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Once more with feeling

Victoria Neumark learns how adult-eating monsters at Sesame drama sessions help children deal with their emotions.

Three little boys are giggling in a heap on the floor as a fourth tries to slide his body through the gaps in their body architecture. Part-way through a session of Sesame drama run by therapist Priscilla Newman, everyone is thoroughly involved and if not "united in transcendence of being", as Sesame's founder Marian Lindkvist put it, at least having an exhilarating time. Or, as one of the eight-year-olds at Lochinver House School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, put it: "Let's do more."

At first glance, though, looking at a small group of middle-class boys at a prep school having after-school fun, a bystander might wonder: is Sesame different from any other drama group?

The group I observed is unusual in that it is not a therapy group, where membership is closed and confidentiality is assured. Much of Sesame's work takes place in residential homes for severely disturbed children, in psychiatric hospitals, with people with learning andor physical disabilities, with autistic adults and children.

For many of these groups, the Sesame approach is to use "Movement with Touch," a kind of emotion-laden physical interaction which has much in common with Laban dance technique. For others, the drama elements are used to carry personal emotions into enactments of myths and rituals from our own and other cultures, accompanied by percussion instruments and singing.

Over the past 30 years, Sesame-trained therapists have helped numerous individuals to grow emotionally and cognitively beyond the confines of their medical diagnoses, as documented in a recent book edited by Jenny Pearson, Discovering the Self Through Drama and Movement.

In developing a way of helping such severely restricted individuals to relate better to their lives through drama and movement, Marian Lindkvist and her colleagues drew not only on the work of mainstream dance and drama teaching (Lindkvist was an actress and Sesame now runs a postgraduate course at the Central School of Speech and Drama) but also on the ethnography of religion and ritual, on the psychoanalytic theories of Jung and Erikson and on their own experiences.

The pattern of sessions which evolved over the years is now being applied more widely, through, for instance, a project running in Chelsea and Islington schools to help children in mainstream education who have emotional and behavioural problems. For these children, as for the open groups at Lochinver school, work with movement and drama is a way to gain access to painful or hidden feelings which may block academic and social development.

At Lochinver school, headmaster Patrick Atkinson has been keen to expand Sesame involvement from two pilot groups in 1992 to Priscilla Newman running a therapy session in a special room, taking part in the school's care programme and running a performance-oriented drama group as well as the two voluntary Sesame sessions (informally used to pick up children with problems) each week.

Children with antisocial tendencies, from being unable to sit still to repeated aggression towards their classmates, have been helped and the return to speaking by an elective mute has been made easier. None of this is done by tackling problems directly (the oblique, narrative approach is the heart of Sesame work).

Back in the gym at Lochinver school, we have wriggled and made shapes with our bodies to express our emotions and now we are off to act out a story which will use some of our physical work.

We live in the jungle (a favourite Sesame setting) in a village. Two (it was one, but two want to try it out) small boys are sent by their wicked uncle to get fruit from the jungle, despite their mother's protests that terrifying monsters guard the tree. The boys are injured by the monsters, return without the fruit and are punished by being sent early to bed.

The next day, at the mother's insistence and against the uncle's disbelief, the whole family sets out for the dangerous tree, only to find that the monsters are real and gobble up the adults. With some pleading, the children prove more merciful than the adults and with the beat of a drum are able to secure their release from the belly of the monsters. Everyone returns home and the uncle promises to be more kindly and "sit with his tea watching the world go by". How much enormous gusto in the wriggling, how much thrilling involvement in strange adult states of mind (like shouting at disobedient sons), how much reminding each other of "what happens next" is revelled in until the session ends with a big shout and a little whisper.

These are all "normal" children, who easily form a group and enjoy trying out their feelings. The second group contains more "damaged" children, says Priscilla Newman, and demands a lot more containing of impatience and demands for attention. ("I know it's exciting to have the musical instruments, Lenny (not his real name), but we agreed to wait.") So as we run to try on piles of imaginary dancing shoes or attempt to shadow dancers with musicians and musicians with dancers, the boys can scarcely bear to wait to hear instructions or for each other to have their turn. They simply cannot play Hug Tag, which demands they hug each other briefly. When it comes to the story-telling of a Native Canadian myth, everyone bar one wants to be the hero, and it's all too clear that the one who says he doesn't want to is just not brave enough to admit he does.

These children are not confident enough to let themselves be a group, but, says Priscilla Newman, within a few months they will be able to take turns, listen to their own and each other's creativity and be happy to touch and be touched. She cites a child she has taught for four years who has left the school and gone on to academic success after being miserable when he arrived.

Already Lenny, with a bit of a gulp, is able to say: "I'll be first; no, I'll wait and be last."

It's so important, says Ms Newman, to allow children a place where they can act out their feelings. Even in the privileged setting a prep school, the human condition, including death, divorce and disability, bears down hard on children. When feelings are delimited as part of a role, they can be assumed or discarded at will. When some great hidden force like destructive anger at a new baby, say, can be acknowledged, even within an improvised play, then the child can begin to accept the scary feelings as part of him or her. Then the feelings are not such a problem any more. Or, as Ms Newman puts it: "It's all about the three Rs: reparation, recognition and reflection."

Details on Sesame practitioners and fees: Sesame Institute UK, Christchurch, 27 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8NY.

Tel: 0171 633 9690 Discovering the Self Through Drama and Movement is available from Jessica Kingsley, 116 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JB. Tel: 0171 833 2307.

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