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  • Nicholas Mellor

Exploring the Power of Drama and Storytelling in Trauma Recovery from Bosnia to Ukraine

Updated: Jan 21

This blog explores the therapeutic potential of storytelling and drama in trauma recovery. The article begins by outlining the benefits of these methods, such as emotional expression, narrative reconstruction, and community cohesion. It then delves into a range of case studies from around the world that take different approaches: Blesma's Generation R program in Britain helps veterans share experiences with youth; 'The Two Worlds of Charlie F' offers a raw portrayal of soldier life; the Trojan Women project in Jordan provides a platform for Syrian refugees; Forum Theatre in Brazil engages audiences in social justice issues; and 'Waiting for Godot' in Sarajevo and 'Pussycat in Memory of Darkness' in Kyiv use performance to address war trauma.

These examples illustrate the versatility of drama and storytelling in addressing trauma across different cultural contexts, emphasizing their role in fostering resilience, understanding, and healing.

In a recent webinar and blog we explored peer-to-peer and community-based approaches to supporting people who have experienced traumatic stress, in a paper written with Dr. Olena Bidovanets:

Storytelling and drama can help address trauma and its impact on mental health in several ways that have been explored in both clinical practice and research:

1. Emotional Expression and Processing: Storytelling and drama provide safe spaces for individuals to express and process complex emotions associated with trauma. This expression can be cathartic, helping to release pent-up feelings.

2. Narrative Reconstruction: Trauma can fragment a person's life story. Storytelling helps in reconstructing a coherent narrative of past events, which is a crucial step in the healing process.

3. Building Resilience and Empowerment: Engaging in storytelling and drama can empower individuals, helping them to regain a sense of control over their lives. It encourages resilience by allowing them to see themselves as survivors rather than victims.

4. Social Support and Community Cohesion: These activities often take place in group settings, fostering a sense of community and mutual support. Sharing stories can reduce feelings of isolation and build connections among people with similar experiences.

5. Cognitive Processing: Storytelling and drama can aid in the cognitive processing of trauma, helping individuals to make sense of their experiences and integrate them into their understanding of the world.

6. Educational and Awareness Raising: They can be used to educate and raise awareness about the impact of trauma, both for those directly affected and the wider community, promoting empathy and understanding.

7. Cultural and Contextual Sensitivity: These methods can be tailored to fit different cultural and social contexts, making them relevant and effective across diverse populations.

8. Psychological Theories Support: Psychological theories, such as narrative therapy and psychodrama, provide a theoretical foundation for the use of storytelling and drama in trauma recovery.

9. Research Evidence: Empirical studies have shown positive outcomes for trauma survivors participating in storytelling and drama-based interventions, including reduced symptoms of PTSD and depression, and improved wellbeing.

10. Accessibility and Flexibility: Storytelling and drama do not necessarily require specialized equipment or settings, making them accessible and adaptable to various environments, including communities with limited resources.

What does it look like in practice?

These case studies provide examples of how drama and storytelling have been used to support individuals, engage and help heal communities, as well as providing international advocacy.

Blesma's Generation R program in Britain

Blesma's Generation R program focused on disabled veterans sharing their experiences with young people in schools and was a collaboration with Project Drive Project Drive was set up by Alice who recounts how in 2010 she met a wounded soldier who had returned from Afghanistan., “He said to me: “When you get injured, you lose your purpose, you lose your sense of self and you lose your voice.” That really struck me. As a theatre producer, I knew how to give people a platform for using their voice and telling their story.

This collaboration between BLESMA and Project Drive let to Generation R initiative that has helped veterans process their trauma while teaching resilience and coping strategies to the youth.

Generation R centred on personal recovery and community resilience, bridging the gap between disabled veterans and young people in their communities. Through engaging talks in schools, veterans who have faced significant challenges and traumas share their personal experiences. This initiative not only aids the veterans in processing and coming to terms with their own trauma but also plays a crucial role in fostering resilience among the youth. The stories of perseverance and overcoming adversity inspire students, providing them with valuable life lessons and coping strategies. This mutual benefit strengthens community bonds and promotes a deeper understanding of resilience and recovery.

One of the beneficiaries of the Generation R, was Mike Wildeman has spoken widely about his experience from accident to returning to the skies as a pilot.

For more about Mike's journey see:

The Two Worlds of Charlie F in Britain

Wider community engagement was created through the play ‘The Two Worlds of Charlie F’ which featured real-life service personnel, mainly wounded soldiers, sharing their own stories on stage, making it a unique blend of personal narrative and performance.

The play, written by Owen Sheers, was both an impressionistic and informative portrayal of life as a 21st-century soldier, covering their reasons for enlisting, the harsh realities of service, the pain of rehabilitation, and the challenges of re-assimilating into civilian life. The cast, many of whom performed in wheelchairs or with prosthetic limbs, offered a powerful portrayal of the physical and emotional impacts of war.

The Trojan Women project in Jordan

Another example of theatre raising public awareness of the brutalisation of war was the Trojan Women project which involved Syrian refugee women in Jordan performing Euripides' Greek tragedy, resonating deeply with their experiences of war, displacement, and loss.

It provided psycho-social support and a platform for advocacy, allowing participants to regain self-confidence and respect, and form a support network through shared experiences. The project also aimed to raise international awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Forum Theatre in Brazil

A different approach of ‘Forum Theatre’, was developed by Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal, is part of the "Theatre of the Oppressed" and aims to address social justice issues.

It engaged the audience as "spectators" who can intervene and change the performance. This interactive aspect of Forum Theatre encourages active participation and dialogue on social or political problems, with the audience providing alternate solutions and perspectives. A key component is the role of the "Joker," who facilitates the session, ensuring that interventions are plausible and constructive.

Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo

Susan Sontag's production of 'Waiting for Godot' in Sarajevo during the siege was a different kind of theatrical intervention. 'Waiting for Godot', a play by Samuel Beckett, is an absurdist drama that explores themes of existential despair and the absurdity of human existence.

Presenting this play in a city under siege could be seen as a powerful metaphor for the situation the Sarajevans were experiencing – a seemingly endless and absurd situation with no clear resolution in sight. The play offered a form of intellectual and emotional engagement for the people in Sarajevo, providing them with a means to reflect on their situation and perhaps find some solace or understanding in the absurdity of their circumstance.

Pussycat in Memory of Darkness in Kyiv

Earlier this year Kristin Milward performed in an English version of "Pussycat in Memory of Darkness," by Ukrainian playwright Neda Nezhdana. This play is based on the real-life story of a woman from Donbas and reflects on the impacts of the conflict in the region. It's a a searing story of a woman in the Donbas, who's betrayed by her neighbour to the local militia, many of whom are criminals or Russian plants. She survives by a fluke - the only piece of good luck she has. She loses everything, except the three little kittens of the title. The original production of this play at the Finborough Theatre in London received both critical acclaim and nominations for awards. The play resonated with both Ukrainian and international audiences and reflected a broader initiative to use art and theatre to communicate the experiences and struggles of Ukraine during the conflict.

Additionally, Kristin Milward's performance in Ukraine was part of a collaboration between the Finborough Theatre and the Pro-English Theatre in Kyiv with the Finborough Theatre becoming the first foreign theatre to perform in Ukraine since the Russian invasion, highlighting the role of art in international solidarity and support during times of conflict.

What is it like to put on such a performance in a country at war, in a city with air raids and power cuts, in the middle of winter, in the cold and the darkness. This short video tells the story of that production.

In Conclusion

These examples which range from storytelling workshops to public performances and theatre show how storytelling and drama have been used to support trauma recovery. Blesma's Generation R program in Britain and 'The Two Worlds of Charlie F' both focus on engaging disabled veterans in sharing their experiences, aiding personal recovery and community resilience. The Trojan Women project in Jordan and 'Waiting for Godot' in Sarajevo use theatrical performances to reflect the trauma of war and displacement. Forum Theatre in Brazil involves the audience as active participants, addressing social justice issues. Finally, 'Pussycat in Memory of Darkness' in Kyiv communicates the impacts of the Ukrainian conflict, with a focus on international solidarity. Each approach uniquely leverages storytelling and drama for emotional expression, narrative reconstruction, empowerment, and community cohesion in trauma recovery.

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