Butler, Jason

Transforming the Use of Role-Play in Creative Arts Therapies Education


Jason Butler

As a standard teaching tool, there is a long tradition of role-playing being used in the classroom. In creative arts therapies education students often play the roles of clients and therapists in activities intended to teach skills and enhance competence. The use of role-play is a long held tradition in education as a way of simulating practice in a manner that does not subject clients to less competent or potentially harmful interventions. Sometimes these role-plays are based on actual client situations while at other times they are based on fictional scenarios. It would appear that the practice is common to education in all creative arts therapies.

However, despite the frequency of use, how intentionally do educators employ this intervention? How aware are we of the various layers of experience taking place in the moment of enactment? How much thought do we give to the impact that playing these roles might have on our students both in terms of learning and in relation to their personal process? Are we merely repeating antiquated tools for learning or are we consciously innovating and applying the form with intention?

Based on preliminary research, this paper will examine how role-play is used in creative arts therapy education. It will critique traditional assumptions about role-play using contemporary theories of experiential learning, in particular, theories of embodied and situated learning. Finally, the paper will propose how drama therapy theory in particular may be combined with these theories of learning to more effectively use role and role-play within creative arts therapies education. The paper will make recommendations for more effectively engaging our students in role-play processes that can increase the depth and breadth of learning while tending to potentially overlooked aspects of the student experience.



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Jason D. Butler, PhD, RDT-BCT is President of the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA) and director of DvT Montreal, a training institute for developmental transformations.  He is also an Associate Professor in Expressive Arts Therapies at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Previously he was a professor in the Creative Arts Therapies Department at Concordia University.  Prior to teaching he was the director of a day program for individuals experiencing homelessness and mental illness in New York City and taught at New York University.  He has published on role theory, developmental transformations and experiential learning methods.  Current research centres on drama therapy education and the use of personal affective material in experiential learning.

Recent Publications

Gaines, A. M. & Butler, J. D. (2016). North American Drama Therapy. In: Holmwood, C. & Jennings, S. (eds.) International Handbook of Drama Therapy. London, UK: Routledge.

Butler, J. D. (2015). Playing with reflection in drama therapy education. In: Vettraino, E. & Linds, W. (Eds) Playing in a House of Mirrors: Applied Theatre as Reflective Practice (pp. 109–122). Rotterdam, NL: Sense Publishers.

Butler, J. D. (2012). Playing with madness: Developmental Transformations and the treatment of schizophrenia. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39(2), 87-94.

Conference presentations

Butler, J. D., Sajnani, N.  (2016). In the world and of the world. Keynote Address, 2nd European DvT Conference, Bristol, UK, May 27.

Butler, J. D., Abouzeid, I.  (2015). At the pyramids: Uncovering the elusive tomb of the unplayable.  NADTA National conference.  White Plains, NY.