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So, What Is Drama Therapy?

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked as a drama therapist is: “So, what is drama therapy?” And the answer to this most basic question is sometimes challenging to find words for. I think that this very conundrum gives a clue to what is fundamental to all arts therapies: often the ways in which we work is beyond words. Often rather than words, we invite creative expression, processing and integration to your experiences, emotions and stories. Despite this, there are many words that can describe an answer to this deceptively complex question. I’ll use this article to share a few of them.


Arts therapies (drama, music, art and dance/movement therapy) are all reputable and powerful approaches to psychotherapy, and registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. The training processes of arts therapists are rigorous and at Masters level, with post-MA clinical internship necessary to complete the qualification. All of the arts therapy training is now available in South Africa, except for dance/movement therapy (and this will hopefully be available soon).


Arts therapists work in various settings, offering individual and group therapy for children, adolescents and adults. Some places arts therapists work in South Africa are psychiatric hospitals, schools, NGOs, community centres and clinics, prisons, children’s homes and in private practice. Our scope of practice is to work with psychotherapeutic and mental health needs. Some common reasons why clients seek us are when they are needing support with: grief and bereavement, life or family transitions, anxiety, social isolation, low self-esteem, conflict at home or school, identity development, the impact of trauma, challenges related to mood, struggles with relationships and communication, or building emotion regulation capacity.


When we look at drama therapy specifically, it intentionally uses and integrates all the ingredients that make up this art form - for therapeutic processes. Drama and theatre traditions have a long and rich history across cultures. Within this history is evidence that people have used these very ingredients of drama for healing, over generations. Think about gathering around a fire to enact stories that strengthen community spirit and identity, the music and poetry shared at burial rituals that support the grieving process, and the calm and strengthened attachment that comes over children when parents sing them lullabies and tell them bedtime stories… These are the anthropological and ancient roots that drama therapy has blossomed from.


So, what is drama therapy?


Drama therapy is an active, embodied and creative approach to psychotherapy. It is firmly focussed on the process of creativity rather than the product. While approaches differ from therapist to therapist, mine is firmly integrative - using the creative mode best suited to my clients’ process and needs at that time. After all - the divisions between music, movement, art, drama are all rather arbitrary. How can you make music without also moving your body to its rhythms?


At its heart, drama therapy uses:


  • The symbolic capacity of storytelling and story-making, art-making, play, improvisation and metaphor. We work with existing stories or myths based on themes linked to the client's therapeutic process, and clients make their own metaphorical stories too, in order to work through what they’re needing to. Metaphor underlies everything in drama therapy and allows a new approach, perspective and a depth of engagement. This helps the expression and communication of the unconscious, feelings, and internal and relational patterns - often in ways that are beyond words.

  • The interpersonal and relational processes found within play. Here, you can practise being in relationships and working through social dynamics, within a playful and non-judgemental environment.

  • The experiential learning that comes with role play and embodiment. We aren’t limited to cerebral engagement - we use our bodies to experiment with real-time, real-life engagement with the material. We can also explore new roles - expanding the ways of being that are available to us. From here, we can access new ways of knowing and new insights.

  • Symbol, metaphor and projective processes (sand tray, object-play, creative writing, art-making, masks) to create distance from therapeutic material. This distance helps with psychological safety, as well as building perspectives and insight: because you are slightly further away from the therapeutic content (looking at it through metaphorical story, for example), you can see it in a slightly different way.

  • The validation of having your journey and creativity witnessed in a warm, accepting, empathic way - by both your therapist and yourself.

  • The way that imagination and creativity allow us to find connection with the essence and heart of an experience, without being caught up in our heads.

  • The knowledge and memories of the body that are accessed through movement, music, body awareness and breathwork.

  • Reflection to make links and connections between what occurred in the creative process, and what meaning this holds for your life.


And so, I hope this gives you the beginnings of an answer to the question of “What is drama therapy?” It is a welcoming way to bring curiosity, growth and support to those aspects of life that may feel rigid, overwhelming or isolating. And in our current jarring world, there can never be enough avenues of support. May you find many that are holistic and meaningful for you.


Jessica Mayson is a HPCSA-registered drama therapist working in Cape Town, South Africa. She works in schools, NGOs, and private practice with children, teens and adults. She loves being constantly surprised by the power of the arts therapies. For more information or to contact her, visit her website: www.jessicamayson.com


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