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At the improv

A new program uses drama to help veterans deal with trauma
©2022 by The Roland Gossage Foundation

Ca.thar·sis (n): purification or purgation of the emotions primarily through art.” 

That’s how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it. 

“Catharsis,” descending from the Greek words kathairein and katharos, for “cleanse” and “pure,” was first coined by Aristotle in the third century BC. In On the Art of Poetry, Aristotle posits a third dimension to the meaning of catharsis—and it’s through the realm of drama. 

Trusting in tragedy, Aristotle believed that the arts could be a purgation, a catharsis, of unwanted emotion like pity and fear. Drama would thereby have a double-edged effect on the soul, pacifying emotion while provoking it, satiating desire while starving it. And through the many hearts of drama, he believed those who suffered could transcend. 

From Korea’s female shamans to the Nigerian masked dancers of the Owuru Festival, dramatic healing is not a new or unusual practice. And while the ancient hospital beneath the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens remains unused and eroded, a plaque still reads of how patients were cured by performing in the Greek chorus. 

Today, Canadian veterans are up to four times more likely to die by suicide than civilians, so healing—in any form—matters. That’s why The Roland Gossage Foundation, a charity organization that provides educational development to soldiers, is bringing the ancient art of drama onto the front lines through its Soldiers In The Arts program.  

Soldiers In The Arts was founded a year ago and is in its early days compared to its sister program Soldiers In Tech, which helps veterans develop skills in cyber security and web development.

The new program builds off the concept of Aristotelian catharsis and dramatic healing, or therapy, by using theatre to address mental and physical health issues in veterans and their family members. With veterans specifically, the initiative aims to ameliorate operational stress injuries and aid in the often challenging process of transitioning back to civilian life. 

A 2019 study found that in-person drama therapy significantly helped Canadian veterans.

“When I first heard of the Soldiers in the Arts…I knew I had to join in the fun,” said Canadian Armed Forces veteran, actor, musician and current participant Garth Wigle. “It was a great experience.” 

Years ago, Ryan Hawkyard, the program co-ordinator, was one of the many veterans left to soldier on through health issues accrued from nearly two decades in uniform and three tours in Afghanistan. 

“We participated in what is now known as Operation Medusa to [remove] the Taliban,” said Hawkyard. “It was a very difficult
tour…I think we had 19 losses on that rotation.   

“[After my service,] I didn’t want to be that old soldier that couldn’t take his uniform off.” 

One of Hawkyard’s mental health professionals recommended drama as a way to reclaim his identity as he moved from a life in service back to civilian. It was only then that he found real freedom. 

“I didn’t have to take myself seriously. I didn’t have to prove something to anybody else,” Hawkyard reflected. “I found it to be very cathartic.” 

And because it had worked so well for him, Hawkyard wanted to share it with others. But he learned that dramatic healing was something overlooked by the CAF. 

“In the States, there were programs; in the U.K., there were programs, but…Canada didn’t have anything like that,” said Hawkyard. 

So, rather than wait for health-care providers to catch on, Hawkyard met with staff members of the Gossage Foundation to discuss creating such an initiative. They were on board. 

But Hawkyard knew he needed help, so the foundation enlisted the assistance of Michael Gellman, a theatre man and jack-of-all-trades with more than 40 years’ experience in improvisation. 

A Minnesota native, Gellman spent time in Chicago and Los Angeles as a performer until the Great White North called him toward what would be his most fulfilling passion: directing and teaching. 

“[My students do] way more for
me than I could have ever possibly [done] for them,” says Gellman. “And that’s the joy of teaching.” 

With a string of awards to later follow, Gellman became a founding member and program head of the Second City Training Centre and artistic director for The Second City Toronto. 

It was through Soldiers In The Arts, however, that Gellman discovered the power of dramatic healing. 

“What I do is give [students] an experience where [they] can teach themselves,” noted Gellman. “And after [that, they] can teach each other. They experience a sense of freedom, a bit of some of the burdens being lifted. And that’s good for therapy.” 

Soldiers In The Arts uses a range of improvisational exercises such as monologues, listening and retelling, character/scene development and more to build self-confidence, trust, social skills and the ability to be present. 

Science is even backing this form of psychological treatment: a 2019 study found that in-person drama therapy significantly helped Canadian veterans move on from trauma, express more emotion and better integrate into society. 

Even when drama therapy was moved to a virtual platform during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers found the treatment to be just as effective.  

“No right, no wrong. Building up rather than tearing down,” says Dianna Neuman, a 20-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force and program participant. “[It was] a freeing environment to explore that part of me…without recriminations.” 

The initiative currently offers both in-person and online workshops, with its digital counterpart capped to 12 people to ensure intimacy. Gellman and Hawkyard, however, hope that these workshops can eventually become a full-fledged performance this year.

“It’s when you come together in creative ways that really gives people community,” noted Hawkyard. 

Both Gellman and Hawkyard also have lofty hopes for the program and dramatic healing at large. 

“My measure of success is a chapter of this in [every] town across Canada,” said Hawkyard. Meanwhile, Gellman declared: “My ultimate purpose is to…increase awareness of the military in Canada and how much they do for us.

“You have the opportunity, as a Canadian citizen, to be of great help to people who are standing on guard for thee.” 


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