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Marrying Theatre with Personal Transformation

by Claire Schrader(more info)

listed in personal growth, originally published in issue 109 - March 2005

The therapeutic benefits of theatre are as old as history itself. The very earliest forms of theatre derived from Greek Dionysian rituals[1] in which active expression was given to the chaotic forces of life expressed through the stories of Dionysus. These later evolved into drama competitions in which classical stories were re-enacted by masked actors. Plays such as the Orestia tell of family tragedies on a grand scale which make most family dysfunctions look positively tame.

In Dionysian rites participants reached an altered state known as ecstasis (from which the word ecstasy is derived), which enabled the release of powerful emotions through wild ecstatic expression. This was developed by Aristotle into the theory of catharsis in which the dramatic action of the play's events climaxed into a release of emotion which had a purging effect and brought about transformation.[2]

The Greeks very clearly saw that it was necessary and healthy for the well-being of their society for emotions to be released. Theatre has developed considerably from these origins so that nowadays we equate theatre more often with being entertained, or being educated or being made to think in a new way. It is unlikely that we will associate theatre with healing or being changed ourselves.

In my 20s I became fascinated by theatre and I obsessively went, understanding very little about it as a genre other than that I loved the feeling of sitting in the auditorium. I was thrilled by the emotions expressed by the actors, dazzled by the language and how all the elements of the performance made me feel. I became inspired to pursue acting myself and found it liberating to express all the emotions that the experience of growing up had damned up inside me. It opened a whole realm of possibilities, enabled me to feel more confident and also to explore hidden aspects of myself.

But theatre in itself is not particularly geared up to self-discovery and therapeutic holding and, as I continued on my journey, I found the business of being a professional actress detrimental to my emotional well-being. I turned to other avenues to pursue my quest for self-exploration until I discovered dramatherapy, where I was able to bring together the two things I loved most:theatre and personal development. It was a marriage of two soul mates, and has become one of the most fulfilling career paths of my life, allowing me to explore the healing power of theatre and its potential to bring transformation into people's lives. Perhaps what was most gratifying about it was the knowledge that I was returning to the ancient, Dionysinian roots of theatre – of healing through emotional release.

For some time now I have been aware of the link between health and play, mainly because people have come into my sessions feeling ill, tired and unwell and by the end have felt energized and inspired. There have been instances of flu bugs completely lifting. Hardly surprising when there is such a strong link between mind and body.

Storing angry emotion is of course particularly detrimental to health, and what my work does is gives people permission to express all manner of emotions in a light-hearted and fun way which at the same time is profoundly healing. Such is the theatrical power of catharsis that when the dramatic action moves towards an emotional release through which evil or wrong doing is excised, balance can return to the kingdom.

The enactment of myths from ancient cultures, which distil archetypal energies and express all aspects of the human psyche, follow this pattern too. Robert A Johnson, the Jungian analyst says:[3]

"When a myth transcends mere storytelling and truly comes alive for us, we experience deep psychological understanding."

In enacting a myth and exploring its personal relevance for us there is an opportunity for a catharsis to take place, which subsequently opens up a space for change. In a classic myth there is usually a threat from an outside source that calls the hero to take action. The hero undergoes many obstacles but eventually triumphs, the threat is banished and order restored often bringing a greater good.

This structure acts as a container for the individual to express and release aspects of themselves that feel stuck or are calling for expression. By enacting the story, he or she is able to move these energies and bring about transformation and healing. At the time it may feel like having fun, playing in the way we did as children, inhabiting different roles, but afterwards on reflection, participants often discover the significance of what they experienced and felt through the enactment of the drama.

Expressing through a theatrical form intensifies the healing effect. The presence of an audience adds adrenaline, excitement, fear and a certain edge to the experience. This heightened state (similar to the Dionysinian ecstasis) enables spontaneity to flow, for the unexpected to emerge, and for emotion and blocked energies to be released. The healing effect comes from the attention of the audience and the experience of being seen in a compassionate context. Most of us carry wounds from being shamed and made to look stupid which inhibits us from expressing our true selves. Being seen and recognized expressing our authentic selves can heal and liberate us to new levels of self-acceptance.

How this works in practice is that participants divide up into small groups in which to reflect on the personal relevance of the myth to them, the character or characters they are most drawn to, and to pool ideas on how they might work together to create a short drama.

It is a creative collaboration and as important as the end product, in that it gives opportunity for deep sharing, empathy and for sparking collective creativity. A dressing up box of brightly coloured cloths, scarves, props and masks are available for them to costume themselves if they want to, which adds the visual aspect of theatre.

There is also a box of musical instruments, a selection of CDs, candles and lighting choices. Through this the group becomes the performers, the director, the designer and the stage crew. It is a piece of 'total theatre', in which they create all aspects of the performance.

The action then shifts into the performance phase in which the groups take it in turns to present their pieces to each other. They may choose to work through movement, mime or with dialogue, to be active or to be more behind-the-scenes, playing music or creating visual effects and sounds. Those who have been watching then have an opportunity to reflect on what they felt as they watched, and what aspects of the performance particularly resonated with them. This gives those who performed an opportunity to hear the impact of their piece on others, of the feelings that were stirred and the insights gained through watching.

The performers then have an opportunity to reflect on how it felt from the inside. Unconscious aspects of themselves may have been revealed; perhaps they were able to inhabit a new role or to express their power.

These are the words of a participant who was able to bring about major shift in her life as a result of the emotions she expressed.

"I had moments when I felt high as a kite and free and empowered. Other moments were grim; disgusting, dark and revelatory. I came face to face with parts of my past and part of my self that I had chosen to ignore for years. But I knew I had to confront the issues that arose and the people themselves and I succeeded in this, which was a shock!"

Expressing the darker aspects of human experience can be extremely liberating for people. The myths themselves are rich in archetypal characters which give plenty of opportunity to explore the shadow and the denied aspects of the self. It is often these characters that give more opportunity for personal transformation. The monsters, such as the gorgon Medusa who turns anyone who sets eyes on her to stone, give an opportunity for us to experience our personal power. The Indian goddess Kali, who brings destruction but also balance, enables us to transform the destructive aspects that we all have as humans into positive energy. Robert Johnson describes the 'gold in the shadow',[4] the power that we miss out on when we suppress our darker parts for fear it will be unacceptable to others. Expressing the shadow therefore becomes a way of reclaiming this lost power.

The most important aspect of expressing ourselves through a creative form is that it gives opportunities to celebrate our darker aspects. By playing characters that are tyrannical, angry, grotesque, selfish and destructive we liberate the suppressed energy that has been trapped inside us. This does not mean that we are going to become angry and selfish, etc., but that we will feel freer because we are no longer exerting huge amounts of effort to hold this energy down; we will find it easier to assert ourselves without being aggressive and to negotiate our boundaries.

I remember a woman who had a tendency to get sucked into debilitating emotional states, who chose to play the role of a despicable tyrant. She had great fun dressing up as this character, making herself as grotesque and fat as possible by stuffing material down her front. She had even more fun expressing the monstrous aspects of this character which enabled her to express her power and free herself from this form of emotional addiction.

Change may be experienced then and there – a sense that a toxic emotion has been discharged and shift in awareness felt. Sometimes the change may be noticed weeks later when the person starts behaving in a new way, or they feel freed from a trauma that had overshadowed their lives, or they feel lighter and more at peace with themselves. Perhaps they are able to make changes that they have promised they would do for years – start of a new career direction, or an opportunity might suddenly drop into their laps.

The health aspects of working in this way I notice, is that I no longer suffer from minor illnesses. When I was younger I suffered almost continuously from flu, colds, stomach problems, throat problems and depression, because I was suppressing so much of my emotional life. Because it is instinctive for me now to express my darker emotions in a creative form, these energies do not stay around me for long. It is not hard to see that my long-standing throat problems came from the fact that I had things that I needed to communicate and was afraid to speak, and my depressions were the result of buried anger.

The link between body and mind is a core aspect of health. You can eat all the right foods, take the best supplements, avoid additives, exercise regularly but this is not necessarily going to bring you health if you are also carrying toxic emotions. Expressing through healing theatre brings body and mind together, purges the body of toxic emotional states, stimulates the mind through expressing ourselves creatively, and enables us to let go of debilitating mindsets. Because it works indirectly through a creative form, the mind is distracted, which leaves the body free to do the work of healing itself.

In addition, there is also the satisfaction of creating something aesthetic out of the traumas and the stuckness which we normally are critical of ourselves for. Making a piece of theatre that expresses the pain, transforms it and raises it into another dimension – that of a work of art – which also has the significant effect of being able to deeply move and touch others. And that in itself can have a profoundly healing effect. The trauma, therefore, is no longer something that is holding us back; we can create out of it and transcend it so it becomes a collective sharing of the magnificence that lies within every one of us.


1 Godwin J. Mystery Religions. Thames and Hudson. p132-142. ISBN 0-500- 272719. 1981
3 Johnson RA. Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy. Harper and Row. San Francisco. ISBN 0-06-2504274. 1989
4 Johnson, RA. Owning Your Own Shadow. Harper. San Francisco. p42. ISBN 0-06-250505. 1991


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About Claire Schrader

Claire Schrader is a workshop leader, drama therapist and playwright. She founded Making Moves in 1996, a synthesis of many years of her own personal exploration through theatre, movement and creative healing. She runs groups, workshops and individual sessions in London and for Alternatives. She can be contacted on Tel: 020-8965 9419;

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