by Boitumelo Mokolopeng
Don Pinnock (2016: 293) wrote in his book entitled Gang Town that “a person cannot tell his story if he has never become it”. Such a phenomenon supports the idea of using drama as a strategy to permit individuals to think for themselves, about themselves relationally and about issues that they are facing to aid emotional wellbeing. In my view, drama interventions do not only provide a therapeutic experience to clients but also address personal and social challenges.
In this article, I will be using the term ‘inmates’ interchangeably with participants, adolescents and students, to dismantle the stigma that is attached to labelling, and to influence a sense of community of humans.
“a person cannot tell his story if he has never become it”
The need for dramatic expression as an intervention
During my period of service as a teacher at correctional facilities, before pursuing my Drama Therapy training, my role entailed conducting day-to-day lessons and teaching several subjects. Lessons were offered in a traditional context: face-to-face contact in a classroom set-up. I challenged myself to establish a positive working relationship with the inmates/students through empathetic listening, despite this traditional setup.
During my day-to-day interaction with the inmates/students, I was able to identify some of the precipitating factors of delinquency such as poverty, broken homes, unemployment, peer pressure, cultural stereotypes, masculinity and gender roles. I also discovered that issues relating to mistrust between inmates and prison officials were an underlying concern. This seemed to perpetuate the culture of silence, with fear of victimization for sharing stories during their rehabilitation process. In addition to this, I identified language as one of the key barriers that seem to be hindering their healing processes. The majority of inmates had no educational background and were only able to express themselves using their mother tongue, whereas the psychologists and social workers were English speakers.
One day, one of the inmates/students asked me the question “How is the world outside”?
It was at this point that I started to consider the need to establish a drama club, to allow individuals to use their creative imagination to connect with the world outside.
One day, one of the inmates/students asked me the question “How is the world outside”? From his tone of voice, I sensed a deep sense of loneliness and emptiness – a desire for human connection. It was at this point that I started to consider the need to establish a drama club, to allow individuals to use their creative imagination to connect with the world outside.
In consideration of my background in Applied Drama, I drew from a range of theatre practitioners: Stanislavsky, Grotowski and Brook. This integrative approach enabled me to make sense of the complexity of the material that was coming up.
This drama programme aimed to enable the participants to use creative expressions to inquire about their problems, and within a safe, non-judgemental space, learn different ways to respond to real life situations. I intended to negotiate and support this group of vulnerable individuals with care, by framing the programme with a reflective, person-centred approach. Through this framework, I endeavoured to break any possible stigma that may have prevented the possibility of achieving transformational healing.
Participants: incarcerated male adolescents
The participants included a diverse group of adolescents between the ages of 16 and 18 years, who were incarcerated for various crimes. Some of the participants within the group were still learning to read and write in English, but they were encouraged to use their mother tongue. This multicultural group included Zulu, Tswana, Pedi, Xhosa and Shona individuals. A briefing session was held to provide an overview of what the programme entailed. After the discussion, 15 students gave consent to be part of the programme. The drama programme was held once a week, for one hour during school hours and required the participants to engage collaboratively using creative materials.
The therapeutic value of theatrical processes with male adolescents
Each session included warm-ups and theatre games to establish a sense of community, while at the same time exploring themes and stimulating emotional and spiritual engagement. From there the session developed into an active exploration of potential themes connected to the participants’ challenges. The main event of the session involved an enactment/role playing process with the intention to explore areas of concerns on a deeper level.
In the first session I experienced challenges in grounding the participants in the ‘here and now’. Some appeared to be hyperactive and disruptive, while others seemed to disengage from the dramatic material. At that point I was asking myself whether they had joined the drama club for the right reasons, or whether it was me who was not meeting their expectations.
In addition, I noticed significant tension and aggression among the participants. I assumed that other participants wanted to maintain their identity as gang leaders by bullying other participants. In the prison context, gangsterism is one of the unavoidable practices, which constitute group identity. As I anticipated the division within the group, it felt important for me to acknowledge this externalization right from the start. I made it a point to learn their names to show them respect and give them the attention and support they needed. I also constantly emphasised the issue of confidentiality within the group even though it was not guaranteed.
In the prison context, gangsterism is one of the unavoidable practices, which constitute group identity.
Themes from the participants’ inner worlds emerged through the playing of theatre games. From these, I was able to connect the presented subject matter with the actual problem and facilitate the enactment process in a way that was meaningful for these specific individuals. During this process, some participants were able to engage collaboratively with the material while others seemed to be uncomfortable. Such discomfort was addressed and handled with care. Here, the focus was not on their acting abilities but on the product of what was projected from the unconscious mind. My question was – how do I frame these sessions in a way that will not re-traumatise?
In my mind, I was aware that this level of discomfort was another indication of the stigma attached to sharing personal stories and emotional transparency, which is ascribed as taboo and regarded as a sign of weakness. These beliefs are also a sign of toxic masculinity, which somewhat prevents incarcerated adolescents from exposing their vulnerabilities in front of others. In prison, the stigma surrounding male vulnerability and mental health controls and validates survival. It somehow promotes the culture of silence, which binds participants from expressing their emotions and subjects them to pain endurance.
In prison, the stigma surrounding male vulnerability and mental health controls and validates survival. It somehow promotes the culture of silence, which binds participants from expressing their emotions and subjects them to pain endurance.
Based on these discoveries, it became important for me to genuinely start grappling with ideas on how I could strengthen trust amongst the group and debunk the notion of toxic masculinity that was slowly creeping in. I decided to become actively involved, and used self-disclosure to strengthen our working relationship. It was at that point that I started to model a way for them to normalise sharing of emotions, and build trust, by revealing my vulnerabilities. This enabled the participants to openly share their thoughts, opinions and world views during the verbal reflection process. This helped us to connect as humans and disrupt the power relations of teacher-students. At this stage, some participants were able to share reasons for their incarceration. Such courage was an indication of a positive psychological shift. For me, this was quite a profound moment of transformational healing, a process of self-discovery. It was based on this experience that I discovered the access that dramatic material can provide to transformational healing.
Boitumelo is an HPCSA registered drama therapist. He has extensive experience in applied theatre, having worked with the youth in prisons, shelters and schools. His interest is in working with vulnerable adolescents, particularly young men, to promote healthy masculinity. His therapeutic consideration to treatment involves ritual pedagogies for psychological processing of childhood stories that concern the individual’s sense of identity. Over the years he has earned several awards, including ‘Outstanding theatre for social change research by a postgraduate student’ from the University of Witwatersrand. Currently, he is a lecturer for Drama Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and pursuing his PhD in Art Education at the University of Witwatersrand.
Pinnock, D. (2016). Gang Town. Tafelberg Publishers.