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What is Dramatherapy? How does it work? And how can it help us make better sense of our mental health?

In this episode, Ellie and Will chat with Ciara McClelland of Dream Together, who is a registered dramatherapist and social worker.

We explore dramatherapy’s application in both individual and group contexts. From facilitating personal healing journeys to shedding light on pressing social issues, dramatherapy emerges as a powerful tool for fostering self-awareness and collective understanding.

We will also discuss how dramatherapy helps to reclaim the way we understand ourselves, leading to profound insights into the complexities that shape our lives.

Please note: case study examples are ‘mock ups’ of therapeutic scenarios for which consent has been given.

Follow @livelymindspod on X, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and more at https://www.bio.link/livelyminds

Please note that this show does not constitute medical advice and is not a replacement for seeking professional help. You can find our more about the show and get signposting to support on our website anyamedia.net/livelyminds

Transcript

E: Hello, my name is Ellie.

 

W: And my name is Will.

 

E: You are listening to Lively Minds, the podcast about mental health challenges that go beyond the ebb and flow of the everyday.

 

W: The podcast that looks at how developing our understanding of mental health challenges influences how we address them.

 

E: In this episode, we will be talking to Keira McClelland of Dream Together, who is a registered drama therapist and social worker. Keira focuses on helping people heal from trauma using creative and physical activities and relationship building to understand and address different kinds of trauma that affects people’s lives.

 

W: Today, Keira is going to chat to us about drama therapy, what it is, and how it changes how we make sense of our mental health. So first of all, welcome to the show Keira.

 

C: Hello, thanks for having me.

 

W: First of all, Keira, could you tell us what is drama therapy?

 

C: So drama therapy is a form of psychotherapy. It’s an evidence-based therapy. It’s a creative therapy that uses creative mediums. So all the kind of parts that make up a theatre show or play, we can utilize those creative mediums to support an individual or a group of people to express themselves. And the beauty of using the creative medium is you don’t have to directly talk or express how you’re feeling. You can actually do it through story or through character or through movement or sound. So for example, you might create a story with themes around hurt, pain, loss, grief.

 

E: Yeah

 

C: And you might then be supported by the therapist to think about the themes in that story, and you may then be able to make some links between the story and your life experience or where you’re at and sometimes you don’t have to make those links. The beauty is that in drama therapy because we work a lot in the subconscious and with the shadow and the psyche it draws on a lot of Jungian work that the beauty is that it holds such a transformative power that you can express through the creative medium and the healing and the shift and insight can take place at the subconscious level so you don’t necessarily have to have those direct insights or conversations or connections.

 

E: Do you think that’s partly why it can be particularly helpful for kind of trauma-based situations? Because, if there’s a difficulty in talking directly about certain experiences, people can explore it with that distance?

 

C: Yeah, yeah definitely because you know, talking about your trauma can in fact be re-traumatizing, so talking directly about it.

 

E: mmm

 

C: So the beauty of drama therapy is it allows that distance, so you can express or explore parts of the self or parts of your story through a different medium, and you don’t have to directly talk about it which is really powerful.

 

Sometimes when we talk about shadow and the subconscious and that kind of thing it can scare people because it is a place where, sometimes, people maybe feel vulnerable going to, because it’s a place we don’t really think about much. But it can be really powerful. It can support a lot with the integration of the parts of the self, such as the shadow or parts that we are critical of or that we’re ashamed of. It, it helps with bringing the integration of the self together.

 

E: How would you say it’s related to or different from more traditional forms of talking psychotherapy?

 

C: It’s different in the sense that it’s creative and we can use words and people do like to use their words sometimes but I always think sometimes words can lose their meaning. They can be defence, so the creativity allows you to go that little bit deeper and it allows you to unpick or unravel or discover things that you might not necessarily be conscious of. We can sometimes work with dreams. So if a client has a dream, they might bring that into the session and we might explore that and bring that to life. So it’s different in the sense that, yeah, uses a creative medium and utilizes that.

 

E: mmm

 

C: We can draw on all the art therapies. For example there’s dance therapy out there, art therapy, movement therapy. We can draw on all of those mediums or depending on what is needed.

 

W: I’m interested in whether drama therapy has the potential to make us understand our mental health in the first place in a different way as well, because I guess when we’re talking about narratives, narrative is a big thing in mental health, isn’t it? The extent to which one has control over their own narrative, for example. And so you talk about the creative methods that are behind drama therapy and it sort of feels to me as though there’s a lot of power there in terms of how a drama therapeutic approach can actually help people to understand their own narratives in different ways, which in turn hopefully, would lead to better mental health. Am I on the right, in the right direction with that?

 

C: I hear what you’re saying. There’s a lot of research out there, particularly from Bessel van der Kolk talks about the power in theater and healing the power of theater. And what he talks about is how powerful and healing it can be for people to play different characters.

 

E: Yeah.

 

C: So, especially if we live in a world sometimes where people’s stories or sense of self are made up of how others see them, or is made up of their life history or transgenerational trauma. It allows us to really explore all parts of ourselves in a safe space, witness those parts, allow them parts to be witnessed and it gives us a chance to explore our story and an opportunity to frame and reframe that story. So for example, I trained in drama therapy but also I went through my own therapy process which was using drama therapy and it was actually utilizing autobiographical theatre so I was able to express my understanding of myself, my upbringing my life story on the stage and it allowed me to then witness it in different ways. The healing happened also when other people witnessed it. It allowed me to play around a little bit with it. It gave me ownership rather than history telling me what my story is rather than the television telling me what my story was. So it really lets you just take full ownership of it and to play around with what you understand yourself to be and your story.

 

For example, Bessel van der Kolk talks about the healing part of theatre and the beauty of allowing to take on different characters, especially powerful if someone’s been stuck or pushed into a certain role. For example, in life they might be in a victim role and it gives them the opportunity to then put on a different hat and become the warrior or become the fighter or the queen and it then gives the psyche permission to expand, and to rehearse what it would be like to play something other than the victim.

 

E: Yeah one of the therapists I had quite a few years ago like we did like a few things that were from drama therapy and one of them’s always stuck in my mind because it was so powerful. I kept having this recurring nightmare. And so went into the nightmare and came up with an alternative ending.

 

C: mmm

 

E: And it was just done so well that I then never had that nightmare again.

 

C: Yeah

 

E: Like, imagining the way I wanted it to end, then I didn’t have that nightmare again. It was really amazing. I’ve always remembered that. Yeah.

 

C: Yeah, powerful, powerful. And that’s the beauty. You can bring dreams into the space, whether it’s an individual session or whether you’re working in a group. You can bring your dreams into the therapy space and play around with alternative endings. You can also bring real life scenarios into the space that are then acted out by people and you can witness it and be witnessed. And it allows you to be supported to rehearse, in the therapy room what you might not be able to say or do outside the therapy room.

 

E: Yeah

 

C: So for example, recently I was working with a mother and her son and she really wanted to say some things directly to another person, but for all sorts of reasons felt fearful for doing that. And the space allowed her to express what she might want to say, but she’d done it with puppets so it was in indirect ways,

 

E: Yeah

 

C: but it allowed her to kind of rehearse what she wanted to say. And that’s cathartic and healing in itself and it gives her some power. But it also allows her to prepare for what, how she might then be in the outside world. If you are stuck or limited or have lost your voice, I remember a scenario where I was working with a client and she had lost her voice in her real life relationship. She’s been emotionally abused.

 

W: So when you say losing her voice, you don’t mean that literally?

 

C: She lost her voice metaphorically that she couldn’t speak or stand up for herself or talk her truth out of fear, because of the relationship. But she actually then lost her voice due to a sore throat. And we were working in a group session and the beauty was the other members in the group were able to be her voice and say things that they felt that she might want to say. And they were able to grow perhaps more empowering ways of being and that helped her step into her power.

 

E: mmm

 

C: And she was able to then find her voice, but by the support of others in the group. There’s something about the collective coming together and supporting each other as well, when it’s in a, in a group session.

 

W: There’s something really interesting there about that safe space that you talk about and it sounds to me then that drama therapy could be just what you and one other person or it could be in a group setting is that right?

 

C: It can be individual one-to-one, it can be with groups, the advice is around eight to twelve usually. If there’s any more than that you’ll probably have a co-facilitator in to support. It could also be with partnerships or parents and children. I do a lot of relational work with parent and child. That’s my specialism at the moment. So yeah, it’s wide and varied really.

 

E: So how do you go about making those spaces safe, particularly in a group situation where people maybe have different like cultural sensitivities, different sort of triggers and things. How do you make a safe space for like such a big group?

 

C: The structure of a drama therapy session is quite specific. It’s really important to have a framework of scaffolding, a container as it were. So we always have a ritual beginning and a ritual ending. I always see them as kind of bookends. Boundaries are really important in terms of when it starts and when it ends. It’s usually an hour session usually so we would start on time, end on time. What we really want to be doing as therapists and in the therapy spaces is offering as much holding and containing, almost like the womb would with the baby, almost like the mother would. It’s really trying to create a real sense of embodied safety. So the ritual beginning and ending is super important. Then we would, we would move through the group dynamics, Tuckman group dynamics around forming, norming, storming. So we would slowly start with getting to know you games and that kind of thing, especially if there’s people from lots of different cultures. After the check-in, we would go into some light activities that foster connection, build on trust, reci, reciprocity, sense of belonging. And then we would tend to move into whatever’s come up from those exercises or activities. We would usually use those themes to bridge into what we call main activity, which could be a story or it could be a piece of artwork or it could be a sculpture that’s made out of small world objects or it could be some puppet, puppet play or it could be a play or role play or a story and then we might explore those themes a little bit. We might as a group make some connections around those themes and what they mean for the group and mean for people individually, and then we would bridge out into a kind of regulating de-roll activity and when I say de-rolling it’s super important to either take off costumes or masks or put back on,

 

E: come back out of that space.

 

C: Exactly. So come out of, sometimes the space is acting or fantasy. So it’s important to make sure we de-roll and we step out of the play space. So when we go into the play space, we’ll always have a strong threshold or boundary that we step over. So we’re clear that we’re going into the play space and then out of it. And we would then, would hold a ritual ending where we would check out and usually share highlights or feelings we want to hold on to and low lights of feelings that we might want to leave behind. And we might create a ritual as a group of how we leave those feelings behind. Sometimes you might write them on a piece of paper and rip them up, or you might throw them into a metaphorical bin, or so its really, it’s important to have a tight framework or structure, a holding structure, but it’s also then led by the group.

 

W: I guess also it must be really important that people can get involved as much or as little as they want as well?

 

C: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. There’s no pressure to perform, even though it’s called drama therapy, I think.

 

W: Yeah, yeah.

 

C: Yeah, important to say, I think it’s kind of misjudged because of the name. People tend to think, oh, you’ve got to be good at acting and that kind of thing. But actually, all feelings are welcome in this space, whether that’s getting involved or getting involved, all parts are welcome. Yeah, there’s no pressure to perform. But what I would say is it’s a space that allows for you to witness yourself or be witnessed, and how you show up in groups and usually it supports you to have some insight in how you relate to yourself, how you relate to others.

 

[music]

 

W: You talked about your own experiences of drama therapy and you mentioned about being on a stage I think was the word you used. Was that to an audience or was that still within that small group setting?

 

C: When I trained in drama therapy which was about 12 years ago now, one of the modules was autobiographical theatre. The autobiographical theatre module allowed you to basically express yourself and your story in any way, but I chose to do it on the stage, so it was in front of an audience.

 

W: Wow.

 

C: I think my first performance was around grief and loss, and sense of belonging and not belonging, and how it was growing up on the border in Northern Ireland. I was brought up in a place called Newry, which is in the border line between the North and South of Ireland. So really allowed me to express my childhood experiences of being brought up and directly impacted by the troubles. So the first piece of theatre I done, I had some of the other students who were training with me, they were coming on with Tri-Colours and Union Jacks and there was children on the stage playing all the games I used to play and then it moved into some funerals, I think. There was a lot of death and loss

 

W: So you had a cast as well then?

 

C: I had a cast. Yeah, [laughter] we all helped each other, which is really nice.

 

W: Right. I see. Yeah, I often think of things in spectrums. And I’m sort of seeing the drama therapy spectrum on the one side of that spectrum, you’ve got that really private, personal, either individual small kind of groups working in that very kind of confidential kind of way. As we said before, people engaging them in whichever way they wish and not being forced to do something they don’t want, etc. And on the other end of that spectrum, we’ve got like, putting on a theatre show, right? And I wonder, so on that other end of the spectrum, is that about almost translating some of the narratives that comes out of drama therapy into something that is repurposed for a wider audience? Or would you go as far as saying that that theatre show in front of a public audience is in itself a form of drama therapy?

 

C: So when you move through a drama therapy process, whether it’s individual or as a group, you think about how you would like to mark the ending. And for some people it might be putting on a theatre show. They might want to record it to look back on.

 

E: mmm

 

K; And they might want people to come and witness it. And if it’s a theatre show, that can be cathartic in itself for the performer, performers, but also for the audience. Because as we know, watching theatre can be cathartic in itself. Or to mark the ending, you might choose to just look back at the work that you did over the time together, or you might want to have a little kind of celebration and share some food together and reflect on your time together, or you might want to make a piece of music and record it. It’s really individual.

 

E: Yeah, how the end product is, like what it is, yeah.

 

C: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

W: What I find really interesting about that is that if the end product is some kind of performance, then it starts to transform it from being a therapeutic experience and as you say, the performance itself being part of that therapeutic experience, it’s also into potentially awareness raising campaigning tool as well, potentially, I guess, In a recent episode with Vici Wreford Sinnot talking about activism in mental health. One of the things we talked about, well, most of the episode was about the arts and activism and how simply by spreading awareness or spreading a message about a particular thing to that wider audience can in itself, I guess, be therapeutic, but also can actually help to educate that wider audience in a wider group of people as well.

 

C: There’s a guy called Augusto Boal. So he’s a Brazilian practitioner, and he is an activist in his own right. So he done a lot of stuff like invisible theatre. He’ll usually worked with a group of actors who might take a social topic, for example, say it’s something to do with, say COVID, for example,

 

W: Okay.

 

C: And they might bring up some sort of script about that. And they then might bring it to the streets or to the community and they’ll act it out, but it’s invisible so nobody knows that its happening and it’s a, it’s like a social experiment to seek feedback on where the society are at and that kind of thing. So Invisible Theatre is one technique he uses, he also uses playback as well. Playback is specifically around bringing a social topic either to a community audience or to a theatre audience and it could be any topic and the, it’s set in such a way that they’ll act out a certain kind of view on Covid and then the audience are allowed to stop the play and say actually that’s not right that’s not my experience and they’re allowed to direct it and say actually I experienced that could you get that actor to do that and then they’ll change the format of the play. So it’s a real, a nice platform,

 

E: Yeah

 

C: A chance for real issues to be played out and for communities to really get involved. So you’re right, it can move into activism and that kind of thing.

 

W: That kind of comes full circle back to my original question in a way, isn’t it? Which is how can drama therapy make us understand our mental health problems in different ways? And I guess that, that kind of connection to activism suggests that drama therapy has a way of exploring some of those influences, things that have happened in our lives, which have had an impact on our mental well-being

 

C: Yep

 

W: and exposes it, but in a safe kind of way and a supportive way,

 

C: Yeah

 

W: but then also has the potential of raising that awareness amongst other people who might go, “Oh, I’ve got that experience as well.” Or as you say, “My experience is a bit different, so actually, Can you do it like this or like that? Which is really exciting.

 

C: It allows people to have a voice who might not necessarily feel they have a voice and for important topics to be explored and played out and yeah it can be a really powerful tool.

 

[music]

 

W: A big thank you to Keira McClelland for coming and chatting to us on the show and thank you to you for listening and please do tune in again in two weeks for another episode of Lively Minds, the Mental Health Podcast.

 

E: Please note that this show does not constitute medical advice and is not a replacement for seeking professional help. You can find signposting to support on our website www.anyamedia.net/LivelyMinds.

 

W: Make sure that you keep up to date with our shows by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts and follow us on social media at LivelyMindsPod.

 

E: Take care and bye for now.

 

W: Bye bye.

 

[music fades]

Lively Minds is an Anya Media //// Still Ill OK co-production

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