Using Drama Therapy

Shift behaviour; thinking in action

By Sujata Devadas, October 25, 2018

Drama is often considered mere entertainment, a leisure time indulgence. But psychotherapists Dr. Maitri Gopalakrishna and Evan Hastings find drama an effective therapeutic method to resolve the haunting residues of abuse, exploitation and trauma to empower those who suffered with self-confidence, capabilities and competence.

Demystifying counselling with transparency

Psychotherapists or counsellors using drama therapy do not tell users what to do. Drama therapy is thinking in action. Through several sessions, solutions emerge from a participant exploring their own mind,  expressing emotions, behaviour and relationships, ‘acting it out’ using drama techniques. The results can often be better than talk therapy for many. “It is primarily exploring inside one’s own self by role playing, improvising, expressing, projecting and developing characters. Props could be clay, masks or a projective technique. It is not possible to say if someone is sad, this is what we do. Everybody’s sadness is not the same."

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"When the solution is revealed, I help that person understand how it emerged.” says Dr. Maitri. “Over several such drama therapy sessions, the procedure becomes transparent, lifting clients up to self-reliance. At times, the participant acts the role of  ‘counsellor’ expressing different answers and options to fractious questions or incidents happening in their own life. In due course, the client does not need counselling. It is redundant.” 

In-person, individual counselling


To counsel individuals - adults or children - Dr. Maitri builds a specific, boundaried professional relationship with that person. This live, 1-on-1 on-the-spot drama therapy at the counselling, training and research centre Parivarthan provides clients a space to arrive at a workable solution when facing difficult circumstances. It helps deal with loss, grief, depression and anxiety related disorders, understanding relationships better, practicing behavioural changes and others.

Adept counselling skills centre on listening and helping clients to reflect introspectively. Questions like ‘if  your body feels intense discomfort from that particular posture, release it to a different one; does the new posture change your thoughts and feelings?’  By thinking it, showing it or practicing it differently, drama instils the user with the sense of doing it differently. The subsequent inference and summary is “you said it, you did it a different way”. Such 1-on-1 drama therapy has no audience; it is confidential. 

Dr.Maitri Gopalakrishna
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But 5 individuals who did drama therapy with Maitri co-scripted their individual experiences and developed the play ‘Positively Shameless’ together with Dr. Maitri and dancer, theatre director and educationist, Shabari Rao. Positively Shameless shows up a messed up socio-political issue. It has been performed to a public audience in Bangalore, Hyderabad and in Delhi. 

From the 25th of October, this play will be performed first in Kansas City(MO) then Lansing(MI), San Francisco and Oakland(CA) till the 2nd November 2018.

As an ethical requirement, counsellors also undergo therapy. As they absorb so much of other people’s emotions, it is essential for them to separate their own issues from that of the client. 

Deviance in adults

A 7-year-old kid reached Bangalore Bridges Youth Theatre late for a drama session, because he stood all night outside his home to guard it. His drunken father had axed the front door open the previous night and perpetrated other violence. The boy reconstructed the scene of standing outside the doorless frame, play-acting what happened.


At Bangalore Bridges, children from different socio-economic groups chose different kinds of domestic violence, sexual abuse, alcoholism as themes to act out at half-a-day Community Theatre activities all 2006 summer. Heart-rending evidence revealed that it came from their own lives. Maitri and her colleague Shabari had to intervene peacefully when kids projected the intention of beating each other up.

Why counsellors chose drama therapy

Feeling completely ill equipped, the Bangalore Bridges experience became Maitri’s reason to look within theatre processes for helping abused and traumatised victims. Both Maitri and Evan completed MA in psychotherapy from California Institute of Integral Studies. Both chose Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre drama therapy technique for the oppressed as a proficient method to help others. Maitri got her doctorate degree from the acclaimed Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai this year.

“Drama does not attract stigma as a cultural activity the way counselling in the clinical setting does. So it is more accessible as therapy to the public. If the participant enjoys it, it’s benefits endure.” says Dr. Maitri. If a severe mental health problem has been diagnosed, drama therapy is done in conjunction with psychiatric treatment and medication.

Apart from her professional commitments as drama therapist, Dr. Maitri volunteers 3 times a week to teach community theatre to Grade 6

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Dr.Maitri Gopalakrishna guides group therapy

students of Ramagondanahalli Government High School from July 2018  co-directing a folk story that explores emotions, power, overcoming fear with Anita Santhanam, for a a public community theatre performance in January 2019 at Jagriti Theatre, Whitefield, Bangalore.

The systemic, group level strategy

“What better way to dialogue about pressing social issues than through creatively crafted visual stories that draw people in, connect to their lives and ask difficult questions in a playful and honest environment?” asks Evan Hastings, a US-born  Drama Therapist. Affiliated with Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore since 2009, he is the Founder and Director of Shadow Liberation, an ongoing interactive theatre initiative utilising drama therapy and the Theatre of the Oppressed for the primary prevention of sexual violence at Universities and Colleges.

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Evan Hastings with college students

Evan believes in the power of drama therapy in groups. In creating Shadow Liberation performances, he works with college students to create original stories that other college students can relate to. His aim is “to develop a group culture that encourages risk taking, active inquiry and constructive debate in a playful and respectful environment to explore issues of sexuality, gender and power. Ways that bypass defences and enable deep dialogue within the dramatic space. Through it, we open ourselves to others experience, develop empathy and invite critical thinking.”

Shadow Liberation performances blend scenes of actors on stage with more abstract shadow scenes that represent traumatic memories or violent acts. In the tradition of Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre, after watching the play one time, selected scenes are replayed and audience members are invited on stage to offer improvisational interventions into the dilemmas depicted.

In the next few weeks Evan facilitates Shadow Liberation workshops at Antioch University in Seattle, New York University in New York City and the North American Drama Therapy Conference held in Kansas City. 

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Instead of merely focussing on victim and perpetrator dynamics, Evan focusses on bystander intervention. “What about the third person who watches and does nothing? How can we awaken the impulse to act in the face of injustice?” asks Evan. He acknowledges the limitations of facilitating change through public performances stating “I know we are not going to solve these problems in 90 minutes.” Yet he is optimistic that these dramatic dialogues play a role in shifting institutional cultures, getting people to talk about the systemic nature of these issues.

Through 15 sessions, Evan believes students who create Shadow Liberation shows shift their behaviour and beliefs. He has lectured, performed and facilitated Shadow Liberation workshops across 17 countries in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. “Sexual violence is a global issue. I see drama therapy as a part of a holistic approach to this problem that will hopefully be so effective that I find myself out of work!”

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