A Massachusetts treatment center uses the stage to support children coping with personal struggles.
By Christine Graf
World-renowned trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk calls child abuse and neglect the most vital public health issue in America.
The Arizona-based nonprofit Childhelp claims between four and seven children die each day as a result of abuse and neglect. An additional six million children are referred to child protection agencies each year. Many of these children have been exposed to significant trauma and suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In 1982, van der Kolk founded the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute (JRI) in Brookline, Massachusetts. JRI uses innovative and proven approaches to trauma recovery for children and adults impacted by complex trauma. Trauma Drama is one of the unique programs offered to its adolescent and young adult clients. Developed in 2005 by former executive director Joseph Spinazolla, Trauma Drama is a theater-based program that draws heavily on improvisational theater.
The 20-week Trauma Drama program pulls together two dozen clients between the ages of 12 and 21. They work with highly trained employees who facilitate the program for the residents who all reside in JRI’s treatment facility. The participants have experienced abuse as well as chronic and persistent trauma throughout their lives. Many of the youth come from poor, violent neighborhoods. The weekly sessions last over an hour and follow a predictable pattern. Each session begins with the opening circle, a forum for the introduction of the day’s theme, which could include family neglect, childhood sexual abuse, depression, domestic violence, and date rape. A fun improvisational game takes place after the opening circle. The game is followed by a core drama scene that is related to the day’s theme. Performed by troupe members, drama scenes are vivid, intense, and emotional. At a critical point in the scene, the director freezes the action and invites youth to replace one of the actors. The youth make pivotal decisions that affect the outcome of the scene. The director may repeatedly freeze or rewind each scene to discuss how situations could have been handled. Group discussion takes place after the scene, followed by a fun and engaging activity. The process is designed to regulate emotions to detect any triggers during a session.
The depression scene is particularly triggering for clients. Youth never sub into the scene as a depressed person. Instead, they sub in as a supportive person such as a friend or a parent. The idea is to get them to play out ways one could support someone in that situation. By participating in Trauma Drama scenes, youth practice the coping skills they are learning through their individualized clinical treatment protocols. Because they experience threatening situations without being in danger, they explore different ways of reacting. They also learn to stand up for themselves. This way, clients practice practical regulation skills. They experience things that are often uncomfortable and usually would trigger a flight, fright, or freeze response. In this setting, they sit through that and improve their distress tolerance.
According to JRI president and CEO Andy Pond, Trauma Drama is “a way of getting at symptoms of PTSD that is like no other.” The feedback from the youth in the program has been overwhelmingly positive. “It’s a place they want to be,” says JRI senior vice president Kari Beserra. “They are experiencing joy when they are there and feeling better afterwards.” More importantly, the youth develop a sense of self by interacting with their peers. “It’s very different from sitting and talking to an adult.”