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.

THEATER & TRAUMA: addressing the wounds of the soul

This month, SYNTHESIS speaks with Dr. Nisha Sajnani, RDT-BCT, an associate professor and coordinator of the Drama Therapy program at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the co-editor (with David R. Johnson) of Trauma-Informed Drama Therapy: Transforming Clinics, Classrooms, and Communities. In addition to serving on CANY’s Advisory Council, Dr. Sajnani is editor of the peer-reviewed journal Drama Therapy Review and has served as president of the North American Drama Therapy Association.


Greetings, Nisha! In addition to the success of your book with David Read Johnson, you recently presented a compelling lecture on trauma-informed drama therapy, ‘Performing Love and Loss in the Aftermath of Collective Violence’ kicking off CANY’s 2014/2015 seminar series. How did you find yourself drawn to this area of drama therapy practice and education?

I have been interested in how drama-in-education and drama therapy contribute to social development for some time. As an undergraduate studying education, theatre, and psychology in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada), I took a course in applied theater with Carolyn Howarth, founder and co-artistic director of Concrete Theatre. Each class introduced me to theatrical metaphors for critical social issues like homelessness, sexism, and poverty. I also studied drama in education with Joe Norris and joined his educational theater company, Mirror Theatre. We developed plays on bullying, racism, and peer leadership. It was through Mirror Theatre that I met Michelle Buckle who introduced me to drama therapy.

Following graduate work in drama therapy and community economic development at Concordia in Montreal, I inherited and co-directed (with Amy Thomas) a non-profit organization called Le Centre Artisanal des Femmes (Women’s Art Center) from Millie Ryerson, an occupational therapist who understood the importance of engaging those who were most vulnerable to social exclusion in a direct experience of sustainable arts practices. The center was a hub to a diverse group of students, artists, and teachers of varying ethnicities, abilities, and class backgrounds. Social spaces like these are special and rare. In fact, as we argue in the book, schools may be one of the only spaces we have left where we can experience a convergence of children, families, public servants, municipal leaders, and other community members.


Living Histories Ensemble. Photo: David Ward

What can you tell our readers about the growing trends that you observe within the theory and practice of trauma-informed drama therapy?

In our survey of emerging approaches, we discovered that drama therapists are, not surprisingly, negotiating current cultural tensions that privilege the individual over the collective, cognition over emotion, distance over proximal contact, and the brain over the rest of the body. There is tremendous pressure to redefine what we do in the language of dominant paradigms: instead of building creativity and spontaneity, we are engaging in resilience enhancement; instead of physicality, we are doing stress management; instead of dramatic enactment, we are employing imaginal exposure; instead of embodied, exuberant play, we are improving attachment; instead of witnessing and restorying, we are applying cognitive restructuring.

How do you see the CANY model contributing to the field?

Accommodating the language of empirically tested and widely circulated treatments such as CBT can help us build bridges and coordinate care but we shouldn’t forget what the specific contributions of drama therapy are. Drama therapists, like those who practice at CANY, are highly skilled practitioners who are able to manage the flexible titration of cognitive distance through the use of dramatic metaphor. What I especially appreciate about CANY’s approach is the emphasis given to encouraging the spontaneity and creativity of group members as a means of strengthening their response-ability to themselves, to each other, and to their environment.


CANY group in action. Photo: Cathryn Lynne Photography.

Much of your work explores collective and cultural experiences of trauma survivors. From your perspective, what are the responsibilities of CANY group leaders as well as other drama therapists working with trauma-affected populations, especially pertaining to cultural humility?

Trauma is a contested term. In applying a trauma lens constructed by the global north to understand suffering, we risk pathologizing individuals and normalizing the status-quo. Our definition of traumatic stress arose from intersecting social movements that sought to counter the social shame and exclusion experienced by battered women and war veterans and to channel resources to these and other vulnerable social groups. It is important for drama therapists to work at understanding how the distress that they see in their clients continues to be a reflection of historical and current epidemics of relentless social, economic, and political violence- like a play within a play.

The concept of cultural humility calls us to “maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the [person]” (Hook, Davis, Owen, Worthington, & Utsey, 2013, p.2). For drama therapists, I take this to mean maintaining an interpersonal stance that is open to the metaphors, images and dramaturgy of those we work with. From this stance, we share authority with our clients and accommodate the ways in which they understand what hurts and what needs to change. Consider Eduardo Duran’s call to consider Indigenous approaches to rethinking trauma (Daniels & D’Andrea, 2007). He describes how intergenerational and historical legacies of harm inflict ‘soul wounds’ that disrupt the mental, physical, and spiritual life forces of individuals and communities as well as their offspring. He prescribes a treatment that combines individual care, community outreach and advocacy and healing the land. This ecological perspective, while perhaps unfamiliar to many drama therapists, is one of many that we should consider if we care about working from the worldviews of our participants.

What is the role and therapeutic value of performance within trauma-informed drama therapy?

Performance provides a platform from which to give voice to silenced experiences within a supportive environment, countering the shame and isolation experienced by many survivors. The process of developing a script, finding suitable metaphors, trying on roles, and rehearsing a performance provide a means to organize and communicate one’s inner experience. Casting the audience provides survivors of trauma with opportunities to make choices about who needs to hear their story. Performance in the aftermath of violence can provide a means to re-member those parts of the self that have previously been negated and to reconnect with others.


Living Histories Ensemble. Photo: David Ward

If you could share with SYNTHESIS readers one or two of your ongoing questions about trauma-informed drama therapy, what would they be?

  • How does drama therapy address specific expressions of traumatic stress?
  • How can we best track and evaluate the efficacy of our practice in this area?
  • What does thinking about your drama therapy practice from the perspective of trauma allow you to see and what are the potential drawbacks to a trauma-informed approach?

READY TO RESPOND?! Leave a REPLY below. Nisha and CANY would love to hear from you.


Daniels, J. & D’Andrea, M. (2007). Trauma and the soul wound: A multicultural-
social justice perspective. Counseling Today. Retrieved from

Trauma and the soul wound: A multicultural-social justice perspective

Hook, J. N., Davis, D. E., Owen, J., Worthington Jr., E. L., & Utsey, S. O. (2013).
Cultural humility: Measuring openness to culturally diverse clients. Journal of Counseling Psychology®. doi:10.1037/a0032595

Sajnani, N. & Johnson, D.R. (2014). Trauma-informed drama therapy. Springfield, IL:
Charles C. Thomas

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.