Feature: Where theatre and therapy intersect

Date posted: 01 Nov 2019 Author: STC Production:  CosÌ 


In Così’s opening scene, Justin, a well-meaning but slightly vague social worker, explains why he wants the residents of the mental health facility he works in to stage a play: “The important thing is to keep them interested. To bring them out of their shells.”

It seems like an informal, common sense goal: a bit of fun to distract from the isolation that often comes along with the stigma around mental illness. But the use of performance, drama, and theatre techniques as therapeutic tools has a long history. And, appropriately, having a ‘bit of fun’ is a key aspect of many of these methods.

Kirsten Meyer is a drama therapist with 20 years practicing experience and is currently the coordinator of The Creative Arts and Music Therapy Research Unit at the University of Melbourne. She gave us some insight into a discipline that takes the transformative power of art and puts it into practice.

Dr Meyer defines drama therapy as “the intentional use of drama and theatre processes in facilitating change, in a relationship with a therapist and, often, a group”. If that sounds a little broad then it’s intentional. While drama therapy, along with other forms of art therapy (called different ‘modalities’), was developed to help with the treatment of health concerns, Dr Meyer explains that it’s now used in a whole host of circumstances, “whether that’s in community contexts, health contexts, [or] education contexts”.

Although Dr Meyer works within a specifically Western framework, she is quick to clarify that art therapy’s central principles are by no means the sole purview of Western medicine. “Let’s not take away from the fact that ‘arts and healing’ have always been around, particularly in the Southern hemisphere, in Indigenous contexts,” she says.

Like most forms of therapy geared toward mental health, drama therapy, as it is today, has roots in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy (in conjunction with drama and play theories) which came to prominence at the end of the 19th Century. But it was a singular historical event, the Second World War,that clarified the need for what Dr Meyer calls “an embodied therapy”.

“Art, music and drama therapy, all started to happen simultaneously, post-Second World War, when veterans returned with what they then called ‘shell shock’ or post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Dr Meyer. “Psychiatrists, psychologists [realised] they needed another way. People talking wasn’t helping.”

“We [now] know from trauma that the verbal capacities of the brain shut down,” says Dr Meyer, “often those [traumatic] experiences are sitting somewhere in our body”.

One of Così’s greatest artistic triumphs is the seamless and subtle way that Louis Nowra mirrors his characters’ experiences with those of the characters in Così fan Tutte, and vice versa. By inhabiting roles removed but not totally unrelated from their own experiences, Roy, Lewis, Cherry and the others are able to gain great access to their own minds.

Dr Meyer says this model, using narrative and role-playing to reach personal insight, is a foundation of drama therapy. “It gives you some distance – it gives you the space to step away, to think, to look, to see, to feel, to express, in order to understand,” she says.

‘Psychodrama,’ an earlier discipline which also used theatre techniques in a therapeutic context, asked patients to dramatise and role-play narratives from their own lives. This, as you might expect, was an extremely confronting experience for many people.

Like the characters in Così, Meyer thinks fiction and removed storytelling is a more effective way in. “In drama therapy [today], there’s a lot more metaphor, a lot more distance … you play through the character. You’re not saying, ‘I went through this or this is what happened to me’,” she says.

“[You’re] indirectly speaking about yourself and then slowly working to the point where you’re able to integrate that. … There’s something about the internal conflict being externalised, then you can see it.”

Traditionally, we conceive of therapy as a private experience, one on one with a psychologist or counsellor (what Dr Meyer calls a “dyad”). Drama therapy, on the other hand, “naturally lends itself to group work”. But Dr Meyer is quick to point out that it does work on an individual level too, though requires the therapist to be an “engaged” participant in the work, rather than just a facilitator.

One of the defining attributes of Così’s characters (and indeed many of Nowra’s characters in general) is the fact that they are isolated from or at odds with wider society, unseen or hidden from the community at large. In the case of Così, the characters are isolated by the perimeter fence surrounding the hospital, but they’re also separated along the lines of gender, politics and philosophy – ideas of what society considers ‘sane’ and not.

Part of the benefit of working in a group setting, Dr Meyer explains, is the space it creates for people struggling (whether as a result of social or health related issues) with the kind of isolation and erasure that Henry and his cohort are experiencing.

Dr Meyer illustrates this principle with an exercise that’s commonly employed by drama therapists. “Mirroring” is a warm up exercise that sees members of the therapy group saying phrases (often introducing themselves) or performing actions that the rest of the group repeats back to them. It sounds simple, but for people who don’t often have their voices heard it can be empowering.

This principle of “being seen” (called ‘active witnessing’ in drama therapy terms) extends to performing as well. Though therapy is often a closed experience, there are some situations in which drama therapists advocate for clients to perform for an audience as a part of their treatment. “That feeling of affirmation, of validation, of ‘I am seen, I have a story, I am heard’. I think that that can be very powerful for people even if they don’t have words.”

In Così’s joyous final moments, a scene that Nowra himself describes as “euphoric”, this sense of affirmation and new confidence animates all the characters – their own performance has given them an opportunity to share themselves and, in doing so, create their own version of an inclusive community.

“It’s about identity, about [announcing] ‘who I am’, and ‘all the different ways of being who I am’,” says Dr Meyer.

Throughout Così, Lewis’s friends from the outside world, Lucy and Nick, ridicule the opera and its cast for being out of touch with the political moment (in this case, the Vietnam War moratoriums) and suggest that traditional modes of theatre are incapable of affecting social change. While drama therapy might not fit under the umbrella of “traditional theatre”, it does integrate many aspects of the craft and, in some cases, classic texts. And the practice has, in the last decade or so, extended outside the conventional therapeutic context to take in a wider social view.

“The big movements [in the field] are around broadening out what drama therapists can do,” says Dr Meyer. “So working a lot more in social justice spaces, working to challenge those things like racism, looking at therapy from a gendered perspective…”

Dr Meyer points to the work of New York University’s drama therapy unit and its director Dr Nisha Sajnani, whose work focuses on using drama therapy to help people displaced by the refugee crisis to work through their trauma and “reimagine” their ideas of home – all of this in a community setting.

“It’s about recognising that you don’t just have to stay in the clinical, hospital settings,” says Dr Meyer, “a lot of work that can happen alongside other people to create social change.”

Così is first and foremost a comedy – the play uses humour and entertainment to endear the audience to the characters and, to a certain extent, to endear the characters to themselves. Like the experiences of the characters Dr Meyer says that fun is integral to drama therapy, “and it’s often the thing we [as a society] miss”.

“Often we think when you’re doing therapy you’re not allowed to have fun.”

She says that fun and play are important because they allow clients to “recognise that other possibilities are available to one”. And it’s not always a pleasant process: “When you watch children play you realise play can be hard work. And it can be painful. And you have to deal with feelings of rejection and finding a way back in.”

But the benefits, as far as Dr Meyer is concerned, are self-evident.

“Fun is important, and there is something about engaging in these embodied ways ... it lights you up. Even watching other people have fun! Someone else’s enjoyment might then encourage you to step more into the space where previously you’ve been afraid.”

Così, 1 Nov – 14 Dec 2019, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

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Image of Bessie Holland and Katherine Tonkin