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TBA Online: News & Features: November 2014

Working Through the Drama: The Art of Drama Therapy

Tuesday, December 09, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Jean Schiffman


If you're an actor who yearns to do more with your acquired skills than perform, if you're inclined toward helping others, if you're attracted to psychotherapy and counseling and if an eventual steady paycheck sounds inviting, you might want to consider a career in drama therapy (DT). If so, you won't need to move—San Francisco boasts one of the best DT programs in the country, at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). In fact, this is one of only a few master's programs in the field that are both regionally accredited (by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges) and approved by the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA), and one of only a handful of such programs in the world, according to the CIIS catalog. (Others in North America are at NYU, Concordia University in Montreal and Lesley University in Boston.) Completing the two-and-a-half- to three-year program meets academic requirements to become registered drama therapists and fulfills the academic requirements for a Marriage and Family Therapist license in California.



In Transit: Braking at the Intersections, a 2013 production of the California Institute of
Integral Studies Drama Therapy Program's Theatre of Change project. Photo: Lonny Shavelson


DT, according to NADTA, is "the intentional use of drama and/or theater processes to achieve therapeutic goals." It "can provide the context for participants to tell their stories, set goals and solve problems, express feelings, or achieve catharsis. Through drama, the depth and breadth of inner experience can be actively explored and interpersonal relationship skills can be enhanced. Participants can expand their repertoire of dramatic roles to find that their own life roles have been strengthened."


The CIIS program, which utilizes "theoretical, practical/clinical and experiential formats," was founded and is directed by Renée Emunah, who first began the program in 1983 at Antioch University San Francisco before moving it to CIIS in 1989. With a PhD in clinical psychology and an MA combining theatre arts and clinical psychology (from San Francisco State), Emunah studied DT in England before it became a field in the US in 1979. She was one of the first four drama therapists to become officially registered in the United States.
In September I sat in one of her first-semester classes, Drama Therapy Process and Technique, to get a feeling for what kinds of students are attracted to the field. The group of about 18 skewed toward 20-something (with one in her mid-50s)—an articulate, intently focused group, mostly women, mostly but not entirely white, a few foreign accents and one hijab among them. They sat on the floor hunched over notebooks for a PowerPoint lecture (followed by a group discussion) on the topic of the day, which was the difference between psychodrama and DT. Basically, DT includes the fictional among its tools (Emunah paraphrases Oscar Wilde: "Give a person a mask, and they will tell the truth") and is useful for groups; psychodrama is more individual-focused, deals more with straight autobiographical facts and leans less on dramatic skills.


A typical first-year group, or "cohort," like this one will stick together for the entire program, taking many of their classes together. They were admitted through a competitive process involving an interview and some group activities to gauge their potential skills in interrelating, intuition and such, after which only about a third are accepted. They are required to have at least some theatre background (the majority have a BFA in theatre) and to be in individual psychotherapy for at least 50 hours during their training (which is true for all psychology and counseling masters programs at CIIS). Despite a heavy weekly workload—perhaps four to five three-hour classes—most also work 15 to 20 hours. Financial aid and a few scholarships are available.


The first year, while academically intense, might be more fun—if "fun" is an appropriate word to use for such rigorous training—than the extremely challenging second year, when students have a practicum, which is an internship in the field (on site 17 hours a week) along with their coursework.


Although the day I was there was a traditional but informal lecture-style class, experiential classwork is a large part of the curriculum. As the catalog states, "Drama Therapy, as one of the creative arts therapies [such as art, music, dance and poetry therapy] facilitates artistic expression-engendering clarity, mastery, meaning, and hope.... We choose from a wide array of adapted dramatic processes. Storytelling, improvisation, self-revelatory performance, life review, physical theatre, creative drama, puppetry, script pieces and more are tailored to the needs of a specific group or individual." Emunah teaches a five-phase integrative model in which drama therapists lead clients in a steadily progressive, carefully plotted journey of healing. Students practice these methods in the classroom, working together as though in a therapeutic environment.


"There's quite a bit of reading, of paper-writing, academic writing," explains Emunah. "There are many publications in the field and lots of methods and approaches. Obviously their own material is evoked in the processes, but it's a training program to become drama therapists, so we stress that meta-level and observational skill. That can be challenging. It's not a drama therapy group; it's class, [but] they can't just be sitting and taking notes." One class, for example, is geared to the application of DT in different facilities and age groups, and students practice being in the role of drama therapist while others simulate potential clients. The balance is between experiential classes and psychology classes. In lieu of a formal written thesis at the end, or making a documentary video, or directing a therapeutic "performance," most students opt to create a "self-revelatory" piece: a scripted, deeply personal, 30- to 45-minute performance that differs from an autobiographical solo show (such as Brian Copeland's revealing Not a Genuine Black Man) in that the student is not "telling a story" as such but rather is working through an emotional issue. "There's a sense of suspense in terms of unraveling the multiple strands of healing," explains Emunah, "but not a pat resolution or quick fix." Some students have taken their "self-revs" into the mainstream theatre world, performing in festivals.




Renee Emunah's Drama Therapy Process and Technique class at the California Institute of Integral Studies, October 2014.

Photo: Maya Grodman


In the weeks before I attended the class, the students had—along with academic reading and other classes—played a variety of theatre games familiar to actors who have had basic acting and/or improv training: back-to-back nonverbal conversations; repetitive exchange of lines à la Sanford Meisner ("I want it"/"You can't have it") and the more objective-oriented "I want [fill in the blank with something you really want]"/"You can have it"; throwing an imaginary ball around a circle; blind walks (a trust exercise); a blind touch and smell sensory awareness-type exercise; a form of "emotional statues"; creating a scene for characters in conflict. Students keep a journal of the insights they've gained. Of the sensory exercise, one student wrote, "It was a different, new experience when miming in a group where the focus is not on the artistic side of it but on the playful, spontaneous, creative side." One student wrote about a comedic improvisation involving three loud and rude Americans going into a strictly halal restaurant in Jordan and the cultural-political discussion that followed. "This scene really demonstrated just how powerful this work can be!" she wrote.


There is a decidedly aesthetic component to the practice of DT; as a student wrote in her journal, "A drama therapist needs to identify as a drama/theatre artist." Armand Volkas, a Marriage and Family Therapist and registered drama therapist with a private practice (the East Bay's Living Arts Counseling Center, with a focus on "drama and expressive arts therapy"), emphasizes that point: "The more aesthetic you can make therapy, the more transformative it will be." Volkas also teaches advanced improv and "Drama Therapy and Social Change" at CIIS. He started out by studying acting at UCLA, but when he codirected a theatre piece about children of Holocaust survivors (as he is himself) and realized how therapeutic it was, he knew he needed to apply theatre skills in a nontraditional way. He points out that DT emerged from several sources: ritual, shamanism, play therapy and—perhaps mostly importantly—the experimental theatre movement.
Volkas thinks DT is a field that more traditional therapists don't take seriously. "I think they see the power of it, and it scares them," he theorizes, "to get out of their chairs and into action."


Acting, he continues, requires a certain kind of narcissism. "It's about you as an instrument—finding an agent, getting work. But when you're a drama therapist, it's not about you. It's not the mommy-look-at-me impulse any more. You're using your tools in the service of someone else. So you need to have the impulse to be a servant. To make the world a better place. [But] you don't throw aesthetics out the window, although you have to adjust it because you're working with people [your clients] who are not skilled. But when you think of the aha! moment of your life, it has an aesthetic quality. So that's an important value in DT—to strive for an aesthetic even as a therapeutic goal. In a way you're creating new memories and you're rewiring the brain, so that when the person thinks of trauma, it can be rerouted to the new, reparative experience."    


Volkas has used his DT and theatre skills in a variety of innovative ways, including teaching a process he calls "Healing the Wounds of History," an approach to intercultural conflict and collective trauma. He trains drama therapists in his method, then invites a group in historical conflict (say, Turks and Armenians) to engage in a therapeutic process in which they might look at things like "the art of apology." "An apology is a performance," he says. "The tools of Method acting apply: how do you make an apology real? These are existential and spiritual questions for groups in conflict, where there's enormous trauma. How do you heal trauma? Theatre and DT are wonderful tools to research those kinds of questions." He also works with clients to create the same type of self-revelatory theatre pieces that CIIS students perform as a thesis; the client then performs for an invited audience.



  Pamela Greenberg with auxiliary actors performing in her capstone self-revelatory performance for

California Institute of Integral Studies' Drama Therapy Program. Photo: Courtesy of CIIS



The drama therapists I talked to who'd completed the masters program at CIIS were enthusiastic—and employed. Aileen Cho, who had been a theatre major at UC San Diego with an interest in theatre for the oppressed and theatre for social change, working in commercials was unfulfilling. She'd been in traditional talk therapy herself, and when she started Googling around for ideas, she was surprised to discover DT. She'd always known theatre was a powerful tool for change, but thought, Wow, this can be applied in a clinical setting? The master's program turned out to be the most intense thing she has ever done. She and her cohorts used to jokingly call it "trauma therapy." Her practicums included working with veterans with PTSD, with teens in Oakland schools and in a residential program for eating disorders, which has turned out to be her niche. "The experiential stuff was the most challenging," she reports. "They expect you to use your self and your life and personal stuff to experience the modality in DT. There's always a fine line between therapy and not-therapy. It was very demanding academically and personally on all levels." She became so close to her cohorts that they are now lifelong friends. "I've had close bonds with cast members, but this is a whole other level," she says. Now Cho works in residential and partial hospitalization and intensive programs for eating disorders, specializing in DT; maintains a private practice; and works with Volkas's performance programs as well as performing with a troupe of drama therapists at CIIS.


Like Cho, Jennifer Stuckert—who has a BFA in acting from NYU and has performed on Bay Area stages—discovered DT via Google. She wanted more autonomy over her career, and a steadier income. And she'd always been interested in psychologically driven theatre about interpersonal and social issues. When she took an introductory class at the New School in New York, she fell in love with the field. So two years after receiving her BFA, she applied to CIIS. She was surprised, she says, at just how challenging the program was. "It was scary at times, too," she says, "and surprising: learning how to not have compassion fatigue, learning how to have boundaries, even mental boundaries—be able to let go as you would let go of a role at the end of a show and return to yourself." She says it takes ego strength and self-awareness to do this kind of work. "It's not about you," she adds. "You can bring your authenticity and your empathy and your love for narrative, but you have to want to help people. That's not easy." But she loved the program and finds this career path to be rich and rewarding. She now works as a drama therapist at Volkas's Living Arts Counseling Center, has started moving toward sex therapy—and is heading to L.A. to pursue film work.


And Emily Burleson, who is a drama therapist at a Jewish K-8 school in Oakland, says that she was drawn to the field by the same impulses that drew her to theatre. Theatre had been healing for her and she wanted to share that with others. But she also didn't understand how the healing really happened, what that magic was—plus it depended on her being in a show. She needed "better access to whatever would provide me with that. Drama therapy training connected those dots for me."


Burleson attended the CIIS program from 2009 to 2012. She liked the emphasis on, "instead of diving directly into a client's own story, placing it into a fairy tale or investigative frame, a heightened reality that makes it exciting rather than depressing or terrifying or upsetting." She was thrilled to go to school with "psychology and theatre geeks." The hard part was the practicum, which for her was at a psychiatric hospital and required "a lot of grit and compassion." When she made it through to the end of that year, she felt fantastic. Now she realizes that the magic she was seeking happens when she helps another person to reach a deeper sense of peace and healing. Then she too receives the benefits.


Finally, what kind of jobs do DT graduates get? Cho says that she and her colleagues are good at getting work, because DT is unique, and "there are not that many of us." The majority of CIIS graduates work in community mental health, largely with groups, says Emunah: with emotionally disturbed children, at women's shelters, in chemical dependency or eating disorders programs. A smaller percentage build a private practice, working with individuals. Many, like Aileen Cho, continue to find ways to satisfy their acting itch as they're working as drama therapists.


CIIS holds open houses and information sessions where students, graduates and faculty speak; the next info session is Saturday, December 13, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Visit or call (415) 575-6230. You can also read about the field in Renée Emunah's book Acting for Real: Drama Therapy Process, Technique and Performance. And the Living Arts Counseling Center ( offers exploratory sessions; call (510) 595-5500, ext. 10.


Jean Schiffman is an arts writer based in San Francisco.