The ancient Greeks used drama for catharsis. Theater is known to help tap into emotions, build self esteem, and reduce feelings of isolation. Let’s find out how Drama Therapy can aid our mental health.
Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today we’re talking to Anshuma Kshetrapal, a Drama and Movement Psychotherapist. She is the founder of The Color of Grey Cells, the co-founder of The Arts Therapists CoLab, and a founding member of the Indian Association of Dance Movement Therapy.
Anshuma- Thank you so much for having me, Valerie.
Valerie- Thank you for being here. Could you start with telling us what Drama Therapy is and how it supports mental wellness?
Anshuma- Drama therapy, like you said, is ancient in nature. It’s simply put – the idea of creating alternative ways to look at our therapeutic processes. Therapy typically would want you to delve deeper into unconscious elements and the arts are a wonderful way of doing that. The arts perpetually have a way of bringing out our unconscious aspects. So when you pick a pose or when you pick a character to work with or when you pick a story, what guides your motivation to pick those things? We look at that more closely. In a typical session, we would go into role play, enactment, stories, and do all kinds of kooky things to understand what your unconscious self wants to communicate to you.
Valerie- Right. If someone is seeking conventional psychotherapy, how do they know when they should try drama therapy?
Anshuma- Well, like I said, it’s about the unconscious language. The unconscious mind doesn’t speak to us in Hindi, English or any other language. It speaks to us in emotions. Now when we’re trying to use articulation, there will inevitably be a time when our conscious thought around that experience will run out and we won’t know how to go forward from that moment. A lot of times, clients who come to Drama Therapy come after having had a lot of looping experiences in talk therapy. So then when they come to drama therapy, it’s a way of their unconscious elements speaking. They don’t have to own anything, the beautiful bit of Drama Therapy is that there’s so much distance you can create between you and your emotions that it feels very safe, because all you’re doing is playing. If I don’t have to own my anger but that angry King really wants to behead people, in that way it doesn’t feel threatening to go through these very complex and nuanced emotions.
Valerie- I know that when you were talking to us earlier, you said that you do a lot of kooky things and you start playing these weird games and stuff like that so how do you know what works best on what person? When somebody comes to you, how do you know what they will resonate with best?
Anshuma- Well, it’s a very complex issue in terms of there’s no ‘one size fits all’. The idea is that the therapist is trained in how to look at the unconscious elements of what’s going on, and we’re not directive at all. It’s a very indirect form of psychotherapy. We always ask and there’s a lot of power sharing in the room. I’m not your expert, you are the expert on your mental health. You come in, there are a lot of things to choose from. What would you like to explore today? So it’s not led by me and in that sense, what we do is we create something called a ‘play space’, and that play space is an area where the client chooses what they would like to explore. We give a lot of options and it’s a very gentle build-up. It’s not like you come in and we’re like “Let’s do this”. You can talk about things for a long time, we discover what some core areas of work are, and then we explore those certain things using different modalities. From the same concept of anger, I can make a character out of it, I can do some sock puppet out of it, I can do sand play, I can do role enactment, there’s so many things.
Valerie- Supposing you’ve got somebody who is very uptight and like you said, they tried psychotherapy and they felt like they were going through a loop that they couldn’t break, even through their words and they come to you for Drama Therapy but they don’t really know what they want to do because they are uptight as a person and they don’t really know how to express themselves. How do therapists understand the issue someone’s trying to express through Drama and how do you make them express it through Drama?
Anshuma- That’s the beauty of it. For me, the more difficult clients to work with are the ones who come wanting a lot of drama because then you have to unlearn. Artists make the most difficult clients because they have a certain idea of how drama should look – interesting, masala to the story, wanting to enact something full-scale. And in creating the product, they forget about the process. Actually, Drama Therapy is very process oriented. It’s not anything to do with “drama” as it looks on the stage. It’s just an inner expression. If you’re just breathing, I’ll just work with you with that. Simple movements like breath. Let’s expand on that. Let’s expand on a small movement. Is there a dialogue that you want to say today? So it becomes very subtle and there’s no pressure on the client to enact or show me big movements.
When you ask how we help them express, we just use lots of tools and we put across those tools and help them make choices. For example, one of my favourite things to do right in the beginning is that I take a lot of small toys and I put it in front of them and ask them what represents them today, and they just pick up an object and tell me an imaginary story, it doesn’t need to be their life story because I’m not an investigative journalist. I’m just here to make you feel better.
Valerie- Can you give us a further insight into what happens in a Drama Therapy session?
Anshuma- A typical Drama Therapy session would begin with you doing some focus exercises, you come in, we do some breathing work. Then we start to warm up the body, we move about a little bit where I ask you to think about the themes you want to explore today, then we start with “bridging in”, which is when you start to build on those themes.
A session I just had today before this was about somebody who’s been locked in the Pandemic but feeling homeless because they don’t feel at home in their own house. She wanted to explore the concept of home and so we played a little game about what does home mean? And how does home represent itself in her body, and through that we were able to come to the idea of home being a place of nurturance, home being a place of conflict. So our main activity then included her making a safe space in her own home, so she went and got objects that made her feel safe, picked a corner of her room and she created a little sanctuary for herself, and then we bridged out of it, we came back to talking about some of the conflicts that exist in her home, and then she drew about it a little bit saying “I just want to put it out of my body, I’ve been carrying this for too long”. And then we did some songs and just got her back to the present moment.
Valerie- It’s actually really interesting that you start with really really small things and you can use that and build it up into something beautiful and help somebody express themselves and understand what they’ve been feeling.
A – Right? Because it’s not about them performing, it’s about them expressing. That’s a very clear difference we make right in the beginning.
Valerie- What was it about Drama Therapy that drove you to take it up as a profession?
Anshuma- I was a journalist initially and I was doing feature stories and I realised that I think that the impact of the fourth estate wasn’t really cutting it for me. I wanted a very clear one to one ability to be able to make an impact because it felt like I would go there to scoop a story and then come out and not be able to take any responsibility for what happens next. I did a couple of jobs in journalism and I took off nine months and I didn’t have a bachelors in psychology so I studied all of psychology that I could from bachelors and straight away did my first masters in psycho-social clinical studies, beyond which I started to realise that just this idea of talking was not cutting it.
It felt like there was more to be expressed, especially when we’re talking about impact, if we could express in a group, it becomes even more interesting. So I started studying how group therapy is emerging and it seemed at the time it was only rehab or one to one in India. So I stepped out and studied how the arts are helpful because it helped me in my personal life as well, just to express myself better and tell my story, and so I went and researched that and ended up falling in love with it.
Valerie- You said that when you were doing journalism, you felt like you were scooping up stories but not taking responsibility, how do you feel that’s changed for you when you became a psychotherapist?
Anshuma- I think the idea that I have a feedback loop, that I work with my client over and over again every week and I go back and it feels less exploitative. That’s my personal experience. When I was doing journalism, it felt like it was about the story rather than the individual. And the story does perhaps have a larger impact but at the same time, now when I’m going to this person week after week and seeing how they’re changing and how their lives are enhanced or better, it’s a very different experience of feeling validated with my own work.
Valerie- Right. Could you talk to us about how the infrastructure and education around Drama Therapy in India has progressed with time?
Anshuma- Valerie, you’ve asked me a question where I don’t know where to begin but it feels like we’re at a very different place but I’m going to start from when I first came back. My second masters was in Drama and Movement Therapy Sesame from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and I had gotten jobs there but I wanted to come back because even though there was more demand there, the need was felt here. It felt like I could perhaps make a difference in the field here and it was new. As soon as I came back, I was fortunate enough to be here at the right time because mental health as a conversation was picking up but till date, I get a lot of skepticism. I get a lot of “Do you make your clients dance?”, “Which hospital is your next performance in?” So because of that, I felt the need to stretch myself into advocacy work because it felt like there’s a larger conversation that we were not having.
That’s where the Indian Association for Dance Movement Therapy and all the teaching began. Currently I design programs and I approach universities and we set up diploma programs. We set up a diploma program in Pune, there is a diploma program in expressive arts therapy run by my very able colleagues in Mumbai. There are several certification programs which are very ethical in nature. Alongside that, we do have to develop the field in terms of ethics because one of the causes that’s close to my heart is the social justice angle of mental health in India and it feels like there is so much malpractice because there is no licensure. We are looking to develop a code of ethics, we are looking to get licenses into the country at various levels and really try to grow the field from the ground up.
While I’m involved in infrastructure, I can tell you that from then to now, it is a transformation. We have so many people who are interested, so many practitioners who are doing a lot of ethical work and a lot of clients who are benefitting, but we’re still looking for our government to get involved. The budget this time, for example, for mental health was dismal. It feels like the government will take its own time coming around but at least through platforms like yours, through Instagram, through various social media, people are really invested in this topic now so in that way, it has helped up. Private infrastructure is willing to invest but publicly, we don’t have much support yet.
Valerie- Yes. It’s great to seeing that despite learning abroad, you can back here because there was a need for awareness, in terms of the fact that people were so uninformed that they had all kinds of preconceived notions about what Drama Therapy or alternative therapy would be, and you’ve actually started curating courses that would help change that and help make people more educated and aware.
Anshuma- Yeah and yet there are courses that people are just starting in their basements, without trained faculty because they simply think drama and therapy means you feel good after doing drama, but that is precisely where vulnerable clients can really get duked and so do vulnerable students. I always urge the student population to really study the course they’re going for because these are complex and nuanced therapies, even though they come under the purview of alternative therapy, you’re still working with an individual’s mental health and so the responsibility on you is pretty great and these short-term courses in basements may be cheap and they may be able to provide cheap certification but what will your end product be and how far can you go in the field if you go to those kind of courses?
Valerie- Very true. Being a psychotherapist, you help people deal with problems related to their mental health and it can be a pretty arduous job. As you said, you take on responsibility and while it can be a beautiful thing to see somebody transform, it can also be very very taxing. How do you care for your mental health amidst all of this?
Anshuma- Well, I’ve been asked that question during the Pandemic and I’ve wondered about it currently because typically my ways of taking care of myself, and avoiding burnout, which is very frequent in mental health work is to travel and to step away from my familiar surroundings altogether. Since that was not an option during the Pandemic, I’ve had to develop other fundamental things but there are clear guidelines, if you go to your therapist, I urge all clients to ask their therapists if they’re in supervision. Are you in personal work yourself? Because that’s the thing that really keeps us intact.
I make sure that I take my supervision seriously. Every fortnight, I make sure that I call my supervisor and she adds a third perspective to my work. I have been in personal therapy for the last eleven years and make no qualms in talking about it because it feels like it’s important that my clients also know that I’m also engaged in working with myself. Alongside that, the arts are a wonderful way of self care. I do drama and movement on a daily basis for other people but for myself as well, there’s nothing better for me than to get my hands dirty with some clay or do some atwork, some painting, or even some drama and movement whenever I can.
Valerie- So what’s your favorite form of art that plays a therapeutic role in your life?
Anshuma- For me, it’s been clay. There’s that physical element of putting your energy into clay, and what I end up doing is I use the clay to make those little toys that I was talking about earlier. I fashion those toys out of the clay so it becomes my therapeutic activity but it also comes back into the work when I offer those toys as a starting point to my clients. It really is paying for itself in some way!
Valerie- Anshuma, it’s been absolutely beautiful talking to you. There’s so much we got to learn from you. We got to learn that Drama Therapy is more about the journey and it’s about expressing yourself through what you do as opposed to thinking of it as a performance, we’ve learnt just how important it is for therapists as well to take their mental health seriously, to be in supervision and to let other people know that it’s important for them to take care of their mental health as well. Also, one thing that I can take away from you is that you said that it’s beautiful for you to feel that validation when you see your clients come to you every single time and you can see them healing and becoming better because of your work. Thank you so much for talking to us today and making us aware of what Drama Therapy is and what it means to you as well.
Anshuma- Thank you so much, Valerie, for the opportunity and for all the work you’re doing. Thank you so much for doing this wonderful summary at the end, that way I also learnt from what I was rambling on about.
Valerie- Thank you.