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Give Sorrow Words: the Healing Power of Theater

Updated: May 16, 2019

Over the past 10 years my husband and I have done quite a bit of reading, taking classes, attending conferences, and learning from professionals regarding trauma and healing. We have focused primarily on the trauma of abandonment & its resulting fear and anxiety with the hope of helping our family. We have been so grateful for the grace of the Liturgy, the sacraments, Scripture, and prayer on our journey. We have also utilized art therapy, equine therapy, play therapy, theraplay, acupuncture, NAET therapy, aromatherapy, EMDR, TBRI, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Imago therapy, biofeedback, sensory integration therapy, psychiatry, psychiatric drugs, and more.

We have benefited from Dr. Curt Thompson’s book, The Anatomy of the Soul, in which he discusses the power of storytelling to help rewire our neural pathways. Much of what we have learned reinforces the importance of telling one’s story as a way to process in the prefrontal cortex the trauma that has been stored in the limbic brain. Writing out one’s story, telling it to a trusted person, and acting out situations in role play have all been shown to assist in this process. There are also significant reparative properties in acting out someone else’s story, in the context of a well-written script. I think about this specifically in regards to the effects of theater in my own life (I acted in productions from 2nd grade through my sophomore year of college), as well as that of my son, who loves participating in our local drama co-op.

Theater has long been recognized as a powerful agent of catharsis, a catalyst for encouraging empathy and a haven of communal healing. Dramatic performance brings the audience and the actors alike into a shared experience, communicating that they are not alone in their grief, pain, and feelings of inadequacy; likewise, joy, victory, and exultation are greater when they are shared. Shakespeare writes in Macbeth, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break” - an ancient truth which is being confirmed repeatedly by modern neuroscience and research.

The use of theater to help victims of domestic violence, assault, and various other forms of trauma is on the rise. Greek tragedy is being employed as a healing agent for veterans with PTSD in the work of director Bryan Doerries, the creator of Theater of War Productions. Shakespeare in the Courts is a program in which juvenile offenders “study, rehearse, and perform Shakespeare as an alternative to more punitive consequences”, and Trauma Drama gives teens a place to “work through trauma using theater as therapy.” A fabulous resource that helps to explain the healing power of theater (and many other trauma therapies) is Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score.

It is not only Shakespeare and Greek Tragedy that assist with healing, however. In his book, Dr. van der Kolk also discusses the power of music and dance to help reconnect with one’s body, particularly when in sync with others, as in a musical. Trauma often produces a disconnect from one’s body; in coping with traumatic circumstances, the mind will sometimes choose to ignore the body because what is happening there is too overwhelming. But trauma is stored on a cellular level, and we are not just disembodied minds. Our bodies can give us information and assistance in whole-person healing if we are able to listen to them. Reconnecting with the body is vital to trauma survivors so that they can utilize the body’s natural radar effectively (resetting the fight or flight response, which trauma arrests in the “on” position) and experience non-threatening, necessary, life-giving touch from other human beings. Now there are programs being developed for incarcerated youth with trauma histories in which they write and perform musicals, and dance movement therapy “offers an integrative way of working through trauma on physical, emotional, neurological, and psychological levels.”

Given our son’s trauma & particular issues, we are very careful about letting him deviate from his scheduled bedtime, gauging what the fallout will be if his routine is disrupted. We have decided that his participation in theater is worth some disruption, some sleeping in, and some slacking off in other areas. His first experience of theater was a part in the chorus of H.M.S.Pinafore - he loved his bit part as a sailor, and went around with bolstered confidence singing all the time (and reciting everyone else’s lines). He felt a part of something, belonging to a community with a shared experience. He was recently in Singing in the Rain, in which he had a small speaking part as the policeman, and he had to be given more rest and special accommodations before, during and after the production. Despite some meltdowns along the way, I believe that the art of theater is helping him to heal, and I am so thankful that it is something he can take advantage of, hopefully for the rest of his life.

During this month of Mental Health Awareness, let's pray for those who struggle with wounds from all types of trauma and for continued healing in their lives.

“What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” (Shakespeare, from Othello)

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