As a practising dramatherapist for the last nine years, I have often met individuals and organisations who are confused by the word “dramatherapy”. Indeed, for some, the idea of drama and therapy combined together can sound utterly terrifying.

What did you do last night?  Read a good book? Watch the news?  Maybe you watched your favourite soap?

Did you go to the cinema to see the latest film?  Or the theatre to see that show you’ve been meaning to book for ages?

Whilst you were watching, were you moved by the characters and their stories?

Now close your eyes and imagine a scene from what you watched or heard.  Imagine the characters,  how they related to each other, what they did.  Could you relate to them?  Do any thoughts or feelings arise?

Now let the scene fade – come back to yourself – have you learnt anything?  Were you surprised by what your imagination connected with?

From being read a fairytale as a small child, to watching a live production, most of us have experienced story and drama at some point in our lives.

Story and drama are all around us.  It’s a part of life that is almost unavoidable.  It is one that we relate to and one in which we often recognise parts of ourselves within.  Drama allows us to play out stories and scenarios, be this through witnessing or performing.  It gives us an opportunity to express ourselves, challenge ideas, experience different roles, and supports us as we begin to process and understand ourselves and the world around us.

When we watch an actor portraying a mother looking for her lost child or a couple falling in love we cannot help but respond.  For some of us we will recognise what the character is going through, for others we will emotionally project on to the character and in a way rehearse through in our minds how we might cope.  Drama helps us to relate to ourselves and others and ultimately holds a mirror up to us.

Drama gives us an outlet to express the different parts of ourselves and potentials of life through the safety of a metaphor without us, maybe, even realising. Drama has so much potential to heal and transform that over the years a dramatherapy movement has developed whereby drama is used as an exploratory healing therapy.

Dramatherapy in the UK originated in the 1960s when drama in education and remedial drama was first seen to have therapeutic benefit.  Dr Sue Jennings developed the work through the Remedial Drama group.  By the 1970s the movement was growing and the term “dramatherapy” was beginning to be used.  As the benefits of dramatherapy were seen within organisations such as those with learning disabilities, the movement grew and training courses were set up at post graduate level for individuals to have formal education to become a dramatherapist.

The British Association of Dramatherapists is the professional body for dramatherapists.  It was set up in the 1970s and now has 575 fully registered practicing dramatherapist members.  There are also many more dramatherapists not included within this statistic but are practising within the UK.

Dramatherapists have to be qualified up to postgraduate level in dramatherapy.  All training courses are now MA level and require an intensive level of supervision, personal therapy and placements in order to achieve the highest standard of training.

In 1991 the Council for Professions Supplementary to Medicine (now the HCPC) accepted dramatherapists as registered members and dramatherapy became a protected title whereby it is against the law for a person to call themselves a dramatherapist in the UK unless they are registered with the HCPC.

So what is dramatherapy?

Contrary to popular belief dramatherapy is not for retired actors, neither is it only for people who have a performance background. Dramatherapy is a form of psychotherapy that combines the creative expressive skills of drama with the clinical skills of therapy to support individuals in healing. It is a form of therapy that is growing in familiarity with the general public.

The Health and Care Professions Council defines dramatherapy as:

“A unique form of psychotherapy in which creativity, play, movement, voice, storytelling, dramatisation and the performance arts have a central position within the therapeutic relationship.” 

As a practising dramatherapist for the last nine years, I have often met individuals and organisations who are confused by the word “dramatherapy”. Indeed, for some, the idea of drama and therapy combined together can sound utterly terrifying.

Dramatherapy is in fact a very containing, insightful, caring and expressive form of therapy that  can be very useful for people to use when words are not enough. It can also be helpful if an individual needs to be held in a metaphor at dramatic distance to be able to explore and access material that maybe too distressing or emotional if confronted directly. Using a metaphor is also of great benefit because it works deeply within the unconscious mind, a bit like a dream – which means it accesses deeper material that maybe affecting us while we are not yet aware of it.  The story is played out, projected into a room, drawn onto a page, or on to puppets/models.  The brain will then see this projection, digest it, and begin to process the story now that it can be viewed from an external perspective. With time, situations, feelings, and relationships may be more coherently understood.

The relationship between the dramatherapist and their clients

The relationship between the dramatherapist and the client is of paramount importance as the therapist supports the client on their journey offering creative interventions to allow the client to express their story. Recommended as a treatment by NICE for patients with psychosis and schizophrenia in adults, dramatherapy can support individuals to connect to the world around them and work through their difficulties creatively.

Dramatherapy also fits with the principles of the NICE care pathway for those with dementia as it accesses services that help maintain their physical and mental health, overall wellbeing, and sensory stimulation alongside dance and music. Dramatherapists are currently gathering bodies of evidence to show the range of people and conditions dramatherapy can work for and have an impact on.

Ultimately as a dramatherapist I use my creative skills along side my clinical skills to create a safe environment and offer creative interventions in order for the client to express them self and work through issues.  This may be simply be in the form of projective play, by creating a story, using puppets, working through different roles to expand one’s role vocabulary – rehearsing scenarios to make them more manageable or simply listening to someone.  Each individual is unique and the dramatherapist is trained to work with the clients’ needs in the moment.  I, myself, have worked with a wide range of client groups.  From adults with profound learning disabilities using sensory story to support their engagement with the world around them, to working with individuals on loss and bereavement rituals using story and poetry to understand their loss.   My main focus is to develop a relationship and support people to connect to the world around them and interact and communicate more clearly.

Today Dramaterapists can be found working in schools, hospitals, forensic units, in private practice elder care, CAMHs and the NHS and many more settings. Dramatherapy can also support clients to expand and develop their role vocabulary.  For example if you are used to being in the role of the victim, working through a story in which there are a number of roles on offer – the hero, the child, the mother, the warrior etc – means the individual can try out different roles held within the safety of a metaphor. In the long term this may support the individual to experience alternatives roles to the ones they are accustomed to. Experiencing a role within a drama may support an individual to reflect on how they relate to others in that role or how they feel.

Dramatherapy can ultimately support clients to express themselves and increase their confidence and self-esteem.  By working with story and metaphor an individual can find their voice and work projectively, exploring their internal world externally. It could, for example, help give clarity to a difficult home situation.

Globally, Dramatherapy is practised in many different countries around the world including, American, Australia, Poland, Israel, Malta, Malaysia and South Africa to name but a few. I’ve found dramatherapy particularly useful for assisting people with learning disabilities and dementia who may not have the verbal skills to express themselves but can work creatively and expressively through the body.  This opportunity provides them with an alternative voice and a means to express feelings, choices, and develop relationships.

Dramatherapy may take place in individual therapy sessions or as a group. The British Association of Dramatherapists have recently spear-headed a campaign to raise the profile and understanding of what dramatherapy is and how it can support people. The Health Care Professions Council is also running a campaign to heighten the public understanding of what art therapists do and how they can support people.

To find out more about BADth, visit their website.