The Healing Power of Art

Written by Aria Schuler (Transcendence Summer Intern)

Art heals. Whether it’s the warm feeling at the pit of your stomach after seeing a musical in the city or the exuberant release of singing a song on your car ride home, there is no doubt, that the power of performance improves the life of anyone, anywhere.

Art also heals in a far bigger-picture way as well. Companies all over the country use their art to uplift and validate identities of marginalized groups of all backgrounds. Witness Theatre in Brooklyn partners Holocaust survivors with local high schoolers to create short works about their mentor’s experience. Storycatchers Theatre in Chicago has teaching artists to work with children within the court system, allowing them to find their own voice through the dramatic arts . And of course, Transcendence Theatre Company works in tandem with La Luz to promote the creativity and representation of local Latinx youth through our Connects program.

Seeing yourself and your story onstage makes you feel as though you matter, and as the performance industry continues to diversify gradually, art is empowering through delineation more than ever. However, aside from just representation, the creation of theatrical art has the ability to psychologically heal, as “drama therapy” becomes an increasingly popular practice throughout the United States.

One of the leading theorists in drama therapy, Robert Landy, described the practice with four basic tenants: the self, populations, technique, and theory. The self speaks to an artist’s interpersonal journey, populations is how to contextualize this journey within a larger society, and technique and theory are essentially the understanding of both dramatic and psychological methods to provide therapy through art. The combination of the four is a constructivist link established between the drama and reality of the patient.

Drama therapy is able to connect these two worlds by utilizing several forms of cognitive learning that have been applied to Landy’s original work. Firstly, there is enactive learning, which is seeing things holistically and multifariously. Group work is integral to enactive learning, thus, is a huge part of drama therapy. The second is situated learning, which is basically tactile “learning by doing.” In many drama therapy workshops, there are lively warmups, introductions, and actual activities that involve developing characters and settings. The accompanying impulsivity with “doing” allows space for psychodynamic learning, the idea of the subconscious playing into everything. By working with a group and creating in a hands-on manner, the clients are able to let their subconscious reflect itself into the art they are creating.

The synthesis of these three cognitive learning styles is what makes performance art a direct way to combat trauma. Particularly within children, victims of traumatic experience struggle with maintaining multiple executive functions (EFs) or cognitive functions needed to adequately process, due to a loss of external control. As a result, people become distracted, unable to focus on one task, and often on guard constantly. Because drama therapy uses so many forms of learning subconsciously, clients are able to slowly regain the ability to use multiple EFs at once.

For example, the CANY method, created by the Creative Alternatives of New York, follows a very specific plan to help tween to adolescent children who have been victims of trauma. After the first step of planning, the kids come in for a “check-in” phase. This is where a sense of safety in a group, or enactive learning, is established. By working in a group, not only is there cognitive improvement, but trauma victims actually are able to readjust to trusting other people. Shortly after, there is a “warm-up” which encourages both situated and psychodynamic learning, because the kids both are able to throw themselves into an activity and begin to express themselves even in ways as small as a hand motion or a noise. This self-expression is crucial for the rest of the workshop, as it lays the foundations to use art to find validity in one’s identity.

By quickly, but subliminally introducing these forms of learning, the team then shifts to metaphor-based work. This is where the power of drama therapy becomes powerfully transformative. Nisha Sajnani and David Read Johnson, authors of Trauma-Informed Drama Therapy: Transforming Clinics, Classrooms and Communities state: “Metaphor serves a protective factor, allowing real-life feelings and experiences to be embodied within a parallel realm, thereby reducing the risk of retraumatization” (Sajnani and Johson 154). So within metaphor, and the world-building of theatre, kids are able to address their trauma with imagination rather than painful confrontation.

With this element of psychology, art is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the medical community. The concept of drama therapy is gradually making its way into the world of medicine. In a study from the University of Exeter, medical students underwent dramatic therapy training using the works of famous theatre artist Augusto Boal. After emerging from the training, medical students were able to understand how to better empathize with their patients. The training tore down the pre-existing hierarchy because of discrepancies in medical knowledge and bridged the gap between patient and health provider. And the interpretation of the patient can make or break the healing process, as recent studies have shown empathy to be as important for doctors as medical knowledge and quantitative skills.

Theatre has always been an artform rife for making change, whether through representation or just lifting someone’s spirits. However, drama therapy and its applications to the medical world reveal that art does heal… literally.

Works Cited

Butler, Jason D. “Re-examining Landy’s fourpart model of drama therapy education.” Drama Therapy Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 2017, p. 75+. Gale Academic Onefile, http://link.galegroup.com.libproxy2.usc.edu/apps/doc/A490821739/AONE?u=usocal_main&sid=AONE&xid=c11a9096. Accessed 30 July 2019.

Goldingay, S., et al. “(Re)Acting Medicine: Applying Theatre in Order to Develop a Whole-Systems Approach to Understanding the Healing Response.” Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, vol. 19, no. 3, 3 July 2014, pp. 272–279., doi:10.1080/13569783.2014.928007.

Sajnani, Nisha, and David Read Johnson. Trauma-Informed Drama Therapy: Transforming Clinics, Classrooms, and Communities. Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Ltd., 2014.

Wallace, Kelly. “How Theatre and Drama Can Have Healing Powers.” Playbill, PLAYBILL INC., 18 June 2017, www.playbill.com/article/how-theatre-and-drama-can-have-healing-powers.