For the past two years I have been working as an Usher at a Major Theatre in San Francisco. When I first started, I knew that it was something that I was passionate about, and I was not sure what to expect. As a child, I remember going to see The Phantom of the Opera with my family. I was fairly young, around 8 or 9 but I remember there being a magic to the theatre that stuck with me. With that nostalgia from the past and my love for musical theatre, I started a new journey. Musical theatre for me, creates a space where I can step away from everything that I am dealing with and focus on another person’s story. Once the curtain goes up, the audience is immersed in the story that is being told. There is something special about watching the story develop right in front of you. As an audience member, you are given a first-hand opportunity to enter into another person’s life experience.
Theatre also creates a space for an individual to experience a wide range of emotions. When the show starts you are introduced to a story within a specific space and time. As the characters develop, the audience is introduced to both the internal and external struggles that are faced. It is interesting because while everyone in the audience is focusing on what is taking place on stage, each individual is having their own internal reactions based on many different factors. Some of these factors include their life experience, how they see themselves in relation to the people that are onstage or recognizing something that they want to be. There have been many times where I have begun to process events that have happened in my own life while watching a show on stage. There is something that is very therapeutic about being able to watch another person’s experience in real time.
Many different expressive arts can be used in a therapeutic capacity. This can include painting, drawing, sensory integration, music and drama therapy, among others. For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on drama therapy. Drama is a very practical therapeutic tool because it is something that anyone can do. There are many components that can make this therapeutic modality effective, one of the primary reasons is that it is an active and experimental form of interaction. The participant is able to set their comfort level and decide how much or how little they are willing to share. Acting provides a structure that creates a safe place for exploration. Approaching your own life through the lens of a character, can create an element of safety for the actor. It is very common for individuals to connect with emotions at a deeper level. Katherine Amsden a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) stated that, “Drama therapy is a more indirect approach that allows the person to deal with issues from a distance and helps manage defenses.” When a practice is self-directed, it is easier to create a space of safety. In many cases, one’s emotional experiences will come out within the character development. Katherine Amsden also stated, “He or she might write a play with other characters—working through them or using them to deal with personal issues or using puppets and other theater approaches.”
Drama therapy can also help individuals begin to work through trauma. Trauma is complex, and it impacts both the mind and the body. When we experience something traumatic, both the mind and body are in need of healing. As a survival mechanism, one’s body developed both physical and emotional responses, including repression and avoidance. This response to threatening experiences, are a means of survival but can also create internal and external turmoil for the individual. When memories and flashbacks come up, it can be easy to ignore them. We can work to ignore the emotional response but the biological response takes place whether we want it to or not. Stress hormones such as cortisol, are produced and the body responds to that stress hormone on a cellular level. Also, trauma responses will continue to come up in different areas of our life until we create space to process what has been experienced. Seeking support can take many different forms. For some the process of one on one therapy works really well for them. For others, a more hands on approach might be needed and drama therapy can be a very suitable alternative. ‘Healing comes from accepting and being, open, honest. Transparent. There’s a hurt and you need to acknowledge it. Only then can the healing begin’.
Drama therapy is not a stand-alone treatment for trauma, but it can begin to help individuals work through complex emotions and experiences in a safe place, with adequate support. Drama therapy can also allow the individual to practice and develop coping skills based on their changing experience with trauma. This can include taking on roles that help participants begin to practice changing the narrative of their own life. Choices around interpretation and experiences can help to begin to rewire the brain and reduce the biological stress response when triggers are encountered. Theatre has this amazing ability to hold up a mirror to people, in that it allows you to connect with the deepest parts of yourself. “We’re sharing our humanity, and that doesn’t happen enough in this world” (Playbill.com).