Theoretical Foundations of Drama Therapy: Thinking Outside the Binary

Venn Diagram showing the foundations of drama therapy in theatre, drama, play, anthropology, psychology, and psychotherapy

I am someone who has dedicated my life’s work and study to the Arts and Humanities. It is why I ultimately decided to pursue drama therapy.

I know that in the US especially, I am fighting an uphill battle.

But why is that the case? The Arts and Humanities have just as rich a social and cultural history as STEM. And even practitioners in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics laud the importance of a balanced liberal arts education.

A research study by Google shows their employees most benefit from so-called “soft skills” in the Humanities over even the most basic knowledge of coding.

U.S. History and Defunding the Arts

I traced the cultural trend of devaluing Humanities education in the U.S. to 1982.

Ronald Reagan passed legislation which made massive cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This article by Cynthia Koch explores the issues around these budget cuts in much greater depth. Including how conservative arguments against funding for the arts and humanities attack it on both moral and political fronts. Critiquing art and artists for being offensive or obscene, conservative rhetoric argued that the government has no business funding the arts and humanities.

The lawsuit brought about by the NEA 4 provides an excellent example of the discourse happening at the time. Including the choice to give the NEA the ability to deny funding to projects which “do not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” But value according to who? Serious according to what criteria?

Koch states, “The years between the founding of the endowments and the conservative assault saw dramatic shifts in the position of the arts and humanities in America. Born out of a Cold War and Great Society ethos that trumpeted American achievement in the arts and scholarship as a point of national pride, by the 1990s critics charged artists and scholars with being destructive of the American family and un-American; the endowments, as their federally funded standard bearers, had to be abolished for the good of the country. Cultural advocates, forced to defend themselves, truly became politicized; they turned to their allies in communities and institutions and marshaled public and Congressional support for their survival.”

Theatre’s Uphill Battle

My experience as a theatre arts professional and now drama therapist has certainly felt like that fight for survival.

Even now, my salary is still less than what my father was making as a public music teacher in the 1990s. All but those most staunchly dedicated to the arts choose a different career pathway out of necessity.

In addition to the more general stigma of the arts in American culture, theatre artists in particular must also fight the stigma of antitheatricality.

Many of the Theatre professors where I attended college in the early 2000s – individuals, mind you, who have dedicated their own lives to the pursuit of arts education – encouraged students in my cohort to consider whether we could find satisfaction or meaning in another career path, out of concern for our welfare.

That same University, where I received a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre in 2009, is currently facing a lawsuit for trying to cut funding for both the Music and Theatre majors.

The Impact of a World Without Art

Rosário Couto Costa argues that the fall of the Humanities contributed to the culture shift which ultimately led to the rise of Trump.

Costa states, “The humanities, by their comprehensiveness, allow students to acquire a range of knowledge on the cultural heritage of humanity, necessary in many circumstances. In these learning processes, students activate a set of cognitive capacities that promote in themselves the habits of questioning and analysing what surrounds them, of communicating with quality, and of recognising that, for the same reality, different understandings are always possible. By putting themselves in others’ shoes (for example, when studying literature), those individuals can improve their social sensitivity and become more inclusive. In contrast, the devaluation of the humanities makes it hard for society to impregnate itself with a knowledge that is marked by its cultural density, and with a way of thinking that encourages critical, open and socially innovative thought.“

Why am I telling you all of this?

Because drama therapy is an integrated, interdisciplinary profession that draws heavily from the Arts and Humanities.

Psychology, counseling, and social work have chosen to situate themselves in the “social” sciences.

My Master’s degree in Performance Studies pulled heavily from both the Social Sciences (Sociology, Anthropology, Linguistics, and History) as well as the Humanities (Theatre, Dance, Ethnomusicology, Philosophy, Communications, and Folklore). And in truth, these disciplines have more in common than the differences which might set them apart.

One of the main differences remains the use of quantitative vs qualitative research methods.

I have mentioned before how both “one right way” thinking and either/or binaries are aspects of White Supremacy culture.

The division of Humanities vs. STEM, arts vs. sciences, qualitative vs. quantitative, blur the vast spectrum and overlapping nature of so much of the knowledge that humanity has gained.

It belies the importance of concepts like intersectionality. Interdisciplinary frameworks allow us to make connections which might otherwise be missed. They help keep important discoveries and innovations from being caught in silos where others cannot find them.

These binaries mirror other false binaries: black vs. white, gay vs. straight, cis vs. trans, male vs. female, disabled vs. able-bodied, fat vs. thin, rich vs. poor, etc. While binaries might be easier to grasp, they are always incomplete. Instead of either/or, embracing the paradigm of both/and, adds complexity but also context. It creates the ability to see a larger picture emerge.

How Does this Impact Drama Therapy?

The North American Drama Therapy Association states that “the theoretical foundation of drama therapy lies in drama, theater, psychology, psychotherapy, anthropology, play, and interactive and creative processes.”

What does that mean?

Most people conflate “therapy” with psychotherapy. They have a hard time imagining what therapy might look like outside of that paradigm.

I previously made a Venn diagram to illustrate how creative arts therapies approaches relate to other action and experiential arts methods, like arts education or arts in psychotherapy.

Here is another Venn diagram. This one attempts to illustrate the theoretical foundations of drama therapy as a field.

The little star in the middle represents Drama Therapy.

As before, you can see that IT’S COMPLICATED. I have only included six foundational frameworks. But know that there are more.

Even laid out visually, it would be challenging to add much more complexity to this picture without sacrificing comprehension. Also as before, I will outline definitions for each of the terms used in the diagram.

Theatre vs Drama

First, what is the difference between Theatre and Drama? It turns out, even theatre and drama practitioners have difficulty teasing this one out!

Broadly speaking, the distinction seems to come down to Theatre as the creation of a PRODUCT (aka a play or performance). Whereas Drama is focused on the PROCESS of creative expression in itself (movement, voice, gesture, costuming, scenery, etc), whether or not it culminates in an actual performance.

Actors often learn creative drama techniques (like drama games) as a part of the development of the skills which will eventually serve them in a career as Theatre artists.

Indeed, this essay explores the differences between Drama and Theatre Education, where these distinctions seem most relevant. The unnamed author states, “I view drama as hands-on, experiential learning that engages mind, body, voice, and emotions to interpret and convey to others the reality of life. I am also interested in the personal and performative outcomes of drama that emerge from participating and facilitating in the drama process. Theatre is a contrived art form, usually done for and performed to an audience. Drama is about role-play, process of ideas and exploration of subject matters. Drama’s focus is not always on performance although it may be part of it.“

Hence, drama therapy, which is process-oriented. But which may also include the staging of a written play or musical. Or the creation and performance of a piece of devised or applied theatre for a community audience.

Psychology vs Psychotherapy

Now, for the distinctions between psychology and psychotherapy. Which can be equally murky.

Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. Psychologists are actively involved in studying and understanding mental processes, brain functions, and behavior. The field of psychology is considered a “Hub Science” with strong connections to the medical sciences, social sciences, and education.

WebMD defines Psychotherapy as founded on the underlying principle that a person’s patterns of thinking and behavior affect the way that person interacts with the world. NIMH says, “Psychotherapy (sometimes called “talk therapy”) is a term for a variety of treatment techniques that aim to help a person identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behavior.”

So similarly to Theatre vs. Drama, Psychology can be seen as the understanding of the brain, human development, and behavior, where the product is a person. Psychotherapy is a process of using tools to explore this knowledge and apply it on the ground, as a means for insight and change.


Anthropology is the study of what makes us human.

Anthropologists take a broad approach to understanding the many different aspects of the human experience. The field of Anthropology is itself complex, being comprised of Archaeology as well as Biological, Cultural, and Linguistic Anthropology.

I believe drama therapy is pulling from sociocultural anthropology, which explores “how people in different places live and understand the world around them…what people think is important and the rules they make about how they should interact with one another….in order to understand how societies vary and what they have in common.”

Yet, Drama Therapy might also be considered a form of Applied Anthropology, where “anthropologists work to solve real world problems by using anthropological methods and ideas. For example, they may work in local communities helping to solve problems related to health, education or the environment.”

Again, there is a tension between theory and practice present in each of these disciplines and definitions.


Finally, play. Play is how children [and adults!] learn.

“Besides cognitive thinking, play helps the child [or adult!] learn social and psychomotor skills. It is a way of communicating joy, fear, sorrow, and anxiety.”

Drama Therapy could integrate elements of Physical Play (games which involve physical activities like running, jumping, etc.), Expressive Play (use of tempera paints, fingerpaints, watercolors, crayons, colored pencils and markers, and drawing paper; clay, water, and sponges; beanbags, pounding benches, punching bags, and rhythm instruments; and shaving cream, pudding, and gelatin), Symbolic Play (taking on and copying roles like Mother, Father, Teacher, Doctor, etc.), Dramatic Play (acting out situations, real or imagined), or Games (card games, board games, roleplaying games, etc.)


I hope this makes it clear why Drama Therapy is NOT the same as practicing Psychotherapy.

The theories of Psychotherapy contribute to only a very small part of the overall theoretical orientation of Drama Therapy.

Drama Therapy is its own distinct profession, with a rich history informed by an interdisciplinary approach to understanding human culture and behavior.

It has its own unique scope of practice founded in the intentional use of dramatic and creative processes.

As always, if you want to learn more, contact me!

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