Author: Rachel Couture, MA Drama Therapy, Creative Art Therapist, Child Program, Chicago
“I’ve written the best play in the world” I eagerly tell the 12 patients sitting in a circle around me. “It’s won multiple awards, been internationally recognized, and published in over 100 languages.” The group’s reactions are a mix of disbelief and curiosity. “We’re going to read it here today… but it only has two words… yes and no.” The participants let out a sigh and begin to laugh.
As a drama therapist, I understand that to convince skeptical teens to participate in an activity centered around vulnerability, acting, and sharing emotions – I better have a good hook. One of my favorite parts about being a drama therapist is seeing a group’s skepticism transform into excitement and engagement. Once a participant begins to dive into this work, the tools used in group act as a sort of shield to protect participants. They are allowed to act in ways they would not normally, though under the guise of “just acting.” A mask becomes a shield, a script becomes a helpful crutch, and other group members serve as witnesses w this process – providing valuable peer feedback and discussion.
In a drama therapy group, kids and teens get the opportunity to try on different life roles without commitment or consequence, allowing for an environment that encourages risk taking and exploration. The pressure placed upon adolescents and children to be a certain kind of person, whether that be pressure from parents, school, or culture, may be overwhelming. When playing with these identities in a contained, safe-enough environment such as a drama therapy group, the reward is placed over risk. Under the guise of drama and acting, one is offered a protective shield from the real world while confronting inner struggles that one may not have had the opportunity to explore had there not been drama. Additionally, an adolescent’s body can be transformed into an alternative for spoken language when working with tools and activities such as masks, role-playing, improv, mirrors, puppets and more. In these groups, one’s body serves as a priceless tool to express oneself without needing to find the correct words. Through an embodied experience stories can come to life nonverbally, allowing expression for all.
Drama and theatre facilitate the teaching of many skills that adolescents may be lacking, such as impulse control and interpersonal skills. When acting, an individual will take on a role in which they portray, and subsequently feel the feelings of a character. This suggests that acting fosters empathy, something theatre theorists have argued over for years1. Meanwhile, developmental psychologists agree that imitation and embodiment are critical for the growth of empathy and theory of mind found that elementary school students that received 10 months of acting training showed increases in self-rated dispositional empathy2. When high school students received a similar but more in-depth training, they also rated themselves as having higher levels of dispositional empathy when compared to the non-actor group.
At Compass, emphasis is placed on children and adolescents learning and practicing various Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills. Drama gives our patients an opportunity to practice skills in a fun, accessible way without judgement. Patients at Compass do this by participating in improvisation, narrative writing, role-playing, perspective-taking, and other creative outlets. For some patients, participating in a drama therapy group may be the first time they are allowed to make mistakes without consequences, share inner experiences through creativity, and relate with peers over similar issues appropriately. The structure of Compass’ partial hospitalization program allows for increased opportunity to experience and practice these skills. Typically, activities are tailored to whichever CBT or DBT skill has been taught each day, leaving room for patients to make real time connections with their experience and learning. Ultimately, drama and other creative arts therapies broaden the opportunities children and adolescents have to address emotions, make connections, and modify behavior.
Want to learn more about PHP/IOP programming in general? Check out our resource page, What is PHP/IOP?
Further Reading in this series: Creative Arts & Experiential Therapies 101
- Goldstein & Winner, 2012
- Jackson, Brunet, Meltzoff, & Decety, 2006; Goldstein & Winner, 2012