Healing (with) Theatre

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Author of the text/moderator: Martin Sedláček (CZ) / practicing psychotherapist, lecturer in the Department of Drama in Education at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague
Ilona Labuťová (CZ) / specialist pedagogue, drama therapist and founding member of the Association of Drama Therapists of the Czech Republic
Anna Szapert (PL) / therapist, coach and member of the free psychological support team for theatre artists and staff offered by The Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute in Warsaw
Zsuzsa Hajós (HU) / founder and member of the Kerekasztal (Round Table) community theatre, which focuses on work with young people and mentoring in education through art
Fabio Toledi (IT) / theatre director and playwright, member of the Astragali Theatre and ITI, where he is a member of the executive board and the Theatre


How theatre can heal and, conversely, how it might need to do some healing of its own? What kinds of healing did theatre offer to individuals and interpersonal relationships in the pre-Covid times and what will this healing look like in the weeks ahead? How to deal with the fear that spectators won’t come back, and with uncertainties related to the cultural aridness of society? What mental state do theatre makers, dancers and related professionals find themselves in after so many months of economic, social and creative uncertainty? Isn’t the theatre itself in need of some healing right now? Martin Sedláček, a practicing psychotherapist who also lectures in the Department of Drama in Education at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague invited four guests from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy and Poland to a conversation on these topics and in this episode you’ll hear summary of their discussion.

#09_Healing (with) Theatre

Martin Sedláček

I work as a psychotherapist and lecture in the Department of Drama in Education at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. My students and clients include many people who are involved in the arts, or work in them professionally. Because of this, I had the opportunity to live through the pandemic experience with some of them. I would like to share some of my observations, along with others voiced during a discussion with guest theatre specialists from different European countries.

My guests included Zsuzsa Hajós from Hungary, the founder and a member of the Kerekastzal (Round Table) community theatre. Kerekstzal focuses on youth work and mentoring in the field of education through art. Anna Szapert, a coach, therapist and researcher, joined us from Poland. Anna has taken part in programmes for Polish artists and performers, including Artysta v Krzysie (Artist in Crisis) and currently offers psychological support for arts through a programme offered by the Zygmunt Raszewski Theatre Institute in Warsaw. From the Czech Republic, we were joined by Ilona Labuťová. A specialist pedagogue, drama therapist and founding member of the Association of Dramatherapists of the Czech Republic, she is co-founder of the UJETO theatre ensemble and the non-profit organisation Teatrálie, which focuses on applied theatre and research in specific groups combining artistic and other activities. Theatre director and playwright Fabio Tolledi joined us from Italy. Fabio sits on the Executive Council of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) and the board of ITI’s Theatre in Conflict Zones Network. He also works on theatre projects in prisons.

The theme of our meeting was Healing Theatre. We can understand this title in two ways: the healing of theatre, but also healing through theatre. Each of these meanings makes sense and we addressed both of them in our conversation. 

Healing Through Theatre

It’s not exactly news that theatre can offer us more than pleasure. In ancient Egypt, theatre, dance and music were recommended as treatments for the sick. In Athens, theatrical performances were held to treat mental illness. Theatrical etudes were used to teach Latin in the Middle Ages and Jan Amos Komenský also used theatre as a tool for education. From antiquity to the present, theatre’s aesthetic function has been accompanied by a therapeutic, or educational role. 

So how – and what – does theatre heal exactly? There are many possibilities. On an individual level, theatre can help to treat trauma. As they watch a dramatic story unfold, a viewer can experience catharsis. In Greek, the word catharsis means purification. By identifying with the dramatic character, spectators can release their emotions and cleanse themselves of them. Today, the psychodramatic method goes even further: the spectator, or patient, observes their own situation from the outside, or may enter it, via an alter ego. In dramatherapy, clients can rehearse different types of behaviour in a safe space and then implement them in their lives. In this way, they can replace old patterns of behaviour with new ones that help them to manage life situations better. Creating a theatrical performance in a dramatherapy setting develops many partial competencies. These include collaboration, the ability to be seen, communication, responsibility and many others. Theatre can be used as a mirror; it lets us look at our actions from the outside, with a sense of distance. For the artists, theatre is also a unique way to be with others and with themselves.  

In addition to treating the individual, theatre has the capacity to treat entire social systems. Augusto Boal broke the border between spectators and actors, letting audience members step into the action and influence it. His theatrical techniques helped people talk about burning social issues, for which he was imprisoned in Brazil and ultimately fled into exile. Boal’s approaches have been widely disseminated and are used to open up discussions of social issues around the world. Boal argued that the spectator assumes social responsibility when they step into the story and often goes on to behave more responsibly in their personal and public lives.  

Guests Irena Labuťová and Fabio Tolledi also shared personal experiences of how theatre can change groups or society.  

We were in Sri Lanka in 2004, when the submarine earthquake triggered the tsunami. Many people lost the roofs over their heads, many people drowned, fishermen lost their jobs. We were staying with people in a makeshift camp that housed about 400 families displaced by the tsunami. There was a lot of drinking and a lot of violence there. Men often beat their wives. We created a theatre performance that included elements of domestic violence and invited the residents of the camp. It was a very strong experience. People saw what they were doing at home on stage and that allowed us to broach the subject. This experience led me to study dramatherapy.

-Irena Labuťová

One of the most significant experiences in my life has been a theatre in prisons programme. We coordinate theatre activities in over 90 facilities. During Covid, these activities were interrupted. It was astonishing what a hugely negative impact that had. We should do more to examine the impact of theatre on society and the community and what happens to society when theatre disappears.

– Fabio Toledo

What happened to theatre during the pandemic? The restrictions and the associated uncertainty had a major impact on artists. Many of them practically stopped performing overnight and found themselves at home, often beset with financial uncertainty. Although many artists sought alternative ways to connect with spectators, more stayed at home, out of work and surrounded by their doubts. The pandemic has hit artists in all countries equally and, although different governments have approached pandemic regulations differently, they have all involved some form of restriction. The impact on artists was also similar. Along with the previously mentioned uncertainty, worries about the future and financial difficulties, actors, musicians and dancers were forced to stop rehearsing or performing for a while, which, in some cases, could lead to the loss of technique or motivation.  

The pandemic-related changes were accompanied by a new challenge, which Anna Szapert calls “overlapping spaces.” These most impacted women working in the arts. Women artists often found themselves transformed into housewives overnight, helping children with distance learning and devoting far more time than usual to the running of their households. In Anna’s experience, this led some to put work and creativity to one side and concentrate primarily on family matters. She shared her experience of providing psychological support to such women during this difficult time.  

Because of working online, I was in a different kind of contact with them. I caught a glimpse of their homes, sometimes we had a session in the bathroom because it was the only space that was free. I got to know their children, their pets and so on. – Anna Szapert

Outside the home, theatres suspended rehearsals. Some projects were abandoned. Sometimes, artists continued to rehearse in secret. In all instances, contact with the spectator was interrupted, leading artists to wonder if it would ever be possible to perform “normally” again and whether or not audiences would return to the theatre.  

On one hand, this was an overwhelming course of events, and on the other, it led many creative artists to find their own ways to reach spectators. Like many other kinds of human interaction, the performing arts shifted to virtual space. Some ensembles set out to record stage performances or adapt them into films. There were even special 3D performances that you could watch at home in borrowed VR glasses. 

At the same time, it was good to realise that some things could not relocate to the virtual space, which soon became quite oversaturated. This was not due to theatre, but because people were spending far more time on their computers and tablets. Schools switched to distance learning and some people began to work from home. At the beginning of the pandemic, we even heard about a rage for online parties. In the spring of 2020, people were still enthusiastic and eager for new approaches. As the pandemic progressed, however, a degree of exhaustion was palpable in both artists and audiences.  

The pandemic did not only impact performances. Theatre associations and drama clubs were similarly affected. Children who had spent all day staring at their screens had little motivation to return to the computer for any optional activities. 

This was one of the problems – along with many others – that Zsuzsa Hajós had to solve in a community theatre setting: “In the first wave, we focused on making films based on our plays. We communicated through Zoom. In the second wave of lockdown, we built an online program for classes, based on Zoom and the films we had shot. It wasn’t easy to get the children back online. Our main tool for motivation was good questions. When you find good questions, the kind that absorb you, you want to take part.”

Many theatre groups came to function as a kind of group therapy, particularly in the spring. Because educational theatres place a lot of emphasis on creating a safe environment, many children – especially teenagers – saw them as somewhere they could talk about feelings and issues that there wasn’t enough time, space or trust for at home. 

As Fabio pointed out, “The role of theatre is also to share, to connect and interconnect.” The need for this was evident during the lockdowns. Many groups met semi-illegally, as the need to be together was so great that ways had to be found to make it happen. Where it was not possible to meet online, groups looked for ways to meet in person. Ilona shared that it was the members of her dramatherapy group who asked if they could begin to rehearse in person again, even though they sometimes had to travel long distances to take part.

This goes to show just how much theatre is needed. Not only by audiences, but also by the artists themselves. It is a special, exceptional and unique way of being together, of sharing inner worlds and emotions in a safe atmosphere. That’s why so many people missed it, regardless of whether they were disabled, professional or imprisoned artists. Fabio mentioned the example of an artists’ centre that reopened last spring and saw enormous interest. A single need drove people to come and stay: the need to be together.

Healing Theatre

As I have mentioned, the pandemic sent the performing arts into an artificial slumber. As restrictions gradually loosened in the spring of 2021, we saw these art forms begin to wake up. Many artists had used the pandemic to rehearse new performances, but the question of an audience for these works remained. Would there be an audience? Had they forgotten about the performing arts during the pandemic, or discovered other cultural activities? The easing of restrictions saw a flood of live cultural events. It was like when it suddenly rains after a long period of drought and all the plants rush to soak up the moisture and grow as much as they can. Fortunately, it turned out that the audience also has a great thirst for live art. People are looking forward to going to the theatre and concerts. The encounter between artists and audiences after a period of separation was often a very strong and affecting experience for both sides.  

Uncertainty Endures: What’s Next? 

As we’re recording this podcast, the delta variant is on the rise across Europe. After the hopeful mood of late spring, there are warning signs of another wave of the pandemic. We all know what that means. We will have to decide if children will go to school and who will care for them if they stay at home. How will we divide up our living space, so that we can all be connected and work or learn at the same time? Is our economy strong enough to survive another lockdown? Can we count on government support for artists? Will our relationships survive another period of being shut in together? To say nothing of our understandable concerns about our health and the health of our loved ones. Nor, alas, can we discount the detrimental effect of social networks, which are often a source of terrifying hoaxes that can send an already fragile sense of internal stability completely over the edge. How will we take care of our loved ones, our elderly? How will we ensure our social needs are met?

For people working in culture, this means another wave of uncertainty, which can have a big impact on their willingness to embark on new projects. There will certainly be people who are considering a career change. Still, I’d like to point out that, unlike in March 2020, we already know what the different scenarios might look like. We just don’t know which of them will apply, in what combinations and to what extent. As the discussion with my guests has made clear, art cannot be stopped. It always finds a way. At the same time, we are also a bit wiser now and know that contact with audiences most benefits the performing arts. 

Should we find ourselves once again locked in our homes with minimal opportunities for contact, it may turn out that creativity and the hope that this too shall pass (again) are just the medicine we need. I’m not really worried about art as such. It will endure, survive and bloom again. It’s the artists themselves who are more in need of support. It is important that each artist sees meaning in their work. At first glance, a theatre without spectators can seem pointless, but it will help us a great deal if we can take a different perspective. I know from experience that the lockdowns were very difficult for artists who stopped creating. Careers that had been on excellent trajectories ground to a halt. People were uprooted. It was easy to begin to feel that nothing made sense and fall into a chasm of hopelessness. A person in this state is far more likely to succumb to the many stressors of the pandemic and, ultimately, experience a very negative psychosomatic impact.  

The counter to this is resilience, or, in other words, the individual’s resistance to disturbing and distressing phenomena in their environment. Factors that encourage resilience include the ability to see change as an opportunity, commitment (the ability to take decisive action), knowledge of one’s boundaries and limits, the ability to reach out to others for support, close interpersonal relationships, personal goals, a sense of humour, patience, optimism and faith. Theatre work develops many of these.

In times like these, each rehearsal, each moment of collaborative work on a new project, satisfies our need for contact and, at the same time, fosters important feelings of continuity. If a person can overcome the obstacles posed by the pandemic, if they persevere and can find ways of meeting and working together, they will reach a state where they will heal the theatre and the theatre will heal them in return.