What is Drama Therapy?

“All the world is not, of course, a stage,
but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.”
–Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
Drama therapy is an effective means of making sense of and/or finding meaning in life. I believe creative self-expression is inherently healing and life enhancing. Through the process of self-expression, drama therapy can help people organize their inner reactions to events in their lives. Performance, embodiment and reflection enables them to understand and express their feelings more clearly. By encouraging creativity, imagination and role playing, persons reexamine or redefine their self descriptions (Garcia & Buchanan 112). The organizing function served by drama therapy enables clients to find meaning in their experience. This in turn may aid them in defining goals and desired outcomes.
Embodying the role/counter-role/guide in the classroom setting has allowed me to understand its functionality in a therapeutic encounter. Reading about drama therapy followed by embodying the technique has provided a well rounded experience. I better understand the therapeutic goal of helping a client move towards a balanced state where problematic roles are integrated with appropriate counterroles by means of the transitional guide figure. The healing happens when the process allows clients to relate to the conflict caused by living in a paradoxical reality. This allows them to live a balanced life by accepting imbalance. Using performance as a tool to enact the roles and stories in their life gives them the healing benefit to acknowledge said roles and experience imaginary situations in a safe contained environment. Practitioners of developmental transformations believe the healing occurs fully through the play and drama and the reflection process is not necessary to affect change (Landy 113).
As Landy explained, when a protagonist is able to reflect on feelings experienced in the drama and relate it back to the group process and everyday life, catharsis of integration occurs (Landy 160).
Performance is healing through the use of psychodrama when a client experiences catharsis by revisiting a painful experience and discharges anger through dramatic action. Dramatizing alternative stories offers a client new input and expands their repertory of roles. By dramatizing through performance a client begins to experience a shift which will eventually help to heal (Garcia & Buchanan 117).
Performance provides catharsis for the protagonist, but it is also healing from the spectator’s perspective. While watching the autobiographical performances I experienced several moments of catharsis; as described by Moreno when explaining Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. During various points of my classmate’s performances I was able to identify with the dilemma of the actor on the stage. As Moreno explained, the novelty and surprise of dramatic action fueled the release of feelings (Landy 136).
Through all of the various techniques explored in class I have come to discover many roles within myself. Many of these roles I was aware of and some of them came as a surprise. Through drama therapy I have learned that performance offers a whole new role and a new way of viewing life. Situations and roles that were introduced in class were carried over into “real life”. The most exciting aspect of my newfound perspective towards drama therapy is learning how my passion for drama and the theater can be applied towards meaningful, respectful work that can help to empower people to change their life in a very personal way.

1) Landy, Robert. The Couch and the Stage. United Kingdom: Jason Aronson, 2008.
2) Garcia, Antonina and Buchanan, Dale Richard. Psychodrama: Chapter 9.
Current Approaches in Drama Therapy. Charles C. Thomas:Springfield, IL. 2000.
3) R. Landy. Essays in Drama Therapy: The Double Life, Jessica Kingsley Press, 1996

Constantine Stanislavski

NYU Research Paper: Drama in Education
October 26, 2009

Influential Theatre Practitioner of Drama in Education: Constantine Stanislavski
Written and Researched by Andrea Bertola

“Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.”
– Constantine Stanislavski

When the topic of “method acting”, “acting systems” or “acting techniques” arises you can be sure that a passionate debate is soon to follow. This was evidenced in one of my classes here in the Educational Theatre Department when the question came up, “Should we teach acting techniques in academic classrooms?”  I was astonished to find that only a handful of students seemed to share my opinion that, YES, it should be taught; despite any controversy surrounding acting methods. My argument being: as instructors of drama and theatre it is our responsibility to introduce students to the foundations of these acting techniques and let them decide if it is something that works for them. My classmates seemed to feel as though these acting methods are too advanced for young students in classroom settings and we shouldn’t be teaching them as though they are going to be professional actors. Quite frankly, that notion made my blood boil— just a little bit.

Chemistry teachers teach advanced formulas and chemical mixing, even though their students aren’t growing up to have a career as a chemist.  Calculus teachers teach complicated equations, even though their students aren’t growing up to have a career as a mathematician.  Why is there a bias against Drama in the classroom? Hearing this argument coming from the mouths of my fellow classmates was truly disheartening. What was even more upsetting to me was that because I hadn’t explored this topic in-depth; I lacked confidence in defending my stance. Of course I know the general fundamentals of acting methods, I had even work at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute; but when it comes to key contributions, influences, history and foundations— I am eager to learn more about the man who was a pioneer in this field. This has inspired me to choose Constantine Stanislavski for the purposes of this research paper and explore the many ways he has been an influential practitioner of Theatre.

Stanislavski’s Key Contributions
to the Field of Educational Drama and Theatre
Constantine Stanislavski is often called, “The Father of the Acting System.” It would perhaps be less of an undertaking to explain where he hasn’t contributed to the field of Educational Drama and Theatre.  He dedicated his life to creating a system, that would help in organizing and strengthening the creative process known as acting. This system is a result of his efforts to determine how a human being can control in performance the most intangible and uncontrollable aspects of human behavior, such as emotions and artistic inspiration. In essence, his constant goal in life was to formulate some codified, systematic approach that might impart to any given actor with some grip on his ‘instrument’, that is, himself (Benedetti).  What Stanislavski had undertaken is not to discover a truth, but to bring the truth in usable form within the reach of those actors and producers who are fairly well equipped by nature and who are willing to undergo the necessary discipline (Hapgood 2). And that is exactly what he did. His contribution to modern acting and drama technique is still at the core of mainstream western performance training for much of the last century.

Stanislavski’s teachings of the realist method can be broken down into two main theories. His early teachings were based mainly on the concept of “Emotional Memory/ Affective Memory Technique” and later his development of his “Method of Physical Actions”. Within those broader concepts are some of his following theories and techniques: Active Analysis, Action, Adaptation, Cognitive Analysis, Communication, Concentration of Attention, Etude, Experiencing, Given Circumstances, Imagination, Indicating, Inner Contact, Inner Monologue, Intention, Justification,  Lure,  Objective, Super Objective, The Questions, Relaxation , Representation, Sense Memory,  Subtext ,  Substitution,  Through-line of Action, and Turning Point (Hapgood 1989).

 His contributions span even further when you look at his contributions to the field of psychotherapy and the influences he has had on the development of drama therapy/theatrotherapy and therapeutic theatre, which will be discussed later in this paper.

Theoretical Framework Situated within the Field      
Within the field of educational theatre Stanislavski’s contribution can be most recognized when looking at the teaching method of Process Drama where both the students and teacher are working in and out of role. I found a really insightful article entitled, Emotional Involvement or Critical Endangerment?, which discussed The Schools Council Report of 1977. This report pointed out the strong connection between educational process drama and theatre when it noted that “both essentially rest on the ability to adopt and develop roles and characters within ‘as if’ situations” (Wooster 15). I can’t help but notice the blatant parallels between this statement and Stanislavski’s “magic if” which he uses to suspend reality and unlock creative empathy. The article also addressed the needs of teachers in using drama or theatre within the National Curriculum and demonstrated how good drama actually facilitates a fusion of ‘critical detachment’ from Brecht and ‘emotional involvement’ from Stanislavski (Wooster 14). The philosophies of these two practitioners are often viewed as contrasting, but the article claims the two approaches actually come together, in using drama and theatre in education as an empathetic rather than as a performance discipline.

Influences on other Drama Practitioners
It is clear that almost every significant method of acting & theatre training in America was derived from the work of Stanislavski. His influences on Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, Stanford Meisner and Stella Adler are obvious. Beyond training for actors, contemporary drama theorists also employ his philosophies.  Good drama education technique has been derived from various schools of theatre which are all dependent upon the human ability to play and think creatively and empathetically (Wooster 16). Being that Stanislavski’s influence is so vast, I am going to briefly touch on one practitioner from several different categories to speak of Stanislavski’s contributions in the following areas: Drama in Education; Drama Therapy; Process Drama; Improvisational Theatre; and Method Acting.

Dorothy Heathcote (Drama in Education)
Stanislavski’s theory of ‘emotional memory’ is evident when examining Dorothy Heathcoat’s philosophy on drama education. Her method is based upon the desire to assist in the development of her students by encouraging social and emotional growth. She uses the idea of affective memory technique that actors would identify as coming from Stanislavski. She wants a ‘feeling’ response from her students so that a child will ‘think from within a dilemma instead of talking about a dilemma’ (Heathcote 200). Much of her approach is based on authenticity, attention to detail and respect for what is true (Bolton 244). This seems to be reflective of Stanislavski’s method for achieving the truthful pursuit of a character’s objective.

Robert Landy (Drama Therapy: Role Theory)
Landy’s ‘role theory’ is supported by theatrical influences over and above his sociological sources (Landy 101). Much of Stanislavski’s approach was influenced by Freud. Looking at his affective memory method in psychological terms, the raw emotional experience of the id was to be mediated by the ego, grounded firmly in reality. It’s easy to see how this theory can be linked to Landy’s development of “role”, “counter role” and “guide”.

Cecily O’ Neill (Process Drama)
Process Drama is a method of teaching and learning where both the students and teacher are working in and out of role. Cecily O’Neill describes process drama being used to explore a problem, situation, theme or series of related ideas or themes through the use of the artistic medium of unscripted drama. Structure and Spontaneity talks about Cecily O’Neill’s belief that actions and gestures need to be layered in to a process drama. She has examined the theories of Stanislavski among others and how their notions of improvised activity and organic episodic structure can yield fertile discoveries (Taylor 116). 

Viola Spolin (Improvisational Theatre)
Improvisational Theatre is a form of theatre in which the actors use improvisational acting techniques to perform spontaneously. Stanislavski’s actor training relied heavily on improvisation in actor training and rehearsals.  His theories and method are reflected in Viola Spolin’s method that was greatly influenced by Stanislavski.  Spolin is considered by many to be the “American Grandmother of Improvisational Theatre”. She adapted the techniques of Stanislavski to devise a series of over 200 acting games and exercises (Taylor 32).

Lee Strasberg (Method Acting)
Lee Strasberg founded the first American acting company to put Stanislavski’s “emotional recall” theories into practice. Modern day controversy surrounding Stanislavski’s system or “method” perhaps comes from being confused with Lee Strasberg’s “method acting”. In Stanislavski’s system, actors deeply analyze the motivations and emotions of their characters in order to personify them with psychological realism and emotional authenticity. Using Strasberg’s Method, an actor recalls emotions or sensations from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed (Strasberg 42).

Connections: Stanislavski’s work as it connects to my own practice
I haven’t yet decided which path I am going to follow when it comes to my life in the theatre. Working at the Lee Strasberg Institute has inspired me to possibly go the entrepreneur route and open my own school for acting one day. If I pursue this option, no matter which technique I choose to teach, I know that it will be influenced by Stanislavski’s method.  As an acting teacher no matter who I teach, whether it is young children in their first play or professional actors on the verge of getting their big break, my goal will be to get them to play their role as truthfully as possible. Stanislavski treated theatre-making as a serious endeavor, requiring dedication, discipline and integrity, and the work of the actor as an artistic undertaking. When I think of my teaching philosophy, these are the very same words that come to my mind. In that way, Stanislavski will be influencing my work on a daily basis, no matter which career path I choose in the world of educational theatre.


Works Cited
  1. Benedetti, Jean. Stanislavski and the Actor. London: Methuen, 1998
  2. Bolton, Gavin. Acting in Classroom Drama. Portland, ME: Calendar Islands Publishers, 1999.
  3. Hapgood, Elizabeth Reynolds & Stanislavski, Constantine. An Actor Prepares. New York, NY: Routledge Theatre arts Books, 1989.
  4. Heathcote, Dorothy. Drama as a process for Change in Drain. Twentieth Century Theatre. London: Routledge, 1995.
  5. Landy, Robert. The Couch and the Stage. United Kingdom: Jason Aronson, 2008.
  6. Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion. New York, NY: Penguin, 1987.
  7. Taylor, P. and C. Warner.  Structure and Spontaneity:  The Process Drama of Cecily O’Neill.  London: Trentham Books, 2006.
  8. Wooster, Roger. Emotional Involvement or Critical Endangerment? Drama Magazine. Summer: 2004.