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Play It Through

What is dramatherapy?

As it is currently the first ever International Dramatherapy Week I thought I would do some, back to basics, blogging and look at what dramatherapy is.

Dramatherapy is the use of drama with a healing intent. But what is it?

Drama means Action or To Do.

The word drama can be understood in two ways:

  • an exaggerated version of reality- a break up or a car crash might be described as a drama – “you missed all the drama while you were on holiday”; this definition considers life itself as a drama
  • the lesson “drama” at schools meaning improvisation, acting, theatre or performance; this definition looks at the use of make believe to create or recreate events as if they were real.

We can see traces of these two uses of the word drama even in the early roots of the word:

‘Drama derives from the Greek word draien meaning ‘to do’ and so is associated with action, with doing and with something happening as a result of an action. ’ …

‘The word ‘theatre’ by contrast derives from a very different Greek word thatron, theaesthai meaning ‘to see’.’

Schrader, C. (2012). What is Ritual Theatre. In C. Schrader (Ed.), Ritual Theatre: The Power of Dramatic Ritual in Personal Development Groups and Clinical Practice (pp. 28-42). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publisher. Page 29-30

People often assume that dramatherapy must be the same as acting therapy. Sometimes it might be; there are approaches to dramatherapy which use play scripts to act out scenes which are in some way “like me” or perhaps “how I wish I could be”. Or versions where you write your own scene and perform it in self revelatory theatre, putting your words across in your way. There are other approaches which use improvisation, dramas which are made up on the spot as a one of exploration.

But these “drama lesson” versions of dramatherapy are not the whole picture. In another dramatherapy session you may not be using any of the drama lesson tools. Perhaps you will be:

  • listening to a story and then drawing your response to the themes
  • invited to select a postcard or object to represent a feeling or a person – if this sand tray represents your family home then which toys, stone or shells will you select to represent the different family members and where in the sand will you place them; who is buried under the sand at the corner and who is in the middle on top of a sand mountain?
  • Just talking.

But the doing is only one part of dramatherapy, the approaches used to explore the therapy themes.

Therapy means treatment intended to heal

Therapy is something intended to bring healing; usually this relates to the mind “psychotherapy” but sometimes it also relates to the body “physiotherapy”. There are also other types of therapy which do not seem to relate to this healing origin such as”beauty therapist” or “retail therapy”.

An even earlier origin comes from the Greek therapeuein which meant to minister indicating the role of the spiritual in the healing process. The origins of modern psychotherapy only dates back to Freud in the 1880’s (or the often forgotten Wilhelm Wundt from 1879). But the word therapy predates this and was associated with religious ministers, healers, Shaman and others with a spiritual aspect to their role. Some forms of modern psychology continue to acknowledge the spiritual aspect of healing while others priorities a more rational approach which discounts what can not be proven to be real.

One of the key aspects of modern psychotherapy and that original ministry of therapy was the relationship; unlike the modern notion of “retail therapy” where someone may make themselves feel better by embarking on a solo activity, the origins of therapy indicate a relationship between the healer and the one being healed.

Dramatherapy

So in its broadest definition, dramatherapy is a healing action. That healing action may be directed to the mind or psyche, or it may be directed to the physical body, or it may be directed towards spiritual well-being or to relationships.

Psyche (mind, thoughts, feelings)

Sometimes dramatherapy looks at thoughts and feelings. It may project those out of the head onto a creative medium – an image to represent the different feelings, a toy to hold the intensity of different thought processes, a movement to represent repetitive thoughts. A stream of consciousness may be acted out physically. A puppet show may recreate a memory of a particular time or place.

Body (senses, instincts, tensions)

As a doing therapy, dramatherapy will often focus on the body. Perhaps starting with deep breaths and a visualisation designed to regulate the parasympathetic nervous system and de-stress. An invitation to tune into the body sensations – where is tension held, which parts are numb, hot, cold or stiff. Using the movement of the body to engage with the therapy material through a felt sense.

Spirit (soul, spirituality, inner essence, balance, purpose)

What are the stories which give our life meaning? What is our life purpose? Can we engage with the wisdom of our true self? What guides us in life? What inspires us? Dramatherapy may explore these areas through mythology, engagement with nature, exploring dreams or using meditation.

Relationships (loved ones, friends, family, community, therapeutic relationship)

The dramatherapist journeys with you on your therapy journey. Sometimes as a guide suggesting a path you might take, sometimes a companion to be along side, sometimes as a companion to share or help relieve the heavy load which is carried on he journey.

If the therapy is for a group then the different members also support each other.

Our bodies are designed to regulate in relationships, being in contact with another person alleviates stress.

Any good psychotherapy should acknowledge that while this relationship is important, it is not a replacement for the client maintaining relationships in their life outside of the therapy time – what is practised in the session can hopefully be applied to other relationships.

Postscript on healing

We have talked about the origin of drama and therapy and concluded that dramatherapy aims to actively work towards healing. It is important to also consider the word healing as part of this.

Healing originates from the Old English hælan which means “to make whole”.

This wholeness will look different for different people. In some cases it will be finding a cure, moving from sickness to wellness either in mental health, physical health or spiritual health or repairing a relationship.

In other cases the making whole may look different, in cases of trauma it is not always possible to return to how the person felt before they experienced the trauma, but it may be possible to move towards a new kind of wholeness which incorporates post-traumatic growth.

Equally, for someone facing the end of their life, that making wholeness may mean coming to terms with the life and death cycle rather than finding a magic cure.

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