A descriptive qualitative study of therapeutic theatre in an adult mental health community project
This qualitative descriptive study sought to answer the question “how does taking part in an adult mental health therapeutic theatre project enable health and wellbeing, from participants’ perspectives?”. Therapeutic theatre is the therapeutic development of a play that considers how power can influence group dynamics. Processes are facilitated by a therapist skilled in drama or a drama therapist.
The goal was to generate better understanding of the use of therapeutic theatre for people who live with mental illness, using an occupational lens. I wanted to contribute piece of evidence-based research to the literature on theatre, a performing art, and its relationship to experiencing wellbeing, that could be used to advocate for theatre opportunities. There is some historical anecdotal literature as well as more current reports and research that supported this study. However none of this literature produced was with participants who live with a mental illness, used an occupational lens, or within a New Zealand context.
The methodology chosen was descriptive qualitative, sitting in a post-positivist paradigm. Ten participants were selected, six living with a mental illness and four staff who were not. Half the participants were of Maaori ethnicity and the other half were European/New Zealanders. Participants were interviewed using semi-structured questions which were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. Thematic analysis uncovered 250 codes which were analysed using mind maps and data checking. Three main themes emerged and text was aligned to reflect these.
The first theme, Setting the stage, described understandings of the occupational form of therapeutic theatre and included how participants had experienced theatre as a safe space for engagement, where they had the opportunity to take on different roles and learn new skills. The second theme, Taking the stage, revealed how participants experienced getting into roles and performing. During the processes outlined in this theme they worked under pressure, overcoming many challenges and yet they experienced positive engagement and flow. The final theme, Moving to the next stage, described transformative experiences participants experienced between themselves and the world around them. These transformations were attributed to developing personal strengths in overcoming the challenges and achieving. The theatre afforded an opportunity to experience another way of being and supported the formation of connections with those around them and their communities.
Overall the findings revealed new understandings how the occupational form of therapeutic theatre supports wellbeing for people who live with mental illness. Specific ways of engagement and activities that are done as part of the natural form of theatre emerged as significantly enabling participants’ wellbeing. These findings build on literature that supports theatre and the arts in facilitating wellbeing and have generated ideas for future research about creative occupations and wellbeing.