By Leah Harris

Therapy on Stage: Reclaiming Power, Healing Trauma through Theater and the Expressive Arts

Human beings have been making sense of, and performing, their experiences on stage for thousands of years. And in recent years, fields such as drama therapy and expressive arts therapy are incorporating the tools and skills of the stage to support individuals and groups. Research by trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk and others finds that theater and the expressive arts can introduce valuable resources for resilience and healing for trauma survivors. 

A recent article in NationSwell profiled Storycatchers, an Illinois-based program that works with justice-involved youth and young adults using the vehicle of musical theater. “It’s kind of a dual-purpose program, these young people have a place to tell their story, to be heard, to be validated, to find coping mechanisms in order to move on from their trauma,” Tory Davidson, Storycatchers’ community engagement manager, told NationSwell. “But then also we organizationally find platforms for young people’s voices to be heard and for them to inform people of power.”

Theater-based therapeutic programs can help people of all ages to feel seen and heard, to raise awareness for change, and to explore and respond to challenging material onstage in a safe and supportive environment. As noted in a profile in STAT News of van der Kolk’s theater-based program, “The students experience the same sort of threatening situations in the scenes, but because they are not in real danger, they are able to react in new ways.”

Another form of theater that can have both therapeutic applications is Playback Theater. The Emeryville, CA-based organization Living Arts Playback Theater Ensemble describes the experience this way: “In our performances, a skilled facilitator, or ‘Conductor,’ elicits a multitude of feelings and personal stories from audience members or ‘Tellers.’ Our ensemble of professional actors and musicians then brings those stories to life in a way that is honoring, illuminating, and transformative.”

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to trauma recovery, some survivors find theatrical expression to be more valuable than traditional talk therapy. In an essay, Canadian social worker and activist Vikki Reynolds recounts a story of a young Guatemalan survivor she worked with, who participated in a session of Theater of the Oppressed, a “form of popular community-based education that uses theater for social change,” created by Brazilian Nobel Peace Prize nominee Agusto Boal . When Reynolds asked the young person how that session compared to talk therapy, she said that it was worth “over a hundred” traditional talk therapy sessions. “I hold that humbling teaching close,” Reynolds wrote.

For more information, or to experience the expressive arts for yourself, check out: