Artists Interviews

April 2013: Niamh Lawlor

Niamh Lawlor interviews Helen Blackhurst

Betwixt and Between: The Importance of Story in Dramatherapy work with Children:

An edited write up of an interview with Helen Blackhurst, Writer and Drama Therapist, as part of research into Story funded by a YPCE Arts Council Bursary Award.

Note: I present my questions in bold type, Helen’s answers in regular. My reflections and comments after the interview are represented thus in italics.

Niamh: What importance, if any, does story play in your work with your clients?

Helen: Stories are fundamental to my work, both personal and fictional; it might be a story fragment, image or particular element - place, characters, action etc - a client may not always use or create the whole story, though the narrative arc always informs the process. The way a child engages with a story depends on their age and particular needs at the time. Younger children, 4 or 5 year olds, often work mostly through play, using elements of story. With older children, story is a way of working metaphorically, it can be a ’container’ for their issues or difficulties, creating ‘distance’ whilst allowing them to experience and work through emotions in a safe way. And simultaneously a story gives them the possibility to see beyond what is.

The characters and actions in the story enable a child/or adult to enter a liminal state where they are both themselves and other, a state where change and growth is possible. In the role of the King (or whatever character fits), they can experience what it is like to be powerful or angry or destructive, whilst holding on to the notion that they can, at any time, step out and return to their ‘normal’ selves. As our unconscious mind does not distinguish between fact and fiction, and remembers each experience as if it were real, the child is able to draw on this new experience and expand their sense of self accordingly.
It is not always necessary for a child to become conscious of the connections between their play and their lives. With younger children, the work often remains held within the story or play frame. The connections may fall into place naturally, when the child is ready and able to cope with them. Older children can automatically make connections for themselves (though may not). There seems to be no rule.

If you look at child development, a young child does not distinguish between imagined and real events. Their world of play is as real as the rest of their lives; they move fluidly between fantasy and reality without the need for a separation between the two. As a child grows, they begin to separate what is real from what is made up. This separation seems necessary for our mental health. As we develop, our use and need for story therefore changes.

One of the founding principles of drama therapy is the concept I have mentioned already: that the unconscious mind cannot distinguish between something you enact and a real event. Which means that through story work and role play, you can reframe events in order to change restrictive patterns.

N: Hence the idea of catharsis or healing through experiencing a drama or other artwork. I am sure every artist, whether working alone or in collaboration with others, has witnessed instances where something created has expressed and released something formerly ’undercover’. This may also be why creative collaboration can be so difficult - people are particularly vulnerable when creating, and may be pulling a creative process in different directions to satisfy or explore contrary and only half understood needs.

N: Can very imaginative people be prone to mental illness ?

H: People have written about creativity and schizophrenia, how not being able to distinguish between reality and imagination can create fragmented and disorientating, frightening views of the world. The imagination/unconscious world of dream leaks into the ’real world’. Hence, the need for the separation we talked about. It is almost as if we have a membrane or net that filters what we are able to cope with consciously. The unconscious mind works through difficulties and emotional stuck points in dream; these dreams then emerge as conscious thoughts when we are ready to deal with them. We often frame these conscious thoughts in terms of story.

My work is principally client led. I start with whatever the client is drawn to. But there are children - for example someone who has had a traumatic experience - who have shut down and need a more directive approach initially. A child like this may have disconnected from their emotional world, their creative selves; they may not be able to play or engage with story making. With one client, I used Sleeping Beauty - a character who falls asleep for a hundred years and finally awakes - as a metaphor for her own ‘sleeping’ state. In engaging with the story and central character, the child was able to move through her trauma and allow her feelings to be felt.

If a client has a developmental disorder (for example Asperger Syndrome) where it may be overwhelming to be in the driving seat, for whatever reason, I may use story or elements of a story as signposts along the journey. The distancing effect of story allows for the creation of a new perspective, for the existence of multiple possibilities. A client can step back from their issue, or a part of themselves that is hard for them to see otherwise. This ’space’ is really crucial in allowing transformation; story acts as a powerful tool, allowing us to move beyond what we consciously know and are able to talk about, and gives way to the possibility of something new.

Roles can be restrictive; you can feel "put in a box". Yet in the role play of dramatherapy, a client is neither the character nor themselves (and they are both). Holding this paradox allows for a third possibility - what could be. In the simultaneous expression of both self and other, a new being can emerge - a being of infinite possibility.

This state of infinite possibility can be a scary place. The structure of story - beginning, middle, and end - creates a safe container for the work. Use of costume can also act as a ritual container for the ‘risk’ of change (Sue Jennings talks of a ritual/risk paradigm.) A client can put on and then take off the character. De-roling, whether through peeling off a costume or imagining shaking off the character somehow, is an integral part of the dramatherapy process, which allows for a safe journeying away from self in order to arrive at a closer and more comfortable proximity. The structure of a dramatherapy session - opening, warm-up, main work, wind down, grounding - in some way mirrors that of story structure, and also acts as a ritual that holds the risk it takes to effect personal growth.

An example of a session structure could be the use of thresholds. The client and I might start in a talking space, and then I invite a client to create a threshold (something we move through or under or over to get into the action space). After the main work has been done, we then move back across the threshold, which has often changed, and is a sign of the work that has taken place. The nature of the threshold can shed light on the client’s feelings as they enter and leave the space.

N:I find this interesting in the context of my own work with groups who are creating something together: how important little rituals and use of the room we are working in, can be, to assist everyone to focus, collaborate or open up. We all know how useful the concept of getting into a circle can be, for example, and how challenging people can find it too.

N: Are there stories that you have come across that have been useful / important to your clients? You mentioned Sleeping Beauty earlier, but are there others?

H: Fairy tales can be powerful for children due to their archetypal imagery. Hansel and Gretel is a very cruel tale but you know that the ending is happy, and so the child embarks on the journey with the knowledge that in the end all will be well.

I seldom work with a known story, more usually the client creates one. I do a lot of sand work, creating images, symbols, using miniature figures, sea stones, feathers, toys etc. I use sand and image-building as a way of accessing story. The client builds a scene, sometimes adding to it until a story emerges. This work may develop into building scenes or role play, as appropriate.

How the story is told, whether it follows a start, middle and end, whether there is a resolution, are all interesting in revealing where a client is struggling or what might help to move the client on. When a child creates their own story, there is less distance between them and ‘it’ than there would be in using an established story.

The miniatures I work with can be equated with puppetry. Projective play allows for the aesthetic distance, and helps the child develop a separation between imagined and real worlds, as we talked about: self and other. The amount of distance or space in between is determined by whether the child uses first person or third person, and how closely they engage on a physical level. There seems to be a need for aesthetic distance in order to integrate new experience and move to a more expansive state of being. The further we step back from the mirror, the more we see.

N: Here I remembered how we consciously used narration when adapting Neil Gaiman’s story Coraline. We used the narrators’ voice to create a safe distance between the audience of children and the puppets’ enaction of the potentially distressing concept of parents ’stolen’ and replaced with counterfeits to ’trap’ the child.

N: Have you found that there are any universal recurring characters in the stories the children create?

H: Absolute good and bad characters recur. Beyond that there are some universal themes - generally the good wins over, though not always. There is often a journey of some kind.

N: What elements of stories do you think are most important to children in your experience?

H: I don’t know if I can pinpoint these.

N:We looked over the list I had prepared (see below) and discussed some of these.

H: Character is really important; a character is able to hold aspects of the client that may be hidden or buried, and allows them to engage with feelings and experiences beyond their own, leading to an expansion of self. But all the elements come into play at one point or another.

The element of magic seems important. Often characters in children’s stories have superpowers, they can do extraordinary things. The fact that the character/s can do things the child can’t is liberating and allows the child to let go of the restrictions they feel when faced with an apparently unsolvable problem. In a magical story anything is possible. You might find a client using magic in their story to protect themselves in some way from something difficult or dangerous, or to find a way to overcome a problem.

You ask me if entertainment is important. To me entertainment is not the right word but rather engagement. An emotionally engaging story can be bland, hardly a story at all: nothing much happens, but a child can be completely engrossed, they are seeing something I may not see.N: Does a child’s need / interest in stories change as they age? If so, why do you think?

H: As a child gets older stories can lose their magical quality and become more realistic. This reflects the shift from fairy tales to myths, from happy endings to stories of transformation. The method of accessing and relating to story becomes more sophisticated with age, but stories seem to be valuable to all ages - our way of making sense of the world.

It is an interesting question, do we need story? I think we do. It is fundamental to our beings, we frame our everyday experience through story - tell narratives of our lives all the time, which invariably contain that element of fiction. This creative process is fundamental and seems to connect directly to our state of mental health - what is your ability to frame your life in terms of story? It might be the case in certain disorders and illnesses that the ability to frame our lives in some kind of narrative breaks down, causing us to develop a fragmented world-view.

N: Are stories by others important to us do you think?

H: I think they are, that is how we share how we are in the world. We see ourselves in other people’s stories, as we go about creating our own. Other people’s stories also allow us to move beyond the limits of our own world.

N: I am interested in talking about the relationships / differences between stories and play and the needs they satisfy in a child (/Adult)

H: This seems connected to age and development: first the toy car isn’t a car, it is a thing for putting in your mouth and exploring in different ways, then it is a car, then it can be a cloud - symbolic leaps through play can then link into more sophisticated narrative patterns as you get older. Narrative structure is often just a way of making sense of something, of taking a chance to replay it, as a child does through play. Both play and story create a language by which we can express and attempt to understand the world around us.

N:Young children often narrate their games - pausing in the middle of them, or when agreeing on a shared game. "Pretend, I..." is a kind of narrative structure, especially when followed by "And then, pretend that...." Perhaps play is replaced somewhat by story as we get older, but remains as vital to the adult in this form as it is to the child?

Elements of stories that may be of importance to children:

Role models
Fear enactments
Narrative ’voice’
what else?

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