Before I write about my experience using theater and expressive arts in community building, I’d like to make a disclaimer. I have zero theater experience. Except, of course, that one play in third grade in which everybody got a part. That was enough for me to learn that I prefer to be a background support person. That’s changing. I didn’t become an actor. I did, however, stand in front of three audiences to engage them in a community-building dialogue related to gun violence in schools. I used what I understand of play therapy to integrate expressive arts in community building.

What is Community Building?

One way to describe community building is as the intentional use of local resources to support and increase a sense of belonging among community members. Community building is especially important in diverse communities, as belonging may be hindered by false perceptions and fears. Physical and social ailments thrive where there is a lack of belonging.

Expressive Arts

Expressive arts refers to the use of creative processes, such as drawing, painting, collage, theater, song, music, dance, etc., to facilitate personal growth and healing. Experiential exercises including expressive arts and play experiences help to create a safe space for tapping into our often similar life story themes, thus increasing understanding of self and other. In this case, I worked with a local youth theater to facilitate a discussion about the “hot topic” of gun violence. We came up with an expressive arts activity to facilitate the process. It worked really well and now I am seeking more opportunities to integrate expressive arts in community building.

A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.

Brene Brown

Communities are Ailing

Barriers to belonging and a healthy community include:

  • Either/or mindset
  • Public shaming
  • One-up power systems
  • Selfishness
  • Fear
  • Stereotypes
  • Etc.

These elements lead to conflict within ourselves and conflict with others. They impede listening. They lead to divisions and ailments. We are living in communities that are hurting. Growing up, we adapt to our community in the best ways we can. The sicker our community/family unit, the more severe and necessary our adaptations. Then, we stick the diagnostic labels and associated alpha-numeric codes on individuals. We wonder “What is wrong with that person?” We demand he or she changes–gets well, gets clean, gets housing, gets a job, etc.–in order to fit in and belong. It is important that we have services to address individual sicknesses. It is also important that we have services to address the illnesses of society. Lack of belonging in our society is a widespread illness with many signs and symptoms. Individual sickness is one of them.

As a play therapist, I use expressive arts and play therapy to explore human emotions and relationships, and to promote understanding, healing, and growth. I support expanding the use of expressive arts and play therapy to explore and enhance a sense of belonging in human relationships at the community level.

How We Integrated Expressive Arts in Community Building

I volunteered with a theater production of the play Columbinus. The actors, age 14 to 16 years, spoke powerfully to the audience. In their young, sometimes powerless, voices they told the story about the shootings at Columbine High School that took place 20 years ago that day. That night, their voices were powerful. Many people in the audience cried. Many in the cast also cried. They felt heard.

Prior to each performance, we set up a “wall” of cardboard boxes. Each box was labeled with an emotion such as fear, anxiety, anger, isolation, depression, etc. As people entered the theater, we handed them a “brick” from the wall we were symbolically dismantling. We asked them to hold onto their box until after the show. After the performances, three in all, I joined the cast on stage and invited a dialogue. We used the expressive arts exercise to “start a conversation” about what we can do today to create the community we want for our children. After setting the ground rules, I invited the audience to share their thinking and feeling related to the show.

Each conversation was unique, but there were some similarities. Some people expressed their own experiences of childhood. Some people asked the cast members about the difficulties involved in rehearsing such raw, emotional content. And some shared their sense of powerlessness about what they can do to change society.

I instructed the audience members to get their cardboard boxes. Then, I briefly discussed the symbology in inviting them to go toward the emotions that we usually try to stuff or avoid–the ones that help form the walls between us–and to open them up. Inside, they found pieces of heart-shaped paper and a pencil. Next, I invited them to “speak from the heart” and write down one thing they can do immediately to create the society they want our children to have. Then, I invited to come upon the stage and stick the notes to a large board behind me. As the audience wrote, the cast placed their own heart-shaped papers onto the board. Gradually, the audience came on stage and added their papers to the growing collage.

In the end, the audience, like the cast, felt seen and heard. The two groups shared hugs, tears, and laughter. The space between the speaker and the listener merged, the power-balance equalized. We created a holding space for relationship and belonging. To me, creating a shared space where all voices are heard is the essence of community building. Expressive arts and play therapy are great tools for psychotherapy that can be applied to facilitating belonging and healing groups–and individuals– at the community level.

To learn more about this project using expressive arts in community building, follow this link. 

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