HAPPY HOLIDAYS?!: drama therapy through the festive season

Despite the festive cheer portrayed in the constant stream of holiday commercials, the “most wonderful time of the year” is for many a month-long sturm und drang of long-distance travel, in-affordable spending and testy family dynamics.

For individuals and communities with a history of traumatic stress, the holidays bring a unique set of challenges (“Hard holidays with your child of trauma“, 2012). Bruce Perry (2000) notes the extreme stress that the holidays can place upon children with a history of maltreatment, kids who function optimally in consistent and predictable environments. The hectic shifts in routine and increased social encounters that characterize the end of each calendar year can overwhelm and dysregulate such individuals, in childhood and adulthood too. Add in factors of loss or the anniversary of an adverse event (“Holiday Stress“, 2013) and the holidays quickly transform into a trauma trigger with bells on!

So how do CANY group leaders enter into the spirit of the season, honoring the trials as well as the celebrations? I invited CANY drama therapists, Heidi Landis and Meredith Dean to reflect on their experience of facilitating groups during the holidays.

Tell us about some of the typical themes that arise in CANY programs when the festive season rolls around each year.


Meredith Dean, CANY Program Director

Meredith: The holidays evoke a full spectrum of themes, in my experience. The intensity of the season in our culture at large is also reflected in groups. I run CANY programs at a number of city schools and while there is often a sense of excitement at this time of year, kids also talk about the loneliness they feel when parents are working over the holidays or perhaps are absent for the long-term. Other kids avoid their homes, reporting that the holidays are marked with family conflict. As group leaders, we work with what’s in the room. We might hone in on the theme of family, facilitating an exploration of feelings that surround these interactions, with the goal of fostering affect management in our clients.


Heidi Landis, CANY Associate Executive Director

Heidi: That feeling of loneliness is expressed in the refugee groups I run as well. This population, by its very nature, lives far away from family and friends and the holidays only underscore that sense of separation, a time so focused on togetherness. A theme that seems to connect group members throughout the year is their experience of cultural difference. Over the holidays, we use this theme to explore what it’s like for clients to experience holidays that might not exist in their cultures of origin or perhaps give voice to feelings around the extreme commercialization of a holiday that group members typically celebrate. In either case, group members are given a platform on which to embody their experience of feeling overwhelmed and on the outside culturally.

Meredith: The kids in the school-based mental health program that I work with also report feeling an intensified sense of “otherness” over the holidays but for different reasons. Unlike kids in mainstream schooling, these students are required to come in for therapy even though classes are on hiatus. As a group leader, I’m drawn to exploring this theme of difference with clients. Otherness is by no means a pathology and I’m interested in countering trauma roles and relationship patterns that can arise when we feel pushed to the margins of mainstream experience.

What are some of the ways that you employ drama therapy techniques to anticipate and respond to additional stressors that group members may face during this time?

Heidi:  Let me return to the example of working with refugees. With the goal of honoring the diverse cultural experience of group members, we might ask clients to share a holiday which feels special to them and then explore, in verbal and embodied form, the unique rituals that characterize this celebration. From here, we have often created a new holiday, unique to the group, inviting participants to identify what should be celebrated as a community and the traditions that will make our celebration special.


The creation of that kind of community celebration sounds meaningful for individuals who have been separated or estranged from their culture and communities of origin.

Heidi: There is also a sense of safety created, because this is what the fictional container of drama provides, around what is known (familiar rituals) and the unknown (an unfamiliar culture). In this moment, clients are able to experience a sense of control in what often feels like an uncontrollable situation, that is the refugee experience. by utilizing the agency of the group, clients find that they are not alone in their varied experience of the holidays.

Meredith: Our goal is to investigate and foster the resilience of clients too, mining collective areas of strength, power and hope. There’s an ongoing sense of never having enough among our trauma-affected clientele and this theme of scarcity is particularly strong over the holidays. In one high school group of co-ed teens, a conversation around separation from loved ones during the holidays led to the creation of a drama about a family of Christmas trees who feared being chopped down and separated, only to be propped up in a stranger’s home to die. As group leaders, we asked the kids in role as the trees, to share a message with their future owners, allowing for an expression of their real life sadness, fears and frustration about their sense of isolation over the holiday period. The containment that role provides as well as the ways in which the fictional drama allows us as leaders to titrate exposure to difficult feelings and experience, moving clients toward an increased capacity for reflection, insight, and self-regulation.

And what do you two take away from your work as you end the year?

Meredith: Simple. I have the gift of a job that I love. Each day I get to work with people I admire, meet new challenges regularly and be inspired by the stories that I hear.

Heidi: I feel grateful that I get to engage in a creative process daily and work for an organization that deeply believes in the work that we do.

Heidi, Meredith, thank you! Here’s to a rich and meaningful festive season of groups.

Lucy McLellan, CANY Training Consultant




Hard holidays with your child of trauma. (2012). Retrieved from http://gobbelcounseling.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/hard-holidays-with-your-child-of-trauma/

Perry, B.  (2012). Maltreated Children: Experience, Brain Development and the Next Generation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Holiday Stress. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.nctsn.org/resources/public-awareness/holiday-stress

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.


METAPHOR: HANDLE WITH CARE – Drama Therapy in Uganda

When I first started working with newly arrived refugees at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the English teachers who was participating in the weekly drama therapy group said to me “You know, you really need to be careful when using metaphor with this population.” Now, I assume she was speaking of the difficulty non or new English language speakers might experience in understanding metaphor, but the phrase has stuck with me ever since: “Be careful when using metaphor.” 

The use of metaphor as a healing tool is a core principle behind the Creative Alternatives of New York (CANY) model and a basic ingredient of drama therapy as a modality. Sometimes life’s challenges take on an abstract and perplexing form and making sense of it all can be a challenge. In working with trauma populations, metaphor can give symbolic form to, transform and make meaning out of chaotic and adverse life events, providing the distance that is required to play with unplayable material and lessen the risk of re-traumatization.

The possibility for healing and transformation requires artful implementation, echoing the need for a sense of respect and care. We can’t predict what metaphors our clients will be drawn to or invoke in telling their stories or what those metaphors will mean to group members. To me, it seems essential for the therapist to protect and preserve the true meaning of chosen metaphors for our clients, recognizing and transcending our own cultural associations and making space for alternative possibilities. Thus my reminder “Be careful when using metaphor.

Heidi at the GWED-G headquarters in Gulu, Uganda

Last year, Meredith Dean, CANY Program Director, and I traveled to Gulu, Uganda to work with the Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globilization (GWED-G). A grassroots non-profit, GWED-G was founded in 2004 in response to the pervasive effects of the Ugandan war, and focuses on empowering women and youth to create sustainable change through psychosocial support and economic empowerment. CANY was invited to train GWED-G staff in therapeutic drama techniques that can be applied with children and adults who have experienced high levels of war-related trauma. The group was incredible and the members were ready to jump in from the very beginning. The thing that stood out was their use of metaphor.

 According to Pamela Angwech Judith, our host and director of GWED-G, “every single person in Gulu has been affected by the war.” Certainly the scale and impact of atrocity felt palpable in our interactions with staff and others we had the privilege to meet as they shared stories of children abducted, families slaughtered, repeated rape, and other brutalities. Alongside accounts of trauma and loss, however, were narratives of hope and expectation, reflecting a resilience of spirit that was inspiring and, honestly, sometimes shocking. This capacity for hope was threaded through the metaphorical dramas that the group created and enacted: the story of people lost at sea who found a small boat to carry them to a new land; the story of a storm that threatened to destroy all the animals until the animals learned to swim; the story of a wise, rooted tree that gave hope to weary travelers; and the story of a family who had to say goodbye to their son as he travelled to NYC to go to school.

Meredith with members of the GWED-G team

Each metaphor became the container for difficult feelings and experiences, allowing the group to access emotional truths that were buried in the war as well as imagine new possibilities. For the group the metaphor became something sacred, a healing tool and something that needed to be handled with care. As facilitators, it was our job to support the creation of metaphors that could give form and meaning to real life experience at a safe distance, providing the creative structure required for each metaphor to be enacted through a drama therapeutic process.

Members of the GWED-G team in action

During the closing ritual that ends each CANY group, participants are invited to reach into the circle and take out a feeling or moment they want to leave with. Often group members will be invited to place their chosen experience in a safe and meaningful place – their heart, head or pocket even. With the people of Gulu, the sacredness of metaphor was powerfully brought into focus in a way that Meredith and I had not experienced before during this closing ritual. One group member reached into the circle and took away with him “a new energy” but he placed this energy in the soles of his feet saying “I put this in the bottom of my feet so every step I take will be infused with this newness”. Another took a new way to communicate and said “ I will put this in my fingertips so everyone and everything I touch will communicate better” and another took the group experience saying “ I will put this in my right side, my left side is where my wife lives so my left side is open to hold community”.

Heidi with members of the GWED-G team

As a drama therapist, I have long understood the value of metaphor in providing safety and distance. In Gulu, however, I experienced metaphor as a sacred vessel, one that allowed for a sense of reverence and ritual around the sharing of the most difficult life events, as well as offering a sense of hope through transformation. The limitless ability of a metaphor is the essence of the journey a person can make to understand themselves and this I will keep this in my fingertips, the soles of my feet, my right side…and in my heart.

Heidi Landis, RDT-BCT, LCAT, TEP, CGP  

CANY Associate Executive Director


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