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Concordia’s Drama Therapy graduate program celebrates 25-plus years

‘It reawakens the joy of play’
December 4, 2023
By Howard Bokser, Stephen Snow and Bonnie Harnden

A group of young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities acting in a stage play The Centre for the Arts in Human Development’s theatrical productions are part of its educational, clinical and research efforts for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

In the mid-1970s, Stephen Snow was a struggling young actor living in New York City. “I probably was as much a cab driver as an actor at that point,” he remembers.

So, Snow decided to change directions and pursue a PhD in performance studies at New York University. While taking a psychodrama course a few years later, he met Barbara MacKay, a professor of theatre education at Concordia who had come to NYU for her master’s in drama therapy.

That encounter would prove fateful. MacKay lured Snow to Concordia’s Department of Theatre in 1992, and five years later he co-founded the university’s Drama Therapy graduate program.

Snow, now professor emeritus of drama therapy, met Bonnie Harnden, MA 95, when she was his teaching assistant in one of his courses in 1995. After working at the Montreal Children’s Hospital for 12 years, Harnden returned to Concordia in 2007 and is now associate professor and option coordinator for drama therapy in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies.

As the Drama Therapy graduate program celebrates 25-plus years, Snow and current professor Harnden sat down together to consider its past, present and future.

A man with a black turtle neck teaching to a class. Stephen Snow: “Drama therapy is using the processes of theatre and drama, and combining them with the principles of the practices of psychotherapy.”

‘That first course was magical’

Bonnie Harnden: What do you feel is the very essence of drama therapy? How would you define it?

Stephen Snow: It reawakens the joy of play. You have all the elements of storytelling, role-playing and performance, and working through issues through those media makes it very dynamic. The definition of drama therapy is really very simple: it’s using the processes of theatre and drama, and combining them with the principles of the practices of psychotherapy.

BH: What does it mean for you that Concordia’s program is now more than 25 years old?

SS: I feel very proud that in some ways I brought drama therapy to Concordia and Canada and that the program has been able to sustain itself and flourish.

BH: What inspired you to start the program?

SS: Robert Landy was the founder of the drama therapy program at NYU. In 1992, Robert told me Barbara MacKay wanted to start a drama therapy program at Concordia in the theatre department, so I applied for the job. I came to Concordia in August 1992 and was at the theatre department for the next five years. I taught completely from a drama therapy perspective.

Barbara was associate vice rector for curriculum, so she really knew how to plan curriculum. Together we devised the curriculum for an MA in Drama Therapy. We spent five years working on it, and the faculty Senate passed it in June 1997. We started the program that fall.

We had all those students who’d taken that course with us the previous academic year.

Bonnie, you really showed me how much talent you had for drama therapy when you were my teaching assistant in that course. Half the students from that class then came into the drama therapy master’s program that fall 1997.

A group of four people standing together and smiling for the camera Bonnie Harnden, at right, with (from left) director Mark Krupa and cast members Chelsea Goldwater and Ellen David on the set of the award-winning film You Arrive. | Photo by Ezra Soiferman

BH: Yes, that first course was magical. When I became your teaching assistant, I was finishing my master’s in art therapy. I was very drawn to drama therapy and had used drama therapy exercises at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal, where I was working with clients struggling with eating disorders. I loved how embodied drama therapy was and the immediate healing impact it had on clients.

SS: What drew you to drama therapy?

BH: I grew up in a small town in Ontario. I really wanted to train as a therapist, but I was also interested in art, drawing and theatre. I came to Montreal and trained as an art therapist, then trained as a drama therapist and couple and family therapist and, more recently, as a psychoanalyst and play therapist.

During my additional training, I was hired at the Montreal Children’s Hospital to work with kids and adolescents coming into the emergency in crisis. We started an art therapy and drama therapy program at the Children’s, where students would come and train, and the hospital became alive with the power of the creative arts therapies.

I began to work with children and families in crisis. I noticed — and this was confirmed by the research study I worked on — that caregivers pass on what they have lived — historical and intergenerational trauma — while parenting. That trauma lives in the spaces between us.

I wrote a research play about the affects of family trauma, and it now has been made into a movie called You Arrive. My research still explores the impact of trauma but also now is about integrating the research on awe and gratitude and drama therapy and how do we thrive.

SS: Yes, that was a beautiful piece of work!

A young woman and a boy of around 12 years of age share a hug, as seen through a chainlink fence. Bonnie Harnden's short film You Arrive won multiple international awards.

Varied faculty research

SS: We were lucky to attract very talented faculty to the program, right from the start. Because I had no background with children, we hired Christine Novy from England as the second full-time professor. She brought the British style of working with drama therapy, especially with children.

We had Joanabbey Sack, a dance therapist and drama therapist, as part-time faculty, and she brought that wonderful Effort/Shape method, so our students could learn to assess clients in terms of movement.

Jason Butler, a brilliant drama therapy teacher, taught in our program for five years while he completed his PhD at Concordia. He is now the chair of expressive arts therapies at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Yehudit Silverman, also both a dance therapist and a drama therapist, became a full-time professor in the program and did that amazing research developing her method of Myth and Fairy Tale in Therapy. The students loved the course she taught in that. Like myself, Yehudit is now professor emeritus.

BH: We have incredible full- and part-time faculty now. Jessica Bleuer is our newest full-time member. Her research focuses on the intersections between individual wellness and larger systemic change. She facilitates cultural equity work, using drama therapy, theatre of the oppressed and playback theatre, and her current research focuses on racialized microaggressions in higher education.

We also have a new program, a graduate certificate in play therapy. Our students and allied professionals can do a summer intensive five-week training in play therapy. Susan Ward, a longtime part-time faculty member, assists me with this new program. In play therapy, toys are words and play is the language that children express themselves in. Our MA graduate students do research in play therapy as well.

A young child and a woman together in a play theatre with puppets The Department of Creative Arts Therapies recently began offering a graduate certificate in play therapy.

Research through the Centre for the Arts in Human Development

SS: Almost all my own research was done at the Centre for the Arts in Human Development, especially the research in therapeutic theatre. I co-founded the centre, in 1996, to be a research centre for the creative arts therapies.

Over the 25 years, we have had several Social Science Humanities Research Council grants, and we did research on the effectiveness of the creative arts therapies with our population, which is adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

We also did a long project on assessment in the creative arts therapies. For me, research was one of the most important contributions the centre has made, and I hope it goes on producing solid research about the effectiveness of the tools that we use in the creative arts therapies.

The main thing is that the centre has always provided great internships for the students, so they could learn by doing creative arts therapies clinical work under supervision. When the centre had its 25th anniversary in 2021, many students from all over the world gave testimonials on how much it meant to them.

BH: I know that has been true for our drama therapy students. They are now bringing drama therapy practice to many countries all over the world.

SS: At this point, there are over 250 drama therapy graduates out there! Two of our grads are now the president and vice-president of the North American Drama Therapy Association, which will have its annual meeting in Toronto next year. Another helped found the French National Drama Therapy Association. And one of our graduates is now the director of the Drama Therapy Graduate Program at NYU.

BH: It’s the program’s 26th year now, so we just keep building from here.

Learn more about 
Concordia’s Drama Therapy graduate programDepartment of Creative Arts Therapies and Centre for the Arts in Human Development.


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