Work by the Geese Theatre Company at Broadmoor Hospital has led several of the patients in the young persons' unit to make public declarations, pledging to leave violence behind them. Among those involved are men who have been convicted of crimes such as murder, rape, child abuse and general assault.
Although drama therapy has been used extensively both in Britain and America to treat a combination of mentally ill patients and criminals in prisons and maximum security psychiatric hospitals, its impact until now has not been as carefully monitored.
But newly published research by doctors and therapists at Broadmoor and Maudsley Hospital has revealed how successful it has been in treating mentally disordered offenders, by reducing anger levels in patients with a history of violent behaviour.
The results of the research, published in the international journal Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, focused on the responses of patients who participated in a week-long project called "The Violent Illusion Trilogy". The project was conceived and performed by the Birmingham-based Geese Theatre Group which specialises in working with offenders throughout the criminal justice system.
Whilst the theatre group had performed a range of workshops with probationers, offenders and mentally disordered patients before, first visiting Broadmoor in 1991, this was the first time "The Violent Illusion Trilogy" had been performed in a maximum security hospital.
Throughout much of the programme, actors from the Geese Theatre Company used masks and mime to portray characters caught in a cycle of aggression and violence. The masked characters were depicted in a variety of scenes, from an aggressive childhood to being rehabilitated.
Staff studying the effects of the trilogy were aware that the piece and the actors' presence had a powerful effect on many of the participants. In the final part of the trilogy, five of the volunteers made a public declaration, outlining what they'd learnt about themselves during the week and describing how that would enable them to deal with potentially aggressive situations in the future.
The actors were able to highlight the patients' progress by various role- playing exercises, one of which involved trying to provoke a fight. By the end of the week, patients had learnt how to respond without succumbing to violence.
Actor Alun Mountford said: "Through mime and full masks the audience can project their own dialogue onto the characters. What they think the characters are saying often relates to their own experience. In discussion groups afterwards we're able to raise those points rather than providing them with a script that may not fit their own personal experience."
Dr David Reiss, one of the authors involved in the research paper believes that therapeutic theatre not only encourages interactivity but develops other vital interpersonal skills. "It works through intense, emotional , dynamic confrontations which, because they reflect or re-enact the subjects' own experiences, have considerable reality," he said.
By detailing their changing levels of anger in a range of questionnaires, researchers could see how effective the trilogy had been. Dr Clive Meux, Broadmoor's forensic psychiatrist and another of the paper's co-authors explains: "One of the main problems that many of the patients have is dealing with their anger - recognising their anger, expressing it in an appropriate way, such as talking it through with someone rather than impulsively smashing something or someone."
Alun Mountford admits that initial feelings of scepticism about drama are common. "We do have a degree of obstacles to overcome, dealing with perceptions of what drama is. Many of the young men feel that it's somehow childish and silly ... I think there is often this stigma, and as young men grow up it tends to get ingrained a bit - but it's overcome reasonably quickly and the group can quickly see the logic in what we are doing.
"We're actually finding ways of recreating their lives and engaging them in a discussion around their thoughts and feelings."
According to Dr Clive Meux, the absence of academic research into drama therapy or psychodrama has heightened interest about their conclusions.
"This is the first time this particular type of drama therapy had been used on a special hospital population which is significantly different from a prison environment where people are just offenders rather than mentally disordered offenders.
"Input from a population like that had never been studied in any scientific way ... there was sort of anecdotal evidence that it helped patients and seemed to work, but actually measuring anger levels before, soon after, and a bit after, was the first time it had been done."Reuse content