Performance as therapy: An intervention for creative arts therapists.


Witch legs.

Dance/movement therapists have many intervention tools to draw upon when leading dance/movement therapy (DMT) groups. We have a therapeutic “tool box” that assists us in the facilitation of our clients’ therapeutic growth. One that I frequently draw upon is performance, or what some DMT literature refers to as performance as therapy or PAT. As a graduate student and a professional dance/movement therapist, I have explored this particular intervention in great detail. I conducted research and wrote about performance as therapy for my master’s thesis, which I then co-presented at the 49th American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) Annual Conference. I also use this intervention tool in my current DMT practice. Recently I collaborated with the creative arts therapy team (a music therapist and art therapist) to facilitate a client-led production of  The Wizard of Oz.

Before I delve into the work of me, my co-workers and our clients specifically, let me first describe performance as therapy in more detail. It’s important to note that performance as therapy is an intervention tool used by creative arts therapists to assist in the therapeutic growth of clients. All aspects of the performance process are inroads to helping clients work on therapeutic goals. This differs from work done by artists that may be therapeutic (Bill T. Jones’ Still/Here), integrative dance companies/outsider art, or artists in healthcare (e.g. bedside musician or dance classes for children with cerebral palsy). While this work is certainly important and may even be therapeutic, the intention of the work is to create art or to provide a feel-good experience; and thus, it is NOT performance as therapy. Although there are varying approaches to performance as therapy, it is always facilitated by licensed creative arts therapists with the intention of creating therapeutic change while working in clinical settings.

In our case, the performance as therapy process began when our clients expressed that they wanted to work on a musical. Many of them suggested working on The Wizard of Oz. It just so happened that a local Chicago theater company was also performing this particular musical so the creative arts team took a handful of clients to begin our brainstorming process. The group then watched, The Wizard of Oz (1939) while coloring, drawing and journaling about ideas and production elements that are important to the story. After brainstorming, we decided on the cast, music chorus, and the set/costume design team. We then worked on the script of the show. Instead of writing one for our clients, the creative arts team facilitated the writing process so that it was our clients who wrote it instead. While writing, we asked our clients questions such as, “Where does The Wizard of Oz begin?” or, “What does Auntie Em say in response to Dorothy?” The participants were able to piece together the story in a way that was meaningful to them and that fit their needs as a population.

Once the script was finished we began both the rehearsal and set/costume design process. From the perspective of DMT, I used my knowledge in Laban Movement Analysis, specifically the effort elements, to ask questions about how characters move. In example, “How would the Wicked Witch enter after her sister is struck by the house?” The client would then act this out, and in this particular case, the client entered by stomping his feet quickly with strong force. During the rehearsal process the client was able to explore movement outside of his usual movement vocabulary. The client was also able to engage in a seemingly negative emotion (anger) through a character’s movement repertoire within a safe therapy container.

In a similar way, the music therapist encouraged the clients to freely explore music elements and independently make decisions regarding the music of the performance. For instance, the clients decided on which songs were important to include as well as how to depict them. The clients were thoughtful about their representation of the songs, being conscientious about how the characters would feel and act during these songs. For example, the client who played Dorothy sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in a very reflective, dream-like manner, with fluid movements to match. By facilitating this decision-making process, the music therapist created space for creative expression while also empowering the clients to make decisions independently.

If group participants did not want to sing, dance, or perform they were invited to be a part of The Wizard of Oz through art making, specifically costume and set design.  The art therapist witnessed many individuals make executive decisions about form and design of production elements, as well as engage in sewing and painting.  Their artwork was also viewed by the audience, as it was a part of the performance, and hence these participants were witnessed in this way.  The set and costumes also had a large impact on the performance.  The actors’ performances were enhanced when wearing the costumes allowing them to easily embody the movement and songs of the character.  As in, it was easier for The Tin Man to pose and control his movement while holding his ax versus when he was not.

Yellow brick road.

Yellow brick road.

During some rehearsals we worked on movement and music elements, and some days we focused on the design elements of the show. Yet, as the performance day neared we began to put the show together in a more linear fashion, running the show from beginning to end while integrating entrances/exits and props. Before the performance date, we had a dress rehearsal so clients could practice in costumes and acclimate to the performance space. It’s also important to note that at any point in the creative process of performance as therapy, clients can decide not to perform.  The process is not solely focused on the actual performance but rather the steps it took to get there.

On the day of the show, we prepared by putting on costumes and make up, and set-up the stage area. During the show, I helped clients with staging and movement elements, the music therapist accompanied clients and made sure the correct songs played when they needed to, while the art therapist assisted clients with props, costume changes and the changing of the set. All of the The Wizard of Oz actors and musicians decided to perform that day and nailed their lines, songs and dances. Performers went above and beyond by ad libbing dialogue and exerting more effort in their movement—the Cowardly Lion had never roared as loud as he did on the day of the performance.  A week after the show, the creative arts team hosted a post-performance party to process with the members of the show. This was an opportunity for members to reflect on the creative process, the performance, and their personal therapeutic growth. Clients expressed pride in their performance and mentioned that they enjoyed working together to bring The Wizard of Oz to life.

As I’ve mentioned above, there are many approaches to performance as therapy.  In our case, we used a structure of an already existing musical The Wizard of Oz to guide our process. In doing so, we facilitated our clients through a creative collaboration including dance, music and art.  The collaboration of our respected modalities allowed our clients to participate in a way that was both comfortable and meaningful for them.  Throughout our process, we aligned the groups with the clients’ therapeutic goals, such as increasing interpersonal skills and overall engagement in the group process. Clients were also witnessed and seen by their community as artists and performers, another positive outcome to performance as therapy. It was very powerful for clients to be witnessed doing something that they worked hard to create. It was very powerful to hear the audience members say how good The Wizard of Oz was, or how cool the costumes looked.  Through the creative process, our clients were able to experience and practice skills that are not only about performance, but also translatable to daily life.

*Thank you to Hannah Lowe (MT-BC) and Whitney Flanigan (MAAT) for your contributions to this post.

About emilyadannunzio

Board Certified-Dance/Movement Therapist. Movement Analyst (GL-CMA). Researcher. Dancer. Bartender. Detroit, MI.
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2 Responses to Performance as therapy: An intervention for creative arts therapists.

  1. Pingback: The 10 things I learned in my second year as a professional dance/movement therapist. | Dance.Movement.Therapy.

  2. Pingback: Aesthetics in dance/movement therapy. | Dance.Movement.Therapy.

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