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”

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

MINDING MY BIAS: using drama therapy to write new stories for life

In her 2014 TED Talk, diversity advocate, Verna Myers asserts that, “Biases are the stories we make up about people before we actually know who they are.”

We all have biases. We all make up stories about others. While the stories themselves can be problematic, it is the rigid scripts that we cling to, resisting edits or transformation, where the real danger lies.

I believe that therapists, like myself, have an ethical responsibility to identify and challenge our own biases as they surface, remaining present to assumptions that transpire in our interactions with others as well as what unconsciously seeps out from us toward others in the form of microaggressions. Let us also not forget how our clients’ assumptions and biases about us can impact the dramas that unfold in therapy.

Early in my professional career at CANY, I co-facilitated a weekly group at a residential treatment facility. Each week, my co-therapist and I would arrive to a disinterested group of adolescents who made it abundantly clear that they wanted nothing to do with us or our group circle. Far from silent in their resistance, the teens would engage deeply in conversation each week, offering each other advice and comfort about their daily dramas and larger life struggles. If my partner or I attempted to join the conversation in an effort to connect, discussion would quickly shut down. Their verbal and non-verbal communication to us revealed a story of bias, one that said, “You don’t know us. You don’t care about us. You don’t understand our lives.”


We, meanwhile, had our own biases percolating, slowly brewing a story of therapeutic stuckness and resignation that unfairly placed responsibility on the group, “We’ve tried everything. There’s nothing else we can do. Perhaps these kids just aren’t ready for group.” Our biases about what constituted a “good group” blocked our ability to imagine new ways of intervening that could meet the particular needs of these group members.

As luck would have it, around this time, a fellow drama therapist shared her use of “break-in scenes” with me. Using this technique, the therapist(s) enters the room already engaged in a scene, bringing the drama directly to the client. My co-leader and I decided to try it out, arriving at our next session already in role and deeply embroiled in a fictional argument between friends that we knew would speak to the experience of these teens. Although they remained initially shut off, the group members gradually shifted focus and began watching the conflict unfold. Before long they were giving us directions, “You need to calm down,” and “You have to listen to each other.” As the scene came to an end, the clients succeeded in restoring peace between our characters.

In closing the session, we attempted to engage the clients in a dialogue about the drama itself. Once again, we were attempting to engage the participants in a way that fit into our idea of a successful group (process). Immediately the participants left the circle again.  Clearly my co-leader and I needed to reconfigure how we engaged with these group members and identify some of the cultural biases, perhaps inherent to traditional therapeutic rituals/interventions that wound up alienating these teens.


Our use of break-in scenes continued for weeks. As we called to group members with an issue, they responded, lending their wisdom and experience to the characters that we brought into the room. The group members now served as helpers and experts as our characters sought their wisdom and guidance, a complete role reversal from how my partner and I had conceptualized the group on commencement.

Over time, the teens challenged our initial perception that we needed to help this chaotic group come together. Our bias told us that as the group facilitators, we were the only ones equipped to create a healing community. In privileging our own knowledge and skills, we implicitly devalued the group wisdom and the ability of group members to be an active part of its cohesion. The clients meanwhile faced their own bias toward us as rigid, out-of-touch therapists, which we challenged when we began to respond in a way that stretched their view of who we were in the room, no longer acting how “therapists” act.

The stories we told ourselves (both clinicians and clients) were skewed, shaped by an unknowing of the other and steeped in strong assumptions. When we as facilitators shifted our idea of what the group should be, it made space for group members to imagine what the group could be.

Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better”. I recognize that my humanness presupposes bias. And yet, as Verna Myers advises, I hope to continue to walk boldly toward the stories I tell myself about others in the process and allow them to show me who they are. And when I recognize where my bias, assumptions and/or privilege interfere with my view of someone else’s truth, I will do better, making minding my bias a daily practice.


Britton Williams, CANY Program Manager



SELF-CARE SUCKS!: confessions of a resistant drama therapist

I have a confession. For much of my drama therapy career, I have been an opponent of self-care, albeit covertly.

My first instance of resistance came early in my graduate training at NYU. Sitting dazed in response to an evocative film about domestic violence, my classmates and I were invited by our professor, a seasoned therapist and aware of the potential for vicarious trauma, to consider the question of self-care. “How,” she asked, “will you take care of yourself when you leave on class tonight?”

I’m going to go watch my favorite movie
I’m meeting my roommate at a salsa club
I plan to make out with my husband as soon as I get home

I was surprised by the responses that my classmates readily summoned. I didn’t have much. Perhaps a glass of wine in front of the TV. Not that I felt embarrassed by my paucity of options. Instead I felt outraged by the audacity of my professor’s question. What right did I have to go home and relax in a bubble bath, say, when there were kids out there being brutalized as I had just witnessed on film? In that moment, I created for myself an unfortunate and erroneous equation: if I am going to work with suffering, I better suffer too. I am not, I told myself, entitled to take care of my needs when others have so many still to be met. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” as Shakespeare once noted.

Far from being a particularly foolish or rare condition, mine is a common complaint among mental health professionals, as Sapienza and Bugental (2000) note. Professional caretakers are typically negligent in taking,  “[…] the time to develop compassion for themselves, and compassion for their wounds” (p.459)


Fast-forward thirteen years, I now know this: self-care is an ethical responsibility of every therapist, especially those engaged in trauma informed care. It is a deal breaker, a no brainer and here’s why.

Close to 60% of mental health professionals surveyed by Pope, Tabachnick and Keith-Spiegel (1987) acknowledged that they had offered services while feeling too distressed to be effective and yet 85% also recognized that doing so was unethical. Regarding the competence of a drama therapist, the North American Drama Therapy Association’s Code of Ethical Principles requires that:

Drama therapists refrain from initiating any drama therapy activity if there is a substantial likelihood that personal circumstances will prevent them from performing work-related activities in a competent manner.

This includes burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization and the glorious smorgasbord of provider responses that go hand-in-hand with trauma work. Simply put, without attending to our own self-care, our ability to care for others will likely be compromised. For Norcross and Barnett, self-care is “[…] a critical prerequisite for competent patient care” (p.3), an ethical imperative.

Monk (2011) breaks the task of self-care into four domains of wellbeing: emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual while Barrett (2013) offers the how-to piece in infographic form, as seen below. Without engaging in the “energy replenishers” that Barrett identifies (deep breathing, hot tea, walks in nature), the more likely the therapist is to become depleted and subsequently struggle to attune to the needs of her client or set appropriate boundaries for them.

 manage energy ethical therapy

So what does CANY do to protect the emotional, psychological, physical or spiritual resources of its group leaders? Heidi Landis, Associate Executive Director, notes the function of weekly group supervision as an energy replenisher, allowing program staff to commune around the challenges and rewards they face as group leaders. I’m in 100% agreement with Heidi. For me, clinical supervision is a lifeboat in the choppy waters of trauma work.

And how about self-care? How do CANY group leaders tend to themselves after tending to others?  For Heidi, its about re-engaging body, mind and spirit. Through spinning. “The intense physical act and spiritual nature of classes that I attend at Soulcycle, paired with the supportive community there is an invaluable place for me to unwind”, she shares.

Heidi celebrating her birthday in spinning style!

Heidi celebrating her birthday in spinning style!

Britton Williams, CANY Program Manager gets lost in music as she commutes to and from work. And she loves watching comedies, believing that “A good laugh goes a long way towards self-care.” Meredith Dean, CANY Program Director considers self-care a daily practice whether its spending time with family, reading gossip magazines, ordering take out when needed and using every single vacation day she’s given. Me? I read, even write poetry, chat with co-workers, check out Pinterest. Let this be an invitation to you to find your own metaphorical deep breath, your cup of (hot) tea.

When I worked as an actor, the term, “Dr Theatre” was used when an actor, sick and suffering before a performance would feel transformed, cured even by the end of it. The very act of being in role, in relationship, in action proved inexplicably medicinal for the performer. I often experience the same high, the same sense of wellbeing on leaving a drama therapy group. Perhaps the great irony of my career-long duel with self-care is that the very doing of drama therapy for me has been self-care all along.

Lucy finding self-care in action!

Lucy with others at a CANY training: self-care in action!

Lucy McLellan, CANY Training Consultant

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.