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Drama Therapy

Paula Crimmens

ISBN 1 84310 291

Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Paperback 224 pages £16.99/US$28.95

Reviewed by the Editor of 'Play for Life' April 2006

Paula Crimmens has pioneered the use of drama therapy in special education in her adopted country New Zealand where she has been resident since 1996. She has a Masters of Arts in Creative Arts Therapies and is currently piloting a project to provide drama therapy to groups of at-risk children in primary schools in Auckland funded by the Ministry of Education. She is the author of Storymaking and Creative Group-work with Older People, also published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
My heart sank when the publication of yet another book about storymaking was announced but I was relieved when it became clear that the author places it within the context of drama therapy. Many aspects of drama therapy make it an ideal technique to use with students with special learning needs and the book covers a broad spectrum of students attending special needs schools, including those with attention deficit disorder, autism and Asperger syndrome, and students with multiple disabilities.

Above all this is a common sense book that uses many practical examples from the author’s considerable therapeutic experience. Ideal for students following a practice based course.

She shows how story sessions can address issues of self-esteem and self-mastery, and how their use in groups is invaluable for building social and communication skills.

The book includes about 30 traditional stories from around the world for use as session material. An analysis of the stories quoted shows the sources to be:

  • Gods & Mythology 50%
  • Nature/Environment/Animals 39%
  • Others 11%
This is fairly normal breakdown of categories for this type of book and Paula does include guidance on how to devise stories relevant to older students. However the majority of play therapy clients are boys, so we do enter a big plea for stories from other sources such as sport, war, machines and exploration in future books.

There is a very good introduction providing several definitions and the application to special education. It’s good to see the acknowledgement of the considerable contribution made by Sue Jennings to drama therapy. This is followed by an excellent chapter on getting started which includes: assessing the level of the group; working within the classroom environment; teaching staff how to support the sessions; creating the culture of the sessions and physical safety – one of the best texts that I have read on this subject.

The bulk of the book is then devoted to the application of drama therapy to a number of themes including: the use of traditional stories; helping others;, dealing with change; working as a team; trickery and stealing; unlikely heroes; competitiveness and autism. These chapters use a very helpful framework: the story; themes in the story; ideas in the story for use in the session; the use of props and suggestions for drama actions. This makes the book a useful source of reference for when the therapist is at a loss as to how to develop either a dramatherapy approach or a therapeutic story for a client.

We also appreciate the way that Paula integrates theory stemming from other play therapy tools. The first example that we quote from the book is the six-stage story frame.

‘The action in the story is often constellated around a challenge or task. A model I find very useful in analysing stories is an assessment tool devised by Israeli drama therapist Mooli Lahad (p. 150, cited in Jennings, 1992). It was originally formulated for work with children in times of distress to help them articulate and express their experience and was envisioned as a drawing exercise with pen and paper. However, the six stages Lahad describes provide a very neat outline of almost all of the stories I use in work with this client group. The model takes as its starting point the reality of challenge as part of an overall experience of life. What determines success is the balance between obstacles and supports. With sufficient support, we can meet and achieve our goals and move on. With too many obstacles we can flounder. The model has similarities with what Vygotsky termed the proximal zone (1978). This is the place between the students' level of competency and new learning, and support that can help the student move from one to the other. The knack is to set up goals that are attainable with effort. If the obstacles are too great and the supports insufficient the student may feel discouraged. At the same time, if the activity is too easy and requires little effort, the student can become complacent and bored. The six stages of the story structure are as follows:

1. Who is the character, animal, creature or thing that this story is about?

2. What is his or her task or goal?

3. What or who are his or her supports? This can be external, as in the case of people or animals, or internal, as in the case of personal attributes like courage or steadfastness.

4. What are the obstacles, the things that stand in the way of achieving the goal?

5. How is the goal achieved?

6. What happens next? What is the outcome? Is that the end of the story or does it carry on?’

Use of this model, is described with the story of Maui and the sun, described earlier in the book. The second example of integration with theory from other play therapy tools is reference to Laban body shapes The four body shapes used are the wall, the ball, the pin and the twist.. ‘The Children and the Thunder God’ story is used by Paula to show how these they may be used to extend children’s physical experience.

1. The wall shape is where we extend our bodies out as much as we can widthways. We make our legs and arms as wide as we can.

2. The ball shape involves making ourselves as small as we can with legs and arms tucked in and head down.

3. The pin shape is created when we stretch up with our arms as high as we can and make ourselves as narrow as possible. We stand on tiptoes to make ourselves as tall as we can.

4. The twist involves turning from the mid section, twisting the top half of the body.

In the story, the thunder god is trapped inside the cage by the old man. He has to curl up small and maintain that posture while pleading with the children for water. Once he has regained his strength, he bursts out of the cage and becomes big and powerful. You can practise with the students this movement from curled up, confined shape to wide, expanded shape.’

There is a very useful list of web sites (see panel), an author index and a subject index.

After so much excellent material it is disappointing to arrive at what is In my view the weakest chapter. This is based on a research study upon using drama therapy to engage the attention of students with an intellectual disability. This was carried out as a part of an MA in Creative Arts Therapies and so I blame the academic environment and strictures in this case rather than the author.

As usual in this type of academic research it is a descriptive case study. There is a good literature summary and a lengthy (too long by far) description of the sessions. There is a hint of originality in the topic but no statement of a hypothesis nor the conditions for proof or non-proof.

The research is based on only four cases over six sessions. The factor measured was attentiveness – good! A pre-session measure was taken – good! Other measures were based on observations of behaviour made by an independent observer in the middle of the sessions, by the therapist taking notes after each session and by interviewing the Teacher after each session. Hmmmn.! No quantitative data is presented (bad), no measures were taken to assess the efficacy of the intervention overall ie after the conclusion of the episode (poor). There was no control group. Neither was an attempt made to link the outcomes with an overall measure of the changes in the children’s total difficulties or pro-social skills such as the Goodmans SDQ. Oh dear!

However don’t let this reviewer’s hobby horse of the poor quality of academic research in creative therapies emanating from some universities put you off buying ‘Drama Therapy and Storymaking in Special Education’. This is a very good book and is a recommended buy for all play therapy trainees and also for experienced Play Therapists.

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