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Ancient and Modern Roots of Drama Therapy



The word drama comes from ancient Greek and means quite literally “things done” (Harrison, 1913). Drama therapy is, in simplest terms, the use of action techniques, particularly role play, drama games, improvisation, puppetry, masks, and theatrical performance, in the service of behavior change and personal growth. It has its roots in religion, theatre, education, social action, and mental health/therapy. The National Association for Drama Therapy, created for promoting the field of drama therapy in the United States, was organized recently in 1979, as were many of the other creative arts therapy organizations, but drama therapy has been around much longer than that!


Evidence in archeological records suggests that early humans began to make art – paintings, sculpture, music, dance, and drama – during the Upper Paleolithic period about 45,000-35,000 years ago. Experts marvel at the suddenness with which the arts burst onto the human scene and tie it to the beginnings of symbolic, metaphoric thought (Pfeiffer, 1982; Mithen, 1996; Lewis-Williams, 2002). Simultaneous with this creative explosion, shamans and priests began utilizing the arts in their healing and religious practices. The origins of the arts and religion seem to be intertwined because the arts naturally provided effective symbolic ways to express abstract religious ideas. Dance and drama, in particular, were extremely useful in rites to create sympathetic and contagious magic as well as to embody myths and rituals. Details about these ancient origins are sketchy, but many scholars have hypothesized about those origins, based on surviving cave paintings, artifacts, myths, and even on extrapolating from contemporary shamanistic practices (Pfeiffer, 1982; Lewis-Williams, 2002). Greek scholar and cultural anthropologist Jane Ellen Harrison, for instance, theorizes that early art developed directly out of ritual from mimesis or imitation of an experience and became an abstract representation or metaphor which was then available for magical use (Harrison, 1913). However, without a written record providing direct testimony, we cannot know exactly what those ancient practices entailed and how those ancient humans understood their ceremonies.

Eventually, the art form of theatre developed out of religious rites and rituals. Western theatre history usually begins its formal accounts with ancient Greek theatre. Religious festivals dedicated to Dionysus, god of fertility and revelry, featured theatrical competitions in which plays brought mythology to life for the community. The Great Dionysia, held in Athens in early spring, featured tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays written by citizen-poets and performed by citizen-actors for the entire populace. During a choral presentation at one of these festivals around 560 B.C. Thespis, the first actor, stepped away from the chorus to take on an individual character for the first time and theatre, as we know it, was born (Brockett, 1968).

The first written theoretical account of drama therapy can be found in connection with Greek theatre. In his Poetics, Aristotle says the function of tragedy is to induce catharsis – a release of deep feelings (specifically pity and fear) to purge the senses and the souls of the spectators (Aristotle, trans. 1954). These cathartic feelings are experienced empathically for the characters in the play by the individuals watching the performance and they share that theatrical/cathartic experience with others in the audience magnifying the release and allowing for an adjustment in the community’s attitude as a whole. According to Aristotle, drama’s purpose is not primarily for education or entertainment, but to release harmful emotions which will lead to harmony and healing in the community (Boal, 1985).

In his analysis of Aristotle’s work, Brazilian director Augusto Boal (1985) suggests that this cathartic release helped preserve the status quo in Greek society, for a populace that is content and at peace will not rebel against the rulers in power. Aristotle’s ideas about catharsis have influenced many psychotherapy models from Freudian psychoanalysis onward by focusing psychotherapeutic work on the idea that insight into troubling emotional issues and healing occurs only after the patient has achieved catharsis. This process is disputed as unrealistic and unnecessary by cognitive-behavioral therapists, rational-emotive therapists, and others who feel that catharsis and insight are not enough to induce healing or change, that new thoughts and behaviors must be learned to replace the old, and that change doesn’t automatically follow emotional release and understanding.


Ancient physicians recognized the value of drama as a therapeutic tool. Soranus, a second century Roman, believed that the way to cure mentally ill patients was to put them into peaceful surroundings and have them read, discuss, and participate in the production of plays in order to create order in their thinking and offset their depression (Cockerham, 1991). In the fifth century, another Roman Caelius Aurelius took this a step farther. He states in his treatise On Acute Diseases and on Chronic Diseases that in order to achieve emotional balance, patients should go to the theatre and watch a performance that expresses the emotion opposite to their condition. For depression, see a comedy; for mania or hysteria, see a tragedy (Jones, 1996).

For the most part, however, people with mental illness were not treated by taking trips to the theatre or by reading and performing plays; they were locked away in horrible prisons and asylums where they were either forgotten or attempts were made to cure them through exorcisms and treatments which could only be described as torture. Not until the late18th century, with the beginning of the “Moral Treatment” movement, did some mental institutions provide occupational, horticultural, and artistic activities as part of their treatment regimen (Cockerham, 1991; Whitaker, 2001). This approach to treatment continued in enlightened institutions in Europe and America into the 20th century and opened the door to the practice of drama therapy.

The groundwork for inclusion of the art therapies into psychiatric hospitals in the U.S. was laid after World War I. Talk therapy and medical interventions did nothing to help veterans recover from what at the time was called “shell-shock” (now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), the emotional response to traumatic combat experience. However, the arts did help. In the early 20’s and 30’s, inclusion of the arts in hospital programming was expanded. Occupational therapists at many psychiatric hospitals began involving patients in the rehearsal and performance of plays, pageants, and puppet shows. Interestingly, the genre of plays performed was limited to comedy, so as not to upset the patients (Phillips, 1994).

T. D. Noble, a psychiatrist at Sheppard-Pratt Hospital in the Baltimore, MD area, noticed that patients in his psychotherapy sessions who had acted in the hospital plays were able to understand and identify emotions better than other patients, could link their present emotional state and behavior to their earlier trauma more easily, and were able to experiment with alternative modes of behavior with more flexibility (Phillips, 1994). He wrote in a 1933 issue of Occupational Therapy and Rehabilitation that he found drama was a vehicle for the discovery and expression of conscious and unconscious conflicts. Playing other characters in the plays, he noted, helped patients release repressed emotions so that they could later deal with them directly in therapy. He also observed that drama was a useful diversion and encouraged socialization among patients (Phillips, 1994).


The social action root of drama therapy can be traced to Hull House and other sites of the settlement movement. Jane Addams opened Hull House in 1889 to serve as a socializing, civilizing, connective, and reforming force for the immigrant, working-class neighborhood of the Nineteenth Ward of Chicago’s West Side (Jackson, 2001). She set up a series of what she termed “Lines of Activity:” courses, lectures, and group experiences which would bring culture, education, social connection, and change to the community living in proximity to the settlement house. The most popular activities were the drama clubs which provided socialization, a creative outlet, and an exciting group experience which led to a product shared with others (Jackson, 2001). Young people would join drama clubs at the age of seven or eight and found so much meaning in their work together that they would remain in them until they were in their 30’s and 40’s. The Little Theatre or community theatre movement grew, in part, out of the enthusiasm for amateur performance that the Hull House drama clubs created (Hecht, 1991).

Movement and recreational groups were run for children at Hull House by Neva Boyd (Jackson, 2001). She used games and improvisation to teach language skills, problem-solving, self-confidence and social skills. Boyd became a sociology and theatre professor at the University of Chicago and is one of the founders of the Recreational Therapy and Educational Drama movements in the U.S. Her student Viola Spolin, learned Boyd’s techniques and developed them further, writing the widely-studied Improvisation for the Theatre, from which many theatre games and improvisation techniques used in American theatre training and in drama therapy originate (Spolin, 1963).


The surge in the growth of educational theatre in the U.S. can be traced to this source and to the educational theatre program at Northwestern University in Chicago which was helmed by Winifred Ward. Many founders of the National Association for Drama Therapy began as creative drama teachers. Drama therapists like Eleanor Irwin, Rosilyn Wilder, Naida Weisberg, Rose Pavlow, Jan Goodrich, and Patricia Sternberg discovered the therapeutic benefits of process drama through their work with young children and extended it to other populations in an intentional manner.

Lewis Barbato is credited with first using the term drama therapy in print in an article he wrote in 1945 for the Journal of Psychodrama and Group Psychotherapy and Florsheim published a book in which she discussed utilizing the enactment of scripted plays as therapy in 1945 (Casson, 2004). However, Gertrud Schattner, a Viennese actress, is credited with popularizing the term drama therapy and providing the impetus to create a national organization in the U.S (Reiter, 1996). In order to avoid Hitler’s invasion of Austria, Gertrud fled to Switzerland for safety during the Second World War on a temporary visa. When it expired, she used her acting skills to have herself admitted to a mental hospital as a patient, convincing the doctors that she was suicidal. She learned a great deal about mental illness from “hiding out” in the hospital (Reiter, 1996). Gertrud ended up marrying Edward Schattner, a psychiatrist working with refugees and survivors of Nazi concentration camps in a Swiss tuberculosis sanitarium. While he was able to make his patients’ bodies healthier, he had little success healing their utter desperation, depression, and despair. Edward asked Gertrud to come in to the sanitarium to do drama, storytelling, and poetry with the patients in a recreational vein. Through their participation in drama, they began to come back to life. Gertrud recognized what she was doing was something special and out of the ordinary – she called it drama therapy (Schattner, 1981; Reiter, 1996).

After the war the Schattners moved to the U.S. and Gertrud practiced drama therapy in a number of social service organizations and psychiatric hospitals in the New York City area. She taught the first drama therapy courses at Turtle Bay Music Center on Long Island (Reiter, 1996). In the early 1970’s, she and drama educator Richard Courtney began approaching other people who were doing similar work to collaborate on a publication which became Drama In Therapy, Volume One: Children and Volume Two: Adults, the first books in print about drama therapy (Schattner & Courtney, 1981). She and a number of those other pioneers, including David Read Johnson, Eleanor Irwin, Marilyn Richman, Rosilyn Wilder, Naida Weisberg, Ramon Gordon, Jan Goodrich, Barbara Sandberg, and others formed the National Association for Drama Therapy in 1979 in order to promote the training and education of drama therapists, to establish standards for registry, and to promote the field (Finneran, 1999).


At the same time drama therapy was developing in Great Britain. The British put the two words together: dramatherapy. Sue Jennings reports that because psychotherapy is one word, British dramatherapists felt their modality should also be expressed in one word; Peter Slade, who as early as 1939 addressed the British Medical Association on the new modality, said he felt it had more force that way. (Jones, 1996).

British origins can be connected to the educational drama work of Peter Slade in the 1930’s in an arts center in Worchester. He wrote Child Drama in 1954, the first book to connect drama with helping children develop emotional and physical control, confidence, observation skills, and abilities to be tolerant and considerate of others. In 1959, Slade began calling what he and others were doing dramatherapy in a pamphlet entitled “Dramatherapy as an Aid to Becoming a Person.” (Jones, 1996). Brian Way developed similar ideas about the essential growth drama offers participants in his classic Development through Drama, which collected ideas and methods from his work in educational drama from the 40’s through the mid-60’s (Way, 1967). Dorothy Heathcote used drama in education for teaching purposes, but also as a way for children to develop insight, understanding, and empathy. In 1964 Marian Lindkvist created the first dramatherapy training program, the Sesame Institute, which focused on drama and movement as forms of learning and expression, particularly in work with children with special needs. Peter Slade worked with her to deepen their method through psychological training.
Another early pioneer was Sue Jennings who began doing drama at a psychiatric hospital when she was a young drama student and called the work she was doing “remedial drama” (Jones, 1996). In the 1970’s, she completed a Ph.D. in anthropology which focused on ritual and started referring to her work as “dramatherapy.” (Jones, 1996). The British Association for Dramatherapists (BADth) was created in 1976 to promote the education and credentialing of dramatherapists in the UK (Jones, 1996). It is interesting to note that this is just three years before the NADT was formed in the U.S. While the British and the American forms of drama therapy developed separately and have different theoretical emphases, they truly did develop along parallel lines and in a similar pattern.

Drama therapy also has a history in Russia and the Netherlands. Phil Jones, in Drama as Therapy: Theatre as Living talks about two Russian drama therapists who were influenced strongly by the work of Stanislavky (Jones, 1996). Nicholai Evreinov, a Russian director, created a method he called Theatrotherapy which focused on the internal and psychological processes involved in acting to create healing and well-being in participants and help them re-frame or re-imagine their difficulties into a new way of life. Vladimir Iljine also created a Therapeutic Theatre in the years before the Russian Revolution (1908-1917) using theatre games and improvisational training to encourage flexibility, spontaneity, expressiveness, and communication abilities. He used his methods with individuals and groups in many situations and locations: psychiatric patients, people with emotional problems, and actors in the theatre (Jones, 1996).

After the Revolution there were others who carried on this work. One, Nikolai Sergevich Govorov, developed a theatrical storytelling technique which he used to help psychiatric patients and others develop social connections, self-confidence, and socially appropriate behavior (A. Martin, personal communication, June 2, 2004). He felt that much of mental health depended on people having the ability to socialize and support each other morally and humanly. Govorov was very aware of Evreinov’s work and consciously built on it and other Western therapeutic theatre work (A. Martin, personal communication, June 2, 2004). His work developed between the1950’s and the 1970’s.

One other country in which drama therapy currently thrives is the Netherlands. In the late 40’s, Activity Leaders involved with social welfare and youth care in community and residential care centers began using the arts and play for self-expression and social interaction (Jones, 1996). This gave rise to The Netherlands Society for Creative ExpressiveTherapy in the 1960s; a branch for dramatherapists was formed in 1981. There are, perhaps, more drama therapists per capita in the Netherlands than anywhere else in the world!


Two other individuals should be mentioned as important influences on drama therapy. The first is Constantin Stanislavky. Before Stanislavsky, theatre was not considered a psychological art. His work at the Moscow Art Theatre (1900-1938) set the stage, not just for actor training in the 20th century, but also for the use of his methods as tools for connecting with the emotional mind by other educators and psychotherapy professionals (Blair, 2002). His intuitive utilization of the imagination (the brain’s natural ability to create imagery and metaphor), the unconscious (as a gateway to connecting with true emotion), and given circumstances (embodying the actor in the physical and psychological details of the moment in which the character is) mesh with research that has been done on neurology and brain processes in the past fifteen years. The body-mind is essentially one, as Antonio Damasio explains in Descartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens, and as Stanislavsky’s methods demonstrate (Blair, 2002). Stanislavsky’s methods deeply influenced not just the Russian drama therapists, but also theatre artists from the West, most notably in our case, Viola Spolin and the American theatre educators who developed into the first drama therapists.

The other critical individual who must be mentioned is Jacob Levy Moreno, the father of psychodrama, sociodrama, and sociometry (Johnson in Lewis & Johnson, 2000). Moreno, born in Bucharest in 1889, grew up and studied medicine in Vienna. There, as an attending physician at a refugee camp at Mitterndorf at the end of World War I, he developed sociometry, a method of assessing of the social choices made within a group by its members and then intervening in a systemic way to create social change (Garcia & Buchanan in Johnson & Lewis, 2000). He applied these new measurements and intervention tools to create order and improve living conditions in the displaced residents’ lives. It worked! Later he started what amounted to a support group for Viennese prostitutes, using role play and improvisation to help them find solutions to social problems with which they were faced.

From 1920-24 Moreno led The Theatre of Spontaneity, an improvisational theatre in which professional actors created spontaneous drama based on current events. This work developed into sociodrama and later psychodrama as the focus changed from the community and social issues to personal and psychological issues of individuals. Moreno emigrated to the U.S. in 1925 where he continued developing his methods with the general public through the Impromptu Theatre at Carnegie Hall and by consulting at prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and residential treatment centers. In these latter institutions he helped individuals who had serious personal, emotional or social problems learn how to function better (Blatner, 2000). The American Society for Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama (ASGPP) was founded in 1942. Many of the pioneers of creative arts therapy movements, experiential therapy, and traditional talk therapy came to his sessions and were influenced by his work, including Marion Chase, Eric Berne, Arthur Janov, and Fritz Perls (Blatner, 2000; Johnson in Lewis & Johnson, 2000).

Psychodrama and drama therapy purists would argue that Moreno’s work is not a subset of drama therapy, but there is a truth to the idea that Moreno was the “first drama therapist,” as he identified role and social relationships as important therapeutic issues through his writing and work with clients long before American or British drama therapists became organized or began publishing (Johnson in Lewis & Johnson, 2000). My view of psychodrama is that it is part of the drama therapy toolbox, and, therefore, its story rightfully belongs as part of drama therapy history.


Currently, there are two Master degree programs in the U.S. and one in Canada approved by NADT for training drama therapists: New York University in New York City, California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco, and Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. NADT has also developed an alternative training program through which students can work with a Board Certified Trainer/Mentor to create an individualized program of study in drama therapy in conjunction with a Masters degree in theatre, social work, counseling, special education, or another discipline related to drama therapy. Being an interdisciplinary field, training in drama therapy requires courses in psychology/therapy, drama therapy, and other creative arts therapy as well as internships in which students practice their skills and receive supervision from experienced professional drama therapists and other credentialed mental health professionals.

The professional credential for drama therapists in the U.S. and Canada is the R.D.T. (Registered Drama Therapist) which can be applied for after one has finished an appropriate Masters degree, the approved drama therapy and psychology coursework, an 800 hour drama therapy internship, a minimum of 500 hours of theatre experience and a minimum of 1,500 hours of professional hours working as a drama therapist. Most registered drama therapists have much more than a minimum of 500 hours of theatre when they discover drama therapy since most begin as theatre artists or educators who discover the healing aspects of drama through their theatre training and work. However, more and more social workers, counselors, and special educators are discovering that talk therapy is not enough; that there is a need for “things done” in therapy for insight and change to be effective for clients. As this happens, drama therapists with theatre origins are being joined by drama therapists with clinical mental health origins who have discovered the magic and intrinsic healing value of drama. Among the ranks of drama therapy students, there are even ministers, priests, and rabbis who have discovered the healing power of drama therapy. Perhaps this is an indication that we are rounding the bend to complete the circle to the place where our drama therapy roots began.

INTERACTIVE DRAMA THERAPY TIMELINE:  Mouse over the bullets to reveal more details.




Aristotle. (1954). Aristotle’s rhetoric and poetics. NY: The Modern Library.

Blair, R. (2002). Reconsidering Stanislavsky: Feeling, feminism, and the actor. Theatre Topics. (12), 2, 177-190.

Blatner, A. (2000). Foundations of psychodrama. NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Brockett, O. (1968). History of the theatre. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Boal, A. (1985). Theatre of the oppressed. NY: Theatre Communications Group.

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