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Exploring the denied, the terrifying, the distressing, the locked away. Finding powerful solutions to debilitating situations. Discovering creative ways to resolve trauma and emerging from shut down emotions stronger and more at peace with yourself and life.
— Maxine Donnellan, drama therapist

What is Drama Therapy?

Drama therapy is a non-threatening, therapeutic technique intended to aid self discovery, exploration and understanding of "self" and others through vocal and curative means. It is a paramedical profession closely linked to psychodrama and psychotherapy.

Drama therapy entails the use of drama, games, role play, counselling, discussion, improvisation, masks, story-telling, music and movement. The focus is not on the aesthetic merits of the artwork, but on the therapeutic process, that is, clients' involvement in the work. It's a symbolic language and provides access to catharsis, unacknowledged feelings and means of integrating them into the personality.

"Difficult", or"unacceptable" feelings can be expressed in a safe, non-threatening way. It can be easier for a person to relate to a therapist through an art form which, as a personal statement, can provide a focus for discussion and self-evaluation.

Drama therapy can build up the strengths and reserves of clients so they can raise their self-esteem and liberate their creative potential.

Who does it help?

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the spectrum of client needs is wide. Drama therapy can assist in many cases where the quality of life is impaired whether by mental, emotional or social disturbance or deprivation.

Mental illness, physical disablement, learning difficulties, limited communications, visual and/or hearing impairment, problems associated with stress, anger management, conflict resolution, bereavement, AIDS, incest, emotional and behavioural difficulties or with marital and family difficulties, all may be referred for drama therapy.

Most drama therapists work with small groups, but one-to-one treatment is sometimes more appropriate. Within an institution or organisation, drama therapists can make a valuable contribution to staff training, supervision or on-going group work.

Drama therapy is about enhancing the personal potency of the individual. As with all therapies, sessions are treated with great respect and confidentiality.

What are the aims?

  1. Cognitive aims: looking for understanding and insight.
  2. Effective aims: concerning values and feelings.
  3. Aesthetic aims: concerned with sensation, form and appreciation.
  4. Psychomotor aims: concerning body image and fluency of movement.
  5. Theraputic aims: concerning the development of healthy functions and a change in behaviour or consciousness.
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How do Drama Therapists Work?

There are three main approaches to drama therapy:

  • Creative Expressive:

The basis here is that people can get in touch with the healthy areas of themselves (although they may also have problems) and find expression through drama in many different forms.

Case Example:

A Highly intelligent young woman, whom we shall call Beth, was referred for drama therapy after she suffered physical and emotional collapse. Previously she had spent two years in and out of a psychiatric hospital. During this time it had been established that she suffered from social phobia, agoraphobia, denial, depersonalisation and depression.

She was incapable of connecting with her feelings, she couldn't taste food, or feel emotions. She felt utterly numbed.

Texts and poetry provided Beth with strong boundaries but gave her impetus to explore her emotions through the metaphor of characters. Drama gave her permission to tolerate the fantasy and reality of her own mind. By expressing the feelings of fictitious characters she found a safe way to begin to reconnect with her own emotions.

Meditation and "visualisations" helped put her back in touch with her body and slowly her self-awareness returned.

After a year, Beth's confidence and self-esteem had improved vastly, her sense of taste had returned and she was beginning to know that it was safe to have emotions. Eventually she returned to university where she completed her honours programme.

  • Interpersonal Task Centre:

Here, the drama therapists work with people who need to modify, or are lacking in, certain aspects of behaviour.

Therefore specific programmes will be developed in order to achieve changes, modifications and new skills.

Case Example:

  • A middle-aged IHC woman, Joan, had great difficulty expressing her anger with some of the management decisions which she saw as detrimental to her quality of life. Joan didn't have the self-confidence to confront management. Instead, she spent hours crying, interspersed with tantrums and short periods of intense depression. The task of the group was to access alternative options for dealing with her anger. Firstly dramatic improvisation was employed so that she could creatively off-load some of her frustration and anger. She improvised a court scene, where she called on God to execute justice. All those who'd upset her she banished to a lifetime down the toilet. Once this was completed she was able to calmly assess her situation and explore realistic options. With role play, she improvised meeting with management and putting her point of view across. Having gained the confidence within the drama therapy group she eventually confronted the management. Her self-esteem was vastly improved as she'd moved from over-identifying with the "oppressed victim" with no option to an empowered woman with many.
  • There are many ways to work with people who have been raped. One effective session used puppets. The client had previously been unable to deal with the rape and had gone into total denial. She had suppressed the ordeal. The side effects were crippling and beginning to have serious effects on her life. She suffered from anxiety, panic attacks and short periods of catatonia. She became self abusive and bulimic. Al this was to do with feelings of worthlessness. and self-hate generated by the rape. It was imperative that a way be found that wasn't too threatening but could enable her to face what had happened in order for her to recover from the effects. The session with puppets began her healing process. The humour and "distance" provided by their medium gave her a way of dealing with the trauma. Using puppets and telling a story made her inner terror seem smaller and accessible, so she felt she could do something about her situation. First she used one puppet to tell the story in a "once upon a time" style. Puppets were chosen to represent all the people associated with the event. The first scene depicted the action as it took place in real life. She chose particularly ugly puppets to represent her persecutors. The second scene was based on fiction and was around what she would like to do to her tormentors. She took great delight in seeking retribution, blowing up, bombing and seeking total vengeance. The process allowed her to reclaim some of her lost power. It gave her access to her feelings which were then dealt with, with support and empathy. Naturally, one session wasn't the "heal all". However, subsequent sessions helped her to purge more of the poison from her psyche (painting emotions, role play, etc). With her new insights, her symptoms slowly disappeared as she gained a new self-esteem and self-love. The rape is now an ugly memory, not an active force which dominates and controls her present life.
  • Psychotherapeutic or Insight Approach:

Dreams and creative expression are seen as ways in which the unconscious can be made manifest. The focus is on unconscious and latent material that is preventing individuals from healthy emotional functioning.

Drama therapy really comes into its own when working with people who are unable to communicate effectively due to the trauma they have experienced. Creative techniques provide the safety necessary for fully explaining and releasing the pain within. Abused children can often not access the words to share their experiences because of guilt, fear and complete confusion. In these cases, creative play, incorporating mask making, story-telling and puppets, can open the door to their inner world in a safe, fun, non-threatening, child-appropriate way,

Drama therapy encourages spontaneous self-expression and, when "words are not enough", it allows is to express, explore, understand and accept ourselves in a non-threatening, fun-creative way.

Drama therapy is a useful methodology when working with people who need basic coping skills on a day to day level. it is useful for conflict resolution, anger management, self-empowerment - self-esteem, coping strategies, and depression. It simplifies and makes accessible the complexities of the personality so people have the tools necessary to cope more effectively with their lives, and is a useful way to explore, understand and come to terms with yourself. Old self-limiting behaviours can be changed as it is an exciting way for potential to be realised. Drama therapy is a safe way to explore who you are and how to best be who you want to be.


If this sounds like something you, or someone you know may be interested in, please contact:

Maxine Donnellan BADth, RDth ADCA, LTCL, BA Hum. 

Clinical and Consultant Therapist

021 343 193