Beth Robertson MA, RP, DT, ATTTP Trainee

The Story Within: A Drama Therapy Approach

Drama therapy, much like art therapy, is an action-oriented therapy, placing the client in the here and now. It is suitable for clients who are resistant to therapy, as appropriate distance can be maintained through the use of projective tools such as puppets, masks, costume, figurines, and so forth (Emunah, 1994; Jones, 1998). Tom (2002) emphasizes drama therapy’s use of metaphor as a way of dealing with resistance, having an inherent structure that mirrors the client’s world, yet allows enough distance for the client to feel safe, and for the experience to be contained. The therapeutic alliance is very important in the success of the healing process, in that the drama therapist acts as a mirror, reflecting the client’s thoughts and feelings back to him or her. The drama therapist acts as witness (much like the audience in a theatre), as the client tells his or her personal story (in a dramatic way), which serves to strengthen the client’s sense of self (Tom, 2002).   Emunah (1990) emphasizes the benefits of the therapist letting the client lead the sessions, of allowing the patient control and autonomy, as well as a feeling of accomplishment (and a witness of that accomplishment).                  

Emunah (1994) states that “Within the world of make-believe, one can confront difficult situations, try out new options, prepare for real-life events – all without consequences” (p. 39). Resistance to therapy can be diminished in this spontaneous yet safe environment, allowing the client to confront issues that would be too scary in the real world. The world of make-believe within drama therapy, much like the artistic process in art therapy, is something that the client has complete control over, which may take the place of any maladaptive coping behaviours.

Drama therapy contains many different techniques that are flexible and can be shaped depending on the client’s needs (Tom, 2002). Psychodrama may be used with patients, allowing them to ‘say the words that were never said, experience the emotions never felt’ (Levens, 1995; Tom, 2002). Catharsis may occur in the use of scene work, as emotions are re-experienced, or experienced for the first time (Tom, 2002). The client is an active participant in the therapy, which Bruch (1973) asserts is integral for genuine healing to occur. Drama therapy is also very effective in dealing with family issues, using role-play, psychodramatic techniques, and so forth, to lead to discovery by the client the possible underlying causes of his or her ‘problem’, taking away much of the blame usually placed on him or herself (Emunah, 1990; Landy, 2000).

Yehudit Silverman (2004) has developed a drama therapy approach, The Story Within: Myth and Fairy Tale in Therapy, which uses elements of myth and fairy tale as a way of encountering difficult personal material. The client chooses a story which he or she feels a strong connection to, and works with a character or object within the story in an in-depth manner, which leads to self-discovery and healing. The process involves many creative elements, including embodiment, movement, visual art, writing, and mask-making, and stays within the realm of fiction and metaphor, allowing the client to confront material that is too difficult to deal with directly (Silverman, 2004).

Fairy tales have been described as vehicles for the human psyche, lending themselves more to universality than depicting any one culture or social attitude (Tatar, 2003). Where fables, folktales, and myths tend to have a lesson to be taught (being very entrenched in social values and cultural influence), fairy tales represent the wishes, fears, hopes, and dreams of humans across cultures (Bettelheim, 1977).  There may be many different versions of a fairy tale, each culture having made slight changes to fit their experience and customs, yet the themes tend to stay the same, reflecting a deeper influence than culture – rather, the human experience. 

Using fairytale also allows the client to explore a realm that is ‘culture-free’, or at least is not limited to any specific culture (although various versions of the same fairy tale may reflect elements of the writer’s culture).  The only ‘culture’ of fairy tales is that they occur in a world where the fantastic is not acknowledged, the characters are not surprised by the appearance of witches or goblins or giants… they do not “marvel at the marvelous” (Tatar, 2003, p. 36). There do not have to be any actual fairies within a fairytale, only the possibility that they might exist.

Many authors (including drama therapists) believe that fairy tale and story may provide a useful framework for therapy. Bettelheim (1976) postulates that in fairy tales, “internal processes are externalized and become comprehensible” (p. 27). Gersie and King (1990), as well as von Franz (1970) describe how stories may be used in the therapeutic process for their symbolic and metaphoric value, encouraging clients to relate their experiences as stories. Jennings (1990) utilizes mask-making with her clients, creating fairy tale and mythic characters to explore personal issues, and states that, “the nearer we work to a person’s own life…the more limitations we impose on our exploration of their life story. The greater the dramatic distance we create, the greater the range of therapeutic choices available” (p. 111). Lahad (1992), uses story-telling in his assessment approach (the six-part story method), asking clients to create stories in which he or she plays the main character, allowing the therapist to discover the client’s way of coping with trauma.

It seems that fairy tales have the power to heal, and in conjunction with drama therapy, they allow us to face our real-life horrors in a way that is manageable. Stemming from the human psyche, fairy tales are universal, ringing true to human experience across cultures; yet the elements of culture that have been added, or influenced the telling of each universal story, have the power to create a path from the universal to the personal, ensuring that each client’s story be told. The Story Within is a drama therapy approach which aids each client in discovering not only his or her story, but also reveals the steps that each client needs to take on his or her own unique path towards healing.




Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment. London: Thames and Hudson.

Bettelheim, B. (1977). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy   tales. New York: Random House, Vintage Books.

Bruch, H. (1973). Eating disorders: Obesity and anorexia nervosa, and the personwithin. New York: Basic books.

Emunah, R. (1994).  Acting for real: drama therapy process, technique, and performance. New York:  Brunner-Routledge.

Emmunah, R. (1990). Expression and expansion in adolescence: The significance of creative arts therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 17, 101-107.

Emunah, R. (2000). The integrative five phase model of drama therapy.70-86 In P. Lewis & D. Read Johnson (Eds.) Current Approaches in Drama Therapy (pp. 70-86). Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publisher Ltd.

Franz, M.L von. (1970). The Interpretation of Fairytales. London: Spring.

Gersie, A. & King, N. (1990). Storymaking in education and therapy. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Jennings, S. (1990). Dramatherapy with families, groups and individuals: waiting in the wings. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Jones, P. (1996). Drama as therapy: theatre as living. London: Routledge.

Lahad, M. (1992) Story-making in assessment method for coping with stress, in Jennings, S. (ed),. Dramatherapy: Theory and practice 2. New York: Routledge.

Landy, R. (2000). Role theory and the role method of drama therapy. In P. Lewis & D. Read Johnson (Eds.) Current Approaches in Drama Therapy (pp. 50-69)Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publisher Ltd.

Silverman, Y. (2004). The story within – myth and fairytale in therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 31, 3, 127-135.

Robertson, B. (2006). The story within: A young girl lets go of her burden with the help of a hobbit. Unpublished research paper, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.

Tatar, M. (2003). The hard facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Princeton and Oxford Princeton University Press.

Tom, S. (2002). The two faces of anorexia: Front stage and back stage. Unpublished research paper, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.


Copyright Beth Robertson

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