Drama Therapy: A Case for the Healing Power of Theater

Photo Courtesy of Benjamin Frederick Leland Barlow

I am still largely unable to shake the images of police officers kneeling on Eric Garner’s head or Laquan McDonald succumbing to 16 state-sanctioned gunshot wounds. After watching, several times, the deaths of these African American men on television, my sleep was frequently haunted by nightmares of similar brutality. Going against my usual tendency toward solitude when unplugging from the news, I auditioned for and landed a part in the iconic Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare. My initial timidity during rehearsals — driven primarily by my need to hide behind the dramatizations — did not work for my director. “More from my 3rd witch…convince us of the presence you command! Flex your muscles for — ‘toil and trouble, fire burn…!’”

With each successive late night in the basement of Lakeview Moravian Church, my character, and thus I, was coaxed into throwing everything into an imaginary bubbling cauldron. Not only did I burn an entire arsenal of dragons’ scales and wolves’ teeth, but I also vividly imagined the transformation of my unresolved past and fears of an uncertain future, into ashes. My present was dominated by the stage, where I was simultaneously able to conjure certain aspects of my being — pain, anger and the determination to stay alive — all while wearing the mask of a character I had bent to my will.

By the end of the performances, there were two things of which I was certain: first, throughout the process of bringing my witchy character to life, I felt empowered; next, something unnamable in me had been awakened. I could not put into words the energy I felt returning to me. This internal surge was threatened still by the backdrop of a failing relationship and estranged family, coupled with the weight of being an African American struggling to cope with the piling of Black and Brown bodies in the streets.

The shooting death of Philando Castile, a 34-year old African American man, was captured on a police dashboard camera in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Since the police department of St. Anthony was required to release the footage, Castile’s death has been watched over 1 million times on YouTube. What was once a devastating piece of a tumultuous criminal trial has, among that of many other Black and Brown lives, become a public spectacle of tragedy and brutality, staring at us through a lifeless, pixelated screen. Historically, the culmination of racial tensions across the United States has been, in the least, a pervasive institutionalized stigma and at its worst, the lynching of African Americans and their white allies.

Those of us fortunate enough to be distanced from these deaths, either physically or by lack of family relation, have varying opinions on whether to turn our eyes away from these images or choose to come face to face with the horrific reality being paraded before us. Initially, my reasons for joining the growing number of vicarious eye witnesses were rooted in some semblance of understanding: how could a law enforcement officer, sworn to serve and protect each citizen’s life, succeed in extinguishing that of an unarmed, non-threatening, human being? I found myself asking this same question, in 1000 different variations, each time returning to the same videos for answers that would never come. All I was left with were the images, a kind of reverse representation.

The presence of a strong, Black, queer women in a role on television has had the power to validate my life experiences, while saying, “This success can and will be yours;” while witnessing the murder of a real Black person like me, countless times, has had the effect of de-legitimizing my existence and warning me that, “This can and will happen to you.”

Seeing traumatic events is traumatizing…especially seeing someone suffer from something that reflects your own experience.” When I spoke with Britton Williams, a licensed drama therapist who specializes in trauma-informed drama therapy at her private practice, she added, “It heightens that fear. It’s a traumatic experience.” Listening to Williams verbalize what, for so long, I hadn’t the words to express, was jarring. I couldn’t help but let escape, “But what do we do next?” Sensing my personal stake in the matter (and comfort with letting my guard down), she responded that this question is one that she is constantly helping her patients work through.

After earning a BFA in theater from NYU, Williams performed on many stages, with her artistic prowess in tow. Her applied theater minor equipped Williams with the skills needed to work as a teaching artist. While stationed in geriatric centers, hospitals and especially in schools with young people, she saw the beginnings of a thread she hadn’t previously recognized. When working with young pupils, Williams observed that the artistic personas that they presented acted as vehicles to express anger, victimization and even an inclination towards destructive behavior, as a means to displace these deeply ingrained emotions. Quite the heavy outcome for a light game of “Yes, and…” Williams told me that, “At the time, I didn’t know what was happening, clinically.”

Now, as a drama therapist, Williams looks back on the phenomenon she came upon as directly in line with her current dependence on role theory in her practice. Oftentimes, she’ll design exercises in group sessions that help patients create characters that inadvertently tell the stories of the patients themselves. When I divulged to Williams my feelings of mental fatigue, from having to justify my existence to closed minds, to watching my fellow brothers and sisters murdered in the streets, she elaborated on the benefits of role theory.

During what felt like our own personal session, the metaphor of “a girl lost in a tornado” was chosen to illustrate a hypothetical therapeutic process based on my weariness. She explained that in therapy, if a person creates a character who is lost in said chaos, the next questions become, “‘What must this character do in order to shelter herself from the impending storm?’ ‘Does she have a cellar or friends to stay with?’ ‘Is there a safe space of any shape or form, that she can look to?’”

Asking myself these questions (as well as endeavoring to answer them) I felt my mental load become lighter, and I imagined the same happening with Williams’ patients. ‘Ahh,’ I thought. Williams explained that those who suffer from trauma cannot always access the expressions or words that make way for healthy mental processing. The act of steering a narrative — even when merely symbolic — and navigating the tumultuous storyline therein (like the girl in the tornado), returns a sense of control that can be elusive at best, and lost at worst, when dealing with trauma (and mental illness in general). Drama therapy can affirm for patients that whatever the traumatizing event, it does not define him or her and furthermore, it does not mark the end of the story.

When I first started doing theater, I felt like I had stumbled upon the greatest discovery. I thought, “Why doesn’t anyone know about this?” I wanted to shout from the rooftops, “Come one, come all, art has everything you need!” Despite my inarticulate call to arms, Williams assured me that not only was I not the first person to want to advocate for drama therapy, that there were also regions of the country with representatives who were following up with action — in schools, community centers and hospitals. However, the pace of implementation has been slow, which is why it is important to continue fighting for the cause.

With that, Williams imparted onto me one last session-inspired anecdote.

“I tell my patients: all the things you want to get rid of, imagine you’re throwing it in the circle [we’ve made], just throw it in there. Get it out of you. Now, we can’t really have space to work with all this stuff around. Let’s put the things in boxes and place them in a corner of the room (which gives a vital illusion of choice, of agency). Naturally, we slowly go to the boxes, take a piece out, one-by-one, keeping the rest boxed up. If we’re doing it together, no one feels alone.” I walked away from my conversation with Williams feeling confident that though we may all have rubbish that is taking up too much space in our minds, there are answers. Drama therapy can help people of all ages to see that while the struggle is real, the bearers are many, you are normal and you will be okay.

A version of this story will be published on Racebaitr in 2018.

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