transformations, rituals, masks, puppets, and some types of performance) allows clients to pretend to be characters different from themselves. This can expand their role repertoires (the number of types of roles that can be accessed for use in real life) or can allow clients to explore a similar role to those they usually play under the guise of “not-me-but-someone-like-me.” Non-fictional work (Psychodrama, Playback Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed, ethnodrama, and autobiographical performance) allow clients to explore their lives directly. Clients need to have good ego strength to be able to do non-fiction work.

The left to right continuum ranges from presentational enactments (presented for an audience) to process-oriented ones (done just for the group). Methods like Playback Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed, and the performance of plays are presentation, while methods like drama games, improvisation, role play, Developmental Transformations, Sociodrama, and Psychodrama are process-oriented. Other methods, such as puppets, masks, rituals, can be used as part of performance or as process techniques within a therapy session.

Imagine that underneath the pie is a plate. That plate represents Renee Emunah’s Five Phase Model of Drama Therapy (1994), which guides the growth and process of a drama group from the time they start as complete strangers to the time they end their work together. Different phases pull activities from different slices of the pie.

Drama therapy is primarily conducted in groups, although there are practitioners who use it in individual, couples, or family practice. Drama therapy can be found in a wide variety of settings, used with many kinds of clients. Most clients who benefit from talk therapy can benefit from drama therapy and some populations who have difficulty verbalizing, like individuals with autistic spectrum disorders or people recovering from trauma respond well to drama therapy, too.

For some populations, the action methods of drama therapy are more effective. Recovering substance abusers are notorious for being disconnected from their feelings, for making up endless excuses (called rationalizations) for their behavior, and for “being in denial” about their addiction and addictive behaviors. Drama therapy bypasses the excuses and denial, getting right to the maladaptive behavior. Other types of groups — for instance, nonverbal clients or children – who aren’t good candidates for verbal therapy – can often participate successfully in drama, because they can show, rather than tell, how they feel.

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. 

See Key Principles and Applications for more.

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