If all the world is indeed a stage, then any problem can be solved there.
That's the idea behind Trauma Drama, a new program the Center for Children and Families (CCFI) is bringing to Norman, in partnership with Sooner Theatre and Norman Public Schools. Mental health professionals, educators and local actors gathered at CCFI last week to train on the program that is designed to help school children process any trauma they have experienced.
"We're using acting techniques and improv techniques for them to put their bodies in certain positions and use their voice and recognize nonverbal cues," Deanna Wilkinson, clinical social worker and director at CCFI, said. "They don't have to participate, but they can. So it's about them taking risks and becoming vulnerable, but being in a safe place to do that."
Wilkinson has taken a lead role in introducing Trauma Drama to Norman, but the idea started in Boston. Dr. Joseph Spinazzola of the Complex Trauma Treatment Network came to Norman and brought trainers with him to teach the curriculum and train the newly formed Norman Trauma Drama troupe.
The troupe will now go through preseason rehearsals and bring the program to Norman High School and to middle school students at the Sooner Theatre Studio. Wilkinson said the plan is to roll the program out by the end of September.
"The seeds being planted here, with these people, and I don't know if it's because we're out in the Plains, but whatever it is here, they are passionate, they are talented and they are creative," said Kevin Smith, a trainer with Trauma Drama. "There are oak trees growing in Oklahoma, with the really deep seeds."
Trauma Drama works like this: The troupe goes on stage and performs a scene, which is mostly improv. The scenes cover topics that participating students may be struggling with, Wilkinson said, such as abuse, neglect, relationship issues, or bullying.
"The troupe will pause and let kids jump in and see how they will respond," Wilkinson said. "Then we process all of that at the end of the hour and do some down-regulating activities. As we go through the year, they develop skills of communicating, conflict resolution, and just kind of working through life issues kids face."
What happens in the scene is mostly up to the participants. Students can choose the roles they want to play and express themselves in the manner they choose.
Mimi Sullivan, a Trauma Drama trainer who researches the program, said children who participate see the problems presented are not unique to them. By seeing that they are not alone, it helps them process their feelings.
"This addresses common problems and difficult problems the kids face, but when they watch the scenes and watch the exercises and watch other people go through everything, it breaks the isolation," Sullivan said. "They usually think they are the only ones who have had the kind of experience they have had. And they may be keeping it to themselves. But they see they are not the only one, and they are not alone, and it opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Their behavior changes. They feel like they have options."
Students do not have to participate in any scene, and they don't have to participate in the program at all if they don't want to, Wilkinson said. But those that do are challenged to get out of their comfort zone and take risks by going up on stage, even if there are no consequences.
And the training last week has helped the would-be Trauma Drama troupe in Norman understand that risk better, Wilkinson said.
"I am not someone who loves to be up on stage or talking to everyone, but I've taken some risks," she said. "It's helped us understand how hard it is for kids to do that and help them do that safely and in a way that isn't making things worse for them, but is actually giving them an outlet and making things better."
Wilkinson said fellowships will be set up for the actors that are part of the Trauma Drama troupe so they are paid for their time, just as the mental health professionals and educators will be. Jennifer Baker, executive director of the Sooner Theatre, said Trauma Drama was a great opportunity to be involved in a community service.
"I'll admit, this training this week has left me in tears. It's been an emotional roller coaster," Baker said. "Being in this troupe with a bunch of adults for the training, it's going to be interesting moving into the room with the children and knowing these are real scenarios and real situations that are happening right here in Norman.
"You would be surprised at the parents and kids you think you know. You don't know what they're going through all of the time. Theatre heals; art heals, and I'm thankful for a community that supports the arts."