When Art Imitates Life: A Look at Art and Drama Therapy

Article excerpt

An innovative program affirms the therapeutic power of the arts to reach clients with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

Lights dim and the audience stills. Costumes and fans, movement and masks, rhythm and voice merge in practiced harmony to weave an ancient tale. This night's performance is Lemminkainen's Mother, a production that unites two disparate cultures and artistic forms--a Japanese Noh play retelling an epic Finnish myth. It is a story of life, of loss, of love--a story cathartic in its message and for the storytellers who bring it. At performance's end, the players remove their masks and bow to the ready applause of family, VIPs, colleagues, and friends. For the performers--clients with mental retardation and the therapists who work with them--the success is not in the performance, but in the process.

The inherent ability of the arts to improve the quality of life is well understood and widely accepted. From a ceramics class at the neighborhood recreation center to the community theater's spring production of Guys and Dolls, people find no lack of opportunities for personal enrichment through creative self-expression. What is not as well understood nor as widely accepted is the relative value of the arts as a therapeutic medium, and programs that explore this linkage are few and far between.

Covered by Medicaid, the Art and Drama Therapy Institute (ADTI) in Washington, D.C., fully integrates the arts into the therapeutic process; in fact, the arts are the primary catalyst for therapeutic intervention. ADTI uses the visual and performing arts to reach individuals with mental retardation and promote self-esteem, reinforce skill development, and enrich the lives of its clients.

Art and Drama Therapy

A DTI is a private corporation founded in 1991 by Margaret "Muggy Do" Dickinson (Dr. Do) and Sirkku Sky Hiltunen (Dr. Sky). Located in Northeast Washington, D.C., ADTI provides medically supervised therapeutic day treatment services for adults with mental retardation. Therapists combine unconventional behavior management techniques and art-based activities--such as drama, music, movement, puppetry, weaving, and painting--in group and individual treatment of clients.

Drs. Sky and Do met in 1972 as volunteers at the Camphill Community, a residential facility in England for adults with mental retardation. Jointly, they later founded the first group home for profoundly to mildly retarded children in Dr. Sky's native Finland. The two relocated to Washington in 1977 when Dr. Do came to work for the District of Columbia's Bureau of Developmental Disabilities--today, the Mental Retardation and Developmental Services Administration. Dr. Sky operated a not-for-profit center in the District of Columbia that provided support services--specifically, art and drama therapy--to clients from other city agencies. A shared vision for the arts as a therapeutic medium led the two to found ADTI in 1992.

"I have a background in drama theater studies specializing in dramatic voice, dramatization, and directing," Dr. Sky explains, "but I found the theater profession very self-centered . . . When Dr. Do and I met at Camphill, we both had the dream to do something very special with [the mentally retarded] population--to devote our life's work to this."

ADTI has 38 staff members, most of whom work directly with clients in a therapeutic capacity. Program therapists must have bachelor of science or bachelor of arts degrees, or comparable experience working with the mentally retarded population; and assistant program therapists work with them to implement treatment plans. Also on staff are a nutritionist, who provides support therapy to clients with weight problems, and a speech therapist. Dr. Sky, a registered art and drama therapist, supervises the expressive arts therapy program; Dr. Do, a transpersonal psychologist and behavior therapist, is the institute's clinical director and writes the behavior management plans for ADTI clients. …