A group of seven sit on the floor. Huddled in a circle, they mash their hands into sticky globs of dough. Curious fingers push and pull the dough apart; hands experimentally web open, doughy strings stretching from fingertip to wrist.

The group, arms and clothes speckled with flour, soon make objects out of the powdery gloop. Olaf the Snowman is rolled into shape; a small Brontosaurus is made from stem to stern.

The scene would be common in a daycare, except that everyone here is a grownup.

“We call this messy play. It allows people to be messy to express themselves,” Prof Sue Jennings explains, sweeping her own floury arm out as example.

“But you can see that out of the mess comes order. First there was mess, then shapes and objects, and then there’ll be a narrative. Children go through these stages naturally.”

Jennings is talking about play therapy, a form of therapy that is not commonly used in Malaysia. A pioneer of play and drama therapy in Europe, the 76-year-old is on a mission to establish it here.

She has published over 40 books on the subject, set up training courses in Britain, Greece, and Israel, and worked with countless patients across the globe. Educated as a social anthropologist, she is a qualified therapist by profession.

She believes that play is so important precisely because it is instinctual and natural. Play therapy is, she says, “a focused interaction, whether with an individual child or group, that enables a child to express and communicate their feelings and life experience through play.”

Cover pic - SAM THAM/TheStar

People were more open to drama therapy back in the 70s, says Jennings.

Jennings is herself full of childlike gaiety and cheer. With hot pink streaks in her silver hair and snazzy lace-up sneakers on her feet, she is a sprightly woman blessed with a teenager’s boundless energy. When she moves, it’s with the fluid grace of a dancer. No surprise, since she trained as a classical actor and dancer in her youth.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be Judi Dench. I didn’t have that genius. But I had an understanding of what drama and play could do. I knew the contribution I could make.”

Starting out in a psychiatric ward, she began by helping patients work through their issues with drama therapy. Having found her calling, she tended to children with special needs, adults in prison and everybody in between.

To Jennings, no one was beyond hope.

However, although what she was doing was drama therapy, it wasn’t recognised as a type of therapy until the 1970s.

“People were just more open in the 70s to new ideas. That’s when drama therapy was really established and there were professional associations.”

“Drama therapy,” she defines, “is the application of all drama and theatre techniques in a therapeutic context for change, healing or resolutions.” While play and drama therapy are different, drama therapy is rooted in play therapy. Play therapy is a bridge to drama therapy: the imagination and improvisation in play are necessary for drama.

“To improvise, you really do need a lot of play,” Jennings says.

Furious elements: dramatherapy encourages participants to be more confident and empathise with others. -RAYMOND OOI/ The Star

Furious elements: dramatherapy encourages participants to be more confident and empathise with others.

All the world’s a stage

“I want to see a very angry volcano!” The group are now draped in boldly coloured shawls. Paired off, they’re acting as classical elements. The fire pair, swathed in red robes as bright as flames, are darting around and hissing like cats. The water team are swishing and flowing, while the earth pair rumble, shaking a thunder stick to create a low peal of thunder.

“Move around. Interact with each other,” Jennings urges. The pairs do so, gathering more steam. The room thrums with their energy, until Jennings tells them to calm down and cool off.

“This is the first stage. They use real energy without anyone getting hurt,” she says. They look exhausted and relieved, as though they’ve happily run a mile. Then they act out an improvised scene, expressing a range of emotions through their delivery.

“When they take on a role, they can share their feelings in the role. But again, you can see the natural development from non-verbal to verbal, improvisation to structure.” This progression is also inherent in play therapy.

Drama therapy gives patients the freedom to explore, to become confident by using dramatic tools. Jennings offers the example of an angry adolescent bewildered by her own rage; by undergoing drama therapy and acting out storylines that are relevant to her, she can gain control and insight. It also helps patients to be empathetic by gaining different perspectives on themselves and others.

Broadly speaking, play therapy is more suited for younger children. The focus is on play itself, from finger painting to puppetry. It doesn’t have to be verbal and is not an art form. For troubled children (or adults) who have been neglected or abused, play therapy can recreate the developmental milestones they missed.

“The body has a need for sensory stimulation, and if we don’t fulfill the need through play, then we turn to destructive things like self-harm, eating disorders, and drug and alcohol abuse,” Jennings reveals.

Drama therapy is more of an art form, because dramatic art is at the heart of the therapy. For very young children, performing can be a daunting experience. For teenagers and adults, perhaps better able to handle the complexity and richness of drama, it can be more rewarding.


Natural instincts

When Jennings travels, she lugs around a treasure trove of colorful props. Like Mary Poppins with her bottomless bag, she unearths shiny shawls, flashy fans and glittery eye masks. There is a menagerie of puppets: an “angry” bird, purple and plush; a big moose, legs sprawled; and a grass-green snake. It’s her own travelling theatre.

But while her bag of tricks is a source of fun, the props are put to good use in therapy sessions and workshops. Playful as she is, the visiting Prof at Help University takes what she does very seriously. It seems she wants to help everybody.

“I’ve worked with people from newborns up to 90-year-olds. Actually, my oldest was a 101-year-old. I want to show and share the universality of play and drama.”

Her most challenging patient was a severely autistic 19-year-old boy.

“All the carers told me not to bother, that nothing could be done. He was chronologically 19 but couldn’t speak. He just stood in a corner and rocked his body,” she says, standing up to demonstrate, rocking back and forth.

“Autistic children don’t like change, but you can stop their repetitive movements with playful interaction.” In this case, she mimicked his actions and drew him out of his shell. He never spoke, but he learned how to interact with others, slowed down his movements and could react to music.

Sue Jennings believes that playful interaction can help people work through our problems. and be more confident. Photos: The Star/Raymond Ooi

Jennings doesn’t think one type of therapy is better than another. But because play and drama therapy are led by the patient, they can lead to resolutions that were not thought possible.

Disabled children can be helped, she maintains, in the same way as any child, just at a slower pace. Everyone has a sense of play in them and an instinctive flair for drama.

Counselling, well established in the country and with its own merits, relies mostly on speech and language. But play and drama therapy don’t.

“I think that we need choices. I don’t think one type of therapy is better than another. But because play and drama therapy are led by the patient, they can lead to resolutions that were not thought possible.”

As a doyenne of play and drama therapy, Prof Jennings is not bowing out yet, even after over 50 years in the field. She has more books to write, more workshops to organise, more people to reach.

Perhaps foremost on her agenda is making play and drama therapy more accessible, rather than being “elite” types of therapy available only to the few. To that end, she wants to get the government to recognise them as forms of therapy, and to set up post-graduate training at Help University.

“We all know how to play. We all know how to do drama. We’ve just forgotten their significance,” she says teasingly, her manner as playful as a toddler’s.

How play and drama therapy can help children

  • Develops children’s confidence and self-esteem.
  • Reinforces children’s attachment with parents.
  • Helps children and teenagers manage their anger appropriately.
  • Addresses children’s issues.
  • Strengthens children’s empathy and resilience.
  • Creates new ways of communicating and relationship-building.
  • Improves children’s emotional intelligence.

Prof Sue Jennings will be hosting two workshops on play therapy next month. The first workshop deals with EQ (Oct 3) and the second with anger management (Oct 10). Parents, teenagers, teachers and therapists are welcome. Fees are RM250/workshop or RM475 for both workshops. Call Margaret Sie at 03-2711 2000 or e-mail her at margaret.sie@help.edu.my for details.