I AM MORE THAN MY SUFFERING: trauma & role in drama therapy

Drama therapists are guided by the concept of role. If story is the body, role represents the internal organs, the pumping heart of the work. 

Our work at Creative Alternatives of New York (CANY) focuses on the implementation of a trauma-informed model of drama therapy. Facilitating weekly groups in a variety of treatment settings, CANY group leaders spend a good deal of time exploring the ways in which trauma is performed through role.  

  • What roles are available and/or unavailable to trauma-affected individuals and communities? 
  • How might the drama therapist facilitate a transformation of traumatic experience through addressing role in therapeutic play? 
  • What might lie beyond the role of survivor? Can our clients transcend their suffering through an exploration of alternative roles? 

Twenty years ago, Dr. Robert Landy (1993), director of the NYU Drama Therapy Program, published a taxonomy of roles that consisted of 84 role types derived from over 600 dramatic texts within Western literature, each broken down into quality, function and style. 


Roles that CANY clients bring into treatment are explored through therapeutic action *

For Landy (1993), mental health is evident in a contrasting yet balanced repertoire of roles, one that the individual is able to access and play out in their daily life and interactions. Roles that may be experienced by the client as imbalanced or undesirable, initially leading the individual into treatment, are not banished in therapy but worked through and ultimately integrated into a larger system of roles so that the role of addict, for example, can co-exist with that of mother and worker, perhaps, bringing the client into a state of balance and improved mental wellbeing.

How might Landy’s concepts surrounding role as well as his system of classification guide the trauma-informed drama therapist? Are there roles within his extensive taxonomy that reflect the experience of those exposed to chronic and acute trauma? While this line of inquiry deserves more extensive study than this post can provide, Landy’s taxonomy does afford us some immediate answers in the form of role, some more obvious than others. 

We begin with the role of Victim, defined by Landy (1993) as “vulnerable, trapped, defenseless” whose function it is to “succumb, to give up control” (p.194), echoing notions of a post traumatic learned helplessness. The role of Suicide also has resonance within a trauma frame, characterized by Landy as a “self-killer” who is “passive, fearful, trapped, despondent and hopeless” (p.228). The dramatic examples that Landy provides, namely Ophelia and Miss Julie, serve as compelling personifications of the dissociative processes that can accompany profound suffering and loss. Meanwhile, the Survivor, a persona that Landy gifts with the qualities of being “morally courageous, tough, and resilient” (p.200), clearly speaks to the sense of endurance required in the recovery period that follows traumatic events. 


A CANY group member explores the role of Survivor

But is survival enough? Must we settle on the role of Survivor as our therapeutic endpoint? Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1996) suggests that surviving must give way to thriving for true healing to occur. 

Being able to say that one is a survivor is an accomplishment.[…]And yet there comes a time in the individuation process when the threat or trauma is significantly past. Then is the time to go to the next stage after survivorship, to healing and thriving.[…]Once the threat is past, there is a potential trap in calling ourselves by names taken on during the most terrible time of our lives. It creates a mind-set that is potentially limiting. It is not good to base the soul identity solely on the feats and losses and victories of the bad times. (p.210)

The role of Thriver does not appear in Landy’s taxonomy. Perhaps, instead, we can consider the act of thriving was as a composition of roles. What might they be? Perhaps the resourceful Artist, the pleasure-seeking Lover, or the Dreamer who imagines a future of their own making. Might this construct of Thriver also include seemingly mundane roles such as the Adult or the Average One, signaling the importance of normality in the aftermath of an extraordinary event or experience?


A CANY group member puts thriving into action!

Trauma invites rigidity. The client can become role-locked, perpetually playing out the role of Victim or Addict, perhaps, as well as deceptively idealized roles, such as Innocent or Survivor. Through structured dramatic enactments, CANY group leaders facilitate an exploration of role that challenge the client’s “stuckness”. The goal is not to eradicate trauma-defined roles from the individual’s repertoire but to introduce new possibilities, such as Friend, Lover and Wise One, moving towards the act of thriving.


CANY clients explore thriving as a group

Clearly Landy’s role taxonomy is just one theoretical stance on addressing role with trauma-affected clients. We welcome your comments and experience surrounding this and other perspectives/forms of practice. Before closing, it is worth reflecting on the cultural framework that has shaped this inquiry. Because Landy’s taxonomy focuses on play texts rooted in a Western theatre tradition, it behooves us to recognize the ways in which these classified roles might reaffirm established and privileged norms. Are there roles available to trauma survivors that lie at the margins of a heteronormative, white, Eurocentric tradition and an experience of privilege that need exploration here? Of course. What roles might become pertinent and/or available to the post traumatic experience if we were to widen the lens?

Share your thoughts below!

Lucy McLellan, RDT-BCT, LCAT, CANY Training Consultant 

* MANY THANKS to Cathryn Lynne Photography for her images of CANY groups. 


Landy, R. J. (1993). Persona and Performance: The meaning of Drama, Therapy, and Everyday Life. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Pinkola Estes, C. (1996). Women Who Run With the Wolves: myths and stories of the wild woman archetype. New York, NY: Ballantine Books. 



  1. Great article Lucy. I recently watched a TED talk by Nigerian storyteller Chimamanda Adichie that reminded me of this notion of a full role repertoire. She talks about the danger of a single story vs. the healing power of many stories (many roles). Many stories/roles makes it possible for us to see each others’ and our own humanity… Thanks for your article.

    • That’s a great TED talk, David. I happened upon it last year and had forgetten it until now so thank you for the reminder. It also reminds me of Narrative Therapy and the notion that we choose to prioritize certain narratives over others as we go about our lives which can lead us awry. Anyway, great to hear fom you. Hope all is well!

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