Drama Therapy

Drama Therapy is a combination of theatre and therapy which allows people to deal with their problems via catharsis, to acquire personal development, to express their emotions freely and to discover how to make better interpersonal relations (NADT, 2010 cited in Leib, 2010).
In 1954, “drama therapy” was mentioned by Peter Slade in the UK for the first time gaining reputation in the UK and the USA in 1960s. Drama therapy rose from both Experimental Theatre which includes onlookers, to theatre and Improvisational Theatre that works with improvisation and rapport. In 1979, the courses and research were connected to The National Association for Drama Therapy (Morstad, 2003).
Drama therapy might contain folk tale, play, scenario and dramatic themes that exist or can be created. People who attend have their own safe place or distance from their problems by using mask, mime, and puppetry (Emunah, 1997 cited in Morstad, 2003). According to Jones (1996 cited in Gorman, 2003), drama therapy has a goal to heal people. Particularly it works the principle “now and here” (Morstad, 2003; Gorman, 2003).
Emunah (1994) defined five goals of drama therapy. In his view, the first one is “expression and containment of emotions” that aims for the control of people’s emotions and ability to display them in an acceptable way. The second goal is the observing self and director within us which tries to find their answers to questions and assesses the subject by looking from different angles. The third one is role repertoire, in other words, during drama therapy participants are experiencing various roles and putting themselves in different personalities, events, behaviours or actions. In each character they learn new things and new ways. Fourth, modification and expansion of self image explains our inner life with different roles in drama therapy. The fifth and last one is social interaction and interpersonal skills which help the participants to improve their group relations by doing exercises and evade culture, ethnicity, age and gender (Morstad, 2003).


Drama therapy was characterized into two major types; process-oriented and performance based. Most current approaches are performance based, while many theories and applications that were discovered are reputable  process oriented such as Landy’s social psychology and role theory; Emunah’s humanistic and developmental psychology; Johnson’s developmental and self psychology (Johnson and Emunah, 2009). In this research some well-known process oriented theories are going to be explained.
1) Role theory by Robert Landy (1993): The theory of role is based on the issue “to be or not to be” which means to be is being in the play as an active player and on the other hand, not to be is staying out side of the play as an inactive player. According to Landy, a participant who is playing a role has two border ideas such as now-past, real-unreal, me-not me. The role that they play joins with their personality and their imagination or real character (Morstad, 2003).

2) Embodiment-Protection-Role Theory by Jennings (1993):  Jennings stated that the first year of a baby’s life is the embodiment stage such as touching, sucking and it continues with projection which is related to symbolic or pretend play, and in the third year, children experience role/ dramatic play which includes proto play (copying sound), pretend play (play father), personify (play what they see on movies), projective roles (project feelings via games) , enactment ( using their imagination for roles), dramatic play (story telling) and finally drama (many broad skills) (Morstad, 2003).
As stated by Jennings (1990 cited in Morstad, 2003), drama therapy can be fitted into four models. These are; creative-expressive, task and skills, psychotherapeutic, integrated. When creative-expressive model focuses on increasing self-esteem and creativity, task-skills method concentrates on skills which are gained in groups. Moreover, psychotherapeutic model stresses revising past experiences. It is intended that the client acquires self-awareness. The final one is integrated model which was mentioned above drama therapy is thought as a healer for people. For this reason there are many benefits of drama therapy for an individual’s development. For example, rationalising thought, revising their ideas, enhancing performance, making their life equilibrium and in planning, adopting society, understanding themselves and others, developing cognitively and socially, are some of the benefits of drama therapy.

3) Psychoanalytic Drama Theory by Eleanor Irwin: Stemming from psychoanalytic theory, she described her own model of drama therapy which tried to bring out her participant’s conscious and unconscious anxieties. Her aims are improving social skills, not only feeling relax also solving their problems, giving an attention to their emotions and developing their insight and changing their self-perception (Irwin, 2000; Philipose, 2003).

4) Developmental Transformations by David Johnson: Just as Irwin, Johnson believed that acquiring self-awareness is a vital for participants in drama therapy. Moreover it is significant to increase well-being or to have serenity in their life. His theory is based on developmental aspects so people have stages to experience in their life (Philipose, 2003).
5) Developmental Themes Approach by Penny Lewis: People’s problems are result of inadequate completion of one developmental stage. For this reason, using imagination he tried to go this stage which creates problems and solve these problems by drama or dance which is available to participant’s developmental phase (Philipose, 2003).
Role theory is the closest one to drama therapy because he put his theory according to theatrical aspects and he used the term of “theatre director” as the same meaning with therapist. Moreover Johnsons and Irwin’s theories are quite similar to each other on the other hand; Landy and Lewis’s theories are original in deed. Both Landy and Jennings implied that play is necessary for individuals’ well-being and also play is a practice of learning life by having a role. Finally all theories have aims, target population and each theory are different from each other (Philipose, 2003).


In addition to drama theories which were developed, there are many tools in drama therapy that can be used by drama therapist such as archetypes, psychodrama, sociodrama, sociometry, role play and reversal, transformational theatre, monologues, improvisation, empty chair.
Although Leib (2010) used the term of archetypes which mean unconscious psychical and psychological needs that can not be seen directly, they can only be seen indirectly such as
fantasies (Walker in Tomyai, 2003). In this concept drama therapy makes archetype concrete as a character and playing its role (Leib, 2010).
In the historical background of the dreams, they were used to follow what would happen in the future. According to Freud, dreams are unexplained and unconscious emotions, thoughts that can appear in a symbolic way (Tarnow, 2003). In drama therapy, therapist makes the dreams revived with playing the role of or performing the dreams (Leib, 2010).

The empty chair is a method that was discovered by Moreno (Blatner, 1996 cited in Leib, 2010). In the therapy session protagonist explains his ideas, emotions to this empty chair as if somebody is sitting there. After that he is exchanging the role by taking the empty chair as an observer of his own life. This method helps both client to look at himself and therapist to see the problematic area.
The other tool is improvisation which infers playing naturally without knowing what to do before. In the theatre it is important to react on time freely. This method is generally being used by psychodynamic drama therapy model.
Role Play is performing a character which is real or imagination. For example children may act their fairy-tale hero such as prince. Similarly to role play, role reversal is “the role of other person involved” (Moreno, 2006; Leib, 2010).
Sociodrama is alike psychodrama but instead of focusing on personal problems, it is more interested in social problems such as how deal with pollution.

Monologues are providing materials which were written before such as scripts, poetry to participants.
In Sociometry, drama therapist defines a problem and wants from the participant to choose a place to stay in the room. Doing this method, therapist tries to explore client’s feelings and thoughts.
In Transformational Theatre, participants are wanted to be what they would want to be if they had a chance to be a different person. In this way, they can know their inner life and their real desires.
 Psychodrama was introduced by Moreno depicts that one of the participant as a protagonist is trying to explain his/her life by selecting character the rest of the group in the room. The other characters that he chooses are named auxiliary roles. The selected subject that is related with protagonist life experiences in the past so it is not an imagination of protagonist (Leib, 2010). Although psychodrama and drama therapy seem similar, there are many differences in application. To understand the difference better Tahar and Kellermann (1996) made up a comparison chart;


Group Psychotherapy
Psyche (aim) Drama

Expressive art therapy
drama (aim) psyche


1.L. Moreno and others
role: sociometry
social psychology
object relation theory
behavioral learning

No one “founder”
theatre theory
anthropology and ritual
role and play theory
Jungian psychology

Aims Therapeuticself-awareness




group work


Clear structureimagination and reality
cognitive integration
focus on individual
specific techniques

Unclear structureimagination, myth
no processing
focus on group
no specific techniques


life crises

handicapped, retarded


 Analyst, producer
therapist, group leader
Dramaturg, teacher
artist, shaman

Tools and theories can confuse a researchers mind during implementation of drama therapy. Landy (2006) criticised drama therapy for some aspects. For example, he claimed that, even if drama therapy is based on many good pioneers’ theories and assumption, there could still be discussed the methods which will to be applied in therapy. Furthermore, he suggested that there are not too many education programs given to students who want to be specialist in drama therapy field. Landy proposed new theorists and scientists should be trained and drama therapy should be developed because it is so specific with itself. The combination is necessary with other areas of expertise such as counselling and psychology. 

Drama Therapy Session

Drama therapy is being used for healing many different kinds of psychological problems. Therapy sessions start with check-in process which makes clients comfortable and prepares them to second stage. In the session, the more they feel free and safe, the better they will adopt the group activity. The second stage is a warm up that defines some activities before the main scene. These activities can be music, mask, props, and movement such as pacing around the therapy room by looking each others actions and behaviours to imitate them. The next and major one is scene implementation reveals everybody in the session is an active attendant and participant picks one of the character inside of the group for an imaginative scenario such as famous television movies, novels or scripts from theatre. In this way, participants will have their liability for their decision. Furthermore, the therapist should have a vision about what scenario will be like, what she has to do to fulfil her participant’s desires. She should be careful when small changes or adaptation needs to be made in terms of group structure. The forth step is debriefing which refers to taking clients’ idea about their character and feelings for their role. For this reason, the mood in the room should be tranquil. In addition, the expectation from clients is, admitting what they did in the therapy session. As Valente and Fontana (1994) indicated that therapists are wanted to be good listeners, observers and supporters in drama therapy. In this aspect, therapist’s role is very important to encourage clients’ expressing themselves in this stage. The final stage is closing activity which displays finishing the session and stopping to act in this period. Regarding therapy, the therapist should have feedback and explain in brief what they did and check with participants if they have any questions or want to add something before the therapy finishes. As a result, therapist should prepare the clients to end therapy and leave (Meyer, 2010).

Role of Drama Therapist

Drama therapist’s role is vital and can change in terms of group activity. In this concept, Landy reorganized Scheff’s theory of distance model in drama (1993 cited in Casson, 2004). First, overdistance emphasizes logical thinking that abolishes a person’s opinion about himself and others however, underdistance focuses on the situation of excessive emotions that infuse his objectivity. Finally, aesthetic distance describes the place where emotions and logics or hearth emerges in a state of equilibrium (Pitruzzella, 2004). Depending on group atmosphere therapist’s role can be under-distance, over-distance or aesthetic distance. The most available one is aesthetic-distance which feelings and rational thoughts are in balance. Moreover with aesthetic distance, therapist tries to help his patients to gain insight and to relief with catharsis. On the other hand, according to the psychoanalytic therapy there should be certain borders between a therapist and the clients. Therapist should be passive player which means over-distance. As an example to under-distance, while the client is a mouse, therapist will be an elephant. Therapist’s actions put distance between client with shaking his trunk, throwing away things in the room. Although his actions are scary, therapist can make his behaviours less scary and more balanced to go into aesthetic distance rather than under-distance (Landy, cited in Jennings, 1992). In addition to the distance theory, Johnson stated that drama therapist has three important roles in the session: Psychological role; as transference figures such as a parent, Dramatic Role; as a character in the drama, Social Role; as “therapist”(Johnson in Jennings, 1992).

Case Example

Cattanach (in Jennings, 1992) gave an example of a child who has been sexually abused by family members to show the healing effect of drama therapy. James is nine years old child who was living foster family sometimes. He was wanted tell a story and he defined two worlds; bad world and good world. After a while, some TV programs were represented to James and wanted to explain what he understood from program. In progress of the time, James started to create his own life story with TV characters which tells his family experiences. Every time when he came to the therapy, he wanted from therapist to tell it his story again until he says he does not want to hear it anymore. He made a connection between his TV characters to his real life by playing games. While he was going to the end of session, his opinion about “good world” and “bad world” were a safe place and bad world was in the past. Moreover, he accepted that the characters in which he created were his family in the drama therapy.


According to Morstad (2003), drama can use as a guidance for school children firstly because of all drama is a play which means as Erik Erikson stated it has a healing effect on children in its nature (Emunah, 1994). Children are making sense of world through experience in play and when doing this they are acquiring skills such as cognitive, social and emotional. Secondly drama is acting. During adolescent period, they manifest explosion of emotions, communication problems with people and a tendency to threatening behaviours. Third, drama is a creative and expressive art. Creative arts provide a chance to express our feelings in non-directive way. In Iijine’s opinion, if people do not use their creativity, it makes them unhealthy because their mind and body work much better and healthier (Jones, 1996 in Gorman, 2003). Forth, drama is an active and experiential learning. During the therapy participants are learning new skills actively, correcting their mistakes, taking risks (Jackson, 1993 in Morstad, 2003).
One aspect that should not be ignored is arranging spare time for children to have benefits from drama therapy. In other words, the day should be chosen by their guardians or families so as to avoid distracting their attention when they need to be studying.
Finally, benefits of drama therapy were investigated by Makhlakh (1962), role playing provides children exploring new world, behaviour pattern and using their imagination for boring work (Hartshorn and Brantley, 1973). Everybody can attend drama therapy session whenever they want so there is not a specific population to be used. For instance population might involve Post Traumatic Stress Disorder patients, war veterans, drugs addiction, fatal diseases, abused children, the person who has psychological illness and individuals who want to understand their problems (NCATA, 2003; NYU, 2001 cited in Morstad, 2003). In Ward’s opinion (1957 cited in O’Toole, 2009) drama has benefits because it helps children’s feelings outburst in a safe way, develops creativity and social skills in group, evaluates high self-esteem. As a consequence, drama therapy is a bridge which connects between our inner world and an actual life (Morstad, 2003).


  • Armstrong, J. (2002) Exploring the Effects of Individual Dramatherapy with a Child Diagnosed with Learning Disabilities: A Case Study. Unpublished M.A. thesis (Concordia University).
  • Brantley, C.J, Hartshorn, E. (1973) Effects of Dramatic Play on Classroom Problem Solving, The Journal of Educational Research, vol. 66, 6, pp243-246.
  • Casson, J.W. (2004) Drama, Psychotherapy and Psychosis. East Sussex: Bruner-Routledge.
  • Fontana, D., Valente, L. (1994) Drama Therapist and Client: An Examination of Good Practice and Outcomes, The Arts in Psychotherapy, vol. 21, 1, pp3-10.
  • Fontana, D., Valente, L. (1993) Drama Therapy and The Theory of Psychological Reversals, The Arts in Psychotherapy, vol. 20, 2, pp133-142.
  • Gorman, G. (2003) Embodiment of Health: Using Drama Therapy to Heal from Cancer. Unpublished M.A. thesis (Concordia University).
  • Grainger. R. (1990) Drama and healing: The roots of drama therapy. London: Jessica Kingsley.
  • Landy, R.J. (2006) The Future of Drama Therapy, The Arts in Psychotherapy, 33, pp. 135-142.
  • Jennings, S. (1992) Dramatherapy Theory and Practice 2. London: Routledge.
  • Johnson, D.R., Emunah, R. (2009) Current Approaches in Drama Therapy Second Edition. USA: Charles C Thomas.
  • Kellermann, F.P, Tahar, E.K. (1996) Psychodrama and Drama Therapy: A Comparison, The Arts in Psychotherapy, vol.23, 1, pp. 27-36.
  • Leib, J.R. (2010) Benefits of Drama Therapy for Actors with Creative Blocks due to Fear, Anxiety, and Depression. Unpublished M.A. thesis (Lesley University).
  • Meyer, D.D, (2010). Drama Therapy as a Counseling Intervention for Individuals with Eating Disorders. Retrieved from     http://counselingoutfitters.com/vistas/vistas10/Article_8.pdf
  • Morstad, D.M 2003 Drama’s Role in School Counseling Unpublished M.A. thesis (University of Wisconsin-Stout).
  • O’Toole, J. (2009) Drama for Development and Expression, Drama and Curriculum, Landscapes: The Art, Aesthetics and Education, vol.6, 2, pp. 71-95.
  • Philipose, L. (2003) An Exploration of Four Approaches to Counter-transference in Drama Therapy. Unpublished M.A. Thesis (Concordia University).
  • Pitruzzella, S. (2004) Introduction to Drama Therapy: Person and Threshold. East Sussex: Bruner- Routledge.
  • Tarnow, E. (2003) How Dreams and Memory May Be Related, Journal of Neuro-Pyschoanaylsis, vol. 5, 2, pp. 177-182.
  • Tomyai, M.M. (2003) Exploring Archetypal Images, Especially The Shadow, Through the Medium of Drama Therapy. Unpublished M.A. thesis (Concordia University).
WeCreativez WhatsApp Support
Merhaba Size Nasıl Yardımcı Olabiliriz?