Masking Therapy

A Graduate’s Perspective
December 29, 2009
Profile of a Champion
December 29, 2009
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Drama therapy is not new to Discovery Academy. Therapist Nathan Mitchell has been using it for years. But drama therapy with masks? Now that’s a different story – and a different approach to effective therapy.

 “We’ve only been using the masks a couple of months,” Nate explains. He got the idea after he attended a workshop teaching more advanced drama with masks. As he thought of his Discovery students he realized there were therapeutic aspects to using masks.

 “What’s interesting to me is what happens during the process of trying to use the masks. Students talk about how different it feels to have the mask on and to understand someone when they can’t communicate in the normal ways they’re used to.”  He adds, “You have to work harder on the understanding side as well. You have to exert some energy. You have to listen more actively.”

To start the activity, Nate will sometimes have the group write down stories everyone knows in common, such as fairytales or movies. Then he divides the groups into teams with 4-5 students per team, giving each of them a slip of paper with one of the stories. He tells them they must tell their story to the rest of the class, without any words.

“At that point, I give out the masks,” he explains. All the masks are identical – neutral, blank and white. “You have to do this without any facial expressions and without words.”

 Nathan says students’ reactions vary. “Sometimes they get really excited and sometimes they think it’s going to be impossible.” He continues, “Sometimes when they put the masks on they sort of retreat and become less energetic. They have relied so much on just using facial expressions or words. That happens in a quarter of the students. The majority become more energetic and more invested in what they are trying to communicate. There are a few students who won’t respond or participate in any other activities but when we get the masks out they’re first in line.”

 After the activity students share what they did and how they felt. “We discuss the underlying meaning, sometimes unintentional meaning, behind a person’s posture, how far away a person stands when they talk to another person. Especially for some of the kids who have a hard time understanding social cues, it’s pretty good for them to understand what some of those norms are. Once we understand that we can practice how to communicate more effectively,” Nate says.

Eventually, he plans to introduce different colored masks to represent different aspects of a student’s personality. “From there I can have them take the stage and cast different students as different members of the sub personality. That gives them a visual of understanding their personalities and why they’re having some of the troubles that they’re having,” Nate explains.

Keeping therapy fresh helps keep students engaged and learning. Nate says mask therapy is another unexpected element of drama therapy. “Sometimes they’ll try to peek in my bag and see if I have the masks,” Nate says, “which is exactly what you want. You always want to keep them wanting more.”