Playing the Unspeakable: Trauma-Informed Drama Therapy at Claremont International High School- Pending Review

By Heidi Landis, RDT-BCT, LCAT, TEP, CGP 

In recent years, the field of trauma work and trauma-informed care has grown tremendously, allowing for the exploration and emergence of innovative treatment approaches not only in therapeutic practices but within school settings. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), more than 25% of American youth experience a serious traumatic event by their sixteenth birthday, and many children suffer multiple and repeated traumas, including: child abuse and neglect; serious accidental injury; disasters and terrorism; experiencing or witnessing violence in neighborhoods, schools and homes; and medical trauma (NCTSN, 2017). Add to those the issues of immigration and culture facing  most of students attending Internationals Network schools and we have an emergency. After a traumatic event, a child or young person is at risk of developing traumatic stress, which can play out in many ways in the classroom. How we as school communities respond to traumatic stress is integral to creating a safe school environment.; Our work is vital not only to help students shift their trauma narratives, but also to enable them to be fully engaged in learning. 

Many schools, including Claremont International High School (CIHS) are working to create trauma-informed systems to meet the needs of our students.  This is a system-wide initiative, with all staff on board and many different streams of care, intervention, and support. In this article, I will talk about one of those streams that I have had the privilege to implement as part of the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) team at CIHS: Trauma Informed Drama Therapy Groups.

Drama therapy is the intentional use of drama and/or theatre processes to achieve therapeutic goals. The North American Association for Drama Therapy ( defines drama therapy as an active, experiential approach to facilitate change. Through storytelling, projective play, purposeful improvisation, and performance, participants are invited to rehearse desired behaviors, practice being in relationship, expand and find flexibility between life roles, and perform the change they wish to be and to see in the world. Drama therapy is led by a licensed clinician who also holds the credential of Registered Drama Therapist.

Although it can take  many forms, at Claremont we are working primarily with one form of trauma-informed drama therapy based on the work of Creative Alternative of New York (CANY). Through the use of trauma-informed drama therapy in a group setting, this model helps children and adults expand their sense of self, imagine new life possibilities and build the social and emotional tools they need to thrive. The CANY model evolved over years of clinical and artistic practice into a formal trauma-informed staged based approach to drama therapy, responding to the increased prevalence of trauma exposure in both children and adults.  

In addition, trauma-informed drama therapy takes into consideration the pervasive impact of trauma on a person’s mental wellbeing and general functioning and is framed to those we work with as an understanding that trauma is an event that the individual has experienced as opposed to an innate pathology. 

The model used at CIHS is grounded in three guiding principles as written about in the CANY Training Manual (2014) and recently published in the article in Drama Therapy Review (2019). 

  • Creativity as Health

In a trauma-informed drama therapy group we explore and connect participants with their creative potential, and we work from the assumption that creativity is an indication of mental wellbeing (Bloom, 2010). As we create, we imagine. As we imagine, we explore new roles, relationships and behaviors and set future goals, allowing for a shift in how the individual experiences self and others (Nash & Haen, 2005).

  • Metaphor as Healing Tool

Metaphor refers to a process of comparison that we make between ourselves and something else, for example, “My life is a roller-coaster” or “I am a bomb waiting to go off.” In CANY groups, metaphor extends to the dramatic realm, wherein real-life experience is projected onto the dramatic fictions created and enacted by the group, allowing clients to gain access to meaningful, albeit sometimes difficult, life stories. In other words, metaphor allows for insight as well as safe distance from, the original trauma. 

  • Group as Therapeutic Agent

Groups foster community. In the aftermath of interpersonal trauma, Herman (1997) advocates for the implementation of group work in rebuilding a client’s capacity for intimacy and trust. “Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes: the group bears witness and affirms….” In this form of drama therapy, group leaders help to build connections among group members through the interactive experience that drama provides, reducing client isolation, developing community, and validating feelings and experience as group members create stories and enact scenes together.  (McLellan, Landis, & Dean, 2014; McLellan & Nash, 2011).


Drama Therapy at Claremont
Trauma-informed drama therapy is currently practiced in a number of different groups of Claremont. Over the 2018-2019 academic year, many ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders received ten weeks or more of drama therapy using the CANY model in their advisory periods. In addition, pieces of the model have been used in other school-based therapeutic groups and in individual sessions. Portions of the model are also incorporated in monthly restorative circles in each class, as well as with staff in professional development workshops and weekly team meetings. The model was also used this year as a jumping off point to create a therapeutic theater piece entitled Never Forget that was performed by ten of our students based on their immigration experiences.

With the understanding that the main goal we have as school communities is to support students in achieving their educational goals, we must also recognize the effect that traumatic stress has on a student’s ability to function in the classroom. One of the main reasons to add any type of therapeutic work into a school setting is the need to acknowledge that mental health and wellness are integral to a student’s success (“NCTSN” 2017). One of the questions I am continually asked is: where is the place of the trauma narrative in a school setting? How do we make sure that the students are able to have both a space to process their trauma narratives but also to be focused in the classroom?  

Using drama therapy and its distancing techniques (including metaphor, and more specifically, what I have come to call the parallel story), allows the creation of  a safe container for students to work through their narratives at the distance that feels most appropriate for them.

Dominck LaCapra, best known for his work in intellectual history and trauma studies, speaks about the notion of the difference between “working though” and “acting out” in processing trauma. Working through is an action-based process whereby clients engage in their story through writing and play, for example, and emerge with an integrated trauma narrative. Acting out, for LaCapra, is a process based in denial in which traumatized persons chronically and without insight repeat behaviors associated with their trauma. LaCapra believes that acting out is an inevitable and often necessary part of the healing process; when working through encounters acting out, it results in what he calls a “redemptive narrative.” LaCapra writes:


“If you take the conventional narrative structure itself – with a beginning, a middle and an end, where the end recapitulates the beginning after the trials of the middle, and gives you (at least on the level of insight), some realization of what it was all about – there’s a sense in which the conventional narrative is redemptive” (2001).  


In other words, ritual, metaphor and projection can contain the trauma narrative. However, as in all trauma treatment, the process is the key. In many of the groups I run, the unconscious carefully scaffolded creation of the parallel story and the processing after the enactment is the direct link to the safe recounting of the trauma narrative. The distance allows students to explore, play with, reimagine, and integrate the trauma narrative safely. This model has worked well at CIHS because within it the trauma narrative requires integration into the student’s life experience as opposed to a separation or getting rid of. The process of working with story at a distance and having the ability to re-write the trauma narrative allows for a re-wiring to happen at a neurological level as well as an emotional level. Furthermore, the strength based model is grounded in collaboration. Leaders and students are co-creators in the process from beginning to end letting knowledge and strength come from the students.


Case Example: Dakari and the Kind King
One of the students, who I will call Dakari (name and identifying information have been changed), was from a country in a process of political upheaval. Dakari’s English was fairly strong and he helped to translate for other members of the class. Although Dakari was an accommodating group member he didn’t often take space for himself, as he was  more concerned about making sure others knew what was happening by translating and encouraging them to participate. During one session, I asked the students to create a list of relationships. Each group member added a relationship such as Mother/Father, Teacher/Student, and Brother/Sister. When Dakari was invited to share a relationship, he added Government/People. As soon as the words came out of his mouth, he looked a bit uncomfortable and sank down into his chair. However, other group members began to nod and some started to laugh and exclaiming, “Does that mean someone would have to play Trump?”  I asked the group to choose one of the relationships in the list that they would like to work with and the overwhelming response was Government/People. I asked Dakari how he felt about working with this choice and he nodded and said “I think it will be good.” I then asked the group if we were to create a story about this relationship what would it be about. At this point, Dakari sat up in his chair, raised his hand and said. “This story should be about a perfect place where everyone has everything they need and the government is fair to everyone.” The rest of the group again nodded in response. We then asked the group to create characters first by choosing who they would be in this “perfect” society, i.e., what character would they play, what job would they have, and then by becoming that character. One student took on the role of a teacher, another a soccer player, and a third a store owner. When we got to Dakari he was quiet for a minute and then said, “I would like to be the King. But I am a kind king and I listen to everyone, and I am fair.” We then created the play space and began to play out scenes. Dakari was true to his role playing the benevolent king and enacting his hopes and wishes for a fair leader.

Knowing about the history and crisis in his home country as well as the current political issues in the United States made the story that Dakari created that much more powerful to enact as well as to witness. When the scene continued the following week, as a group leader, I took on the role of a reporter who could not believe that such a place exists in the world. This carefully thought out choice was created in order to help Dakari and the other students express their beliefs and perhaps even give them the opportunity to stand up to those who didn’t believe in peace in the safety of the metaphor.  As the reporter entered the scene with skepticism, Dakari stood up and said, “This is a place where everything is happy all the time, there is no war, and everyone has enough money.” The reporter asked where everyone came from and Dakari as King replied, “We are from all over the world. We are from unhappy places and we have come together here to find happiness. Even our football teams don’t fight because they are here for the love of the games. If you don’t believe us you should go to the streets and talk to the people, and hear their stories, then you will know”. 

In this case, the created/parallel story had become the metaphor for the groups’ journey to find a safe place. After the drama ended the group was able to reflect on this society and begin to tell their own stories. Dakari commented that was nice to be in that society but he understood that struggle was what caused us to grow. He reflected that the struggle he and his family had endured in his country allowed him to have the strength to survive and come to New York City.

In this instance, it was the parallel story, integral to drama therapy work, and the group process that allowed the students to feel safe enough to touch the trauma narrative in reflection.

It also allowed them to step outside their own trauma narrative and imagine new possibilities. Those that did not feel safe enough or ready to reflect could continue to use the distance of the projected story to talk about, work through and internalize pieces of their own stories. I view the parallel story as the narrative that allows clients to access their traumatic narrative in a context that allows for both acting out and working through. The integration of both stories – real and metaphorical – allows for trauma treatment in non-traditional settings.


Heidi Landis is the Community Coordinator for Mental Health at Claremont Internationals High School in Bronx, NY.