Healing Through Theater

An article featuring recent work by Pacifica adjunct faculty Victoria Stevens. Victoria is an adjunct faculty member in the Depth Psychology with Specialization in Integrative Therapy and Healing Practices program.

Virgil Corbin, an Army Veteran and passionate playwright, smiles from ear to ear while watching his fellow Veterans take center stage at the cozy Brentwood School Theater. He is fully immersed in the captivating performance unfolding before him.

His gaze remains fixed on the 11 amateur actors, their voices harmonizing beautifully, as they gracefully glide across the stage.

Accompanying their every move, a quartet of professional musicians fills the air with a mesmerizing rhythm, adding depth and richness to the theatrical spectacle. The atmosphere within the theater is alive with vibrant energy. As the final notes reverberate through the air, an eruption of applause and cheers cascades from the audience, filling the space with an undeniable sense of appreciation and delight. The Veterans stand in a line and take a bow, signaling the end of this truly radiant evening in the warmth of June.

This performance of the play “The Black Diamond” signals the end of another successful season of an innovative theater therapy program for Veteran residents and alumni of New Directions for Veterans (NDVets), a transitional housing program located on the West LA VA campus. Each year Veterans from NDVets participate in the program, which is offered in conjunction with Imagination Workshop, a non-profit theater arts organization committed to using the unique power of the theater and the mentoring of theater arts professionals (actors, writers, and directors) to provide life-changing artistic opportunities to those suffering from a broad spectrum of mental and emotional disorders.

“It was great to see Veterans coming together as a community to execute the script. I was overwhelmed with joy seeing my writing performed on stage,” Corbin said.

The program, which consists of weekly, one-hour sessions with theater professionals for 3 months or more, allows Veterans who have experienced trauma to create and perform an original theater production. Throughout the sessions, Veterans develop their own characters to fully immerse themselves in the performing arts process.

Writing and other non-traditional creative and expressive therapies have shown effectiveness in reducing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms and depression while improving quality of life. The documented impact of creative arts therapies on symptoms of trauma and PTSD has inspired two national summits on the arts and health in the military by Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The Imagination Workshop gives Veterans like Corbin an opportunity to heal through writing, acting, and movement.

“It felt like a release to create a character, just go with it, and then bring it to the stage. I’m so grateful for this team. Having professionals showing up to help us Vets is astronomical. It makes me proud to be a Vet,” Corbin said.

It’s no surprise that Corbin found healing through NDVets, for their mission is to empower men and women who served in the military to lead productive and fulfilling lives. By NDVets joining forces with the Imagination Workshop, they’ve brought healing to Veterans through the performing arts.

Gilbert Garcia, Army Veteran, emphasized, “the best part of the program are the contributions made by the industry pros who are very kind in their approach. They are very generous with their time and experience. I really appreciate and am grateful for all that they do.”

There is growing evidence that the arts can play a significant role in supporting Veterans’ recovery from trauma.

When asking Corbin how it felt to be a part of the production he said, “The only place that I feel truly safe is when I’m with my fellow Vets, because they’ve gone through what I’ve gone through, and they understand.” Garcia agreed by saying, “The program has a positive impact for Veterans, like me, in that it provides a supportive community where you can experience acting.”

Since the early 2000s, psychologists have been studying how the arts can be used to heal emotional injuries, increase understanding of oneself and others, develop a capacity for self-reflection, reduce symptoms, and alter behaviors and thinking patterns, as referenced in a Stuckey and Nobel study. Treating trauma & PTSD through theater is now considered an evidence-based, innovative approach to prevention and clinical intervention for vulnerable individuals exposed to violence, war, bullying, intolerance, and maltreatment.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Victoria Stevens supports the Imagination Workshop as a research and assessment consultant. She drafts reports for the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and the California Art Council as an assessment of the program and to show how grant funding is utilized.

Stevens believes in creating a space to promote self-efficacy and joy for Veterans in the theater program while putting the focus on discovering possibilities. She mentioned that the actual black diamond is in the heart of all Veterans who participated in the play.

The theme of this year’s play involved each character taking off on his/her own wild goose chase in pursuit of fortune cookies filled with clues that eventually leads them to finding the extravagant black diamond so that they can acquire the monetary fortune that comes with it. Veterans were given the opportunity to be creative with writing and improvising their own characters around why they needed to find the black diamond. In the end, the characters all split the fortune.

“Through the physical actions of improvising as created characters and interacting in imaginary scenarios, the participants have a safe way to practice and exercise this sense of agency and personal power, which is precisely what is taken from those that have suffered trauma,” Stevens wrote in her research report Healing Post and Present Traumatic Stress Through Imaginative Play: Creativity and Connection.

In Stevens’ report, patients who participated in the Imagination Workshop had an average improvement of 38% in their social, occupational, and psychological functioning, while patients in the traditional role play groups had a 22% improvement. Stevens concluded that Imagination Workshop is “a valuable program with demonstrated therapeutic benefits for patients with serious psychiatric disorders.”

“In regard to healing, hope and possibility are essential elements. There needs to be an imagination that can see beyond the current circumstances of what is,” Stevens said. “We help the students create a portal of hope beyond what is possible and work towards opening their imaginations to lead them towards healing.”

Stevens’ current research supports that the Imagination Workshop offers an innovative and effective intervention for Veterans who are survivors of traumatic events by providing a space for healing, connection to others through imaginative play, facilitating the development of important skills that will contribute to success in civilian life, and offering an opportunity to discover, write, and live a new story of who they are beyond that of their military identity, and being defined by their trauma.

Imagination Workshop Playwriting Group Leader Christina Linhardt became inspired to work with NDVets when she found out that the Imagination Workshop not only helps those with mental illness, but also individuals who are homeless. Having a background in theater, but also drawn to psychology, she had an interest in helping Veterans heal through the arts.

“Many Veterans say that theater has changed their lives and that is why they come back and do other plays after they’ve graduated from NDVets,” Linhardt said.

Navy Veteran Melanie Carter has been involved with the Imagination Workshop since 2015. When she first started, she was skeptical, but now she is a staunch advocate and returns to perform every year. “It’s fun and it gives me a chance to escape instead of thinking about my problems,” Carter said.

She loves helping new Veterans come onboard to the program and seeing everything come together. With the help of a Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) voucher and PATH, Carter now lives off campus and is pursuing studies in Biology and Chemistry.

Navy Veteran Chris Skaggs said doing theater helped his medical conditions.

“It was a very liberating experience to practice expression even if it’s through another personality. I believe it has helped me, in some ways, start connecting with my body on an emotional level and experience things again. It’s been incredibly helpful on the path towards recovery,” Skaggs said.

Health psychologists have seen positive outcomes around using art to promote healing with the four primary areas of focus being music engagement, visual arts, movement-based creative expression, and expressive writing, according to a Stuckey and Nobel study.

The workshop is not focused on directly working through the pain of the past, instead it focuses on being able to creatively play in the realm of imagination. This approach opens Veterans to possibilities of being able to imagine a life and identity beyond their trauma.

Army Veteran Anthony Robinson who lives on the West LA VA campus in Building 207, one of four permanent supportive housing developments for formerly homeless Veterans at West LA VA, said, “Performing made me feel explosive even though I was shy in rehearsals.”

Robinson enjoyed the experience of writing his own script even though he hadn’t picked up a pencil and paper for a long time. “I had all the support I needed,” Robinson said.

Groups provide a sense of belonging, understanding, and are the opposite of the isolation that accompanies trauma. The trauma shuts down the imagination. The power of genuine group support cannot be underestimated, according to Stevens’ research.

Executive Director of the Imagination Workshop Jim McGrath pointed out that when Veterans participate in theater they don’t have to talk about PTSD. It’s a break from traditional therapy where they would typically have to talk about their trauma.

McGrath is a seasoned writer and actor who says Veterans are well suited for the stage. “Vets are extremely high-functioning people,” McGrath said. He is always impressed with their abilities to pick up acting and theater skills.

The collaboration between NDVets and the Imagination Workshop has provided a transformative experience for Veterans. Through the power of theater, Veterans have discovered healing, empowerment, and a sense of belonging. The program allows them to creatively express themselves, imagine a life beyond their trauma, and find hope for the future.