Drama therapy and social justice


Social justice refers to an equitable distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges. Children, adolescents, and adults may experience inequity, a lack of opportunity, and discrimination because of their real or perceived membership in particular social groups based on: age, developmental and acquired disabilities, ethnicity and race, employment status, gender identity and/or expression, geographic location, health status, indigenous heritage, language, legal status, marital status, national origin, religion, size, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Discrimination, prejudice, and systemic oppression directed against any group are damaging to the physical, social, psychological, economic, and spiritual well-being of the targeted group and of society as a whole.  


Social justice is not, as Dr. Martin Luther King (1959) taught, an expression of political or economic power as ends alone, but is tied to the practice of “beloved community,” an indivisible society that is not devoid of conflict but rather strives towards non-violence, generosity, and inclusion.


What is the contribution of drama therapy to social justice? 


Drama therapists assert that identity is a complex, ever-changing social construct that assumes different meanings in relation to others and context (see Johnson, 2009; Landers, 2002, 2012; Landy, 2009; Mayor, 2010, 2012; Sajnani, 2012, 2016; Savage, 2016). This ontological position is useful in disrupting essentialist understandings of the self and others and calls attention to difference and contradiction. Projective and embodied exercises facilitate the elicitation, externalization and focused exploration of deeply held feelings, assumptions, implicit, and socially reinforced biases. The use of personal storytelling, sociodrama, and psychodramatic techniques such as role-reversal, doubling and Playback Theatre enactments, make it possible to imagine and empathize with the experience of another, despite legacies of inequity and conflict. Conflict transformation, healing generational trauma and peacebuilding work has been used with multiple polarized groups who have shared legacies of conflict and trauma, including descendants of Holocaust survivors and Nazis, Turks and Armenians, and Palestinians and Israelis (see Volkas, 2009).   


Through the process of ensemble building and theatre-making, drama therapists offer individuals and communities who have experienced exclusion an experience of belonging. Performance offers an art form and a platform from which to organize and share lived experiences with chosen audiences. Witnessing the performance of lived experience has been demonstrated to increase awareness, shift perception, disrupt stereotypes, increase empathy, and promote dialogue (Daccache, 2017; Emunah, 2015; Mayor & Dotto, 2014; Sajnani, 2011; Snow and D’Amico, 2015; Wood, 2018; see Pendzik, Emunah, & Johnson, 2017). In the context of social justice, performing lived experience is also a means of directly participating in a process of change, claiming social space, and resisting marginalization (see Sajnani, 2013).


Drama therapy has also been used to address the conditions that re/produce harm. Techniques such as sculpting, and Image theatre make it possible to visualize the relationship between structural and interpersonal violence, social and individual suffering. Improvisation through Developmental Transformations enables one to simultaneously inhabit and question relations of power (Johnson & Sajnani, 2015). Interactive performance genres such as Forum and Legislative Theatre have been used to motivate audiences to actively identify and analyze oppression, mobilize shared knowledge, practice possible solutions, and draft policy proposals (see Boal, 1985; Sajnani, 2009). Trauma-informed drama therapy encourages assessments, screening, and interventions for traumatic stressors including the trauma of living in a society that protects and promotes discrimination (see Mayor & Dotto, 2014; Sajnani, 2012; Sajnani & Johnson, 2014; Volkas, 2014).


Finally, critical scholarship in drama therapy, characterized by an attention to power, difference, inequity, resistance, and hope has prompted attention to the importance of examining the underlying values and assumptions that guide training, supervision, research, and practice (Emunah, 2016; Mayor, 2012; Powell, 2016; Reinstein, 2002; Sajnani et al., 2016; Williams, 2016). It has also brought drama therapy into conversation with critical discourses such as queer, feminist, postcolonial, indigenous, critical race, critical disability, economic, and performance theory. This has resulted in new ways of conceiving of health, illness, and care that emphasize depathologizing language, shared authority, interdependence, collaboration, transparency, liberation, solidarity, material equity, and radical love (Alker, 2015; Hodermarska, 2013; Lee Soon, 2016; Makanya, 2014; Mayor, 2012; Pendzik, 2016; Sajnani, 2016a).




Dr. Nisha Sajnani , RDT-BCT is the Director of the Drama Therapy Program at NYU Steinhardt and on the faculty of the Rehabilitation Sciences Ph.D. and Educational Theatre Ed.D and Ph.D. program. She is the director of the Theatre & Health Lab where her primary research areas of interest include the health benefits of theatre-making as it relates to social determinants of health, stigma, and social inclusion/exclusion, relational aesthetics in therapeutic theatre, scalable storytelling based interventions in schools, and sustainable mental health care in humanitarian contexts.  She has also published in the areas of culturally responsive pedagogy in the arts therapies, embodied and performance research, trauma-informed care, and global mental health. She maintains research partnerships with the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, the Foundation for the Arts and Trauma, the Institute for Arts and Health, the Creative Arts Therapies Research Unit (University of Melbourne), and KenVak (European Arts Therapies Research Consortium). Dr. Sajnani is a founding member of the Critical Pedagogy in the Arts Therapies project.




Christine Mayor, MA, RDT, is a drama therapist living in Ontario, completing her doctoral studies in critical social policy within the social work department at Wilfrid Laurier Univ. She is the associate editor of Drama Therapy Review, adjunct faculty at Lesley University, and has published several articles focused on power and race in drama therapy. Christine is also the former director of public health and social policy at the Post Traumatic Stress Center in New Haven, CT and director of ALIVE, a trauma-centered program in CT public schools.






We wish to acknowledge Samah Ikram, Fred Landers, Elizabeth McAdam, Opher Shamir, Armand Volkas, and Britton Williams for their contributions 





Special Issue of Arts in Psychotherapy on Social Justice (2012) edited by Dr. Nisha Sajnani and Dr. Frances Kaplan


Special Issue of Drama Therapy Review on Social Justice (2016) edited by Dr. Nisha Sajnani




Alker, G. (2015). A feminist rethinking of drama therapy: The role of audience and aesthetics in Cancer As Change Maker. Drama Therapy Review, 1(2), 187-199.


Bailey, S. (2016). Dissolving the stigma of disability through drama therapy: A case study of an integrated classroom approach to addressing stigmatization by pre-professional health care students. Drama Therapy Review, 2(1), 65-78.


Beauregard, M., Stone, R., Trytan, N., & Sajnani, N. (2016). Drama therapists’ attitudes and actions regarding LGBTQI and gender nonconforming communities. Drama Therapy Review, 2(1), 41-63.


Beauregard, M., Stone, R., Trytan, N., & Sajnani, N. (2017). Systemic barriers in mental health care for LGBTQI and gender nonconforming drama therapists and clients. Drama Therapy Review, 3(2), 285-312.


Boal, A. (1985) Theatre of the oppressed. Trans. Charles, A. & Maria-Odilia Leal McBride. New York: Theatre Communications Group.


Daccache, Z. (2017)  The unheard stories of those forgotten behind bars in Lebanon. In S. Pendzik, R. Emunah, & D. R. Johnson (Eds.), The Self in Performance (pp. 227-240). UK: Palgrave Macmillan.


Dokter, D. (2001). Intercultural dramatherapy practice: A research history. Dramatherapy, 22(3), 3-8.


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Hodermarska, M. (2013). Autism as performance. Dramatherapy, 35(1), 64-76.


Johnson, D. R. (2009). Developmental Transformations: Towards the body as presence. In D. R. Johnson and R. Emunah (Eds.), Current Approaches in Drama Therapy (2nd ed., pp. 89-116). Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.


Johnson, D.R. & Sajnani, N. (2015). Developmental transformations and social justice. Chest of Broken Toys: Journal of Developmental Transformations. 1:1.


King, M.L. (1959). Sermon on Gandhi. Retrieved from http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy


Landers, F. (2002). Dismantling violent forms of masculinity through developmental transformations. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 29, 19–29.


Landers, F. (2012). Urban Play: Imaginatively responsible behavior as an alternative to neoliberalism. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39(3), 201-205.


Landy, R. (2009). Role Theory and the Role Method of drama therapy. In D. R. Johnson and R. Emunah (Eds.), Current Approaches in Drama Therapy (2nd ed., pp. 65-88). Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.


Lee Soon, R. (2016). Nohona i Waena i nā Mo’olelo/Living between the stories: Contextualizing drama therapy within an indigenous Hawaiian epistemology. Drama Therapy Review, 2(2), 257-271.


Makanya, S. (2014). The missing links: A South African perspective on the theories of health in drama therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41(3), 302-306.


Mayor, C. (2010). Contact zones: The ethics of playing with “the Other”. Poiesis: A Journal of the Arts and Communication, 12, 82–90.


Mayor, C. (2012). Playing with race: A theoretical framework and approach for creative arts therapists [special issue: Social Justice]. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39, 214-219.


Mayor, C. & Dotto, S. (2014). De-Railing history: Trauma stories off the track. In Sajnani, N., & Johnson, D.R. (Eds.). Trauma-informed drama therapy: Transforming clinics, classrooms, and communities. IL: Charles C. Thomas, 306-328.


Orkibi, H., Bar, N., & Eliakim, I. (2014). The effect of drama-based group therapy on aspects of mental illness stigma. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41(5), 458-466.


Pendzik, S. (2016). Dramatherapy and the feminist tradition. In Jennings S. & Holmwood C. (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Dramatherapy (pp.306-316). London, UK: Routledge.


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Powell, A. (2016). Embodied multicultural assessment: An interdisciplinary training model [special issue: Social Justice]. Drama Therapy Review, 2(1), 111-122.


Reinstein, M. (2002). When I am an old woman... Using dramatherapy as a treatment for depression with functional elderly people. Dramatherapy, 24(2), 10-15.


Reisman, M. D. (2016). Drama therapy to empower patients with schizophrenia: Is justice possible? The Arts in Psychotherapy, 50, 91-100.


Rousseau, C., Benoit, M., Gauthier, M., Lacroix, L., Alain, N., Rojas, M. V., et al. (2007). Classroom drama therapy program for immigrant and refugee adolescents: A pilot study. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 12(3), 451–465.


Rousseau, C., Gauthier, M., Lacroix, L., Alain, N., Benoit, M., Moran, A., et al. (2005). Playing with identities and transforming shared realities: Drama therapy workshops for adolescent immigrants and refugees. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 32, 13–27.


Sajnani, N. (2009a). Mind the gap: Facilitating transformative witnessing amongst audiences. In P. Jones (Ed.), Drama as therapy: Theatre as living. London, England: Routledge.


Sajnani, N. (2009b). Theatre of the Oppressed: Drama therapy as cultural dialogue. In R. Emunah, & D. R. Johnson (Eds.), Current Approaches in Drama Therapy (2nd ed., pp. 461-482). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.


Sajnani, N. (2011). Coming into presence: Discovering the ethics and aesthetics of performing oral histories in the Montreal life stories project, Alt. Theatre: Cultural Diversity and the Stage, 9 (1), 40-49.


Sajnani, N. (2012). The implicated witness: Towards a relational aesthetic in dramatherapy. Dramatherapy, 34(1), 6-21.


Sajnani, N. (2012). Response/ability: Imagining a critical race feminist paradigm for the creative arts therapies [special issue: Social Justice]. The Arts In Psychotherapy, 39, 186-191.


Sajnani, N. (2013). The body politic: The relevance of an intersectional framework for therapeutic performance research in drama therapy. The Arts In Psychotherapy, 40, 382-385.


Sajnani, N., & Johnson, D. R. (2014). Trauma-informed drama therapy: Transforming clinics, classrooms, and communities. Charles C Thomas Publisher.


Sajnani, N. (2016a). A critical aesthetic paradigm in drama therapy: Aesthetic distance, action, and meaning making in the service of diversity and social justice. In Jennings S. & Holmwood C. (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Dramatherapy (pp.145-160). London, UK: Routledge.


Sajnani, N. (2016b). Borderlands: Diversity and social justice in drama therapy [special issue: Social Justice]. Drama Therapy Review, 2(1), 3-9.


Sajnani, N., Marxen, E., & Zarate, R. (2017). Critical perspectives in the arts therapies: Response/ability across a continuum of practice. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 54, 28-37.


Sajnani, N. and Nadeau, D. (2006). Creating safer spaces for immigrant women of color: Performing the politics of possibility. Canadian Woman Studies Journal/Les cahiers de la femme, 25 (1-2), 45-53.


Sajnani, N., Tomczyk, P., Bleuer, J., Dokter, D., Carr, M., & Bilodeau, S. (2016c). Guidelines on cultural response/ability in training, research, practice, supervision, advocacy and organizational change [special issue: Social Justice]. Drama Therapy Review, 2(1), 141-149.


Savage, M. D. (2016). Listening to the voices of young women adopted from foster care through Personal Public Service Announcements. Drama Therapy Review, 2(2), 195-209.


Snow, S., & D'Amico, M. (2015). The application of ethnodrama with female adolescents under youth protection within a creative arts therapies context. Drama Therapy Review, 1(2), 201-218.


Snow, S., D’Amico, M., Mongerson, E., Anthony, E., Rozenberg, M., Opolko, C., & Anandampillai, S. (2017). Ethnodramatherapy applied in a project focusing on relationships in the lives of adults with developmental disabilities, especially romance, intimacy and sexuality. Drama Therapy Review, 3(2), 241-260.


Volkas, A. (2009), Healing the wounds of history: Drama therapy in collective trauma and intercultural conflict resolution. In D. R. Johnson and R. Emunah (Eds.), Current Approaches in Drama Therapy (2nd ed., pp. 145-171). Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.


Volkas, A. (2014), ‘Drama therapy in the repair of collective trauma’, in N. Sajnani and D. R. Johnson (eds), Trauma-informed drama therapy: Transforming clinics, classrooms, and communities, Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, pp. 41–67.


Williams, B. M. (2016). Minding our own biases: Using drama therapeutic tools to identify and challenge assumptions, biases and stereotypes [special issue: Social Justice]. Drama Therapy Review, 2(1), 9-23.


Wood, S. M. (2018). Transforming families using performance: Witnessing performed lived experience. Drama Therapy Review, 4(1), 23-37.




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