In, The Gift of Therapy, Irvin Yalom (2002) writes, “Often the therapist is the only audience viewing great dramas and acts of courage. Such privilege demands a response to the actor.” He continues that while the client might share their life stories outside the therapy room, therapists have privy to the client’s world in a way that others likely do not. Indeed, each week at CANY we sit with clients across various populations and bear witness to their stories. The act of witnessing group sharing in discussions, embodied processes and other creative explorations is rich with information about the lives of our clients and tells a story of what group members do and do not wish to be seen/known. Much like how we – as therapists and humans in and out of the therapy room – also curate how we wish to be seen and known.

Often the conversations and enactments that unfold in groups at once include and exclude the facilitators; these moments appear in some way to ask the therapist to bear witness to the stories of their lives. Their enactments serve as the window for our eyes and ask us the questions: “Can you tolerate the stories I have to tell? Can you see me? Can you hold/tolerate me?”

Witness Painting

Detail of “Witness”, a painting by Benny Andrews – Image credit: Matthew Newton for the Brooklyn Museum, courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC.

In one group that a colleague and I co-facilitated at a school-based program for teenagers, we were many times enrolled as witness. The group had an abundance of energy and would often break out into conversation about music, video games and other themes that were relevant to their lives. They would check in with us to see if we knew what artist they were talking about or video game they were speaking of. These energized discussions contained information about what was important, exciting, frustrating, angering and energizing to them. They at once kept us as a-part of and apart from the group through enrolling us as witness. This group talked about their issues with sobriety, interpersonal conflicts and the struggles they faced in their lives at home and in school. At times they said among themselves that when we, the facilitators, left the group we would likely speak to how “bad” the group was. They even shared fantasies of how my partner and I skipped through the park and baked cupcakes. They were telling us, “We are worlds apart. You do not know our lives.” And there was indeed truth to this sentiment.

This group was highly creative and enjoyed telling and acting out new stories. After several weeks of working together, the students cast my partner and me as drug dealers who were arrested by the police. Group members played the police officers and lawyers who were in charge of our characters’ outcomes. In this story, we were cast in roles counter to their original idea(s) of who we were (the carefree therapists that went skipping through the park) and they took on the roles of the experts, authorities, and leaders in the play. In so doing, they were bearing witness to us stepping into a world they talked about and roles they were often familiar with and allowed us to witness them as the leaders, experts, and authorities in the room. This role reversal gave us the opportunity to be embodied witnesses into the stories of the other.

In the therapeutic encounter, our clients bear witness to us just as we bear witness to them. I am always in awe when a client shows me how they perceive me, or steps in before I can respond to something with what they imagine I will say. In these moments, I am reminded that I too am being witnessed in this process. I too expose things that I want to communicate and also things I am not even aware. This process is a form of stepping, for a moment, into the worlds of the other as if to ask, “Can you see me, and if you do, will you stay?” Our clients are asking us this question just as we too are asking them. Bearing witness to all that our clients bring in the room allows for validation and acceptance of their life stories just as they are and cultivates a space for new stories to be told and new possibilities imagined.





Britton Williams, RDT, LCAT; Program Manager at CANY



CLINICIAN HEAL THYSELF! (featuring guest blogger Lucy McLellan)

 As former Program/Training Director/Blog Editor at CANY, I was honored to be invited to contribute this month’s post. Although I live 1,000 miles away from NYC these days, situated in Madison, WI, I continue to follow SYNTHESIS on a monthly basis. It keeps me connected to the ideas and practice swirling around the CANY and wider drama therapy community, something that keeps my clinical heart beating as one of only three Registered Drama Therapists in the state of Wisconsin. What I offer below speaks to this experience directly. It is an invitation to you, reader, to consider the ways in which we remain connected to our knowledge, skills and passion on the job.



I am high energy person. Even in middle age, I barrel through daily life with intensity. It is, to draw from Tich Nach Hahn, a habit energy; not as much an innate state as an energetic drive that I have adopted over the years, pushing me on.

As a drama therapist, however, my high energy serves me well. I enter the therapeutic space comfortable with emotional intensity. I do not fear the stories or the roles conjured up in the playspace of the trauma-affected clients I work with. I am drawn to the vigor of enactment.

All that said, I am as prone to compassion fatigue as the next clinician, arguably more so. My high energetic out-put requires conscious replenishment, a lesson I have learned the hard way. Staying clinically engaged and countering the secondary hurts of posttraumatic stress has become a necessary labor of (self) love for me. Over the last year, I have repeatedly found myself drawing from Mary Jo Barrett’s concept of ethical attunement as a way of managing my energy as a therapist.

Understanding Ethical Attunement

“Ethical Attunement is a non-reactive therapeutic stance in which practitioners are open and responsive to their own internal processes and to those of their clients.” (p.60)

Ethical attunement demands that we as therapists monitor our own energetic resources and as necessary. Compassion fatigue becomes a clinical certainty when we energetically give in the treatment of others and neglect to restock our own energy stores. Mary Jo nails it – “We cannot stay ethically attuned if we are energy-depleted.”(p.59)

In the office space I share at work here in Madison, WI, I have created a large chalk copy of Barrett’s infographic “Manage Your Energy for Optimal Ethical Performance“. For me it provides a simple and applicable blueprint for remaining plugged into my energetic needs so that I can recognize and meet those of my clients.

Of course there’s more than just high energy. One of my favorite aspects of Mary Jo’s energy management action plan is her attention to both low positive (drinking warm tea) and high positive (running, dancing) energy replenishers. A brief survey reveals a broad spectrum of ways in which my current co-workers like to energetically restock, ranging from “yoga” and “solitude” to “smashing playdoh”. Whatever floats your energetic boat!



As a drama therapist, I wonder also about creative replenishment. Mary Jo identifies five domains of ethical awareness, each a player in overall well-being:

  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Intellectual
  • Spiritual
  • Sexual

I would argue that there is a sixth; creativity being that missing piece.

In my work with CANY over a ten year period, I experienced both the energetic highs and lows of group leadership. For every exquisite metaphor enacted, there was a drama that spluttered into life, sometimes refusing to spark altogether. Regardless of what happened in the playspace, my role as a drama therapist was (and is) to hold the energy of possibility. It’s the “yes” of improv; creativity at its essence.

Let me give you a concrete example. I used to facilitate a weekly group with Heidi Landis, CANY’s Associate Executive Director. Together, we would drive to Westchester to co-lead a group with teenage girls who shared a history of commercial sexual exploitation, more commonly known as sex trafficking. Before even entering the room, our knowledge of the girls’ traumatic history arguably impacted our energetic potential. A therapist can sometimes feel crushed by psychosocial knowledge of a client in a way that counters the zesty, fierce (albeit traumatized) individual that walks into treatment.

The group experience itself was textbook chaos, characterized by unscheduled interruptions and dysregulated expressions of anger and distrust. Unsurprisingly the clients seemed avoidant and disconnected. Planning sessions that prefaced weekly groups left me feeling clueless. No activity or intervention seemed safe from rejection. Post-group processing was equally gruesome as we dissected the blood and guts of what happened, searching for something that we might call therapeutic progress.

How could Heidi and I remain ethically attuned to the emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual and sexual experience of our clients in our stuckness? How could we honor their creative potential too when we were felt so artistically deflated?

Simple. We reminded ourselves of our therapeutic potential by returning to our creative roots. We played, we laughed; from the sublime to the ridiculous. We listened to 1980’s rock ballads we drove north on the Henry Hudson Parkway. We bought reviving coffee in Dobbs Ferry. We talked about our lives and about the lives of our clients. We remembered our times as actors, shared comic tales of touring our respective nations. We talked about our values, our beliefs. We tied them into group plans and the hopes we had for these remarkable, though life-battered girls. There was an investment in each domain of ethical awareness, including our creativity. And thus, when we arrived at and left our group each week, we were ready to engage. Our doubts, our stuff on hold so that we could be present and attuned to the stuff of our clients. This was how we managed our energy for optimal ethical performance.

I realize in concluding this blog post that I have written a letter of gratitude to my co-therapist, Heidi. Indeed to all my co-leaders at CANY. The very model that CANY offers its employees essentially allows for the management of energy and thus ethical attunement through relationship, which in my opinion is the very best medicine of all. So, thank you, Heidi (and CANY) for helping me to reconnect with my creative heartbeat before and after each group. We didn’t get to smash playdoh together but we replenished in a whole host of other high and low energy ways.



Lucy McLellan, MA, RDT-BCT, LCAT


TO BE OR NOT TO BE: An Invitation to a Process of Becoming

Welcome 2016!

Reflecting on the year gone by, I am filled with gratitude, a burgeoning desire for growth and an array of questions. As is customary at the beginning of the year, there is much talk about being better or healthier people or not being so impatient and so on. However, I am humbled by the complexity of the existential question, “What does it even mean to be?” What does it mean to truly be in this world? The beginning of the year also brings with it much change. In my own life, this new year ushers in a major and unexpected change that requires my relocation to my beautiful home country, Trinidad and Tobago. As I begin my transition, leaving my time at CANY behind, I reflect on the person I have been at this organization and the many beings I encountered along the journey.

blog image2.jpg

Photograph by Gjon Mili

In the sacred spaces at CANY, I have been therapist, colleague, trainee, friend, exotic person/one, immigrant, black person, invisible one, betrayer, misunderstood one and more. Yet who I am, or who I experience myself to be, was never fully accounted for by these roles. Like the discomfort of mismatched socks to the obsessively compulsive, there was a burdening discrepancy between who I experience myself to be and the personas others choose to see in me. I engaged in this disparity even further as I witnessed its performance in many of my adolescent clients.

Working with adolescents for the past year has immersed me in a reflective parallel process. I viscerally experienced the very mercurial, ever changing, on stage-off stage enactment that is adolescence. “Nina” was one such individual who would repeatedly perform this incongruence with the person she experienced herself to be and that which others saw in her. She would enter the room happily and dramatically and then express how exhausted, pissed off and hungry she was. This way of being pervaded the group process. Fittingly, nearing the end of our time together, this group organically invited each other to share their first impressions of each other versus what they now know to be true through the group process. Nina was initially viewed by her peers as being “stuck up, annoying and judgmental”. Now, they have come to appreciate her as a “loving and cool”. Nina confirmed these observations, having heard them several times before, while highlighting the tendency for others to see her differently from who she really is. Like the connective tissue that is the red thread in their performances of adolescence, each individual acknowledged and gave voice this observed discrepancy; their ways of being.

More literally, I think of the verb ‘to be’. I think of the old man of the sea in Greek mythology, Proteus. Like the sea, he was ever-shifting and able to take different forms of being. He was all-knowing but reluctant to share his knowledge. As such, one would have to grab him quickly and hold on tightly even as he attempts to escape by taking on these different forms: lion, snake, tree etc. He would then eventually share his knowledge and plunge into the sea. The verb ‘to be’ is known as the most protean in the English language: constantly changing, without discernible patterns, most irregular and often used. Similarly, ‘being’ in this world alludes to a continuous process of change, transition and even shape-shifting.

The first noted definition of the verb “to be” is to exist or to be present. I have come to value presence, especially within the framework of CANY’s trauma-informed model, as the grounded manifestation of one’s being in the moment. A client’s presence in the room ought not be limited to or defined by what he or she is actively doing but rather experienced as psychic energy consisting of thoughts, feelings, roles, history, dreams, spirit, passions and the like that are experienced in relationship. Therefore, “to be” in this world conjures an image of an ever-moving sea that carries within its waves the dignity of human realities.


Photograph by Gjon Mili

Which brings me to other questions: What does it mean to “be” in Western culture, which attributes “doing” to one’s being? What does it mean to be in a community that assigns privilege to categories of actions, potentially negating the essence of one’s presence? Here we encounter an ablest framework of existence which devalues the ever-shifting seas that are not accounted for by socially valued actions that denote being. Through this lens, to be is to do and to not do is to be absent. I think of the number of New Yorkers spending their years chasing the capitalist ideals of self-actualization and productivity, living to work rather than working to live. I think of the physically disabled immediately being perceived as weak-minded or incompetent. I think of the criminalizing and decimating of black and brown bodies walking with hoodies gathered on the street corners. I think of students that learn differently than the valued norm being lost in our education system.

Imprinted by a very different cultural and socio-economic reality in New York, I take with me a host of new roles to the shores of my island. As my role system continues to shift and be shaped by the people, places, ideas and systems around me, I relinquish the idea of being anything. Instead, I posit a process of becoming that aims to capture the inevitable process of change that pervades human existence. A process of ‘becoming’ seems to liberate one from the value systems and expectations of the powerful and privileged. Herein, one possesses inherent potential for growth, movement and error. As such the roles we play are not the end-all. Rather, they are in service of the process that is life.

To be or to become? That is my question.



Karline Brathwaite, MA, RDT, LCAT-Permit; CANY Staff Member


KEEP THE CHANGE: A Conversation with Film Director Rachel Israel

CANY welcomes guest blogger and film maker Rachel Israel in a conversation about her new film Keep the Change- a love story about people on the autism spectrum.

CANY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Rachel: My name is Rachel Israel. I am a NYC based filmmaker and adjunct professor of film at Rhode Island School of Design. I received my BFA from RISD in 2007 and my MFA from Columbia University in 2013, where I made a short film from which I developed my feature directing debut, Keep the Change, a love story which we filmed this past summer. The film features leading cast members who are on the autism spectrum.

CANY: What inspired you to create “Keep the Change”?

Rachel: Keep the Change was inspired by the experiences of a dear friend of mine Brandon Polansky, who is on the autism spectrum. Brandon plays the lead in our film, a fictionalized version of himself named “David Cohen”. Brandon and I collaborated to create David, a young man experiencing romantic love for the first time. While the story is fictional, its sentiments are inspired by Brandon’s personal experiences and character growth. When I decided to start this project I was not only inspired by Brandon’s rich emotional life, but also by a desire to help correct the misrepresentation that I saw of people on the autism spectrum. There is a common misconception that people with autism don’t yearn for love, physical affection and companionship. But this is untrue.

Actors Will Deaver - Samantha Elisofon - Nicky Gottlieb and Brandon Polansky discuss a scene on set.jpgActors discussing a scene on set

CANY:  “Keep the Change” began as an award winning short film, what made you want to expand the story into a feature length film?

Rachel: I felt that our characters deserved a feature length film and that the actors would be able to carry it. It’s sadly uncommon to see characters with disabilities given the leads in feature films, and often when they are the leads they are portrayed as strangely passive. I wanted to make a different statement with Keep the Change.I wanted to make a feature in the hopes that, if the film was good, people would see it. There’s more of a market for feature films than there are for short films, so a good feature can have an impact.

CANY: As you mentioned, the cast you worked with on this film are all adults on the autism spectrum. What made you want to work with actors on the spectrum, as opposed to actors who created characters on the spectrum?

Rachel: Working with my cast for over four years, from the development of our script through production, inspired me constantly. I have developed close friendships with cast members Samantha Elisofon, Will Deaver and Nicky Gottlieb and, along with Brandon, we all had a blast working together. Aside from the wealth of energy that our cast brought, they also kept the script in check. I can’t possibly know what it is like to live with autism, but my cast members are experts on their personal experiences and they kept our story honest.

CANY: In the movie some of the scenes were based on the CANY drama therapy groups run at the JCC. Why did you choose to include this perspective in the movie?

Rachel: I wanted our cast to feel at home and able to throw themselves into their fictionalized selves with a sense of empowerment and the creative gusto that many of them already enjoy in CANY. By incorporating CANY, I hoped our film might tap into an existing pool of energy. This not only worked, but I think our cast carried the filmed CANY scenes as a reference to the acting that they did in our film even beyond the CANY scenes. I’m very grateful to CANY, particularly Heidi Landis, for having worked with us. There’s a level of joy, empowerment and openness that we will bring to the screen due to this collaboration.

Filming a Drama Therapy Scene led by Heidi Landis.jpgFilming a drama therapy scene

CANY: At CANY and in the field of drama therapy, we play with the paradoxical boundaries between everyday life and the life of the imaginary world, the roles which are simultaneously “me” and “not me”. Many of the actors in your film have very similar life experiences to that of their characters. How did you navigate that “in between” space?

Rachel: Navigating the in-between space required that trust be built up over time with my cast. This trust is important between all directors and their actors, but for me the trust I gained with our cast was a particularly humbling gift – because it would be such a tragedy to mistreat that kind of trust. From the actors’ end, I didn’t perceive that they had any special difficulty navigating between their imaginary and real selves. For several members of our cast this ability to create and analyze personas felt as if it were common ground, learned as a means of coping in socially intimidating situations. I am not an expert in this subject, so this is only my speculation. Regardless, the trust our actors gave to me in this personal space was very precious.

CANY: In our work at CANY we plan therapy sessions in advance, but often end up letting go of these plans as we tune in to the clients’ need in the moment.  In rehearsals for your film, you provided your actors with a fully scripted narrative but when it came time to film, you asked the actors to put the story into their own words and improvise. Why did you feel that was important?

Rachel: During rehearsals, we actually did not depend heavily on the script. Rather, we used rehearsals as an exploratory space to find the essence of scenes. Rehearsals were a tool to generate writing. Before filming, all the lead actors read the finished script, which was important for them in order to contextualize scenes since we were not shooting everything linearly. However, it was very important to me that the actors remained free and focused on using improvisation during production because I did not want any aspect of the scenes to be forced. Improvisation empowered them to act honestly in scenes.

CANY: In working with a community of actors on the autism spectrum, did you find yourself considering and seeking guidance from these members in the film? Did the presence of the community on set shift your original concept of the film?

Rachel: Yes, the film was developed in collaboration with our primary cast. Their involvement as actors was not merely on set but also in the creation of fictionalized versions of themselves that were meaningful to them. I would not have wanted to make this film without our cast’s involvement on this foundational level. When we went into production, the creative input of the cast and community did continue to shift the story creatively. But this was also a very good thing. A feature film shoot is a marathon. We shot for 23 days over 5 weeks and it was the surprises and growth on set every day that kept us all energized and happy.

CANY: Therapeutic theater is a form of drama therapy. Would you call what you have done therapeutic movie making? Do you believe films and film making have the potential to heal?

Rachel: While the end product of this film was never designed to be therapy, I believe our creative process ended up being therapeutic for many of the actors involved. The film required our cast to work from an emotionally honest place while empowering them as actors to choose scene and life objectives, and to define who they wanted to be as characters. For people on the autism spectrum who are so often disempowered in their own representation, I think this process was both healing and inspiring. So while therapy was not our original mission, the therapeutic aspect of making this film ended up being powerful and became a fuel for all of us during the long haul of making a feature.

CANY: How does working with people in the very community about which you are creating a film effect the filming and editing process? Do you feel a greater responsibility to tell their story?

Rachel: I feel enormous responsibility toward our cast and their community. I am dear friends with several cast members and admire them greatly. The responsibility I feel to portray their characters with honesty and dignity might be overwhelming and even terrifying were it not balanced by the continual joy I’ve felt in working with them. Making this film has been a great challenge at every stage, but the excitement I’ve continually gained by my collaborators has made this project the greatest privilege of my career.

Watching my dream come true on set in LI.jpg

Rachel Israel, Film Director for “Keep the Change”

BIGGER BELLY, SMALLER SPACE BETWEEN: Contemplating the Role of the Pregnant Therapist

My belly officially precedes me. Walking into a room, my growing baby enters before the rest of me, taking space both physically and metaphorically in my drama therapy groups. Questions about how I’m feeling and the sex of the baby sprinkle throughout our sessions. Other comments emerge too, making me remember that this baby is in the room with us. My role as mother is here in the space between us. I am endlessly curious about what my protruding belly brings up for clients, and wonder about the stories beneath the questions. What might my clients be saying about themselves when they comment on my growing belly and role as mother?

The concept of therapist as projective is well-known. In traditional analytic therapies, the therapist attempts a blank-slate stance so as to make the space as much about the client’s process as possible. But today, many approaches operate from an evolved understanding that the relationship between therapist and client not only matters but is in fact ripe with healing potential. At CANY, we expand this relational notion beyond that of the therapist and client dyad: for us, the group itself is the therapeutic agent and our role is to guide in the making of connections amongst group members.

In our drama therapy group practice, we are active participants in the process with our clients, embodying and playing with projected roles, engaging in storytelling and participating in a consciously client-centered group process. Yet we mostly keep our private worlds to ourselves, revealing personal details only when in service of the group and usually just briefly. Yet being a pregnant therapist breaks down some of these permeable walls, transforming questions, mysteries, projections, and assumptions into facts. Or at the very least narrowing the space between assumption and fact: I am sexually active. I probably have a partner. I have clearly chosen to stay pregnant. And I am definitely going to leave my clients to have this baby. Indeed, as my body grows, the space between me and my clients is growing smaller, offering up the opportunity for deepening connection but also challenging the ways I am used to navigating the therapeutic encounter.


Image taken from the Wellcome Collection’s “Art in Global Health Project”

Last month, while playing a warm-up game with a group of students at an alternative high school, I used up my two “lives” and was therefore “out”. As I moved to sit down, one of the students, “Jamie,” pointed to my belly and said, “Nah, miss, you should get three lives.” We were early on in our group process and up until now, this cohort had not commented on my pregnancy. The group, which was in a playful and highly competitive mode, stopped and agreed, inviting me back into the game because, well, I was playing for two. I suggested that we might all get an extra life but the group insisted, “No, miss, just you.” Knowing about Jamie’s trauma narrative, which includes losing a little brother to gun violence and his own participation in gang activity, I wondered what Jamie was saying about his own desire for the right to life. Even when offered, neither he nor his peers could accept the invitation to take the extra life – to stay in the game longer. But they could readily gift me one. Why?

In my experience with clients like Jamie, the notion that death is just around the corner comes up a lot. The young people I work with often envision themselves dying young because that’s what they know. Tragically, most can’t see past 22 or 23 years old. Life for many of our clients is hard, fast and short. What permission might my pregnancy have given this group to explore the concept of life? Perhaps, as projections go, I was playing for more than two. Perhaps I was playing an extra life for all of them, even if they couldn’t directly take it on or feel worthy of it themselves – yet. So I took the life that was offered. And I won the game.

Inspired both by this comment and by a later conversation about an ideal world, we invited this group of teenagers, most of whom carry heartbreaking trauma narratives, to create an imaginary world. In this world, they decided there were no guns, no drugs, no gang activity, no abusive relationships and no crime. There were flying cars, teleportation and unlimited food. And, amongst many other notable tenets, in this world “no one is being killed.” The group also agreed that we could bring people back to life after they died. Unlike many of their real lives, death had no hold in their imagined world. Through metaphor, the students were able to explore their desire to live and to thrive. It takes courage to imagine. Contemplating this encounter and the resulting stories and enactments that have followed, I have begun to embrace Jamie’s comment in the game as an offering to imagine the possibility of a life worth living even in the midst of the real struggles living it.

The space between me and my clients continues to grow smaller. As it does, more and more offer to care-take for me in some way – offering to move a table, reminding me not to stretch “too far” during a warm-up, or simply inquiring as to how I am feeling. I always respond, Thank you for looking out for me. And then I turn our attention toward how we might explore together the ways in which they themselves desire to be looked out for.


CANY Program Director

DECOLONIZING THERAPY: Playing with Traditional Relationships of Power in Therapy

This month, CANY staff heads to the North American Drama Therapy Association’s annual conference. This year’s theme focuses on diversity and social justice. CANY staff member Rachel Lee Soon shares some of her thoughts on colonization in the therapeutic process in CANY’s October blog post.

As a Native Hawaiian, I carry with me a historical narrative of colonization. My Grandma used to tell me stories of her parents and grandparents, who were around during a time when Hawai’i was being annexed to the United States. Their language and cultural practices were pushed out of the mainstream and into the shadows – and in some cases even outlawed – in favor of cultural practices and language of the American settlers.

The term colonization describes a co-created relationship between two cultures or groups of people wherein one exercises power or domination over another, and can lead to social and systemic oppression of the colonized group (Oxford English Dictionary, 2014). As a drama therapist, I often wonder how colonization plays out in the therapeutic relationship. When we bring our rituals, metaphor, and drama-based theories and practices into a group, are we in-effect colonizing our clients by asking them to assimilate to our norms?

The role of the therapist is often endowed with an inherent position of authority or power, much like that of the colonizer, particularly in spaces where most of our clients have experienced trauma in their lives. At CANY, the metaphor of colonization is even more salient. We are nomadic drama therapists, and we take our model of trauma-informed drama therapy into sites that sometimes don’t operate under the same principles that guide our work. In this instance, it is easy for us as therapists to fall into the role of the colonizer, and our clients the colonized. Considering this, how do we dismantle traditional relationships of power, and decolonize the therapeutic encounter? And is this even possible?

In the fall of last year, my co-leader and I began running weekly drama therapy groups within a school, housed inside of an outpatient substance abuse treatment program. Our students were between the ages of 15-18, and many were court-mandated into treatment. For the first two or three weeks of group, we introduced games and getting-to-know-you exercises in order to foster connections between clients and build a safe space. We were excited by the energy and creativity of the group: they took “Zip Zap Zop” and turned it into “Bacon Egg and Cheese”, adding new layers of complexity like “on a roll”, which made everyone in the group change places in the circle, and “with hot sauce”, which meant everyone had to do a dance move in their place.

This creativity and spontaneity evidenced a great deal of inherent strength in the group, as they were able to claim agency in the group process and make these games their own. Trauma-informed theory tells us that if we are damaged in relationship, and we must heal in relationship (Herman, 1992). As we played these games, we began to build connections between group members who otherwise presented as isolated and withdrawn through the group process, we witnessed them delight in each other’s playfulness in these early groups. The clients’ fresh takes on each game we played became the artifacts of our newly co-created group culture.

However, after a few weeks we started having difficulty getting through check-ins, the beginning stage of CANY group work. Group members would sit around the circle precariously tipping their chairs backward to lean against the walls, throw candy across the circle at one another, have side-conversations, take out their phones, and laugh at and make fun of each another. This was a stark departure from the group we met a few weeks ago, in which members played together in a way that built relationships instead of tearing them down. My co-leader, on-site teacher, and I worked week after week to re-introduce structure in the form of group rules and norms: we asked group members to put their phones away, keep their chairs on the floor, and to work on demonstrating respect for one another physically and verbally. Try as we might, this only seemed to turn up the volume on the “resistance”.   There were many weeks were we did not make it through our check-ins at all. It became very difficult to simply share space together.

Each week, as we continued to introduce our group guidelines, games, and interventions, it felt like we were unsuccessfully colonizing a foreign land. The cohort was pushing back against us with everything they had. It became more and more challenging to build relationships with our clients, especially when we were there for only one hour per week. We felt defeated. Surely, this was not what a drama therapy group was “supposed” to look like. We could barely stay in the same room together, much less work together to build a drama or story.

As CANY drama therapists, we are trained to let go of our plans for a group in favor of simply being with our clients in the moment. The ongoing struggles of this group provided an opportunity for my co-leader and I, both beginning therapists, to practice this skill in action. After weeks of struggling against the group, my co-leader and I finally sacrificed our ideas of what our drama therapy group was “supposed” to look like, and just tried to be with them in a way that would most effectively serve their needs.

In one of our earlier sessions, the group connected around building a dance routine to a shared beat, so we opted to introduce the theme of music, which we had hoped would provide scaffolding for rebuilding relationships. We invited them to share their favorite artists and we spent our time developing a playlist and listening to it together. We continued to work simply on being in the room and being in relationship with each another through our shared appreciation of music.

For me, this experience underscored the importance of our model’s tenet to be open to the needs of the group first and foremost, and to building relationships with our clients that are dynamic and grow out of a shared culture. If we had continued to facilitate these groups around our own ideas of what we thought this group “should” look like, we would have run the risk of further colonizing our clients by forcing them into roles like the “unruly adolescent” to our “responsible adult”, or the “patient” to our “clinician”, instead of allowing them to imagine new possibilities and try on new roles in their lives.

If we begin with a goal of simply building relationships instead of implementing interventions that compel our clients meet our expectations, we can build a shared culture that creates a safe space to explore our individual and collective narratives. Whereas colonization in a cultural and historical context happens when one group’s narrative is forcefully imposed upon another, as drama therapists we can work toward decolonizing the therapeutic encounter by giving up our position of power, and truly partnering with our clients to imagine and build a new narrative in their lives.

Rachel Lee Soon - Photo 2015
Rachel Lee Soon, MA, RDT, LCAT-Permit
CANY Program and Training Assistant


Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Oppression, n. (n.d.). Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from

A NEW BOX OF CRAYONS: Beginning Again and the Trauma Cycle

I’m not going to lie. No matter how old I get I still can’t help getting excited as September rolls around. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school but I still live my life by an academic calendar. I want nothing more than to spend late August strolling through the aisles of an office supply store, finding the new pens and folders that are going to make this year the year where I finally get totally organized, thus making me a “better” person. Sure, it’s a lot to ask from a folder with a sparkly puppy on it, or a new teal colored sharpie marker, but every year I – and my kindred spirits in the crowds at Staples – really believe that it can be achieved.

The concept of beginning again has been has been ingrained in many of us since childhood. My mother was a teacher, so school supply shopping became my pathway for a fresh start. Her teaching credentials gave us access to a special teacher supply store that for me, was akin to a Dylan’s Candy Bar experience. Everything a kid like me could dream of to make school more exciting was there. But no matter how many cool, puffy stickers they had, the truth for me is there was nothing more amazing than a new box of crayons. Opening up the box and inhaling the waxy, fresh scent; eyeing the array of vibrant colors; the uniformity of the rows; and the picture-perfect points represented endless possibilities. To this day, a new year plus a new box of crayons equals a new me.

As we begin this new academic year at CANY, I think about all the ‘crayons’ laid out before us: new groups, new clients, new site partners and new staff. CANY serves some of the most traumatized and vulnerable in our city. This year, we will work with women and children affected by domestic and intimate partner violence; veterans and active duty service men and women; youth and adults with developmental disabilities; and youth who have experienced chronic abuse, neglect, violence and poverty.

Because we ended many of our programs in June, our staff has had the privilege of looking at September as a new beginning. But our clients did not get to take a break from their situations or stories. For many, beginning again seems like impossibility. Trauma does not grant breaks or vacations. So it is important for those of us who work in a trauma-informed system to remember how difficult beginnings can be for many of our clients. Although we are beginning a “new” program year, we are in fact joining our clients mid-story, on a non-linear journey.

I do remember. I hold the stories of every child and adult I have worked with. I hold them with great care. I understand that the thought of beginning again can be difficult and fraught with memories and potential triggers, but I also understand that opportunities to begin again or to imagine a new possibility are still worth inviting. Drama therapy makes space for clients to make a choices, step into new roles and explore something different.

In our trauma-informed model, we are mindful as to how we enter a new space with new clients. I have heard time again from our clients that they feel they don’t measure up; that they are not good enough; that they have made too many mistakes; that they are too broken. Yet while their feelings are valid, I don’t believe they don’t measure up. Broken crayons still color and sometimes the bits make more interesting art than the unbroken crayons. This year, I look forward to exploring with our clients the masterpieces that come from the broken bits. Robert Fulghum summarizes my dream best:

CrayolaBomb Quote
At CANY we empower people to envision new possibilities for themselves and “cover the world with imagination”. We strive offer all the colors in the box – and guide our clients to create new colors.; We offer the chance to begin again and embrace the broken pieces. We believe that every one of our clients has a unique color to offer this world and it is a honor to co-create with them each year.

So while I understand that a trip to Staples will not ultimately make me a better person, bearing witness to my client’s bravery and struggles will. The new box of crayons that I get to open this year, will be filled with colors named Hurt, Pain and Anger. But right next to will be Hope, Joy and Creativity so, I join the CANY community in taking a deep breath and beginning again.

Heidi Blog Photo
Heidi Landis LCAT, RDT-BCT, TEP, CGP

CANY Associate Executive Director

(All images retrieved from the public domain.)

BEYOND THE RORSCHACH: drama therapy & projective techniques

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse. 1903.

There is a story of two dogs. Both at separate times walk into the same room. One comes out wagging his tail while the other comes out growling. A woman watching this goes into the room to see what could possibly make one dog so happy and the other so mad. To her surprise she find a room filled with mirrors. The happy dog found a thousand happy dogs looking back at him while the angry dog saw only angry dogs growling back at him. What you see in the world around you is a reflection of who you are.


I recently found these words on a friend’s Facebook page and was reminded of CANY’s work.The story speaks not only to how we look at the world but also what is reflected back to us when we play a part in our own story. The mirror in the story is a projection for the dogs. As an object it remains the same while what is perceived within it is drastically different for each dog. It is this mirror that our clients come face-to-face with in a CANY drama therapy group while the group itself becomes a microcosm of how the clients perceive the world, typically one filled with trauma. The creative group process, however, allows for a fuller exploration of experience, not only investigating what we put out into the world but also why. In trauma treatment we learn to ask the question “what happened to you?” versus “what is wrong with you?” In hearing the story above, I wonder the events the angry dog has experienced to cause him to project a world that is growling back at him. What is he protecting himself from?

As I write this post, I am concurrently creating a CANY training workshop entitled, Drama Therapy and Projective Techniques. Most drama therapists are schooled in the use of projective techniques during training. Mask and art work, as well as sand tray techniques are just some of the projective devices that drama therapists regularly employ. CANY is no exception. We have and continue to use projective techniques in our weekly groups. However, with the adoption of a trauma-informed stance in recent years, the nature of our techniques has changed. We use less “stuff” with our clients, allowing the life stories that our clients bring into the room to serve as the foundations for a parallel drama to evolve.

Rorschach image example

Rorschach image example

When you think about projective techniques, what likely comes to mind is a bunch of inkblots that when interpreted reflects an individual’s state of mind. This projective assessment, known as the Rorschach test, was created in the 1920s by Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach. In this test there are ten cards, mostly black and white but some in color and the subject is asked to describe what they see in each card and is scored accordingly (“Projective Techniques:, 2015), assessing the personality characteristics and emotional functioning of participating individuals.

Perhaps closer to CANY’s story-making process is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) created by Henry Murray in 1935, which asks subjects to look at a series of twenty pictures of people and to construct a story from those images. Advocates of the TAT notes its potential to tap into a subject’s unconscious, revealing repressed aspects of personality, motives and needs for achievement (“Thematic Apperception Test”, 2015).

TAT image example

TAT image example

Recently invited to write a post on the CANY process for the NADTA blog, I found that what emerged in my writing was the notion of the parallel story; a story that is created by the group that mirrors shared aspects of the group’s individual trauma narratives while providing enough distance to allow those clients to play in and with the story. This is our Rorschach. This is our TAT. Except that we work in action.

Although the parallel story encompasses all three of CANY’s core principles: creativity as health, metaphor as healing tool and group as therapeutic agent, the second one is the primary focus here, relying, as it does, on the group’s collective unconscious (the realm of metaphor) to create the parallel story. It should be noted that for many CANY clients, experiences of societal trauma are as defining as individual adversity. The story and the metaphors that inhabit it serve as a powerful projection of the group experience. The metaphorical story serves as the inkblot here but instead of focusing on the clients’ interpretation of an image as a sign of health or lack of it, CANY group leaders encourage participants to use their own life experiences to define and create their own inkblot through action. There is no right way to understand the metaphorical realm of the drama. By allowing group members to project multiple experiences and meanings onto one story, there is more freedom. Ultimately, the creation of a parallel story allows group members the opportunity to alter what has and will happen, generating endless possibilities. And with possibilities comes an increased likelihood that we might be able to look back into our own mirror and see something new reflected back, even if before there has always been a growling dog!

HL headshotnew

Heidi Landis, CANY Associate Executive Director


Projective Techniques. (2015). Retrieved from

Thematic Apperception Test. (2015). Retrieved from

(All images retrieved from public domain)

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: a drama therapy celebration!

March marks the month of International Women’s Day celebrations. Each year on March 8, events take place worldwide to celebrate the rights, power and potential of women. As a proud advocate of and collaborator with many remarkable women and girls, CANY marks this year’s celebrations by sharing stories of courage, transformation and connection created in just two of the programs that we offer in the community.

Fighting for Suffrage
Each week, CANY facilitates drama therapy with a group of co-ed teens at an alternative high school in Manhattan. Over the course of several weeks this winter, the group created a drama about Sara, a young woman who was involved in the fight for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century.

Love That Overcometh

In the drama created, the group decided that Sara’s mother would not share her daughter’s politics, believing instead that a woman’s role was in the home, as wife and mother. Sara challenged her mother, arguing that the time had come for women to be active players in the country’s future and that she would feel devalued as a person if her life was confined to domesticity. As teenagers all too familiar with family conflict, the group members agreed that Sara’s passionate outburst would raise the ire of her mother. As the scene concluded, Sara was told to leave the family home.

Closely aligned with Sara as a symbol of potential and hope, the group made sure that her banishment represented a mere blip on her heroic trajectory. They decided that a helper was needed, creating the role of a wealthy friend who championed Sara’s ambitions by paying for her education as a lawyer. On graduation, Sara used her knowledge and passion to help secure the vote for women. Representing a victory for women historically, suffrage, in this drama, symbolized a sense of possibility, self-agency and strength, allowing group members, both male and female, to experience victory over oppression, something that is typically elusive to disaffected, traumatized teens.


At the end of the drama, the group chose to reunite Sara and her mother. Sitting together in a tea shop, Sara’s mother apologized to her daughter for attempting to hold her back and shared that she had feared change. In this moment of reunification, the group created an opportunity for themselves to experience a caregiver who could undergo transformation as well as communicate her growing insight and respect to her child. The drama closed with Sara feeling celebrated by her mother as she continued to fight for the rights of women everywhere.

Sara’s story was a celebration of women’s potential but also an opportunity for group members to explore their own beliefs and passions around social justice and the obstacles and opportunities that greet them on the road to realization.

An End to Violence

Toward the end of winter, a group that CANY facilities at a domestic violence shelter in the city explored new ways of being in the aftermath of violence.


“I have a story to tell” was how the group began as one of the women expressed a desire to share a story and have others act it out. While CANY groups typically give rise to fictional dramas, much of the time real experiences shape the story, begging exploration by group members. In this case, the story shared was only too familiar with the other participants, that of a woman struggling to leave a partner who was controlling and abusive. The narrator shared that while the woman wanted to leave, she also felt stuck and helpless. Challenged by the group leaders to identify an agent of change or help, the group member shook her head, saying, “This is how it ends, with no one knowing what to do”. This was the story as she knew it, one in which freedom and transformation remain elusive.

The women in the group, once cast in role, loyally played out the drama created, reflecting at times on how familiar the protagonist’s sense of hopelessness and victim status felt to those in role. And yet these women were also survivors, women who had chosen to leave violent relationships to create new possibilities for themselves and their children. One of the group members wondered aloud if the protagonist might have other options, creating a burst of energy in the group. Picking up on this seed of possibility, the CANY group leaders invited each woman to devise her own ending to the story ultimately giving rise to six different endings. Together the women began to envision and experience through drama the possibility of support from family and friends, empowerment and self-respect and ultimately a loving relationship with a significant other in which safety and respect were key.

The theme for International Women’s Day in 2015 is “Make It Happen“, encouraging effective action for advancing and recognizing women. In both dramas created, CANY group members did just that, using the action inherent in drama to honor the needs and experiences of women in the community.

We celebrate you all!

Rosie the Riveter - J. Howard Miller, Public Domain

Lucy McLellan, RDT-BCT, LCAT

All images used are in the public domain.

SHOW ME LOVE: a drama therapy invitation for 2015!

We’re kicking off the SYNTHESIS New Year at CANY with an invitation.

Take a look at the image above, “The Bath,” painted by Mary Cassatt in 1893. Perhaps it’s a familiar, even iconic image for you. Perhaps it’s a painting that you’ve never seen before. Either way, take in the image and experience, in the moment, how it makes you feel. Paintings, as with so much art, invoke in us notably subjective responses, of course but it’s possible that you feel some of the warmth that I feel when I look at this simple domestic moment of tender connection between mother and child. And maybe not. Most likely though, if this is not an image that invokes a sense of tenderness in you, there’s an image out there that does. And we want to know about it.

Turns out, according to research at the University of Exeter in England, that looking at pictures of love and care can reduce the brain’s response to threat. The study, published in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience late last year, indicates that when “individuals are briefly presented pictures of others receiving emotional support and affection, the brain’s threat monitor, the amygdala, subsequently does not respond to images showing threatening facial expressions or words.” (“Brain’s response to threat silenced when we are reminded of being loved and cared for”, November 2014). It seems that when we are reminded of the experience of interpersonal tenderness in visual form, the threat response within our brains is subdued, even, the research points out, when we’re not paying close attention to the images shown.

For trauma survivors, this is a significant discovery. Being shown images of love and care may allow individuals with a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to function more effectively when faced with stressful situations, countering trigger and hypervigilant responses by invoking the individual’s capacity to self-regulate and self-soothe.

Dr. Anke Karl of Psychology at the University of Exeter writes, “These new research findings may help to explain why, for example, successful recovery from psychological trauma is highly associated with levels of perceived social support individuals receive.”(“Brain’s response to threat silenced when we are reminded of being loved and cared for”, November 2014). How, he goes on to wonder, might the study aid clinicians in refining existing treatments for PTSD, primarily by boosting feelings of safety and support.

I love the notion that images can help us feel more loved and connected. I can think of numerous occasions when I have meandered through art galleries, emotionally buoyed by tenderness in painted, sculpted or photographic form. Not to mention the abundant albeit random potential of plowing through images readily available online. Mostly it makes me wonder about the therapeutic potential of drama therapy within this context and what would happen for the trauma survivor when such images are brought to life in dramatic and therefore embodied form. It seems highly possible that a kinesthetic experience of nurturance and connection might also be born from the dramatization of such images.

So I invite you, reader, to muse on what love and care looks like for you and then to SHARE IT HERE WITH US! To get us going, I invited program staff at CANY to offer up some of the images that invoke a sense of tenderness in them and to share a few words about their feelings toward the image. I ask you to respond in kind. Here’s to a year of generating love and care!

Britton Williams, CANY Program Manager began by choosing an image that she’s been looking at since she was child.

Artist unknown

Artist unknown

To accompany the image she sent, Britton shared, “For me, this image conveys the power of loving arms and speaks in image that true rest can be found in the arms of those who love us and give us comfort.”

Meredith Dean, CANY Program Director opted for an image of mother and child too, sharing, “Their mutual embrace makes evokes a full release into the other. It makes me feel warm, cozy and safe.”

Gustavo Klimt, Mother and Child (1905)

Gustavo Klimt, Mother and Child (1905)

And finally, Heidi Landis, CANY Associate Executive Director takes us in a slightly different direction not only selecting tenderness between siblings but also in video form.

Heidi writes, “In this time in the world that is so fraught with tension and anger between people, the connection and the delight between these sisters gives me a sense of hope, joy and calm.”

Now let’s hear from YOU!

Lucy McLellan, CANY Training Consultant

Thanks to for the original posting on November 8, 2014

Re-membering in the Aftermath of Trauma

Among the most challenging moments in the provision of psychotherapy are those that involve helping patients alter embedded core beliefs about themselves.  These beliefs, while often irrational, tenaciously hold onto humans, playing in the background like ambient music in a store, waiting for the right moment to cut us all down to size.  They are blunt, forceful, and unforgiving, telling us we are not capable, not worthy of love, untalented, stupid, less-than.  They can prevent us from venturing into taking risks or leave us bound to repeat the same tired steps of a painful and joyless dance.  Helping people change these beliefs is the sine qua non of therapy, and the place where many otherwise effective treatments go off the rails.

While there are identified clinical techniques for assisting patients in expanding their limiting sense of themselves, and while these techniques can lead to clients verbalizing new understandings, often this newly acquired ability does not lead to behavioral change.  It is one thing to know that one can expect/do/be more while in the safety of a clinical relationship.  But when the world rushes in to attack that new knowledge patients can return to what feels like square one after even a minor setback. This is particularly true of trauma survivors, for whom there is almost always a vast disjunction between what they know cognitively and what they know somatically and affectively.  More simply put, what we know in our heads is often not the same as what we know in our bones.  And when under threat, visceral knowledge often overrides its thought-based counterpart.

People who have been traumatized have had powerful object lessons that are often untouched by the word-based interventions that characterize most psychotherapy practices.  Abraham Maslow (source unknown) is often attributed these words describing the dilemma of change: “You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.”  The bodies and brains of people who have been hurt urgently demand they step backward, for they know intimately the consequences of not clinging to (at least the illusion of) safety.

At the essence of changing deeply held, survival-upholding core beliefs is the necessity of providing new experiences.  Trauma exists in actions taken in which boundaries and will are overwhelmed, and its effects are best undone through action that reasserts and reinforces those fences.  These corrective experiences are ones that are often readily accessible in the space of the imagination before they are accessible in real life.  In a recent interview, trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk (Gilmore, 2014) stated, “I have some very serious doubts about whether you can [heal trauma] by understanding and talking.  Neuroscience research doesn’t support that the areas of the brain involved in insight and understanding have much connection with areas where emotions are generated and stored…In order to change our feelings we have to do other things, and those other things tend to be more experiential…So that’s what got me into theater, yoga, and movement because it became very clear to me that in order to change you have to move.”

Often, following a session in which a patient plays a role that taps an under-expressed, more courageous or more vulnerable part of him- or herself, that person will return to treatment to report that, while they can’t quite put their finger on what it was, something inside them shifted that week.  Shaun McNiff (1998) affirmed that the act of performing is “especially helpful in changing rigid attitudes and fixed opinions since it is difficult to avoid changes in consciousness when we enter the dramatic space in an open and committed way.”

This kind of transformative experience, particularly for trauma survivors, is one that CANY provides on a day-to-day basis.  By engaging refugees, victims of domestic violence, abused children, and others in dramatic enactment, the CANY staff are asking them to do more, to imagine more, and to not forget themselves and their vast capabilities.  They are generating new possibilities by asking people to re-member themselves.  In the words of Parker Palmer (2007), “Remembering ourselves and our power can lead to revolution, but it requires more than recalling a few facts.  Re-membering involves putting ourselves back together, recovering identity and integrity, reclaiming the wholeness of our lives.”  This may be drama therapy’s ultimate value, and one not offered so readily in many forms of verbal psychotherapy: that in providing new experiences drama therapists fill in holes marked by absence and fear, planting seeds from which hope might flourish.

Hope is not the simplistic, ornamental stuff of greeting cards. For trauma survivors, holding hope is instead a gritty, hard-won, defiant stand against the person(s) who treated them as less than human.  It means stepping into the unknown with no guarantees when doing so in the past has led to things going terribly wrong.  Yet, when patients have had the opportunity to experience themselves in new ways in action, a felt sense of possibility can become embedded in the same internal space where self-defeating beliefs reside, as though a flower begins to sprout in the midst of a vast desert.  In this way, the person can reach a point where, as was articulated by one of my own patients in transition, staying the same represents a greater risk than trying something new.  It is a developmental achievement that begins with as if and gradually becomes as is.

Park Bench head shot

Craig Haen, Ph.D., RDT, CGP, LCAT, FAGPA has a private practice working with children, adolescents, adults and families in White Plains, NY. He serves as Adjunct Faculty at NYU and in the Lesley University doctoral program.  Craig is contributing co-editor of Clinical Applications of Drama Therapy in Child and Adolescent Treatment and contributing editor of the recent book Engaging Boys in Treatment: Creative Approaches to the Therapy Process.  He was a staff member at CANY for six years, leading groups in a number of residential and shelter programs, and has served on the Advisory Board since 2004. For more information on Craig and his work –

Quotes gratefully borrowed from:

Gilmore, M. (2014, Winter). The body keeps the score: Integration of mind, brain,

and body in the treatment of trauma: Interview with Bessel van der Kolk, MD. The Group Circle, 3-4, 8.

McNiff, S. (1998). Art-based research. London, England: Jessica Kingsley.

Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a

teacher’s life (10th Anniversary Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Art images gratefully borrowed from:



WHO’S IN CHARGE?: leadership in a trauma-informed organization

I don’t remember where I heard it, but someone once told me that leadership is a sacred role. I believe that to be true. A great leader not only fosters growth in the individuals that he or she leads but consciously works to leave this world in a better way. I was saddened, as many people were, to hear of Maya Angelou’s recent passing. For me, she was the embodiment of resilience, creativity, possibility – all that CANY stands for – as well as leadership. Her following words have always stuck a chord with me.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

To me, this is a perfect definition of leadership for the trauma therapist. How we are in the room with the clients we work with is often much more meaningful than what exercise or directive we bring into the session.

A CANY group leader explores role through play

A CANY group leader explores role through play

At CANY, we practice trauma-informed care. This means that everything we do embodies an awareness of the impact of traumatic stress on those that we have contact with – our clients, our site partners and our ourselves. It means we sustain trauma awareness, knowledge and skills, which in turn inform our practices and policies, all in service of supporting the resilience and recovery of our group members.

So, what does it mean to be a trauma-informed leader? At CANY, all groups are co-facilitated. We practice what we preach! CANY’s model of trauma-informed drama therapy is relational in nature and so it stands to reason that the leaders demonstrate that mutual trust and solidarity are possible from the moment that they walk into the group. We model healthy relationships for those who may never or rarely have experienced respectful and safe interactions, let alone non-violent confrontation, allowing our clients to experience something new.

Exploring the role of leader through CANY training

Exploring the role of leader through CANY training

Clear intention and work goes into our co-leadership model. As group leaders, we meet weekly for group supervision. We also have time built into our schedules for planning and processing together before and after each group. I feel privileged to work for an organization that provides staff with the necessary time required to support these ongoing collaborations. However, leadership in a trauma-informed organization such as CANY goes beyond direct service.

For the past ten years, CANY has been lucky to have Jonathan Hilton at the helm as Executive Director, supporting staff in their professional development and bringing CANY to the next level of trauma-informed care. Much of Jonathan’s job at CANY focuses on fundraising and development, hardly a small task within a NYC-based non-profit. Even with those responsibilities in mind, Jonathan continuously commits to ongoing trauma training for staff, himself included. In recent years, Jonathan has also made time to co-lead a group with a CANY therapist in order to stay connected to the organizational mission.

Jonathan at a recent CANY gala

Jonathan at a recent CANY gala

It is with mixed emotions that we bid Jonathan farewell at the end of this month. While saddened by the loss of our leader, we are excited for Jonathan as he begins a new chapter of his personal and professional journey. During his tenure, as coworkers and supporters noted at CANY’s recent spring gala, Jonathan is leaving CANY in far better shape than when he arrived. His mission-focused leadership has trickled down to others in the CANY community, from group leaders to board members and the clients in our groups.

At CANY we strive to facilitate the internalization of roles that clients embody and enact in groups. As Jonathan leaves CANY we hope the same for a us – an internalization of the gifts that he has given us in his role of leader. I leave you with the words of some of the current leaders on CANY staff, responding to what is means to be a leader in a trauma- informed organization. Thank you Jonathan for helping us find these leadership roles.

Leading the way - CANY staff  in action

Leading the way – CANY staff in action

Being a leader in a trauma informed organization gives me a sense of putting something sane and deeply effective into a world fraught with violence and carelessness on all sides. It gives me a sense of hope.

Ellen Kealy, CANY Board Chair Emeritus

For me, leadership in a trauma informed organization involves setting a clear vision, building a steady trust, providing a safe and validating environment, and empowering the team to reach their individual and collective goals.

Kristen Brooks, CANY Drama Therapist

Being a leader in a trauma informed organization includes, I think, continued mindfulness in balancing understanding and humility in our work with the clients we serve, fostering a work environment in support of staff well-being and ongoing training, discussion, and reflection around what it means to be trauma informed-not just in theory, but practice.

Britton Williams, Program & Training Assistant

To me to lead you must be able to listen because ultimately a leader simply guides those they are leading to achieve their own personal goals. This can’t occur unless he or she has a very clear understanding of what those goals are and how they fit into the broader landscape of trauma informed work in addition to office administration.

Maria Eleni Karantzalis, CANY Office Manager

It’s is a living, breathing organism that is always open to feedback, plays to client and staff strengths, offers resources and support, is inclusive and non-shaming and builds toward each person’s and the organization’s full potential.

Meredith Dean, CANY Program Director

Heidi leading a child in play

Heidi leading a child in play

Heidi Landis, LCAT, RDT-BCT, TEP, CGP CANY Associate Executive Director

‘Should’ we meet in the middle?

As a drama therapist, I always have identified with numerous roles; some frequenting more often than others. However, there is one role that repeatedly rears its ugly head, making me question myself and my abilities – the role of the critic.critic Most often my critic takes the form of a persistent voice inside my head, judging my thoughts and choices, causing me to carefully examine every action and motive. Confronting my inner critic has always been a struggle and at times has acted as a catalyst for me to seek out further guidance.

stock-photo-cartoon-optimist-and-pressimist-talking-to-each-other-with-speech-bubbles-369031010At other times, the critic is met in opposition by the role of the optimist, who spins the dark sided questionings of the critic and allows the perspective to shift. It is in these moments when the two roles exist together, that I feel most authentic, vulnerable, and most importantly in my role as therapist, present.

In my training to be a drama therapist, I learned about the danger of ‘should.’ For example, drama therapy ‘should’ look a certain way, or a client or group ‘should’ be able to do this by now. Despite being told by my professors and supervisors to let go of the ‘shoulds,’ I continue to battle these thoughts.

I realize how affected I am by other people’s ‘shoulds’ and how listening to their ‘shoulds’ fuels my inner critic. Just as I start to find a comfortable balance within myself, I feel other peoples ‘shoulds’ being projected onto the group. In these moments, our ‘shoulds’ collide, and visceral reactions are evoked complicating my ability to navigate the duality of roles and the needs of the group. When I listen to these voices, I feel my presence slipping away, pulling me from the here-and-now. It is in these moments that I attempt to find common ground and look beyond the projections of ‘should.’ I take the time to sit with myself and do my best to separate my own feelings, judgments, and thoughts but the critic is determined, so the fight is real.

At CANY we co-lead trauma informed drama therapy groups in locations across the city with diverse populations. I am currently working in a residential treatment facility with children and adolescents who have experienced a tremendous amount of loss. This is one of the most challenging groups that I have worked with, and the battle between my inner critic and optimist is in full force. My inner critic has been taking center stage while the optimist waits in the wings for its cue. Within the chaos of this particular group my co-leader and I try to provide as much structure and ritual as possible. However, what ‘should’ be a simple task, i.e. staying in the room together, sharing our names, or standing in a circle, proves challenging. A simple check-in seems unobtainable and nearly impossible to get through. My critic’s negative comments about my abilities to contain and hold this group begin to creep in, loudly whispering in my ear, the ‘shoulds’ standing tall in front of me.

“You ‘should’ know what to do!”

“You ‘should’ be able to fix this mess.”

But when I am able to take a breath and step back making space for the optimist to enter in, there is a shift. The optimist reminds me to look deeper and not focus on what the group ‘should’ look like, encouraging me to recognize the small moments of success. I remind myself that checking in with the group takes only 10 minutes now, as opposed to the 20 or 30 minutes it once did. I can celebrate all of the group members sharing their names, in their own way. Though the circle may be more of an amoeba; we have a shape, and the group members are able to tolerate being in the space.

I now recognize the shared space between where the critic and optimist live. In that shared space I am able to be vulnerable and explore what lies beneath the surface for myself and the clients I work with. I can accept the group where it is and that the group is ‘good enough.’ This is the group, and there is no particular way a group ‘should’ look; there are multiples ways to look at the group.


The Critic, The Optimist, and the joining middle space.

I am reminded of group dynamics and the possibility that what I am feeling  may also be true for other group members, who may be experiencing similar struggles within themselves. It is that reminder that helps me realize I am not alone and I can find a mutual place of being. With this recognition, other roles emerge in this battle space, roles that are both mine and not mine a place for empathy and understanding to grow. Where I once encountered these moments with fear, I now see them as an opportunity for a change, offering me a sense of freedom. In that instance, I am able to break the vicious cycle of negativity and accept that none of these answers are black and white; I look beyond and see the many shades of gray. I am able to accept there are areas where I need to grow and areas in which I have already grown. I am able to trust myself and try again rather than let the critic discourage my persistence, positivity, and my faith in myself.


LisaGail Schwartz, RDT, LCAT; Programs Assistant at CANY






My Missing Ingredient

Since beginning my journey as a therapist, there are two words I despised. Self-Care. The phrase made me cringe. It sounded indulgent. It sounded excessive. It sounded uncomfortable.


“No, thank you.”


In graduate school, mentors I admired would espouse the need for ‘self-care.’ At the end of classes, my cohort and I would be asked to identify how we were going to ‘self- care.’

“Umm… I’m taking a bath?”

“Uhhh… I’m making dinner?”

Now as a new therapist at CANY, this same question is asked of me, this time by my supervisor. My responses echo the same feelings I felt as a student.

“Well . . . I’m watching my favorite show tonight.”

To me, self-care always felt a little ‘glued on.’ I would name an activity (typically something I already intended to do) and claim that it would be done in the name of self-care.

As therapists, we are asked to be particularly mindful of taking care of ourselves. We need to be available and open to our clients; acting as containers, ready to be filled with their experiences and helping them navigate and process their emotions.

In recent weeks, I have struggled to find my sense of joy and optimism in this chaotic world. No matter your politics, the divisiveness in this country has been palpable. In recent weeks, I have found myself glued to my phone even more than usual, waiting with baited breath for the next New York Times update to appear on my screen. My podcast feed is full of politically minded discussions and interviews. My social media chock-full of articles and statements posted by my friends and colleagues and my client’s stories suddenly seem to be brimming with political themes and characters.

While I continued operating in my usual manner, going to dinner with friends, discussing the world, hungrily consuming media, trying my best to understand everything that was and is happening in the world,  for the first time, I found myself feeling stuck and longing for something more. Suddenly those two little words came floating into my mind… self-care…..the words seeming to haunt me. But still, I managed to cast that longing for something more aside.

And then one day, it all came to a head. I was running a group composed of adolescent girls, and every story or character we created in the group was steeped in political sentiment. I was drained, desperately trying to reassure my clients and myself that our group was a safe space and encouraging them to keep exploring, while at the same time feeling deeply worried. At CANY the clients we work with are often marginalized and the uncertainty of these times seemed to be adding fuel to the fire.  After the group had ended, I received a New York Times alert, and I realized I could no longer allow myself to operate in my usual manner. I could feel myself crumbling. I canceled dinner with my friends, I paused my podcasts, I turned off my phone, and I unrolled my yoga mat. As I moved through the Asana practice, I began to embrace those two little words I had once despised so much.


At that moment, I needed self-care in a new way, and I understood the missing ingredient in my self-care recipe, vulnerability. Suddenly I found myself flooded with appreciation for these two little words. I found myself embracing this concept, and with this acceptance, a wave of wisdom seemed to crash upon me.

Self-care means I have to build time into my life to be by myself, to really sit with myself. It involves me processing the feelings that I sometimes do not feel like processing. The stories and feelings that are both mine and my clients. Self-care requires a sense of daring; it requires a willingness to jump into the mess and work through the stuck feelings. Self-care requires me to be a ‘grown up’ and put my care first even at the risk of letting other people down. I need to ‘place the oxygen mask on my mouth first before helping small children or others who need assistance.’

After welcoming vulnerability and acknowledging the bravery and courage required in self-care, I have discovered a new sense of calm amidst the storm. I found a portal into this magical land, and I can’t turn back.

Now when I ask my clients how they are caring for themselves, I feel a new sense of authenticity. I recognized my own personal therapy could no longer be my only self-care; my self-care involves me sitting alone in my own rawness.

-Carrie Watt, MA, LCAT- P


New Kids on the CANY Block

In this month’s blog,  Heidi Landis CANY’s AED interviews our new full-time drama therapists. CANY community meet Lisa Gail Schwartz and Carrie Watt.

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Heidi: We are so excited to have you both with us this year.What do you want the Synthesis readers to know about you?

Lisa Gail : It is an honor for me to be welcomed with open arms to the CANY team. I am extremely dedicated and committed to providing the highest standard of quality care to individuals, families, and communities. I strive to contribute positive mental health services aimed at improving clients’ quality of life and fostering therapeutic alliances. I am a hard working, flexible individual, with a taste for adventure.

Carrie: My name is Carrie Watt, and I graduated from the NYU drama therapy master’s program in May. Originally hailing from the Chicago land area, I  have been residing in New York for the past six years. I received my BFA in Acting from Rutgers University and had the pleasure of studying abroad at the Globe Theater in London for a year. After working as both an actor and a casting director in New York, I  found myself disenchanted with the industry, stuck in a creativity rut and feeling deeply unfulfilled in my work. Somewhere in the back of my mind,  I remembered a summer acting teacher of mine who received her master’s in drama therapy at NYU, and suddenly, my path became clear. Drama therapy combines all of the things I longed to find a career, the ability to play and be creative, the chance to work closely with a diverse group of people, and the opportunity to share the magical, healing world of theater with others. I feel privileged to get to do the work I do and thrilled to start my career as a drama therapist at CANY.

Heidi: Why did you want to work at CANY?

Lisa Gail: The CANY model is one that has always intrigued me. I took a few workshops at conferences and was consistently blown away by the knowledge and insight the facilitators shared about working with trauma and complex trauma. Each time I left a workshop, I felt motivated to incorporate the new concepts into my practice. In comparison to my earlier experiences as a drama therapist, the idea of co-leadership seemed like a breath of fresh air.

Carrie: I had the pleasure of working with CANY as an intern last fall and from the first group meeting,   it felt like home. There is a real sense of community among the staff at CANY and those relationships provide  a strong backbone in the work we do. As an intern, I grew immensely during my time at CANY, thanks to incredible mentors and clients and  I look forward to continuing to learn and grow throughout my time at CANY. I could not imagine a better way to begin my career as a drama therapist.

 Heidi: What’s one thing that has stood out to you about the CANY model since you started here?

Lisa Gail: The therapists’ ability to work with what is in the room. The experiential nature of CANY’s Trauma-informed drama therapy model provides the co-facilitators the space to work openly while continuing to provide enough containment for the client to explore safely,themes to emerge organically and the CANY model uses strength-based techniques that empower clients and in doing so, evoke change.

Carrie: One thing I find outstanding about the CANY model is the way we honor relationship as the vehicle for healing. We champion the belief that emotional well-being relies on healthy relationships, and we strive to foster connections in our groups and also throughout our organization. Whether it be in working with co-therapists or meeting with site partner before a group, or in our communications with board members, we strive for open, direct communication as a way of strengthening connections. It is wonderful to work with people who are interested in building each other up and supporting one another to be their best.

Heidi: What was the last thing you heard or saw which made you laugh out loud?

 Lisa Gail: The moment when I tried to teach a friend how to kayak. As we attempted to get into the kayak, the crashing waves and rocky water challenged our smooth entry. Suddenly, my friend’s paddle started floating away, and as I yelled for him to “retrieve it,” he let go of the kayak which swung back around and hit me, instantly knocked me over into the water. As I swam ashore, he was totally clueless as to what had happened, and I had to laugh and remind him to “Lesson 1 never let go of the paddle. Lesson 2 never let go of the kayak.” kayak-798009_960_720

Carrie: After recently finishing my thesis (hooray!)  I finally had the chance to catch up on some ‘fun’ reading. I just finished Mindy Kaling’s book, Why Not Me?  and loved it. Kaling is so honest and candid, and I struggled to muffle my full-bellied laughs on the subway.

Heidi: Who would play you in the movie adaptation of your life?

Lisa Gail: If I could resurrect Brittany Murphy, I would choose her. She was quirky and had great comedic timing.  Personally, I believe she had more talent than she is given credit. She was small in stature but made up for it in personality, a trait similar to myself.  She also had a thirst for knowledge and always made those she loved a priority. She loved people and got along with everyone she encountered, all values that are true to my character.

Carrie: Julia Louis- Dreyfus because she is both a brilliant human and actor. She is so specific in her acting choices, and every character she plays is portrayed honestly and expansively.  She is an outrageous, bold comedian and I  think she would enhance the quirkiness and absurdities of my life-as-a-movie. Also, she is fierce and scrappy, two attributes I admire and aspire to hold within my character.

Heidi: What’s your favorite myth, legend or fairy tale?

Lisa Gail: As a child, one of my favorite fairy tales was Peter Pan, and it remains relevant to me today. Peter Pan reminds us of our youth, our innocence, and brings a sense of joy,  free from the burdens of adult responsibilities and regrets. He’s untainted, playful and believes in magic and fairies.  As a child, I loved Tinkerbell and her determination to protect those she loved no matter what danger she put herself in. She is sassy, spunky, playful, and has a diva quality that I tried to emulate as a child. Despite my childhood love for Tinkerbell, as an adult, I find myself more drawn to Peter.  To me Peter Pan is a symbol; one that will not conform to the conventions of society, refusing to grow up and continuing to hold on to the child-like sense of self. Peter is never afraid to play, he is unique and does things at his own pace. His innocence, happiness, and endless adventures remind me never to let go of my own Neverland. peter-886132_960_720

Carrie: This is a tough one as I love all stories, but the one that sticks out in my mind right now is the Scottish/Irish myth of the Selkie. A Selkie is a shapeshifter who lives in the sea as a seal but once on land sheds their skin to become a human. In the different versions of this myth, one consistent happening occurs, the Selkie arrives on the land, and immediately people fall in love with the majestic creature. Even in human form, there is something magical about the creature and the land people try to keep the Selkie and hide their seal skin. Sometimes the person hiding the seal skin is a lover or a child, but regardless, the Selkie is devastated and lost without their shapeshifting abilities. However, in every version of this tale,  the Selkie eventually locates their skin and immediately returns to the sea. The Selkie myth acts as a reminder to me to keep in touch with my seal/soul skin and to keep a balance between my sea and land life. carrie

Heidi: Trauma-Informed work is amazing but can also be draining, what do you do for self-care?

Lisa Gail:  My self-care is kickboxing (when I go), spending time with loved ones, traveling when I can, and trying new adventures (i.e., rock climbing, ropes course and a new love for obstacle courses.) I also do enjoy a nice night home on the couch watching “my shows.”

Carrie: At the moment my self-care consists of bubble baths, walks in Prospect Park, podcasts, cooking, and dinner parties. I have dreams of it also including running, but at the moment running continues to be a bit of a struggle.

Heidi: Thank you both so much. We are privileged to have you with us and we hope our community will have a chance to meet you in person soon!

Meaningful Adjacencies

In just a few days ago our nation will commemorate the anniversary of the events of September 11th, 2001. If you’ve been down to the 9/11 Memorial or even seen pictures on TV, you know that there are two enormous fountains in the footprint of each of the towers, with the names of the 2,982 victims running along the border of each. Aside from the tower in which they worked, it may seem impossible to recognize any kind of planned arrangement for the names of victims. However, one of the most important features of the memorial is the particular placement of the engraved names. After much thought the memorial design team decided to pursue a complicated but significant design principle called “meaningful adjacency”. This meant that each victim was to be honored next to other victims who meant something to them – whether it was a family member, or a longtime colleague, or someone they happened to sit next to. Victims’ families were contacted and asked to name others with whom their loved one shared a relationship.  Miraculously, the planners were able to grant every single one of the more than 1,200 adjacency requests they received.


I learned about this concept of Meaning Adjacencies from a friend who lost a parent in the 9/11 attacks and it really stuck with me. With what is happening in the world today on global and national fronts and in the day to day trauma work that CANY does, this idea of meaningful adjacencies feels like a powerful one. In arranging the names in such a way, the memorial planners made sure that the victims were remembered not alphabetically, by their rank, or how many sales they made but by whom they affected and whom they were affected by on a personal relational level.

Reading my friends post made me think about the work that we do at CANY. CANY’s work is relational, meaning that when trauma happens in relationship it can only be healed in relationship. It is not lost on me that as we as a nation mourn the victims of 9/11, many of the clients we work with on daily basis often live in fear of the world and their environments.

Perhaps our work is about creating relational adjacencies even if it is just for that one moment in group.  In order for a person to be emotionally healthy, he or she must maintain fulfilling and satisfying relationships with those around them. The stress and turmoil of previous traumatic relationships inhibit the ability to be with or even next to someone in a way that feels safe for most of the clients we work with. Relational work especially in the context of CANY’s model of trauma-informed drama therapy is about sociometry and choice. By facilitating a safe and positive relationship in the security of a CANY group as well as in the fictional stories we create, the client can be provided with a stronger sense of self and confidence.  I wonder as therapists, how often we reflect on our own roles as helpers facilitating meaningful adjacencies through the interventions we make in our groups or sessions? Finding ways to empower our clients with the skills necessary to recognize and create productive and healthy relationships is key in our model. We as drama therapists work to co-create a safe enough environment to work with past relationship traumas and hopefully help create connections or adjacencies in the present.

My friend commented that there was a “sudden quiet clarity” in seeing the names carved in bronze. She said “this tragedy that never made sense, finally, one thing was perfectly clear: how we love, how we choose to treat others is how we are to be truly remembered.”

And so, as we begin a new program year I pose the question to my staff, to you and to myself: How might we all create significant relationships in our work and in our life? What does it take to really be next to someone, to hold space for them and to find a those meaningful adjacencies?

This concept is one I will keep close to me as we head into September and remember those who lost their live on September 11th.  It is also one I will remember as I work with all the loss that our clients have experienced.


Heidi Blog Photo

Heidi Landis LCAT- RDT-BCT, TEP, CGP

CANY Associate Executive Director