by Paula Kingwill

Advocacy dramatherapy history picture

A letter of appreciation for my cohort

Dear dramatherapy pioneers,

It is 27 years since our first drama therapist the “dynamite-comes-in-small-packages”  Heather Schiff, returned to South Africa, and 23 years since I began my practice in this country (Wow! almost half my life!). 

My intention with this letter is to tell my story of those first years in order to recognise the work that we all did in establishing the profession.  We must honour our origins before we can enable deep transformation and growth for the future of our profession.

I returned to South Africa from the USA as a newly qualified drama therapist in the year 2000.  Starting the new century with a new qualification, in a modality that was new to South Africa felt like quite a lot of novelty to metabolise at once. 

Luckily for me, I landed with  a tiny community of passionate, pioneering and motivated humans who did not let the prospect of introducing our brand-new qualification to South Africa intimidate or overwhelm them. 

Incredibly, within a year of arriving back I sat down to write my HPCSA exam You may ask, what is the big deal? Within the space of two years, Heather had managed to get the brand new, never-heard-of before, profession of dramatherapy recognised by the HPCSA. This meant that we could write an exam and get a registration number.  This allowed us to apply for work in clinics, NGOs, and hospitals where no one had ever heard of dramatherapy!  (Just to put this in context – in Israel, dramatherapy is still not recognised as a profession more than 2 decades into committed advocacy to this end.) If that wasn’t enough Heather also got  the profession of dramatherapy representation on the HPCSA, so that you could advocate for us at the highest level.  Thank you for giving us a running start! 

“Luckily for me, I landed with a tiny community of passionate, pioneering and motivated humans who did not let the prospect of introducing our brand-new qualification to South Africa intimidate or overwhelm them”

Many of us sought our dramatherapy qualification because we were exquisitely aware of the limitations of the western model of individual psychotherapy.  We had grown up in Apartheid (mostly as beneficiaries), witnessed the TRC and felt deeply compelled towards repair, restitution and accelerating the healing journey of South Africans.  We wanted to do more in less time! We wanted to reach as many as we could, undermine the barriers of access to healing, support others to grow their skills, all through the powerful and life affirming medium of the arts. 

Kirsten Meyer embodied this spirit when you started Zakheni Arts Therapy Foundation in 2002 with art therapist Linda Souchon (Lesley  joined the team a short while after).  This NGO developed a range of tools and interventions for training and healing, responding initially to the AIDs pandemic and later to the national mental health crisis.  Kirsten, you created our first home as arts therapists in Zakheni.  What a gift to be invited to work in an arts therapy shaped job!  This was a luxury in a world where we needed to do gymnastic contortions to fit our qualifications into the existing job spaces.  You gave us access to schools, institutions and communities where the need was greatest, and we could do what we trained to do.  Zakheni also recorded, reflected, analysed, and measured the effect of the work, creating a footprint and a reference for our field in general.  An organisation like this becomes a very effective advocacy tool in action. Everyone that accessed the resources, simultaneously learned about the existence of the arts therapies.  Starting and running an NGO is an incredibly tough job and it extracted a high price from you both.  May you take the credit for the positive impact on our profession that is still felt today.  (Thank you Spieel for continuing this legacy!)

Freshly graduated and returned to South Africa – Anna Kurgan and Warren Nebe – you managed to get yourselves jobs as drama therapists in established and prestigious psychiatric institutions.  Your reputation created a precedent and the opportunity for more jobs in the sector. (Which is where I got my first paid job! Thanks Warren!)


“We liked the play on the word for “seed” in Afrikaans, which resonated with the idea of planting the seed of healing in South Africa”

I am remembering how, in those first years after we returned, we created a home for drama therapists and called it SAAD. We liked the play on the word for “seed” in Afrikaans, which resonated with the idea of planting the seed of healing in South Africa.  (It was also a whole lot better than SAD or SADA!)  Those of us based in Cape Town would meet monthly in someone’s lounge.  Those meetings were a lifeline for me.  They provided a moment where we could come together and speak our “language” without having to explain ourselves or try and convince anyone of the value of what we were doing.   We shared readings and cases and supported each other with peer supervision.  We encouraged and guided each other through what, at times, felt like impossible challenges.  We filled each other’s cups so we could carry on.  Through SAAD we also spent many an hour in the sometimes tedious but critical coordination of strategy around advocacy.  We talked about building networks, battled the HPCSA, supported new graduates coming back, organised conferences, created placements for international students, built relationships with other arts professionals and related fields.  We needed a constitution, a scope of practice, ethical guidelines and ways to ground our practice on South African soil.  We spent a lot of hours doing admin.  I want to honour the foundations that we attempted to lay in those endless meetings!

We were deeply troubled by the fact that qualifying as a drama therapist required studying internationally, making the profession extremely exclusive and slow to grow.  We knew this needed to change as soon as humanly possible. We spent hours in meetings and workshops brainstorming and dreaming this into being.  Kirsten, again your pioneering spirit and ability to navigate the world of academia had a profound impact on the profession. Your relationship with Wits started in 2000 when you introduced the idea of the field of dramatherapy into local academia.  Kirsten, your patience and persistence together with Warren, with your passion and drive, and the team you gathered around you ultimately resulted in the dramatherapy training at Wits in 2013, which Warren still leads today.  Finally, the shape of the profession could begin to take on a truly South African character.   I know that without this training, our profession would lose all relevance on the African continent.  I am so grateful for all that has gone into bringing this training into being and all that it has taken to sustain it. Thank you Warren.

But let’s be honest, it wasn’t all triumphant music and slow-motion finishes. 

There was a lot of self-doubt, internal struggles and burn out.

I was a brand-new therapist wobbling about on my brand new therapy legs.  We all had to fall down over and again while learning to walk.  I often felt overwhelmed and underprepared.  I sometimes felt like I was learning how to walk while also building the road I was supposed to walk on. We were advocating for a profession we were just getting to know.  We all trained at different institutions in different parts of the world, which sometimes only faintly resembled each other.  We were dreaming up a professional training, imagining ourselves as teachers, while longing for teachers and mentors ourselves. 

Many of us will remember that one conference, organised by SANATO (SANATA’s predecessor)!  Applied arts practitioners challenged us that we did not deserve an exclusive right to the title “arts therapist”.  They argued that qualifying as an arts therapist was out of reach to the majority and thus horribly exclusive. They insisted that their years of experience and practice should count. They were angry with us for creating this distinction, which they saw as undermining. 

We were a little shell-shocked. Perhaps we were expecting celebration and maybe even (dare I say it) appreciation, for getting the use of the arts as a healing tool recognised by a professional registration body (we were still glowing with pride at this achievement). We believed this would open doors and enable opportunities for all working in the field. It was a hard reckoning, but it forced a shift in our thinking and practice. Perhaps because of this, Zakheni (and later Spieel) were very proactive in including applied arts practitioners in most of their offerings and programs.  However, we felt our qualification was hard won, and so we continued to fight for the importance of maintaining professional integrity. We believed this empowered us to work more effectively, supported by a scope of practice and within a regulating body.  We recognised that working within an embodied modality we needed to keep our work as safe as possible.  However, we understood that this conversation needed to be more nuanced and informed that we had at first naively believed.


“It was a hard reckoning, but it forced a shift in our thinking and practice. “

With time we were also challenged by the space that was growing between those of us practising in Cape Town and those in Joburg.  Communication was limited pre-Skype. It was cosy down in Cape Town with our regular meetings and supportive community, but we didn’t know what was going on up north.  In the beginning there were very few drama therapists in Joburg. However, soon the new graduates returning to other parts did not feel that inclusion that we were experiencing in Cape Town.  As the community up north grew, we struggled to find ways to connect and communicate effectively.  This was to have long-term consequences for the unity of the profession.  It has impacted on our ability to remain connected and build coherent, South Africa-wide advocacy strategies for dramatherapy.  It has meant that we are not as informed of each other’s work and are unable to draw on the resources of those working in other parts of the country, which would have enriched each of us.  

“I wish for all drama therapists to experience that feeling of a “home” amongst other drama therapists who speak their professional language. “

I am so relieved to finally see this changing in recent years.  I wish for all drama therapists to experience that feeling of a “home” amongst other drama therapists who speak their professional language.  I know how essential it was for me to keep going against the odds.  While there are many more drama therapists now than there were 20 years ago, it is still an extremely challenging professional landscape.  At least they don’t have to deal with dial up internet! I hope that we can continue to enable the growth of the drama therapist community and thus enable a strong voice for our profession countrywide.

Dear cohort, this story is an attempt to honour your incredible courage, passion, and commitment. I want you to know you all were an inspiration to me and kept me going when I almost didn’t. While we stumbled and fumbled, tripped over our own and each other’s feet, made errors of judgement, acted from innocence and ignorance, we did it anyway.  If we had waited till we could get it perfect, waited till we felt confident and competent enough we would probably still be waiting and there would be no community reading this story.   Thank you for doing it anyway with me.

With love,


Paula Kingwill


Paula Kingwill graduated from California Institute of Integral Studies in 2000 as a counselling psychologist specialising in Dramatherapy. She has worked as a Drama Therapist in many contexts including clinics, NGO’ and schools and Universities. She was a founding member and the director of The Bonfire Theatre Company from 2005 until 2010. She qualified as a Family Constellations Practitioner in 2017. She runs a cattle farm in the Karoo where she has an online dramatherapy and supervision practice as well as running workshops and training both in person