Setting the Stage for Drama Therapy 

by Alyce Palko  

Over thirteen million audience members attended Broadway theater in 2017. Theater is clearly a popular pastime for the American people, but it’s much more than a form of entertainment. Theater provides a nearly complete escape from daily life and a fresh perspective on human challenges. While audiences in front of movie and television screens watch playbacks of filmed moments, theater patrons experience the live action of a show right before their eyes. This highly cathartic experience can lead to reflection and personal growth, which can have therapeutic effects. By participating in theater as therapy, individuals can improve their mental health.  

Adding drama therapy to a course of treatment can benefit patients’ therapeutic progress. According to the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA), drama therapy is “the intentional use of drama and/or theater processes to achieve therapeutic goals.” Drama therapy is used to treat a variety of mental conditions, from drug addiction to trauma. It can also be used to help patients who deal with multiple conditions at once. Project Pride, a “residential drug and alcohol and co-occurring disorder treatment facility” in West Oakland, California uses drama therapy to help its residents. Many of the forty incarcerated women who reside at the facility suffer from mental disorders, trauma and addictions. Project Pride’s Domestic Violence Drama Therapy group uses role-playing exercises to help these women cope with their trauma and grow beyond it. This type of drama therapy is similar to group cognitive behavioral therapy (GCBT), which is a type of talk therapy performed in groups. Through GCBT, individuals learn to address negative thinking and behavior. Both GCBT and drama therapy aim to create a sense of community and support for patients with similar experiences. However, drama group therapy is uniquely effective because its role-playing activities “can provide the aesthetic distance needed to examine and deconstruct scenarios that are perhaps too emotionally loaded to discuss,” says an analysis of Project Pride published in Women & Therapy. Aesthetic distance is the knowledge that the role-play scenarios are fictionalized, a concept of perception that only occurs when experiencing a dramatized scenario.

    New, therapeutic perspectives can also be drawn from improv theater, especially for those with social anxiety disorder (SAD). According to an article published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, comedic improv therapy, when combined with other therapies, can greatly improve quality of life for those with SAD. Comedic improv therapy focuses on four main components of improv: group cohesiveness, exposure, play, and humor. Group cohesiveness is incredibly important for clients with SAD because if they feel supported by a team, they are likely to feel more comfortable engaging socially and on stage. By practicing improv and accepting the risk of making mistakes, clients face their fears of being judged. The study notes that both improv therapy and GCBT help clients with social anxiety by placing them in a social environment that can be uncomfortable but is supportive. However, another study on GCBT found that 36% of the patients with SAD in the study did not respond well to group therapy. The improv therapy study cites this finding, suggesting that improv therapy could reach clients with SAD in ways that GCBT cannot, by focusing on the playfulness and humor of improv performance. The element of play in improv encourages creative thinking and action without rumination. Improv actors are encouraged to always respond, “Yes, and…” when performing, to prevent the scene from ending prematurely. This habit teaches clients not to shut down when feeling anxious, but to engage with their fellow actors. The humors of improv comedy bring light to what can be a terrifying situation.

Individuals with anxiety-related disorders can reap these benefits through classes that combine improv theater with therapy. In Chicago, clients can take Improv for Anxiety classes through The Second City Theater. The classes and corresponding support group can supplement therapy and encourage communication development for people with SAD. Also based in Chicago, The Therapy Players are a group of medical professionals and trained improvisers who organize and perform improv comedy. Established in 2013, their program includes workshops for individuals with psychological disorders, especially those with phobias. The Therapy Players also perform in various Chicago venues, where they help audiences to reflect on mental health and discuss the nature of being human.

Theatrical performance can also give college students a boost in mental health. Participating in a show can improve students’ emotional intelligence and empathy, at a time in their lives that usually includes periods of great personal change. By watching (or performing as) a character, students can learn to empathize and process emotions. Theater also provides a prime opportunity for socialization. This is especially important at large universities like Pitt, where it can be difficult to make lasting friendships. Says junior Emily Cooper, who most recently appeared as Mary Phagan in PittStages’ Parade, “College theater, for those not in the theater community, provides countless opportunities to talk with people you wouldn’t usually encounter, because theater is all about building camaraderie and finding some sort of belonging in a community… I think everyone should get involved in some sort theatrical opportunity at one point or another, because you never know the kinds of friends you’ll make.” Theater is one place for college students to make friends that will support them through the highs and lows of the college experience, bolstering their mental health. Sophomore Maya Boyd, last seen in PittStages’ Our Town as Emily Webb, met one of her very best friends and discovered her love for theater through a chance meeting: “When I first came to Pitt, I was sure that I would be a Psychology major. I have always wanted to work with people on a mental and emotional level. One day when I was literally in line buying my textbooks for my psychology class, I started talking to the person in front of me. During this conversation, the person encouraged me to audition for the PittStages productions that semester. After I auditioned the next week I received a callback and eventually the lead role in Aglaonike’s Tiger. The crazy part is that the person who encouraged me to audition in the University Book Store line a couple of weeks before ended up being my scene partner throughout the entire play and is one of my best friends today. If it wasn’t for that one interaction, I would have never found my love for theatre, and more importantly, my appreciation for the people around me.”

    Cooper and Boyd’s experiences prove that theater can provide unexpected benefits to anyone. From bringing new friends into college students’ lives to creating support systems for individuals with anxiety, phobias or trauma, theater creates communities of catharsis. Through the unique benefits of drama and improv therapy, theater can build on existing forms of therapy and reach out to even more individuals in need. In Broadway theaters and beyond, audience members in the millions will continue to reflect on their own lives and contribute to the discussion of the human experience. No matter how people interact with theater, there is clearly a science to this living art.