Experiencing the power of theatre as therapy
A drama therapy workshop which lets the author dip her feet into the field of psychology without having her family write her off as a nutcase
Shoba Narayan Mail Me

Therapy as the road to self-improvement? Photo: Thinkstock
We are sitting in a circle on the floor: 10 women and two men. It is the morning of the second day of the two-day drama therapy workshop I am attending. By now, we are all quite comfortable with each other. We have been introduced, played games that felt silly at first, acted out roles, and shared areas of discomfort. One 25-year-old woman has issues with her father; another feels that she has not lived up to her potential. I want to get rid of gnawing feelings of guilt; and a man wants to become a better parent.
We have just finished a role-playing exercise in which we each acted out roles that were given to us on a slip of paper: angry whiner, mediator, avoider, playful child, controlling parent. My team includes an attention seeker, angry whiner, and the mediator (me). We now sit in a circle with a phone in the middle. It is a prop with no connection to the outside world. Our instructor has told us to speak to someone about something that has been bothering us.
One of the women at the workshop picks up the phone. Like many in the group, she is in the social sciences. She practises transactional analysis and NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming, at a clinic in Bangalore. “Hi Vidya,” she begins tentatively. “I’m not sure why I called. I guess I just wanted you to know that I am very upset with what has happened to our relationship. We have been friends for 17 years. But now, you have found a new group of friends and no longer hang out with me. What really hurts me is that you don’t even seem to care.” She speaks in this vein for some more time and hangs up the phone. The instructor asks her to move to the centre of the circle and pretend to be her friend. She has just informed her friend “Vidya” about her hurt and betrayal. What would the friend say?
She switches places and becomes her erstwhile friend. “Vidya” says that she’s intimidated by her friend’s success. She has a husband, children, and a clinical practice, while she is still stuck in the same old rut. Then “Vidya” moves back to her old position and continues talking. What do children and career have to do with their friendship? After a few times moving back and forth, the woman who picked up the phone to call “Vidya” is in tears. She buries her head into her arms. The rest of us move forward instinctively. We touch her shoulders and wait for her to recover. The workshop continues.
There are two types of people in the world: One group equates the word therapy with voodoo, psychobabble, and a complete waste of time. The other group sees therapy as a path to self-improvement. Perhaps because I majored in psychology as an undergraduate, I belong to the latter group. I am used to defending psychology and therapy, even within my own family. All my friends and editors in the US are seeing therapists, I tell my mom. She looks at me quizzically, as if wondering where she went wrong. It’s a good way to get all the angst out in the open, I tell my dad. What angst, he asks.
Life hurts people. Each of us carries within us unarticulated miseries, unresolved issues and suppressed anger. We try to stay functional in an unforgiving world. We smile when we feel like punching the person in front of us. What we don’t do is seek help. Yet every Indian city and town has a subculture of professionals involved in psychotherapy. There are many kinds.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) attempts to change dysfunctional behaviour without going deep into the psyche and childhood like Sigmund Freud did. Emotional freedom technique (EFT) involves tapping and repeating powerful lines that follow a specific format. Transactional analysis is a method by which the therapist finds out what your issues are, and attempts to rewrite the “life scripts” in your head. There is drama, music, art and dance therapy. I believe that everyone should try therapy. Most people around me don’t understand why. This drama therapy workshop is a compromise. It is a way for me to dip my feet into the field I studied without having my family write me off as a nutcase.
It is my turn. I want to talk about guilt, I say. They want to know more. When I buy new clothes, I hide them for months so that the women who help me don’t see them and feel bad that they can’t afford to buy new stuff. Nobody laughs. This is what therapists do. Even when you say something that you think is totally idiotic, they take you seriously. I rush through my explanation, somewhat embarrassed. I wonder if they think it’s trivial. I tell them all the things that I hear in my head, and not just the echoes.
The facilitator breaks it down. She assigns dialogues to every person and makes me stand in the middle of the circle. One by one, they come at me, saying the things that so far I have been telling myself. “You are so selfish to enjoy all the nice things that you have.” “How come you aren’t doing more to help other people?” “You don’t deserve all this stuff. You didn’t work hard enough for them.” “Give them to me. I need them more than you.” The facilitator asks each person to put their hands on my shoulders or arms and press me down till I am on the ground, crushed by the voices as it were.
Then, they each give me a dialogue as a reply, which I am to repeat back to them. “I am not selfish.” “I do help other people.” “I deserve these clothes. I worked for them.” Slowly the mountain of hands and bodies above me moves away, as if my words are arrows.
At the end of the workshop, the facilitator asks each of us to come up with a personal mantra. In a joyous ceremony, we each walk and skip down the room, while our fellow participants cheer us on. The mantras are varied: Express yourself, I am enough, yes you can, just do it. It is my turn to get teary.
Just to freak out her family, Shoba Narayan is considering proper therapy next.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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