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The Student Journey: An interview with Alysan Aechen Martinez

R: How are you doing this morning?

A: I'm having to use some of my own therapeutic techniques to kind of cope with the anxieties of life in the world right now, which is okay. How are you, Rick?

R: I feel kind of energized, but earlier, definitely today, I had a lot of sadness, and a little anxiety moving through.

A: That made me feel better. Now you've been humanized for me.

R: Moreno said “a group properly warmed up is capable of anything”. So I want to ask you what's your favorite warm ups to do with your groups?

Well, the first caveat to that question is that it really depends upon the group that I'm working with and their openness to physicalize. For example, some of the clients that I work with are very resistant to movement. So, with those kinds of clients, I have to spend a little more time in the cerebral world, doing simple things - simple but still important things - like word associations, maybe poetry, using a poem or something to catapult us into conceptualizing.

However, for example, these past two weeks, I have this group who is so energized, and they come in ready to work. I've been doing emotional charades with them, which has been fun.

Participants are asked to pinpoint three of the dominant emotions or states of being that they've been experiencing over the past week. They can write them down or they can keep them in their mind. Then they'll either come up and physicalize their experience in some way, or sometimes I invite them to take other participants and bring them up onto the “stage” area and mold and direct that participant.

I had one lady who felt torn about something and she just got up in front of everyone and took a piece of paper and just ripped it in half in front of everyone. Something like that, that doesn't take up a lot of time, but that silence in the room - her getting up and walking, seeing how she physically looks with her face and her true affect, and then holding the paper up and ripping it. The silence after that - and then the discussion following that simple act - allows for some powerful moments.

Another time we wound up exploring “interconnectedness” and how it could be tangibly visualized. We were going to create a scene or a play. Someone said “a spider web”, someone else said the “galaxies”, and then another person spoke of an “ecosystem” and put a lotus flower in the center. And so we built this scene that took place in a forest with a single lotus flower floating in the muck. And this is all of their ideas, and it's happening organically. Later, they made these masks that represented the characters that would be passing through this environment. And for example, one of the characters was this split black and white mask that looks like a yin yang with the two dots. And the woman who made the mask said that she represented the passing of day and night. And we thought that was really interesting. Like, okay, so how does day and night move in this environment?

R: I love how this is a heart thing for you. I just get the aliveness of your work. Is it veterans that you're working with?

A: Most of my work right now has been in residential, inpatient facilities. Clients there have co-occurring challenges, meaning that clients could have been diagnosed with bipolar, depression, or addiction. It's just a multitude of challenges.

I'm also launching a program right now with the VA using drama therapy with veterans. We're going to focus it more on visual arts. My plan for them is to do the quintessential mask and things like that. But I want to photograph them. I think we're going to create scenes, but I want to create a scene that kind of moves with them and that freezes so they can choose some kind of moment in time and photograph it. And because this is a homeless population, and they don't have places to keep all this art, I thought we'd use photographs of the art to create a little book that they could keep with them. So that's in the making right now.

R: How did you find drama therapy?

During my bachelors, I remember hearing a student talking about “drama therapy”. I remember inquiring about it and the professor just shrugged me off. I don't know why. Maybe he didn't see it as my thing. Or maybe he thought, this girl's not ready for that. And at that time, I really wasn't. I would not have been ready to facilitate therapeutic environments for others. However, the kind of grief I have, or the sadness is like, well, I wonder if my interest had been nurtured by one of my mentors at that time, how much faster my own therapy could have been facilitated just by involving myself in the process and seeking it out? Does that make sense?

R: Yes. I think what I hear you saying, to use an image, is that if the teacher would have given you some sunlight and some water on the seed, maybe yes, that it could have grown quicker.

Yes. Theater has been my therapy, maybe all of my life. I started in the theater when I was seven years old and through the deepest and the darkest times in my life, the theater was always a place that was community. Theater was a place to go that had purpose. The theater was a place that I could explore my own emotions through transference. I could try on different roles.

So towards the end of my master's program, when I was writing a paper in applied theater, I was thinking about PHD programs and was looking into applying to UCLA. And one day, I happened to think back to my BA and that person who spoke about “drama therapy” in class. And then through a google search I found the Drama Therapy Institute of LA that's down the street. I saw that they have a program that fits people just like me who had no idea that drama therapy even really existed like this! I feel like drama therapy - it's something that's still kind of like a seedling almost when you look at society at large. So it was that easy at that point to just reach out to Pam and tell her: I know I want to do this. This is it. I'm committed, and that's that.

R: What has your internship like?

A: I'm an actor. I've always been an actor. I'm used to being terrified, going on stage. My first session was kind of like that, going on stage on opening night, where it was terrifying and exhilarating, but I was ready to do it. I felt a great pressure because I wanted to make sure that I was going in this room knowing enough about what I was doing to not cause harm. What if somebody's triggered? How do I handle that trigger? And also, how do I keep the momentum going? When there's resistance, all of these kinds of questions come up, and all I can say is that with everything in life, it's just doing it over and over and over again and trusting the process.

Also knowing that every single group is so different and not putting so much pressure on myself to feel like I have to make something happen in the group. I'm there to allow them to use the group. It's their group. They know what's on their mind, I'm there just to kind of help it come out of them and use my experience in theater and my experience training in drama therapy to facilitate the processes that are already within every single human being that lives.

R: Yeah. Very well said. I understand the nerves and the worries before hand. But then once you get in the mode and in the present, and you focus on the group, everything starts to happen in the way it needs to.

A: Absolutely.

R: Any challenges that you've needed to learn from along the way?

A: As I was getting to know my clients in a particular group, I would be in the car driving home, focusing on something that had happened in a session and thinking Oh. Well. I didn't have that idea then. And I could have done that. Could have, would have, should have, right? But it's done. It's over. Training my brain to accept that, okay, that's how that went. Take this knowledge, take the experience, and use it in the next session.

All the therapists that mentor me tell me that you need to meet the client where they're at, and you never work harder than the client. But I noticed in the beginning I was working harder than the clients. I think I was meeting the clients where they were at. But I had this kind of hope that there was going to be just an AHA moment for everyone in drama therapy because I could see something. But just because I can see it doesn't mean it's time for them to or that they even are ever going to see it the way that I see it. They're a different person. Let them have their journey. And some people leave the sessions saying, "Oh, yeah, I had that AHA moment.". And others just enjoy the experience.

And then coming home and not immediately thinking about what I need to do next week to keep the ball rolling was important. Let it go. And trust that I know what I'm doing enough as to where, when next week comes, we'll pick up, because I still have to take care of myself. And I have all my own shit in my head during the week. Right? I can't carry their shit with me all week. So that was a big challenge for me. Yeah, that and gas prices. (Laughter)

Resistance is also a challenge. I always give the answer now that resistance is actually one of the best things you can experience in drama therapy once you feel confident in what you're doing. Because resistance – the kind where you're not butting heads, but it's more like you're suggesting a client to do something that they don't initially want to do. In that situation, you've got to kind of move around and find another way to suggest doing something different.

When somebody doesn't want to participate, but they're still coming to group, the fact that they're still coming to group means that they want to be there. That's something to work with. So learning how to work with things like that is a huge challenge. And I don't have an answer for it. I don't think I will ever have one answer on how to work with resistance, because you have to work with each individual client. Their resistance is different.

R: How do you take care of yourself when working with a population that are in challenging situations?

A: Well, we'll go back therapy. First of all, I go to therapy. I have my own therapist. In drama therapy, the most work is the emotional work that you do in the room. Okay, this is my feeling. Set it over here. This is their feeling. Okay, put it right here. How can I work with it right now? And then after the session is over, I still have this feeling that I set aside. That's my feeling. What do I do with it? So I take it into my take it to my therapist, and that's my opportunity to say, you know, this happened in a session, and this is what I felt by it. Can we explore this because there's something there? And then find a way to relate it to my story.

R: Thank you. Is there anything else you've found to be helpful for the journey?

A: I also take at least ten minutes every day to meditate and always come back to my breath to be grounded. That's always good. And I've found some rituals for myself. What I've noticed helps me is that I treat every drama therapy session like I go in, and I don't want anyone else in the room. And I set the stage like I'm the stage manager, I'm the Chop-master, I'm all of these things. And I take a moment to get situated on my stage. I set up the things that I'm going to need in that room, and I sit with it for a moment before the ensemble comes in. Then when we're done working, I invite the ensemble to leave. When everyone is gone, I return to that same energy that I started with in that space. I tear down my set, I give myself a moment to come back to myself, to "de-roll" as we say, and then I leave. So those are my rituals to give myself that space before and that space after, and it happens in the same way every time for me, and that helps keep me grounded.

R: That sounds beautiful. I love how you've created supportive rituals for yourself. Where do you envision yourself in the coming years?

A: I'm currently on the NADTA, the North American Drama Therapy association's student research team. We've been collecting theses and dissertations and compiling them so that they can be easily accessed on the NADTA website. That work is hopefully going to speak to the larger picture, which is like, how can this become something that's more easily accessible? How can this become something that people actually know about? I see myself as part of the drama therapy movement to normalize this practice. I want to expand access to its empirical research, things like that.

R: Is there anything maybe that you haven't said that just wants to also come out, or do you feel like you've spoken your heart and your experience?

A: I would just say that Drama therapy is my way to pay forward the gifts that I received by all of the people in the theater throughout my life who have supported me, and I want to even say help keep me alive during some of the most challenging times in my life. And I am so fortunate to have found drama therapy to have the opportunity to pay it forward in that way.

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