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Emory Drama Therapy: 10 Common Questions Answered

Drama therapy session

"All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players," a famous bard once scribed. Delivered via monologue in William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It," this memorable line quite simply compares the world to a theatrical stage and life to a dramatic play.

This phenomenon is even more pronounced when considering the connection between theatre and psychotherapy. Emory Continuing Education’s intriguing new course, Principles of Drama Therapy I: Core Processes, kicks off on September 21 and emphasizes this very concept. The course is led by instructor Erica J. Craig.

Drama Therapy I is the first of three courses in a series that continues with Principles of Drama Therapy II: The Five Phase Model beginning in late October, and Principles of Drama Therapy III: Approaches and Techniques in January. Registration for all three courses is available at No experience in theater or drama is required, only a willingness to engage and learn. 
With a bachelor’s degree in dramatic theory and a master’s degree in clinical social work, course instructor Craig arrives equipped to tackle both aspects of the subject matter. A registered drama therapist and licensed clinical social worker, she owns and operates Playspace: Drama Therapy Atlanta, a drama psychotherapy practice. She is currently collaborating with Emory Continuing Education in the creation of a drama therapy certificate program for mental health clinicians. 
While most people are familiar with some form of creative arts therapies – art therapy or music therapy for example – many are not aware of the modality of drama therapy. Below, Craig responds to some common questions about her upcoming course and clarifies some points about drama therapy.
Question: Let’s start with a question straight from the course description: What is drama therapy? 

Answer: Drama therapy is the intentional use of theatrical processes for therapeutic goals. It uses theater and drama, as well as the processes inside theater and drama – like improvisation, role playing, role analysis, and creative play – toward the achievement of psychological growth. This can look a lot of different ways – sometimes it may mean improving social skills, sometimes it means processing trauma, other times it means identifying triggers for anxiety and/or working through anxiety. Drama therapy approaches are dependent on each client's treatment goals, individual needs, and comfort level. It’s a very customizable approach!

Q: While the upcoming class is geared toward mental healthprofessionals, how can it also benefit other healthcare professionals,educators and performing artists? 
A: While mental health professionals will be able to apply these ideas and approaches to their current clinical practice, other professionals will be able to use these concepts to increase playfulness in their  interactions with patients or students, or in their own creative process.

Educators may resonate with the idea of increasing the use of embodiment, a core concept of drama therapy, meaning that they would explore increasing the amount of physical movement and role-taking involved in teaching and learning. Typically, if an instructor was teaching a class about the human brain, for example, they might use lectures, pictures, or 3D models to discuss and explain the topic. If we were to apply drama therapy-based interventions to that, we might enrich the lesson by asking students to get out of their chairs and enact the brain; maybe we’d assign one person to be the prefrontal cortex and one to be the amygdala and enact a person’s internal negotiation between thinking and feeling. We would take a more action-based approach.

When we incorporate kinesthetic movement, emotionality and imagination, we’re able to engage students and clients so much more fully in a topic or process. In this way, learning and understanding is enhanced and cognitive and emotional processes can be more fully integrated.

Q: What is dramatic reality?  

A:  Dramatic reality is a core concept of drama therapy that describes a state in which imagination can be brought to life in a playful and healing way. In drama therapy, we often engage in dramatic play and narrative that isn’t necessarily a literal representation of a client’s life. For example, in a case when a client has endured trauma, we’d be likely to use dramatic play to explore central themes (such as power and control, boundaries, empowerment) through metaphor and story rather than re-enacting the actual traumatic event.  Dramatic reality reflects aspects of reality within drama therapy, but we don’t recreate reality because that’s not possible or beneficial.
Q:  Will mental health professionals be able to implement methods from this course into their practice immediately upon completion?  

A: Yes!While some techniques and approaches we’ll cover in the class would require further training for implementation, many of the concepts and exercises can be incorporated into a clinician’s existing approach. The goal of the class, in addition to learning all about drama therapy, is to increase the playfulness, embodiment, and creativity of each student’s professional approach.  

Q:  How are drama therapy approaches different than regular theatre games?

A: The primary difference between drama therapy and improv or theatre is intention. While traditional theatre centers around the experience and enjoyment of the audience, drama therapy is focused on the experience and growth of the performers. Less emphasis is placed on the final performance or product, and more on the trust, growth, and healing of those involved in the process. Additionally, while traditional theatre can have therapeutic outcomes, the term “drama therapy” generally should only be used if the person leading the group/interaction is a clinician trained in drama therapy. 

Q: Is drama therapy more effective for children or adults - or is that too broad of a brushstroke? 

A:  From my experience, drama therapy is generally more comfortable for children than adults. There’s a lot of excellent work that can be done using drama therapy with adults, so I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more appropriate for kids. Play is the language of childhood, though, so it’s like speaking a child’s language when you engage them in dramatic play. Adults may have to work through feeling silly or embarrassed, especially if they haven’t allowed themselves to play in a long time. When adults allow themselves to reconnect with their playfulness, however, an incredible amount of healing work can be accomplished.  
Q: What are the similarities between drama and therapy? 

A:  There’s a lot of overlap. Drama is relationally-based; most great works of theater center around relationships between characters or examine a character’s internal struggle. Therapy is all about that. It’s about developing and solidifying identity and clarifying a person’s place in their social atom, where they fall in terms of social relationships. Negotiating power and control, finding purpose and meaning–all these themes are really central to theatre and improv because they are part of being a person. We talk about theater as a microcosm of the real world. Therapy is just another iteration of that. 

Emory Continuing Education (ECE) offers four courses in Drama Therapy as part of its Health and Healthcare offerings.  Click here for more general info and updates on Drama Therapy at ECE. 

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