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NewsSep 2, 2021

Demonstrating the tangible benefits of drama therapy

Dr. Laura Wood working with UMass Medical School to support treatment and promote groundbreaking research on severe mental illness

Video from the play "Lost & Found: A Message of Hope" produced as part of a partnership between Lesley University and UMass Medical School.

When trauma or recovery from substance abuse seem too daunting to talk about, sometimes the play’s the thing.

Dr. Laura Wood, an associate professor in our Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences and a licensed clinical mental health counselor, says drama therapy emboldens clients to explore troubling aspects of their experiences that they might otherwise be reluctant, or unable, to address on their own or through other sorts of therapy.

“It can be difficult to talk about recovery, to talk about challenging experiences in our life,” says Wood, whose clinical practice has focused on substance-abuse recovery, eating disorders and work in children’s hospitals.

But it is through her collaboration with UMass Medical School in Worcester and a soon-to-be-published book, that she demonstrates the tangible benefits of drama therapy.

Therapy and the theater

“This is really a special connection that we’re building,” says Wood of Lesley’s partnership with the medical school’s MIND program with which she collaborated on a play, “Lost & Found: A Message of Hope,” in May. The play was written by program participants and was constructed using the Co-Active Therapeutic Theater (CoATT) manualization, a model outlined in the book she co-authored with Dave Mowers, “Finding Recovery and Reconnection through Performance: The CoActive Therapeutic Theater Manual,” set to be published through Routledge in 2022.

Headshot of Laura Wood
Dr. Laura Wood, associate professor of drama therapy

Other members of the team include Lesley graduate student, Rebecca Coates-Finke, and alumna, Emily Faith ’21.

Wood explains that Dr. Xiaoduo Fan, a renowned psychiatrist at the UMass medical school, contacted Lesley in his search for experts who use alternative approaches for people with severe and persistent mental illness. The team applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant and was awarded $100,000 to conduct their three-year randomized control trial study.

The project will enroll six to eight participants for 12-week sessions into a randomized and controlled research study of multiple drama therapy groups using Wood’s model. The sessions will lead into a public in-person performance in early to mid-November, pandemic protocols permitting.

Wood says her clinical patients felt freed by therapeutic theater. 

“It allows someone to be in their body in a different way,” she says. “None of our plays are autobiographical. None of our plays directly talks about mental illness; rather, a performance is staged around a theme of recovery the group wants to explore through metaphor. It’s a fun approach to the work.”

Participants have various mental health issues, and many have difficulty putting their struggles into words outside the context of theater.

“When people take on a role in drama therapy they can explore and talk about their struggles without actually having to directly talk about the issue at hand,” Wood says. “So, if I am angry, but I feel anger is unacceptable, I can play an angry role on stage, but then leave that role behind at the end of the rehearsal.” Wood adds that patients creating the play together also builds a sense of community, making therapy less daunting.

Making a case for drama therapy

Wood adds that her and Mowers’s work has another important aspect: If they can show drama therapy’s effectiveness through randomized trials and evidence of benefits across a variety of patient groups, they could eventually qualify as an evidenced based treatment (EBT) and it could persuade health insurance companies to reimburse hospitals and care centers for that treatment regimen.

Though Wood is now a therapist and professor, she also knows firsthand the power of theater to help her with her own struggles throughout the years. She credits playing Peter Pan in high school with helping her overcome her anxieties related to growing up. And, in college, playing the role of Mae in the two-act play “Mud” by Maria Irene Fornés helped her empathize with the character’s dysfunctional, hardscrabble experiences, far different from what Wood describes as her more privileged upbringing.

“Playing those roles helped me make important discoveries, building empathy for both myself and others by taking on roles similar and different to who I was at different times in my life,” Wood says.

Other well-known plays, such as “Hamlet,” wrestle with complex psychological issues onstage, but Wood underscores the difference between theatrical productions and the discipline of drama therapy, which is the intentional use of drama and theatrical processes to help people make a change, and contracted goals between the drama therapist and participants.

Wood loves to tell people that “drama and theater are representations of different aspects of life and the imagination, so, if you are in life, then drama therapy is for you. Everyone has a story to tell and using theater is one amazing way to do so.”