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.

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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


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)

Stupid, Boring Drama Therapy: a guide to working with teens

Of the nine CANY groups I facilitate each week, eight of them are with children and adolescents. Trust me, I hear versions of “I’m bored” and “This is stupid” on a regular basis. While the groups I’m most often drawn to talking and writing about are those full of dynamic dramas, lively client interactions and richly drawn metaphors, this month I’m choosing to write about these “boring” groups.

As a young therapist, I took comments like those above to mean I was failing somehow at my job. While nowhere in my training as a drama therapist was I told that I had to be an entertainer, magician or superhero, I nonetheless pushed forward to transform statements of mundane discontent as quickly as possible. But in doing so, I missed moments ripe with potential when working with teens.

What might lie beneath declarations of boredom, discomfort or stupidity? In my experience, such complaints often reveal a sense of social unease, a face-saving strategy, the fear of being seen by others at a time when the opinion of peers is all.  “I’m bored,” when investigated, often translates as a desire, mixed with struggle, to connect with others. Easier to say, “This sucks” or better yet, “You suck” than to be left flailing in a moment of awkward social exchange. For a teenager, at least.


Excitement? Yes, please! What therapist doesn’t want to hear such an exclamation of joy and anticipation? But when we jump in to alleviate moments of boredom, mostly to resolve our own narcissistic injury, we can rob our clients of moments where they can take agency over their own participation, a necessary step toward taking responsibility over aspects of their lives inside and outside of the group. When we jump in too fast and work too hard to fix or change quieter moments, we shortchange our clients by usurping agency over their own process. We might also negate the potential of tedium. The good news is that recent research indicates that there may be real cognitive benefits to boredom. “It’s those times when there appears to be ‘nothing to do’ that ‘spur us unto thinking in ways we might not otherwise think'” (Belton, as quoted in Linden, 2015). In other words, boredom can activate the imagination, the cornerstone of our work as drama therapists.

While it can feel uncomfortable or “awkward,” as a teenage client said in a recent group I was facilitating, these moments truly are ripe for creativity. Like artists, we therapists know that oftentimes the best way out of an impasse is through. If we can tolerate slowing down and staring “I’m bored,” in the face, something transformative may appear. Our work at CANY focuses on that “something” being born from our clients. And as Moreno (n.d.) suggested long ago, there is no such thing as resistance, only a lack of warm-up. Therefore, we structure the warm-up stage of our groups to glean common themes (and boredom is a theme, by the way!) directly from our clients so that their ideas are guiding the focus of the group, not a pre-determined curriculum. “There’s enormous confusion in our culture about what ‘enrichment’ looks like…One of the most important things children need is to explore their imaginations in unstructured time” (Markham, as quoted in Linden, 2015). So while teenagers crave excitement they need boredom, too.


For teenagers used to living in the fast-paced world of social media, the invitation to slow down and allow boredom to take a metaphorical seat in the group circle can feel both foreign and frightening. “Today’s culture, which often rushes kids and teens from one adult-led activity to another, has resulted in a generation with higher anxiety.” (Markham, as quoted in Linden, 2015). And from a trauma perspective, slowing down can actually result in a speeding up for our clients. Traumatic memories flood into the quiet place left open, the heart begins to race and blood pressure spikes and the impulse to fight, freeze or flee is triggered.

Cue “I’m bored,” “This is stupid” and “You suck!”

I’ve had plenty of moments where my clients’ anxiety becomes my own. Historically, that has become my cue to dive in to “fix” a situation that actually calls for something else. In my experience, that something else is as unique to each group as a fingerprint. At CANY, we often use such statements of resistance to make space for interpersonal connection, insight and meaning-making.  We might ask, “Who else here is bored?” Or perhaps we play with being bored, fully embracing the feeling in the room. Sundry lists have made over the years at CANY including: The Most Boring Things About This Group and What We Would Rather Be Doing Right Now. A co-leader and I once had the honor of winning the Worst Group In This School Award. After accepting our trophy and making our speeches, we asked members what they might win an award for, giving life to a rich and joyful series of client-led scenes. Stupid, boring drama therapy at its best.

Meredith Dean, CANY Program Director


Reading: Lindley, J. (2015, February). Never a dull moment. Real Simple, 102-105.

Photo credits:

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

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

Holiday Stress. (2013). Retrieved from

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