‘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


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



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