THEATRE AND THERAPY: Why the Arts Matter for Development

PASJ and Psychology 

As I reflect on my decision to join the University of San  Francisco’s Performing Arts and Social Justice program, I think about what initially drew me to the school. I had remembered receiving a fee waiver in the mail when I was just about done with my college applications. Still not knowing where I wanted to attend college, I looked up the school. I knew one thing was for certain, I wanted to be performing. I saw that USF offered PASJ as a major, and I was intrigued immediately. I went to a high school that offered a humanities magnet, where I learned all about social and political topics. Throughout my time there, I found my voice and was able to form my own opinions on major topics. These four years were met with my seven years in musical theatre, and I knew that my true interest was in both fields. However, I didn’t know just what do with that major.

Continuously through the PASJ program, majors often joke around about their future, or lack thereof, for that matter.  We constantly comment on the fact that we enjoy “not making money”, “not having careers”, and of course “not having a place to live”. I have found that sarcastic humor is a pretty common coping mechanism to the negative connotations that come with a major in the arts. I laugh about it a lot, but the truth is, it gets to me. Recently I have declared a minor in psychology. Although I will only be taking twenty credits worth of psychology classes, the declared study has already narrowed my focus on PASJ. Ultimately, I would like to be performing and making money doing what I love, but I also understand the hardships that come along with this career path. My experience in theatre growing up has given me the opportunity to work with children and adults of all ages and watch them grow as performers in my program back home. Heading into college, I had the idea that I would like to teach if I could not perform, but it has become even more than that.

Although it is not commonly understood yet, theatre is a form of therapy. The visual and performing arts programs that are offered across the world are great sources of support and escape for those who face mental, social, physical, and other forms of issues. The arts can be used as a platform for expression and communication that might otherwise be difficult to accomplish. In studying both PASJ Theatre and psychology, I will hopefully be able to gain a better understanding in the specific ways the arts can be used for healing and coping. The social justice element of PASJ can help apply the field of interest I have in psychology through the performing arts element.

Finding the perfect combination of my studies has already infinitely improved my PASJ experience. I now have a focus, something I have always valued in life. I have a goal to work towards, and it’s probable. The use of the arts for therapy is a concept that is being newly formed and I hope to look into even more as I continue through the arts and science college at USF.

Childhood Development Through Theatre

Since joining theatre, I have become very actively involved in my company back home.  They offer a Student Teaching Volunteer program for high school and college students to help teach the show contents to the younger children in the program. During the summer going into my senior year of high school, I joined the STV program, where I worked until college. In my time with the program, I not only gained leadership responsibilities, but I also received the privilege of working with so many people throughout various stages of their lives. I’ve worked with children ages five and up, adolescents/teenagers, and even adults.

What I have found to be the most interesting is working with the younger kids. The rehearsal process is set up based on age groups, so each rehearsal day consists of three to four rehearsal times.  As the day goes on, you begin to see the shift in staff behavior as the age groups become more advanced.  With the younger kids, you not only begin to teach them the fundamentals of theatre, such as stage right and stage left, but you also begin to teach them the skills they need in their social and behavioral development. They begin learning how to communicate and cooperate as a team, how to speak with confidence, and even use their imagination.

As children and adolescents begin to interact with each other in the arts, they learn the skills necessary to improve their oral and social expression. They are able to take risks and share ideas and begin to form an individualized sense of self. For children especially with learning disabilities, the use of theatre helps in the way children begin to improvise and and communicate with others.  Oral development also increases due to the constant use of language and speech in drama during dialogues.

Performing Arts and Mental Health

Recent studies have shown that not only can theatre improve cognitive development in childhood, but it can also greatly help with the recovery in mental health.  In some cases of this new therapy, groups are told to view their stories of illness as ongoing stories of recovery. They are then asked to perform a type of theatre known as playback theatre “which combines artistic expression with personal story and empathic listening. Unlike traditional scripted theatre, playback theatre involves improvised theatre pieces in response to personal stories”. By creating an open environment that is free from judgment, healing becomes possible, allowing for people of all emotional and mental backgrounds to share and respond to different scenarios.


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