Drama therapy (written as dramatherapy in the UK) is a type of psychological counseling that includes the acting out of ideas and playing roles in order to promote deeper understanding of the self or to achieve psychological healing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be clients simply acting in words or gestures, but could include role-playing with props, masks, puppets, or dolls. Such therapy may take place in a group, or it could be individualized to a single client.
This type of therapy first grew into prominence in the 1970s, though drama therapists may date their profession to antiquity and the idea of catharsis that was expressed by so many of the Greek playwrights. Certainly the field also derived some of its ideas from the earlier developed psychodrama, though there are great differences between how the two are learned and applied. Much of the history of drama may influence the drama therapist, who has experience not only in psychology, but also in acting and production of dramatic works.
It should be understood that the drama therapist usually holds a master’s degree in drama therapy with additional practice hours, or holds a master’s degree in counseling of another type that has been supervised by a drama therapist. These therapists are often registered or certified with credentialing agencies that allow them to practice and claim the title of drama therapist.
Drama can be used to help people access difficult material in the self or the deeper self, in what is often called a safer approach. If people play roles in any context, they are able to distance the self from that role and may be able to use experience to inform the role in a more observatory way. Great expression of the self can thus occur, but only to the level wanted by the participant, which may be excellent for those trying to process trauma. One of the advantages cited with this form of therapy is that it allows people to become more open to other forms of therapy, because the role of therapist is differently constructed and less intrusive, and because the person begins a serious, experiential inquiry of self that he or she may want to continue more directly through things like talk therapy.
While the talk therapy model isn’t employed, (though there is obviously spoken communication) it would be a mistake to assume that a drama therapist doesn’t plan individually for each client. In fact, most therapists will meet with clients or groups and come up with a summary of needs, and how the various aspects of drama therapy can address them. The therapist and the client may both identify goals they want to meet, but meeting them is through means like role playing, acting out scenes, or in other ways
Drama therapy is used in a variety of contexts. It adapts well to group work and could be employed in mental hospitals, correctional institutions, drug and alcohol rehab centers, reform homes for adolescents, children’s homes, and homes for the elderly or those with mental deficits. It may also prove useful as a type of play therapy in working with those with sexual abuse or trauma, in groups or in individual settings. Since the 1970s, when theories on drama in psychology really coalesced and become well-defined, drama therapy has continued to grow and explore the ways that it can be useful to people processing psychological pain.