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Career Inspo with Amy Willshire – Dramatherapist

October 26, 2019

Welcome to the October 2019 edition of the Career Inspo Blog!

This is a monthly interview with someone who has followed their passion, dreamed big and now has a successful and exciting career. Whether you are searching for your passion or looking for guidance and insight from those in your chosen industry, the Career Inspo blog will have something for everyone. After the success of the 2018 blog, I am so excited to be continuing the interviews through 2019 and I am sure this year’s line up will provide plenty of motivation and inspiration!

This month I had the pleasure of speaking with Amy Willshire, Dramatherapist and owner of Play it Through. Amy began her studies at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, studying Drama, Applied Theatre and Education. Later in her career as a Youth Worker she noticed the need for specialist support to be offered to young people with histories of trauma, leading to her retraining in dramatherapy.

Sarah Ellis: Please can you provide the readers with a summary of your business and what you do:

Amy Willshire: I am a dramatherapist. This is a form of psychotherapy which uses the creative arts, embodiment and talk therapy to explore the therapy material. I work with clients of all ages including non-verbal clients, clients with addictions, clients in schools and prisons.

SE: Why did you choose to pursue this career?

AW: I loved drama club at school because it was one of the only places where I felt able to express myself and explore big emotions. I studied Drama, Applied Theatre and Education for my first degree, as I was interested in how drama could be used to give a voice to people who felt voiceless, to teach and to inspire communities. After graduating I used these skills in my work as a youth worker and school mentor. During the recession, I noticed a big reduction in the number of agencies supporting young people in need, and that schools were referring young people with complex trauma histories for mentoring support which, while helpful, was not enough. Seeing a need which was not being met, I retrained as a dramatherapist so that I could offer specialist support to young people.

SE: What route did you take into this career? What training did you undertake?

AW: Dramatherapy is a legally protected title in the UK; to work as a dramatherapist I have completed a 2 year full time Masters Degree at the University of Roehampton, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and follow their ethical code including professional insurance and maintaining confidential client records. The arts therapies are actually better protected than many talk therapies in the UK – the terms counsellor, psychotherapist or talk therapist are all unprotected titles, meaning anyone can call themselves those things even if they have no training or experience. Dramatherapists, like art therapists and music therapists, have to meet certain criteria in order to register and continue to practice. It is recognised as a Band 7 NHS job and listed in the NICE guidance as a recommended treatment for certain mental health conditions.

While training I completed placements with clients with dementia and cognitive loss, clients with addictions (drugs, alcohol and gambling) and clients in a primary school, running a mixture of group and individual sessions.

Since graduating I have continued to work with primary aged children and returned to working with adolescents – a group I remain passionate about. I also work with adults with profound and multiple learning needs, including some non-verbal clients. I have co-facilitated a therapeutic retreat for clients who have experienced trauma and I am currently directing a piece of therapeutic theatre exploring self-harm.

This summer I attended dramatherapy training on working with eating disorders and a dramatherapy conference on trauma and resilience.

I am a full member of the British Association of Dramatherapists, the professional body which does so much to raise awareness of the many ways dramatherapy can support individuals, groups, organisations and communities.

This week (October 21 – 27) is the first ever international dramatherapy week, arranged by the World Alliance of Dramatherapy. Dramatherapy is now practiced across Europe, the Americas, Austral-Asia and Africa. #dtweek2019

SE: What makes you jump out of bed in the morning to come to work? 

AW: Every day is different. I might spend one session building a den with a young child, then work with an adult on writing their story, in another session we may be creating a ritual to mourn a loss and in the next we may be dancing. Some sessions look indistinguishable to a talk therapy session and some sessions look very different.

SE: What have been your biggest challenges or learning curves? And what reignites your passion on the tough days?

AW: If I began training as a dramatherapist believing I would learn how to save other people, one of my biggest challenges was needing to shift my own expectations – however good the therapist, whatever knowledge I gain or methods I use, it is not me who will fix my clients. They are not passive people waiting for me to open my suitcase and rustle up a magic solution; wellness cannot be done to another person, but if they have turned up to the session there is a good chance they want you to support them as they heal themselves. I now see my role as a support for my clients. My clients have often survived serious trauma and are the ones going on their own hero’s journey towards health and well-being. It is a privilege to journey with them on part of that road to recovery and wellness, however that looks for them.

I am really passionate about trauma informed therapy, so much of why people are in therapy is related to “what happened to you” rather than “what is wrong with you”. Recent research into human psychology has highlighted the way that trauma and adverse childhood experienced are held in the body, stored in the cells and the hormones and in the instant reactions. Many talking based forms of counselling or therapy do not offer clients ways to explore the impact that such experiences have on the body. Other research shows that our brains learn much faster when we are engaged creatively than when we are using thoughts alone. I love that dramatherapy uses creativity to embody human experiences in a way which is playful yet authentic. I have seen the difference dramatherapy can make.

SE: What are the most memorable experiences in your career so far?

AW: I will respect client confidentiality, but they are many of my key moments, it is always a privilege to be trusted with a small part of someone’s story.

What I can talk about is when I had my own mini-break to Dartmoor to plan and risk assess before running the therapeutic retreat. This trip was amazing. We had been as part of my training course so I knew it would be a good retreat for a client group I was working with. Researching the area, planning on maps and then visiting to re-experience the walking routes and find some new ones around the Tors and the stone circles. I watched the sun set and felt really peaceful and connected to nature. The world is so full of beauty, it sneaks in and surprises us at times when we feel lost in darkness. Life can be painful, isolating, almost unbearable; it can also be beautiful, awe inspiring and peaceful – nature calls us back to health and well-being, it is not separate from us, we are part of it.

SE: What key strengths do you have that make you great at what you do?

AW: I am not afraid to sit with a client experiencing difficulties; many therapies seek to demonise certain feelings or behaviours “if you stopped doing/thinking THAT you would be fine”, but such judgements might just be adding shame into the mix. I try to come alongside and understand the client’s inner world, addressing the root issues rather than just the specific behaviour.

I am quite good at thinking on my feet; there is always some pre-planning on what materials to bring to a session but often plans need to be adapted to respond to the current situation; if there has been a recent bereavement between sessions then it is being able to think on your feet and adapt – I have brought a puppet, a ball of string, some blue fabric and some instruments – how can we use these as tools to explore how you are feeling now.

I actively work on being non-judgemental. I do not believe anyone is just evil or so bad that they are not deserving of hope and support. Our prisons are full of people who we know have experienced brain injuries, adverse childhood experiences, PTSD, abuse and neglect; then, when they act in an anti-social way, we lock them up and talk about punishment more than reform – I want to live in a world where families and communities are offered more early intervention support and where there is a greater focus on rehabilitation and restoration rather than punishment and exclusion. I bring the same attitude to my clients; I want to create an environment where whatever thoughts and feelings brought them into therapy can be explored without stigma or judgement, approaching with compassion for the person and encouraging curiosity about the behaviour.

SE: Do you have a role model or mentor? If so, what have you learnt from them that has helped you in your career?

AW: The dramatherapy world is quite small but I have so many heroes!

Sue Jennings founded dramatherapy in the UK and has done some amazing research into shamanic and ritual theatre’s use in healing. More recently she has been advocating for how neuro-dramatic play, between an expectant mother and the child inside of her, can form our first experience of connection and communication – not much early intervention support starts pre-birth. Reading Sue’s work is like reconnecting to the deep roots which nourish the whole dramatherapy community.

My course at Roehampton was created by Steve Mitchell who founded the Ritual Theatre model of dramatherapy and incorporated the explorations of the theatre director Grotowski into the work. Steve won an award recognising his contribution to the field at this year’s UK Dramatherapy conference. I love the way ritual can be used to mark times of change and transformation.

Paul Rebillot was a Gestalt therapist who created a therapeutic version of the hero’s journey which was one of the most inspiring and transformative aspects of the Roehampton dramatherapy course; listening to his podcasts allows him to continue to inspire new generations. This approach inspired a lot of the branding I created for my dramatherapy business Play It Through as I really like the way it frames life as a quest with ourselves cast as the hero, responding when fate comes knocking.

Dr Laura Wood is the President of the North American Drama Therapy Association and I love the way she playfully blends dramatherapy with Internal Families Systems Therapy (Richard Schwartz) to explore how different parts of ourselves respond under pressure and how this can contribute to eating disorders or other self-destructive behaviours. I love watching the way she encourages clients to challenge their beliefs about themselves and slowly open to new possibilities.

Henri Seebohm and Pete Holloway were my tutors at university and remain really inspiring, supportive and encouraging; Pete really wanted us to remember that “everything exists on a spectrum” and “context is everything” so we never approach clients seeing them only as the disease labels they wear. Henri taught me about opening up creativity and playfulness when I felt stuck.

SE: What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

AW: Do it! There are currently four Masters degree courses in dramatherapy in the UK (hopefully soon to be a 5th opening in Scotland), each one has a slightly different focus. Roehampton specialise in Ritual Theatre, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama follow the Sesame approach which is a movement form of dramatherapy, Derby offer Developmental Transformations which is an improvised form and Anglia Ruskin have a module on puppetry in dramatherapy. While each course is unique, whichever one you choose will give the same foundation in the use of drama, stories and the body with a healing intent. Take some time to attend the open days and find out more.

The courses are demanding. There is a lot of psychology theory alongside practical explorations and placements. There are moments in the course where you will be expected to address some of your own material, so that you have experienced how dramatherapy can help, and also to ensure you are able to facilitate client material without being triggered. It may be challenging but it is also transformative; Trust the process!

As it is a new profession there is not always a full time “dramatherapy” job waiting for each graduate when they finish studying; I have been asked many times “drama therapy? Is that therapy for actors?” as not everyone has heard of it. There are some jobs, and dramatherapists are branching out into new areas all the time, many are working full-time but it may take a while to build up the hours. I enjoy working with different client group’s, so I see this as an opportunity; I like that I can set my own hours and that the work I do is meaningful.

I am always happy to talk to new dramatherapist, so if you do have more questions, I would be happy to point you towards some reading or introduction courses or just chat about the field in general.

SE: What are the top 3 things to consider when choosing and pursuing a meaningful and exciting career?

AW: Choose something you are passionate about

Choose something which is meaningful.

Choose something which is inspiring.


To learn more about Amy’s work as a Dramatherapist and to get in touch, you can connect with Play it Through Dramatherapy on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.