Drama therapy is a treatment approach that provides a theatrical platform for people in therapy to express their feelings, solve problems, and achieve therapeutic goals.
The North American Drama Therapy Association defines the therapy as “an active, experiential approach to facilitating change. Through storytelling, projective play, purposeful improvisation, and performance, participants are invited to rehearse desired behaviors, practice being in a relationship, expand and find flexibility between life roles, and perform the change they wish to be and see in the world.”
Due to the cathartic nature of dramatic artistic expression, drama itself tends to promote good mental health. However, drama therapy consists of more than just acting. Like art, music, and dance therapies, drama therapy uses the art form as a springboard for deeper, more meaningful work with participants. Drama therapists guide people in therapy through a series of intentional activities that allow them to enact scenes representative of the way they want to live their lives. Participants may see drama therapy affect changes in their behavior, emotional state, personal growth, and skill adaptation. Participants utilizing drama therapy are often able to improve their interpersonal relationship skills through active participation in things like:
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Drama therapy grew from Jacob L. Moreno's therapeutic approach called psychodrama, which uses guided dramatic action to address issues and concerns. Early drama therapy contributors include Nikolai Evreinov, Vladimir Iljne, Bertholt Brecht, Sandor Ferenczi, Neva Boyd, and Constantin Stanislavski. Other contributors, sharing influences from role theory, analytical psychology, and creative arts therapies, propelled the field from “theater as therapy” to what we now call drama therapy. They include theorists and professionals like Peter Slade, Carl Jung, T. D. Noble, Winifred Ward, Maxwell Jones, Gertrud Schattner, and Sue Jennings.
In 1979, the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA), then called the National Association for Drama Therapy, was established. Today, NADTA provides education, advocacy, and accreditation for the field of drama therapy.
The primary goal of drama therapy is to provide people with a safe and secure experience that encourages the full expression of their emotional voice through playful, dramatic activity. The desired outcome of drama therapy is different for each participant, but the fundamental model is designed to promote healing and growth through the use of role playing and dramatic interactions. As a practice, drama therapy aims to do the following:
- Promote positive behavioral changes
- Improve interpersonal relationship skills
- Integrate physical and emotional well-being
- Achieve personal growth and self-awareness
- Improve overall quality of life
Drama therapy continues to gain ground as a treatment modality. It can be used in a variety of settings, including schools, mental health clinics, prisons, hospitals, and community centers. Drama therapy may be used as a treatment for the following:
- Posttraumatic stress
- Interpersonal relationship issues
- Substance abuse
- Behavioral issues related to autism
- Eating disorders
- Learning difficulties
- Grief and loss
This is not a complete list, though it contains some of the more common mental health issues drama therapy may be used to treat.
Although drama therapy is considered a somewhat newer treatment approach, research has been conducted that supports its efficacy. Listed below are a few examples drama therapy research findings:
- A study published in the official journal of the NADTA, Drama Therapy Review, found drama therapy to be an effective treatment approach for children on the autism spectrum. The results showed significant improvement in social interaction as well as the reduction of autism-related externalizing behaviors such as hyperactivity and inattention.
- European Psychiatry, the official journal of the European Psychiatric Association (EPA), published a study in 2009 that concluded drama therapy effectively reduced symptoms of social anxiety in its participants.
- A qualitative case study published in Drama Therapy Review suggests that drama therapy techniques may work well in couples counseling. The couple in the case study reported positive progress as a result of their drama therapy work.
The North American Drama Therapy Association oversees professional training criteria and procedures for certified drama therapists. In order to satisfy the requirements set forth by NADTA, one must become a Registered Drama Therapist (RDT). The RDT credential can be obtained by attending an accredited master’s program that provides education and training in psychology, theater, and drama therapy. The NADTA also offers an alternative training program for those who did not receive a master’s degree from an NADTA-approved program.
Available literature on drama therapy reports few limitations or concerns associated with the approach. However, as with most therapies, training is vital when it comes to proper delivery of techniques. It may be tempting for some clinicians to use “theater as therapy” or dramatic techniques in their treatment, but doing so without proper training and education can sometimes put people in therapy at risk. When engaging in drama therapy, people should consider finding a therapist with the Registered Drama Therapist certification.
Additionally, although drama therapy has demonstrated efficacy as an evidence-based treatment, more research is needed. However, as the field of drama therapy continues to grow and with the publication of the official journal of the NADTA, Drama Therapy Review, more information is becoming available to people seeking therapy and professionals alike.
- Advocacy. (n.d.). In North American Drama Therapy Association. Retrieved from http://www.nadta.org/advocacy.html
- Anari, A., Ddadsetan, P., & Sedghpour, B. S. (2009). The effectiveness of drama therapy on decreasing of the symptoms of social anxiety disorder in children. European Psychiatry, 24(1). doi:10.1016/S0924-9338(09)70747-3
- D’Amico, M., Lalonde, C., & Snow, S. (2015, January). Evaluating the efficacy of drama therapy in teaching social skills to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Drama Therapy Review, 1(1), 21-39. doi:10.1386/dtr.1.1.21_1
- Drama Therapy. (n.d.). In North American Drama Therapy Association. Retrieved from http://www.nadta.org/assets/documents/brochure-nadt.pdf
- Dramatherapy and Psychodrama. (n.d.). In Creative Psychotherapy. Retrieved from http://www.creativepsychotherapy.info/dramatherapy-and-psychodrama/
- FAQ. (n.d.). In North American Drama Therapy Association. Retrieved from http://www.nadta.org/what-is-drama-therapy/faq.html
- Langley, D. (2006). An Introduction to Dramatherapy. London, England: Sage Publications.
- What is Drama Therapy?. (n.d.). In North American Drama Therapy Association. Retrieved from http://www.nadta.org/what-is-drama-therapy.html
- What is Psychodrama, Sociometry, and Sociodrama?. (n.d.). In American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama. Retrieved from http://asgpp.org/pdf/What%20is%20PD,%20etc.pdf
- Wiener, D. J. (2015, January). Staging dramatic enactments to resolve conflicts in couples. Drama Therapy Review, 1(1), 7-20. doi:10.1386/dtr.1.1.7_1