According to Nisha Sajnani, associate professor at NYU Steinhardt and Director of the school’s Drama Therapy Program, deeply stressful experiences— poverty, assault, environmental disasters, even the dissolution of relationships — can disrupt our sense of identity and role within our personal social networks. “These ruptures can contribute to anxiety, depression, and emotional dysregulation,” Sajnani says, which can precipitate social isolation, aggression, or other harmful coping behaviors.
Self-care, from private psychotherapy sessions to physical exercise, is vital to ameliorating and reconciling with our own trauma. But writing — and specifically, playwriting — offers us a unique opportunity to both merge therapeutic exercise with the creative process and transmute our pain into something positive. Here’s why writing plays helps us make sense of ourselves in the world:
Playwriting allows us to distance ourselves from our emotions by putting them on the page.
Negative thoughts or experiences often occur in repetitive loops, reentering our stream of conscience and hampering our focus and productivity until we finally address them. Forcing ourselves to put those images or words onto a page, whether in exposition or dialogue, not only cuts that loop by giving those thoughts a place to escape, but also proves we have agency over them. What’s more, looking at a visual representation of our feelings (in this case, words) provides the necessary distance from them to gain full insight into why they bother us, and the closure to finally let them go.
Playwriting allows us to place ourselves as the hero of our own narrative.
Playwriting provides us with the opportunity to put into writing that we are not victims of a tragedy, but survivors looking to persevere. The authorial voice in descriptions, dialogue, and stage directions gives us full agency to discuss negative experiences in our own terms, and serve as visual reminders that we own our pain, and not vice-versa.
The group aspect of playwriting divides the burden of trauma.
Hearing others perform the dialogue we’ve written provides important insight into how those involved in our circumstances processed the events; it fosters empathy with the other players in our personal narrative. Externalizing a narrative onto a character allows us to look at the situation with a rational and compassionate eye simultaneously. Additionally, when other play participants — actors, stage managers, etc. — work through our personal narrative, it almost divides the emotional weight among them. Working through pain with a group provides us with a web of social support, reducing feelings of isolation.
Playwriting provides a voice to those generally neglected by society.
Consuming stories that authentically reflect our experiences can help untangle and diminish personal trauma. However, finding stories that reflect those experiences can be difficult: Artistic mirrors may not exist, or worse, provide warped, inaccurate reflections of ourselves. Playwriting allows us to build our own mirrors, ensuring that our stories are told as authentically and effectively as we see fit. What’s more, sharing that mirror with others builds a community through which we can further distill trauma.