Rolling around on the floor, flailing your arms about and pretending to be an octopus might not be what you expect when you hear the term “drama therapy”. Yet drama therapist Rachel Perry sheds some light on this unique form of creative expression: “working with and through the body is very therapeutic”, she says. Having trained as a dancer and used drama as part of her personal journey, Perry uses the tools of voice and movement in her work to create “a bridge between the art form and the healing approach to drama”. So what exactly is drama therapy?

The Creative Therapy Network defines it as “the use of theatre techniques to assist personal growth and promote mental health”. These techniques include role play, drama games, group-dynamic exercises, mime, puppetry and improvisation. They are designed to help solve problems and achieve a healthier and more contented way of living, and are used in hospitals, schools, mental health centres, prisons and businesses. For Perry, “drama therapy acts both as container of feelings and the expression of deep emotions, offering the means to explore them… [it is] a playful way to connect with the self and relate inner experiences to the external world through imagination.” Anyone who has participated in a drama therapy course will recognise the truths about confidence, self-esteem and our inner critic. My own experience included writing down everything that I disliked about myself or that held me back from my creativity. We were then paired up and instructed to shout all of the negative things at our partner, resulting – unsurprisingly – in many tissues and teary eyes. We were asked, why, if we wouldn’t dream of shouting these things at another person, do we do it to ourselves? How often do the critics on our shoulders crush our creative sides, telling us we can’t do it – we’re not good enough? As Perry observes, in drama therapy, the spontaneity of the moment enables us to discover that we are the source of our own creativity. This process offers “the opportunity for new experience and fresh insight into behaviour patterns, the release of emotions and the potential for change”.

The question of mental health conjures up different responses in people. It is becoming more acknowledged due to radio and television adverts challenging the way we react to and treat people who are suffering or recovering from mental illness. Yet the ethos of “it’s time to talk; it’s time to change” is perhaps easier said – or heard – than done. Drama therapy, however, may offer a supportive solution. Playwrights have been dealing with mental illness creatively for years. Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis deals with the subject of severe clinical depression; the script has no explicit stage directions or characters and appears as a stream of consciousness and self-hatred. It features negative mantras: “I cannot overcome my loneliness, my fear, my disgust. I am fat. I cannot write. I cannot love.” The title of the play itself derives from the time Kane used to wake every night in a depressed state. Similarly, Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World Of Dissocia deals with the issue of a young woman suffering from dissociative disorder, a condition involving breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity or perception. Looking at our society today, the Mental Health Foundation believes that “20% of children have a mental health problem in any given year” and “1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year”.

Can drama therapy have a direct impact on statistics like these? Perry believes so. She has “witnessed many transformations in people… many clients have felt their lives turn around as a result of discovering and understanding their inner cast of characters. For instance, how past experiences need not control your life. Through exploring the ‘what if?’ in drama therapy, they have felt it empowering to find themselves back in the driver’s seat simply through recognising they had a choice and the mask they were carrying doesn’t serve them anymore.” One example of a woman suffering from bereavement led to a relevation: “through movement and body work she began to reconnect with the feelings allowing her to release the anger that had built up inside her. By the end of the session, her physical body was noticeably more grounded and her face had lifted into a smile, the first in a long time. Her energy soared and she danced around the room. Seven years of feeling disconnected with herself, yet two hours of drama therapy and she was transformed back to her former self.”

Despite such positive stories, there has been a lull in the use of drama therapy in recent years. Perry, however, is ambitious for the future, planning to “provide resources for young people to develop their potential, explore the blocks that may inhibit them creating the change they seek, to raise awareness of this through theatre and the arts”. She hopes to “use drama therapy as a forum for debate and expression of issues affecting young people, giving them a voice through devised theatre and performance”.

Clearly, drama has been acknowledging and engaging with issues surrounding mental health for generations. But the question remains: is mental health acknowledging drama? Theatre is an invigorating and poignant way to reach people, raise awareness of issues, and build individual confidence and self-esteem, and drama therapy itself is applicable to a multitude of environments from schools to hospitals for all sorts of rehabilitation purposes. It encourages self-worth and invites participants to re-engage with themselves, and should surely be encouraged as a positive and affirming resource for dramatists and mental health professionals alike. Even if it means unleashing your inner sea animal.

Rachel Perry runs drama therapy courses based in Bath. More information about her courses can be found on her website, www.dramatherapy.org.uk.

Image credit: Lubaib Photography