In conversation with Dr Nisha Sajnani

In conversation with Dr Nisha Sajnani

Visiting academic Associate Professor Nisha Sajnani presents work on arts therapy in a refugee context to officially launch CATRU

Associate Professor Nisha Sajnani is an Expressive Therapy academic and Drama Therapy Program Advisor at Lesley University in Boston, one of the international partners for the University of Melbourne’s new Creative Arts Therapy Research Unit (CATRU). Her presentation in Melbourne on 4 August, Arts, identity, and healing in the context of the refugee crisis, will officially launch the Unit.

How would you describe drama therapy to the uninitiated?

Drama therapy is an approach to psychotherapy that involves the intentional use of dramatic improvisation and performance to achieve therapeutic goals. Drama therapists are mental health professionals who have significant experience and training in traditional and applied theatre as well as a rigorous understanding of human development, counselling, and psychology.

Dr Nisha Sajnani
Dr Nisha Sajnani

I got into drama therapy because I personally benefitted from the sense of community that I experienced in my theatre classes during my undergraduate university training. I also saw, firsthand, how culture and current concerns emerged through the body and through dialogue in improvisational play. It was easier to understand and even empathise with an opposing point of view when you could step into other people’s shoes by taking on their role in a scene. Difficult topics were easier to talk about when we could turn them into a physical tableau or enactment.

Drama therapy gives people a chance to rediscover their spontaneity, try on roles and act out scenes that they would like to be better prepared for in real life. Some come to drama therapy in order to organise significant experiences into a solo or collective performance. Such performances often result in a change in perception for both the actor and the audience.

Through drama therapy, people are able to explore, express and manage their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, gain self-awareness, manage behaviour and addictions, practice social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem. The primary goal is to improve or restore one’s sense of social and emotional wellbeing.

Individuals who benefit from drama therapy include those who struggle with anxiety and confidence in social interactions. It has been immensely helpful with children and adults on the autism spectrum.

But it is also useful for those who have experienced trauma stemming from conflict, combat, physical and sexual abuse, as well as neglect. I am particularly interested in how drama and performance are used to untangle our implicit biases about people who we perceive to be different from ourselves.

One can get a better sense of the health benefits of drama and theatre by reading research journals in this field such as Drama Therapy ReviewDramatherapy, or The Arts in Psychotherapy.

You will be in Melbourne in August 2016 for the launch of CATRU, the Creative Arts Therapies Research Unit, the first unit of its kind in Australia. What does the launch tell us about the discipline?

The launch of CATRU signals the University of Melbourne’s commitment to expanding the evidence base for the arts therapies through excellence in research and hopefully heralds the development of future training courses as well. I am honored to be a part of these efforts and look forward to sharing my research interests and supporting the university’s doctoral students.

Can you tell us a bit about the Living Histories Ensemble?

I directed the Living Histories Ensemble from 2007 to 2012, a theatre collective that came together under the auspices of a multidisciplinary oral history project entitled Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and Human Rights Violations. A team of university- and community-based researchers recorded life-story interviews with more than 500 Montreal residents who had been displaced by mass violence such as the Holocaust, the Rwandan and Cambodian genocide, and political violence in Haiti.

By listening to their experiences, we hoped to better understand the impacts of collective violence on those who had sought refuge in Montreal and the ways in which their sense of home and community had been affected.

We had also hoped to learn how those stories, which are often silenced in families and in national rhetoric, might be retold through performance and other means in order to expand the conversation and raise questions about crimesagainst humanityand our shared responsibility in situations of collective violence.

The Living Histories Ensemble used non-scripted, improvisational forms of theatre such as Playback TheatreTheatre of the Oppressed, and Developmental Transformations to spontaneously transform the stories of interviewers and interviewees into performance. The result was often a deepened sense of empathy, insight, and solidarity.

How far has creative arts therapy come? How far does it have to go?

Arts therapists are able to use their art forms (art, drama, music, dance, photography, etc.) to support expression from those whose voices are seldom heard and a space to grapple with uncertainty and change. What we need to focus on now is expanding the evidence base for the arts therapies so that we are increasingly able to understand why, when, how, and with whom the arts therapies are effective.

It’s an exciting time for the field. There is a growing interest in the role of the arts in health and, specifically, creative arts therapies. We need innovative ways of increasing the quality of life for those who are vulnerable to and/or currently suffering neglect or systemic and interpersonal violence. I see a role for the arts therapies with refugees as they reimagine home, children and adults affected by trauma, as well as our aging population.

Are the principles of creative arts therapy universal, or do they have to be adapted to the audience in question?

Arts therapists share a commitment to creative expression within a therapeutic relationship informed by research and guided by ethics. We are influenced by different paradigms which are often suited to the purposes and the people with whom we work. However, as with most health professions, we are ethically obliged to be culturally responsible, so yes, our theoretical frameworks and approaches need to be adapted to the contexts in which we work. I worked with the diversity and equality committees of the North American Drama Therapy Association and the British Association of Dramatherapy to develop guidelines in this area.

Can you tell us about your practice as a multimedia artist?

My primary medium is improvisation and performance but I also use photography and digital video in my work. I tend to focus on issues relating to history, memory, ethics, and place. In 2014, I directed Under Pressure, a performance collage featuring community responses to the Boston Marathon Bombing which took place one year earlier. This was followed in 2015 by Lives That Matteran ethnodrama about race relations, diversity, and hashtag activism in America.

Right now, I have a photography exhibit on entitled Mapping Home: A Global Crisis of Place which I curated with Oscar Palacio, a colleague and professor of photography at Lesley University. Mapping Home features 18 photographs from an archive of 507. They were taken by first responders and resettlement specialists who I met through my work with the Harvard program in Refugee Trauma.

I had asked them to reflect on their healing environments and to consider what sustains them as they confront an existential crisis of place. What surprised me was that 65% of the photographs featured images of nature while the remaining photographs depicted scenes of family, communal activity such as dancing, singing, yoga, and art making, and feasting together.

It got me thinking about the double meaning in “healing environments” in that these photographs revealed the interconnectedness and interdependency of our ecosystem. The photographs seemed to be saying that sustainability is a reciprocal relationship between humans and our environment and that acknowledging this relationship is critical to our survival and wellbeing.

What is the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma?

The Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma (HPRT), originally founded at the Harvard School of Public Health, is a multi-disciplinary program that has been pioneering the health and mental-health care of traumatised refugees and civilians in areas of conflict/post-conflict and natural disasters for more than three decades.

Its clinical program serves as a global model that has been replicated worldwide. In fact, the HPRT has partnered with the University of Wollongong to offer the Harvard Global Indigenous Trauma Recovery Program. I have been on faculty with the HPRT since 2013, where I lecture about the role of the arts in global mental health.

What are the guiding principles in your work and life?

There are at least three interconnected principles that guide my work and life. The first has to do with diversity, justice, and an ethical imperative to protect and promote the dignity of others in all spheres of teaching, research, and practice. One way to do this is to practice sharing authority and sharing resources; interdependence and real collaboration is necessary if we are to reconcile ourselves with past harm and develop shared visions of the future.

The second principle has to do with power, beauty, and chaos. We live with constant change and uncertainty and this turbulence can produce anxiety and a desire to erect walls and cast out, commodify, contain, and constrain whomever is enrolled as the “other”. Those who have decision-making power to determine policies and programs reinforce a vision of inclusion or exclusion.

This pattern repeats itself over time and is visible, for example, in the gross mistreatment of Aboriginal people, Australia’s offshore detention regime, and US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s aspirations to limit the travel of Muslims to the US and to build a wall along the Mexican border.

I also think that we struggle with beauty and that this comes from the same impulse to commodify rather than co-exist.

The third interconnected principle has to do with creativity and imagination. We need to exercise our imaginations and take creative risks together in order to create solutions to our most pressing problems.

You recently received two awards, the Research Award from the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA) and the Corann Okorodudu Global Women’s Advocacy Awardfrom the American Psychological Association (APA). Can you tell us about that?

The award from the NADTA is in recognition my role as editor of Drama Therapy Review, an international journal featuring research on drama, theatre and wellbeing. I have worked with Christine Mayor and Meredith Dean, associate editors for the journal, to create a rigorous mentorship and editorial process to ensure that published research contributes to the evidence base in the field.

The Global Women’s Advocacy Award from the APA is an acknowledgement of my efforts to promote a gendered, intersectional understanding of mental health in my field of drama therapy and efforts to advocate for the realities faced by girls across diverse communities in Canada through the Girls Action Foundation (GAF) where I have facilitated a national train the trainer program for over a decade.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of your professional work?

I love discovering new cities, wandering about open-air markets, and finding the perfect local coffee shop to read a good book. I’m currently reading Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. I have recently taken up painting again and have been enjoying that immensely.

CATRU will be officially launched on 4 August with a special presentation by Dr Nisha Sajnani: Arts, identity, and healing in the context of the refugee crisis. Visit the CATRU website for more information.