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NewsFeb 2, 2022

Putting mental health center stage

Susie Schutt ’21 heads up innovative drama therapy program at Rhode Island theater

Susie Schutt '21
Drama therapist Susie Schutt '21 is providing mental health counseling at The Gamm Theater where she works as the education director.

Like many arts and entertainment venues, the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre in Warwick, Rhode Island found itself in crisis in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Live performances were canceled and all in-person programming was suspended.

But as the pandemic surged, the theater found a new purpose, using a drama therapy program spearheaded by Lesley drama therapy alumna Susie Schutt ’21 to provide mental health services to local schools and community members.

The theater, known familiarly as The Gamm, is one of the region’s premier professional theaters providing a range of educational and community programs for children, teens and adults. Schutt serves as The Gamm’s education director and in-house drama therapist. She also works as a clinician and drama therapist for Thrive Behavioral Health in Warwick, R.I.

She’s excited about the new avenues for drama therapy.

“I believe we’re the only theater in the country doing this kind of work,” she says. “There are so many other spaces using drama therapy, like hospitals and treatment centers, but to be based in an arts organization is unusual.”

After more than a decade in The Gamm’s education department, Schutt has seen first-hand how involving students in storytelling, acting and producing can have a positive impact on their emotional wellbeing and support social emotional learning in the classroom. It was her experience working with young people that led her to Lesley, where she explored new ways to help her students use drama to process the personal experiences they were sharing with her.

“They’d end up sharing stories that were really challenging to hear and I didn’t always have the tools to hold space for those stories,” she recalls.

Susie Schutt '21 leads students in a drama therapy exercise
Drama therapist Susie Schutt '21 leads students in a drama exercise at The Gamm theater.

She contacted Jason Butler, the chair of Lesley’s Graduate Expressive Therapies program, and enrolled in Lesley’s low-residency master’s degree in 2018.

“I felt very connected and supported by Jason,” she says. “Just our initial conversation made me feel like ‘okay, this is the right place for me.’”

Drama therapy provides unique support for youth during COVID-19

By the time the pandemic hit, Schutt was in the midst of pursuing her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Drama Therapy and was feeling more prepared to help students who were coping with feelings of isolation, fear, grief and loss.

“I was learning about how to implement drama therapy techniques,” she recalls. “And they wanted to talk about COVID. I thought that I could craft a workshop where I can hold space for this COVID conversation and it can be creative and it can be fun, even if it’s difficult.”

She partnered with local teachers to offer drama therapy workshops, providing a vital outlet for students to process their emotions using therapeutic techniques. In one session, Schutt led students through an exercise where they pretended to travel to the future in a time machine and reflect on living through the pandemic.

“They were all guests on a talk show in 2050 and got interviewed about what it was like to live through and survive COVID,” Schutt recalls. Students talked about the strategies they had used to cope during that difficult, far-off time and they each brought a comforting object to the interview. Many brought masks; others brought stuffed animals.

“When the TV show ended, they had to get back to the time machine and come back,” Schutt explains. “But it was great because they were able to hold their mask and be grounded in reality, but also rehearse the idea that this wasn’t forever.”

With the success of the drama therapy program, Schutt has a range of new initiatives in the works, including a collaboration with a local middle school to use drama therapy techniques to address anger and stress management and help students build social skills. The Gamm is also planning to offer enhanced educational programming to include more training in drama therapy techniques for educators.

Finding a way to use her passion for theater to help people has been important to Schutt, who always hoped to combine art with public service.

“Thinking about how theater can serve others is important to me,” she says. “It can really impact people in major ways.”