Theatrical therapy

You Arrive offers a multi-dimensional learning experience

Drama Therapy, the use of theatre to promote awareness and healing of mental health issues, encourages growth for both performer and audience. You Arrive, an auto-ethnographic piece by Bonnie Harnden, communicates thorny ideas in a contemporary and honest manner. Combining educational and artistic elements, You Arrive is a powerful embodiment of the new Drama Therapy movement.

“In some shows,” explains Harnden, “there is a real feeling of a therapeutic process happening in the audience.” You Arrive deals with many difficult subjects, including family trauma, child development, and interpersonal relationships. The play itself is centered on the concept of ‘arrival.’ Arriving, for Harnden, involves achieving a personal balance between thoughts and emotions to reach a place of stable peace. This state, described by Harnden as “staying connected,” can be disrupted by childhood trauma.

You Arrive represents Harnden’s accumulated personal knowledge and experience in the field of psychology. Harnden is a professor in the Creative Arts Therapies department of Concordia University, which studies the ways in which theatrical and psychotherapeutic methods are combined in order to generate personal, emotional, and developmental change within individuals. Harnden has also spent over a decade at the Montreal Children’s Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry, researching and practicing clinical work with troubled adolescents.

You Arrive explores the creation and destruction of the self in children and adolescents. Harnden emphasizes the notion that a child needs to see a reflection of themselves in their caregiver. This self-reflection gives the child the sense that they are being seen, listened to, and understood by those around them. This in turn allows the child to develop a degree of emotional regulation, a process by which both a flooding or absence of emotion is avoided. The parent, for their part, needs to facilitate healthy childhood development by containing their children’s feelings as well as regulating their own emotions, tempering feelings of anger and anxiety so as to avoid negatively influencing the child. Harnden seems to empathize with the difficulty of child rearing, stating during the performance that “[parenting] is never perfect – [it just has to be] good enough.”

But what happens when it isn’t good enough? Some forms of unhealthy familial relationships can create childhood trauma. When a caregiver is repeatedly unable to regulate their emotions, their child will be constantly over-flooded and subjected to high levels of stress, internalizing their caregiver’s feelings, eventually making them unable to separate their emotions from those of their caregiver. This leads to adolescents, and even adults, experiencing emotional flights without any real cause.

You Arrive uses several mediums of communication simultaneously. “I wanted [the performance] to have that multimedia feel,” says Harnden. “[The viewers] take the content in differently.” You Arrive delivers its message through references to famous theoretical claims within psychology, Harnden’s own narration of said claims, and the cast’s performance itself. Four young Drama Therapy students (Maud Gendron-Langvin, Meaghan George, Serena Spiegel, and Shea Wood) present the themes of You Arrive, portraying relationships between family members as well as characters’ internal struggles.

Harnden’s sensitive narration and the cast’s skilled portrayal of childhood trauma interact positively and reinforce one another’s power. The combined effect communicates the difficulty certain children experience in recovering from traumatic experiences. But You Arrive also offers the hopeful possibility of, one day, reaching a sense of arrival, even if it’s after years of psychotherapy. To arrive is to achieve a sense of wholeness, security, and continuity, in both one’s thoughts and feelings.

You Arrive has both an educational and artistic quality – it seeks to explain psychological themes through Harnden’s descriptive narration, framed by the cast’s portrayal of concrete events. Yet You Arrive also communicates its themes through a plurality of voices and frequent use of visual metaphors. Perhaps the most remarkable quality of Harnden’s theatrical work is the way the message itself is infused in, and reinforced by, the structure of the piece. As Harden explains, the use of different mediums leads the audience to gravitate between intellectual and emotional experiences, allowing for a sense of multi-dimensional understanding, or in other words, arrival.