In the last instalment of our Dramatherapy blog series, Khulisa Programme Manager Caroline Brindle explores the concept of aesthetic distance, a core principle of dramatherapy.
For a lot of people, the word “drama” has many negative associations – particularly when it comes with an expectation that they have to participate in it. Indeed, just hearing the words “role play” in a team meeting or a job interview can be enough to strike fear into the hearts of the most outwardly confident people. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that as a trained actor, and a qualified Dramatherapist – I sometimes feel exactly the same!
As humans, we all have an innate understanding of how drama and theatre works, because drama essentially portrays life. “To study the way that drama and theatre work is to pay attention to the most profoundly important truths about human relationship” (Grainger, Drama and Healing, JKP, 1995.) I believe that this is a big reason that participating in drama can be so fear inducing – because we have a subconscious understanding of how powerful and illuminating drama can be, we feel embarrassed that we’ll “mess it up”, or “be rubbish at it”.
When drama is introduced in a Khulisa programme, it is only after a significant amount of work has gone in to establishing a psychologically safe space, where trust and respect are both expected and received. The facilitator therapists will then offer an invitation to explore a situation through drama, and it can evoke some very powerful moments and realisations for our group members.
Let’s look at an example of two prison participants taking part in a small drama around a situation whereby one character is seen as a victim, and another character is the perpetrator. An opportunity is offered for the ‘actors’ to explore a scenario which is fictional in the “here and now” – yet also something which is highly likely to have been experienced by them at some point in their “real lives”.
The fictional drama creates an artificial construct whereby the actors can distance ‘themselves from themselves’ and explore varying responses to a scenario – without them actually experiencing the heightened emotional responses that were involved in the real life equivalent. This construct forms a space between imagination and reality which is known as an aesthetic distance, and allows a deep exploration of often difficult emotions and habitual responses through a safe, distanced “what if” lens. It also allows any given moment in the drama to be “frozen” by the facilitator, when the thoughts, emotions and needs of the character can be explored. Opportunities can be offered for the actor to re-play the scene and change his narrative – in itself an important and rare learning point which is never available in the real life scenarios, but which might stay in the emotional memory of the participant and affect how they react next time the scenario happens in real life.
The ‘audience’ benefits too from aesthetic distance – by watching the drama in front of them they also become involved in a world which both is and isn’t real. Through the drama, both actors and audience are experiencing a different way of looking at life. As Grainger (ibid.) comments, “We can accept or reject new ideas about life in a way and at a level of understanding… which we understand and respond to with all of ourselves, not just the critical intellect.”
On the Khulisa programmes, we often see participants discover and try new ways of reacting to conflicting moments in their life, and different ways to handle their particular triggers. Because these drama activities are embodied and explored in a spirit of play, they can have a deep psychological impact on the participants which can stay with them for a long time.
For more information on Dramatherapy, please vist www.badth.org.uk