STAYING ALIVE: how drama helps us survive

“What’s the big deal about trauma?”, Dr Sandra Bloom asked at the final event in CANY’s inaugural seminar series on trauma, featured below. In answering her own question, Sandra cited a recent Department of Justice study, “Defending Childhood”, which found that every year 2 out of 3 American children are exposed to acts of violence, abuse and neglect. Traumatic stress is a modern epidemic, Sandra concluded. 

As a drama therapist, the part of Sandra’s lecture that captivated me most was her focus on the evolutionary significance of the arts. Artistic performance, she argued, is central to individual and collective survival. Now, while many of us could speak to the “feel good” or therapeutic value of painting a picture or throwing a pot, survival is a weightier claim. How, then, do the arts help us survive?

Trauma is a rock thrown through a window. We shatter, we fragment; struggling to piece our lives back together. The arts, Sandra suggests, allow us to integrate and gradually make meaning out of these adverse experiences through performance; ritual acts of expression that allow for “collectively held distress” (Bloom, 2010, p.22) to be explored in a structured and communal form. From Ancient Greece to contemporary performance art, we can identify ways in which theatrical performance serves to honor, contain and transform the splintered experience that characterizes individual and community trauma, from the Greek tragedies of Ajax and Antigone to the Culture Project’s, The Exonerated or the rock musical, Next to Normal. 

So how does this concept of artistic performance as an evolutionary drive for survival pertain to drama therapy and how do CANY programs serve as a primary integrating mechanism, to use Sandra’s words, with the trauma-affected clients we serve?  While CANY’s drama therapy is not delivered through performance, per se, dramas are created and enacted in each group, giving fictional form to the real life experience, as explored in the examples below: 

  • Becoming butterflies: In a group at a safe shelter, women survivors of domestic violence transported themselves into a magical forrest, enacting the story of a caterpillar who transforms into a butterfly, allowing for an integration of past victimization with the possibility of healing, healthy connections and freedom. 
  • The end is nigh: In a group at an alternative high school, teen participants created a melodrama of familial revenge, allowing them to give voice to the peer pressure, vulnerability and shame dynamics that underlie the interpersonal violence they experience daily.  
  • Perfectly imperfect: In a group with adult refugees, participants created the drama of a utopian society, one that while seemingly perfect was not a place where its inhabitants could learn or grow. The drama served as a vehicle for clients to transform their refugee experience into a collective narrative of new opportunities, relationships and life roles. 

For Sandra, recovery from trauma lies beyond “[…] a simple project of the re-knitting of bones and muscles, but instead requires a re-working of the soul – of time, of space, of identity, of meaning” (Bloom, 2005, p.xv). This re-working of the soul occurs through the co-creation and enactment of dramatic narratives in CANY groups and the period of reflection that follows wherein clients are guided to make connections between and ultimately integrate discoveries made in the fictional realm into their real life experience. In this moment, new possibilities emerge through the meaning-making process that occurs when processing the dramatic work.     

I’ll leave you as I began with a video, more specifically with Ramona Gordon, a former CANY group member and survivor of intimate partner violence.  

Speaking with typical passion and insight, Ramona shares how the CANY program she participated in at a domestic violence shelter fuelled her recovery. “That was my solace”, Ramona explains. For Ramona and her peers at the shelter, the CANY group allowed for their “collectively held distress” to be witnessed, honored and transformed. Without the integration that artistic performance provides, there is surviving but no thriving, as explored in an earlier post – I Am More Than My Suffering. Ramona’s voice and spirit is a testament to thriving, to a re-working of the soul, identity and meaning. We wish her well.

Lucy McLellan, LCAT, RDT-BCT



Dr Sandra Bloom for her time, support and ongoing inspiration. 

Ragnar Freidank & Reelworks Teen Filmaking for capturing our programs in video form!


Bloom, S. L. (2005). Foreword. In A. M. Weber & C. Haen (Eds.), Clinical applications of drama therapy in child and adolescent treatment (pp. xv–xviii). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Bloom, S. L. (2010). Bridging the black hole of trauma: The evolutionary significance of the arts. Psychotherapy and Politics International, 8(3):198–212.


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