Point of View

Theater as Therapy

Can Shakespeare Heal the Trauma of War?

Magazine Issue
January/February 2019
A headshot of a man

Therapists know that words can heal: they offer the “talking cure,” after all. But what if the words were in iambic pentameter and delivered from a stage? More specifically, could performing Shakespeare be considered a clinical tool in trauma treatment?

Enter, stage left, First Gulf War–era veteran and professional actor Stephan Wolfert, who is now testing a PTSD intervention that for decades has been pairing classical theater training with the science of trauma.

Wolfert’s autobiographical one-man play, Cry Havoc, was a highlight of the 2018 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, and his acting intervention, De-Cruit, which is currently being evaluated at New York University, is showing impressive early results. A novel combination of mindfulness, narrative therapy, resilience training, exposure, psychodynamics, community building, and the plays of Shakespeare, De-Cruit teaches vets how to take to the stage to disentangle themselves from their soldier training, process their experience at war, and connect with the very different reality of being home.

RH: Plenty of modern theater takes on trauma. Why, in this day and age, are you championing Shakespeare as a conduit to healing?

Wolfert: Because it worked for me. As I say in Cry Havoc, I didn’t realize, after a friend of mine was killed at a military training center, that I was having a psychotic break. Drunk somewhere in Montana, I ended up hopping off a train and wandering into a performance of Richard the Third. If you know the play, you know Richard was a veteran of war. I didn’t know that at the time. All I remember is a guy in uniform walking out on stage, looking me directly in the eye, and saying, “The war is over, and there is a time of peace, and it’s fantastic. Everyone’s happy, except me, because I feel deformed, because I don’t fit in, because I’m not attractive. I don’t even like peace.”

That was it. I left the army and went to graduate school for acting. Then I started reading Shakespeare and found that he wrote about and, in fact, was surrounded by veterans. When he was writing Hamlet, Henry the Fifth, As You Like It, and Julius Caesar, England was in two wars: a conventional war with Spain, with cold war components to it—similar to what I went through—and the Nine Years’ War with Ireland, which was mostly guerrilla warfare. They have ballads in England about men who came home from Ireland but never “fully” returned.

In Shakespeare’s speech for Lady Percy in Henry IV, Part 1, she asks her husband, who’s back from battle, “Oh my good lord, why are you thus alone?” What follows are questions about his behaviors that read like a DSM listing of PTSD symptoms.

RH: You talk about the need for a “de-cruiting” process for soldiers like you who’ve been “wired for war.” What do you mean by this?

Wolfert: It means the military rewires the central nervous system and creates automatic, mind–body responses to war stimuli. For example, outside the military, if you hear bullets flying over your head, you may instinctively duck and take cover, but that instinct is rewired in soldiers, so that we respond to it with violence instead. In the infantry, when we hear a rifle shot, we immediately locate the general vicinity it came from and return fire in that direction.

It’s all automatic—just like saluting without thinking. In basic training, they drill these automatic responses into us, but when we get out, we don’t have eight weeks of basic untraining. We don’t learn how to leave those responses behind.


RH: Are you contending that a focus on classical acting training helps with this rewiring?

Wolfert: Yes, I am. And our scientific evaluation is proving it. The basic tenets of theater are medicine. Yvette Nolan talks about this in her book Medicine Shows. Further, classical actor training contains some of the most successful components of therapy, such as camaraderie in a creative, expressive, and healing environment; mindfulness and raising self-awareness without judgment; and Shakespeare’s heightened language, written in our natural human rhythm, which provides a certain aesthetic distance from our own experience, making us feel safer to disclose. These components are similar to those the military used to wire us for war, so I’m using them to rewire from war.

RH: In the case of PTSD sufferers, you might be taking them out of the fight-or-flight state they experience every day?

Wolfert: Being in front of an audience feels like life or death. Just like Shakespeare’s characters, we think something, or we feel something, and we speak it out loud to a room of strangers. There’s a power in that, releasing our stories, and having that experience rewarded and reinforced by a group or an audience. Then, when we’ve survived that heightened experience of sharing our trauma out loud, we’ve not only taught our body that we’ll survive reliving that event, but we’ve also begun to rewire the brain out of that continual state of fight or flight.

RH: What does it do for veterans, casting aside social buffers like that?

Wolfert: Once we’re in that place, we begin really expressing ourselves. The three questions I’m always asking them are: What do you feel? Where in your body do you feel it? And when else have you felt that way? This helps them start to track their habits and default modes. Going deeper, I do writing prompts aimed at taking on significant events in our life. Like Bessel van der Kolk talks about in The Body Keeps the Score, instead of merely repeating our own reel, the act of writing it out changes things.

RH: So I’m going to better see my trauma simply by turning it into a narrative?

Wolfert: And by getting it on paper. Sometimes when we do longer programs, we have vets read each other’s works, so they can also hear it.

RH: Do you ever go beyond what they experienced in war to explore, say, what happened when they were kids?

Wolfert: Yes, we create the container for them to do that. A prompt I got from the theater group Shakespeare and Company is about “the landscape of my childhood.” I’d say that more than 90 percent will respond to the prompt with things like “physical violence,” “alcoholism,” “verbal abuse,” “dad hitting mom.” Unfortunately, there’s that commonality in military life—being the kid who didn’t come from wealth and joined the military to flee certain traumatic things. When you understand that the majority of people in the military had what could be called a life-or-death type of childhood, you can see how the military could be a comfortable place for them.

I use prompts like “when I enlisted” or “when I joined the military” or in some cases “when I was drafted.” Then it’s up to them to write. Of course, the mere act of writing is a lot to ask of somebody, so I always tell them it’s okay not to write if they feel like it will throw them into crisis mode. The first thing I say to every class is “Congratulations, you made it to this age. Whatever you’re doing is working, in spite of what everyone is telling you, so keep that for when you need it.”

I then list symptoms, feelings, and thoughts that have come up over and over again in the 20 years I’ve been teaching and ask the vets to write down all that feel applicable to them. Then I have them go through and circle the one they’re dealing with the most at this moment: as Richard the Third says, “Now, right now.”

Some of them start to fight going further at this point—which is good. I tell them, “All right, it’s okay. Remember that it’s theater, and all we’re doing here is making a choice to teach our body something. It’s not life or death. It only feels that way.” Then I teach them how to read the Shakespeare in verse, so that they’re forced to ground and to breathe in before each new line of text, because that’s how you read verse; it’s also how you self-regulate. In their final performances—when they read their personal monologue, their “trauma monologue” as we call it in the research articles—they ground, breathe, focus inward.

We take video of these readings. In some cases, the vets are hyperventilating; they’re fighting tears, trying to go back to their old system of shutting it down, but we keep them in the room and say, “Feel it, feel it. Learn that emotions are information, that they’re not a hijacking.” And then they go into the Shakespeare because he takes them right back into self-regulation. It takes them right back into breathing in, speaking on the exhale, breathing into the next line, speaking on the exhale, and it puts their heart, lungs, and parasympathetic nervous systems right back into coherence, or at least some semblance of it, so that they get to the end.

As soon as they’ve finished, I ask them to complete the sentence “Right now I feel . . .” and almost invariably they say they feel some version of “lighter” or “relieved” or “better” or “I’m floating.” And they’re doing this in front of a live audience.

RH: In high school, I wasn’t always crazy about Shakespeare, who was often difficult for me to understand. That must come up.

Wolfert: Shakespeare wrote brilliantly about experiences that aren’t always pleasant. But in De-Cruit, we often don’t have time to get into the meaning of the plays, not to mention the more difficult language. I just say, “Breathe and speak,” and then if we stumble on a word like lascivious, I’ll say, “I don’t know, what do you think it means? I don’t even know how to pronounce it! Just sound it out on the rhythm.”

That’s all I ever care about: just make it work, because if they can dare to look foolish by mispronouncing it, they’ve taught themselves to play. And no one in that circle is going to laugh, because no one else knows how it’s pronounced! I tell them to make it up, and they’re like, “Lack-vicious,” and I’m like, “Great, the playwright is dead, he won’t sue you. So just say it that way.” And now they’re saying “lack-vicious” loudly and boldly, and it’s invigorating. They get bolder as a result, and they’re teaching each other that it’s okay. Even if people might judge you, you’ll live.

RH: What you’re doing sounds a lot like exposure, but with a twist of built-in relaxation and detachment. What’s your message for therapists about the power of a theater intervention like this?

Wolfert: I always encourage therapists to bring art into their practice. And it can be in whatever form they’re most passionate about. Obviously, I’m partial to theater because it works for me. But I also feel that theater has a special power because it connects us with everything—our bodies and our emotions.

I’ve worked with Twyla Tharp, and she believes it’s all about the body. I agree with her, but I feel the voice is part of the body. If we can bring theater to it, then we have an actor and an audience. And ultimately, what is therapy but an actor and an audience?

RH: As De-Cruit goes through evaluation, what are your hopes for it?

Wolfert: My goal from the beginning has been for it to be both transferable and manualized. Ultimately, it would be like AA, meaning I could go to any city and find a De-Cruit program for free that would be run roughly the same way. That’s the dream.

We also want to evaluate it scientifically to see if it in fact works, or at least see what’s working and what isn’t. So we broke it down to a 24-hour model, just for evaluation. We deliver that in several different modalities or time frames. The one we’ve been studying for the last two years has been a seven-week model: once a week, three hours a night, for seven weeks. We look at heart rate variability and EEG measurements with portable EEGs.

RH: And you’re connected with New York University’s psychology department to try to make this an evidence-based treatment?

Wolfert: Yes. And we’ve already discovered that with the seven-week model, people will make basic mindfulness practices part of their regular routine. So that’s a positive. But make no mistake: at the core of De-Cruit is classical actor training and Shakespeare. We’re using theater—and that is a potent medicine.



Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at ryanhowes.net.