Sally Shatzkes initially thought she invented drama therapy during a theatre workshop in Israel. When she returned home and found it was an established field, she knew she’d found her calling. Now a drama therapist at Witness Theatre in Brooklyn, she pairs high school students with Holocaust survivors for a deeply personal, year-long journey that culminates in a series of short works about their memories of the Holocaust. “Theatre is an inherently empathetic art so it's inherently therapeutic,” Shatzkes says. The program demands a lot from both the student and survivor as they meet weekly for the entire school year. They spend a good deal of that initial time building trust, before students begin to dramatize the survivor’s stories. It is, as Shatzkes says, the “ultimate lesson in empathy.” “Many of [these survivors] think no one wants the burden of these stories. There was no such thing as therapy [when they were young]. For the first time in 70 years, they’re sharing what they went through.”
Drama therapy is a burgeoning field, where registered therapists use techniques and tradecraft of theatre as means of healing for patients in many high-stress populations. While Witness connects students with Holocaust survivors, Visible Ink at New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering partners cancer patients with writing mentors, that include Emmy and Tony-Award winning writers and composers, NY Times bestselling authors, and editors and staff writers from Vogue, Time, and more. The program’s founder, Judith Kelman, and playwright Greg Kachejian select pieces (some fictional, some autobiorgraphical) each year and direct a staged reading—which, this year, included members of the casts of Hello, Dolly!, Hamilton, and more, as well as award-winning performers like Tony winner and original Sweeney Todd Len Cariou.
“The most rewarding thing was the reaction of the writers,” says Cariou of those writing while battling cancer. “They’re terribly grateful, and they take real pride in having gotten involved. The doctor suggests that it might be good therapy, and it really, really is.” Cariou was brought to the Visible Ink program at Sloan Kettering by his wife, who was a writing mentor there. He thinks it helps patients find pride in themselves and see themselves beyond the four hospital walls. “It’s new perspective. It’s a creative process, and you work to improve your writing and it gives you a new sense of being with ‘the big C.’”
Watch Rebecca E. Covington (Beautiful) and Bryna O’Neill (Broadway Sings Concert Series) sing “Waving Through a Window” as Tony winner Len Cariou performs Karl G. Merchant’s “The Window”:
The idea of seeing oneself outside of four walls is one the youth at Storycatchers Theatre in Chicago know well. Storycatchers engages court-involved youth (from sentencing to post-release probation) and pairs them with teaching artists, like composer and songwriter Diana Lawrence, who help them turn their pain into art. What they create means more than just good music or writing, because, according to Lawrence: “It is in service of their mental health. It creates a unique product.” The freedom of creation connects with the kids Lawrence works with because within the court system, their lives are strictly regulated. “They have so little control over their bodies,” Lawrence says. “I think the arts and creativity give them a chance to claim some more control in their lives.”
As for the question of why drama therapy, and not something else, Lawrence thinks this is what they need. “As therapy, it’s a way for them to escape the world that they are condemned to every day. It gets them back in touch with the humanness that they know they have.”
The innate desire to express the human condition has been around since neanderthals painted caves, that driving impulse to share and be healed by the act of sharing is something that’s innate to all of us. Drama therapy is the means by which skilled professionals help channel the creativity we all have to spark the catharsis that only art can provide. As these programs demonstrate, theatre isn’t just something you see as an audience member. The act of creating theatre can be deeply personal, it can help to make sense of our most difficult, challenging, and traumatic experiences, and help us share them with the world.