Developmental Transformations (DvT) and Existential Psychotherapy

Drama therapy is an expressive form of psychotherapy where imagination is prioritized, spontaneity unlocks the hidden realm of the unconscious, and the client is the designated driver on the journey toward discovering his or herself. Due to drama therapy being such a new and dynamic field, the different approaches in it are linked by purpose but differ greatly in the methods and the theories that mandate the course of treatment. In this blog I will explore how David Read Johnson’s Developmental Transformations (DvT), an existentialistic approach, informs the practice of drama therapy with clients.

In Current Approaches in Drama Therapy (2009), Johnson introduces the DvT approach as “a form of drama psychotherapy that is based on an understanding of the process and dynamics of free play”. During the therapy session, both client and therapist engage in Free Play for the duration of the session. At times, the therapist will stand aside on a “witness rug” so as to be able to provide reflection and insight to the client’s experience. The worlds of imagination and reality are one during a therapy session, in an attempt to integrate and accept of all realms of self.   The four components of this approach are:

  1. Transformation
  2. Embodiment
  3. Encounter
  4. Playspace

Johnson integrates elements of Existential Therapy, where the relationship between therapist and client is one where there are no power differences and they both join in a quest to maintain existence, or re-emerge, in an otherwise turbulent world.  The term of “reemerging” is stated in R.D Laing’s work (a pioneer of existential therapy) as well as in Johnson’s. While Laing refers to the therapeutic goal to re-emerging as more whole, Johnson refers to the emerging and reemerging images and impulses that arise within the spontaneous interaction in the play space. Both of them explicitly note the sense of incompletion of the human experience and the importance of exploring this incompletion within the context of intimate relationships.

Like other approaches in the field of drama therapy, there is a correlation between DvT’s play space to the shamanistic trance-related sacred space. In the shamanic sense, the sacred space is a place of healing that is safe. The playfulness that DvT entails enables the trance-like state of conscious to be done in a humorous and playful manner. Like shamans, Johnson requires the practitioners of his approach not to take themselves seriously. This lightness is intended to enable the client to explore otherwise dark areas in a playful sense. (Glaser, 2004)

Matters of boundaries within DvT are explored in The Bifuracted Gift: Love and Intimacy in Drama Psychotherapy (Porter, 2000)In this article, Porter uses three case studies of DvT that relate to issues of longing, intimacy and boundaries within this physical approach. The complexities that arise within this setting are essentially a great opportunity for growth. Although the transference that takes place in therapy can be manifested and demonstrated physically in DvT, it also allows the client to view these emotions, replay and reframe them. The feelings of longing and the relationship between the client and therapist can instill trust in an untrusting client due to the fact that therapist is in the same play space with them. The artificial separation of ranks within conventional psychotherapy is eliminated by the complete emersion of the therapist in the session.

DvT has been proven to be highly effective in clients with PTSD due to the re-enactment of the trauma in the play space that provides vividness to the trauma. The engagement of the entire sensory system has been shown to be pivotal in the desensitization processing of trauma. Although DvT isn’t originally trauma centered, the existential angst it stems from aides trauma as well, as desensitizing in trauma and in existential complexities are identical in emotional process (Sanjani and Johnson, 2014, p. 73).

With application of these concepts into the therapeutic process, a relationship is established and reestablished between the client/s and the therapist (there is a group model of this approach). The play space is served as a place where the client can explore all facets of their ever-changing self. Through exploration of the relationship between client and therapist, images that emerge are given room to exist, to repeat and to change.

Want to learn more? Make sure to attend Maya’s talk in NYC titled “The PACT Team as Ensemble: A Rehearsal for Life” on October 25th from 8am-10am. For more information and tickets please visit

Roles of Life: Exploring Drama and Play as Healing Tools

Drama Therapy

Drama therapy refers to the use of theatrical techniques to promote healing, foster change, and develop personal growth and well being. It is often confused to be a modality limited to children or actors when in fact it can serve as a cathartic, transformative tool for therapeutic purposes. Drama therapists use all types of projective techniques and forms of embodied work to help clients to closely examine the human experience and relate these insights back to their own stories. Whether it is story telling, metaphor, improv or performance, using drama allows clients a safe space to use their creative problem solving skills, pretend, and tap into their childlike imagination.

If you consider the idea that we are essentially the authors of our own life story, it can be posited that we perform our lives by alternating our roles every single moment to adapt to certain situations. For example, imagine a 30 year old mother who works a full time job, raises two children, is an avid volunteer at a local church, and enjoys running long distance and playing piano in her spare time. In this one provided example, we can distinguish countless roles that this individual has to constantly shift in between in order to maintain order: mother, business owner, philanthropist, caregiver, wife, hero, athlete, and artist just to name a few. What is not so obvious are all of the other roles that we shift between that make us unique human beings.

While these roles may be clearer, this individual might also shift between roles such as victim, sick person, or inner critic. A distinct goal of the drama therapist is to acknowledge these roles, and offer the ability to expand or alter this list based on the individual’s personal goals. This is achieved and explored by engaging the client in creative forms of play. As a creative arts therapist, I offer the client a myriad of different modalities in order to personalize their experience in a customized fashion that not only creates a safe space to explore different forms of self expression, but also allows client’s the freedom to choose how they would like to work and to choose how they would like to write their own story. This also initiates autonomy which seems to be a common goal with many of our clients.


Drama Therapy


Another benefit of utilizing drama within therapy is the option that is presented to clients regarding re-authoring their personal stories and narratives. It can be an uncomfortable process to make significant changes in our lives, but by using drama, we have the ability to try on different realities through the use of play and pretend. Through the artform of creative problem solving and improvisation, clients have the ability to gain insight regarding new ways to view and acknowledge these transitions. It essentially allows for the client to take risks without fear of failure or consequence, but they are allowed to test the waters of different realities.  It has often been asserted that the main blocker for creative energy is fear. By working with the fear instead of trying to eliminate it, new discoveries can be considered and explored in ways that can be hard to put into words. This is also where the beauty of embodiment comes into play.

Delving into therapy takes a brave individual and can be an extremely vulnerable, uncomfortable time period. Not only does it require a level of trust between therapist and client, it can bring up a lot of suppressed emotions for a client. Through drama and story telling, the therapist is able to provide a layer of what we like to call “aesthetic distance”. This term refers to the idea that the client is one step removed from their own personal narrative by working through metaphor or pretend.

Tapping into the ability to play and be given permission to take risks has shown to foster spontaneity and creativity, allow individuals a new take on creatively problem solving, reduce cortisol levels, and promote self worth from the act of creating and contributing. As human beings, we are constantly facing new battles and waves of life. Drama therapy allows us to tap back into that playful spirit that can often get lost in the mess of the human experience.

“Under the guise of play and pretend, we can – for once – act in new ways. The bit of distance from real life afforded by drama enables us to gain perspective on our real-life roles and patterns and actions, and to experiment actively with alternatives.” -Renee Emunah