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Drama therapy helpful to all ages

By Cheryl May


"As far as I'm concerned, this is the best way I know to make a living."

That's how Sally Bailey enthusiastically describes her job teaching college students to be drama therapists. Bailey is a Kansas State University assistant professor in the theater department, director of K-State's drama therapy program, a registered drama therapist, and a board certified trainer.

People who enjoy theater and who want to make a meaningful difference in other people's lives may enjoy a career in drama therapy, Bailey said. Drama therapy uses improvisation, role-playing, puppetry, mime, masks, theater games and other techniques to teach participants how to connect with themselves and others.

"People go into theater with an interest in behavior and the performing arts. So many people make a choice of whether to go into theater versus majoring in psychology, yet they are two sides of the same coin. It was an epiphany when that realization came to me.Little Red Riding Hood

"My job as a professor is mentor to my students," she said. "The students' jobs, when they complete their training in drama therapy, becomes one of being a mentor to their clients."

In addition to her years teaching drama therapy, Bailey has extensive experience in clinical settings using drama therapy to improve people's lives. She has worked with abuse victims, children with physical, mental and learning disabilities, and with recovering drug addicts in long-term residential therapy. Bailey said drama therapy also helps calm agitated Alzheimer's patients.

"As a registered drama therapist I worked with recovering substance abusers and people with disabilities for over 10 years in the Washington, D.C. area."

Registered drama therapists often work in prisons and drug rehabilitation centers, Bailey said.

"Addicts are good at manipulation and rationalizing their behavior," she said. "But they like to have fun so they don't resist participating in drama therapy. Nearly all addicts were abused as children. Many sold themselves for drugs on the street. They developed acting skills to protect themselves, but they have lost the ability to trust other people. In drama, we develop great friendships and a drama therapy group becomes like a family. So they learn to trust others again."

Little Red Riding HoodShe also worked at the Bethesda (Md.) Academy of Performing Arts. Parents of the children with whom she worked told her she needed to clone herself so more children could be helped as theirs were. Since she couldn't clone herself she became a professor, teaching others to be drama therapists. The parents were disappointed to see her leave but it was the only way she knew to make drama therapy accessible to more people.

Bailey came to drama therapy after working in the theater for about 13 years in a variety of capacities, including assistant artistic director. Her formal training is in directing and playwriting. When she became interested in drama therapy she asked what books she could read on the topic. There were few books so eventually she wrote one. "Wings to Fly: Bringing Theatre Arts to Students With Special Needs" was published in 1993. She also wrote "Dreams To Sign: Bringing Together Deaf and Hearing Actors and Audiences."

Deciding on a career in drama therapy requires a commitment. To work as a therapist, one must have as a minimum a master's degree in drama therapy, theater, or a human behavioral science, such as psychology, marriage and family therapy, social work, or special education.

At the undergraduate level, students preparing for a career in drama therapy need to master all the basics of the art of theater. K-State's theater program offers a solid grounding in all the theories and techniques which form the basic building blocks of drama therapy, Bailey said.

"I guide undergraduates to theater skills, leadership skills, and learning about psychology and social knowledge. Undergraduate students help with the Barrier-Free Theatre, which is sponsored by Manhattan Parks and Recreation each spring. The participants create an original play and develop a story line through improvisation. The play is presented in April at the Manhattan Arts Center."

The arts therapies help individuals develop self esteem and teach them the importance of seeing a project through from beginning to end.

"Kids with disabilities or emotional difficulties can practice social skills -- making friends," Bailey said. "Lots don't have friends because they have difficulty expressing themselves. We focus on helping them express themselves, so they can learn to work flexibly with others.Little Red Riding Hood

"We work at creating an environment to set up experiences they can explore themselves."

Bailey said soldiers returning from war have brought increased demand for drama therapy.

"In war time, we see big spurts in the growth of the arts therapies," Bailey said. "Soldiers return with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people with this disorder repeatedly re-experience the ordeal in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts, especially when they are exposed to events or objects reminiscent of the trauma. Anniversaries of the event can also trigger symptoms."

Other problems include sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety and irritability or outbursts of anger. Feelings of intense guilt are also common.

"The art therapies work to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder," she said. "They learn to work through their feelings in an embodied way that is non-threatening and ultimately releases their psychic pain."

Bailey hails from the East coast. She started her Kansas experience teaching drama therapy at K-State in the summers. She describes the experience as a mutual checking-out process.

Her mentor and predecessor, Norman J. Fedder, wanted to see if Bailey could be happy in central Kansas, and to observe her teaching style to see if she would be a worthy successor.

Fedder, an emeritus university distinguished professor, had developed K-State's theater program from the ground up. Among many awards he received during a long career was the 1998 Distinguished Service Award in Arts and Disabilities from Accessible Arts Inc., and the Kansas State Board of Education.

Bailey was president of the National Association for Drama Therapy from 2001-2003. Previously she had been a member of the board of directors 1995-2001. She is current treasurer of the newly formed Drama Therapy Fund, a not-for-profit charity with the purpose of funding research and education in drama therapy nationally.


Photos: The students in Sally Bailey's drama therapy class act out stories as part of a "story drama" session in K-State's Purple Masque Theater. One group took on "Little Red Riding Hood." (Top right) Kristin Peabody, senior in English, playing the Big Bad Wolf, pretends to be the grandmother of Little Red Riding Hood, or freshman in fine arts, Lacey Thompson.

(Middle left) In a twist of the traditional ending, Thompson, Little Red Riding Hood, shoots Peabody, The Big Bad Wolf.

(Bottom right) Thompson, Little Red Riding Hood, models her "wolf skin coat."

Spring 2004