Sally Bailey got into theater to try to change the world through art.
Bailey, the director of K-State’s drama therapy program, believes drama therapy is her way of doing that. She said she has seen how it can help people. She tries to take her students into the community to bring drama therapy to as many people as possible.
“I love facilitating someone getting in touch with their creativity, because I think that’s a power they have been cut off from,” she said. “And when somebody is back in touch with their creativity, their whole body changes in that moment. Their belief in themselves changes.”
Bailey took over K-State’s drama therapy program in 1999. Prior to that, she had been working in theater in Washington, D.C. She took over a program that focused on recovering drug addicts and tried to learn more about drama therapy. When she got into the field, there was little research about it.
“I said I’ll just get a couple of books and I’ll be able to figure it out and get supervision from my drama therapy mentor, and there were no books on drama therapy for people with disabilities, so I had to write it,” Bailey said.
She has since written three books about theater for people with special needs. She knew quickly that she had found the job for her because she saw the impact it had on people who were struggling.
“After the first group I said this is what I want to use theater for,” Bailey said.
She founded a program in D.C. called Barrier-Free Theatre, which aims to help people with mental and physical disabilities. K-State’s incarnation was looking for a director at the same time Bailey was moving to Manhattan, so she took on those responsibilites as well.
Bailey has worked with people with a range of issues, from drug addiction to autism to dementia. She said the skills learned through drama therapy can help people communicate, deal with emotions or exercise their mind.
“Drama has been proven to really help physical and mental health,” Bailey said.
She said a typical drama therapy activity will begin with checking on participants’ emotions (such as “I’m happy today” or “I’m frustrated”). If someone had a rough day, then the rest of the group knows that, Bailey said. They will move on to warm-up games to further help them connect to the rest of the group. After working on their main task, which can be everything from preparing a performance to improv games, the group has a conversation about what they learned.
“It’s the same thing every time you get together so there’s that safety in knowing what the routine is,” Bailey said.
Bailey’s work with her students is very hands-on, and she looks at teaching as a way to expand drama therapy. She said although she can only do so much as one person, her students can spread her message further.
“Being able to supervise students is very gratifying, because not only are you teaching the students you’re working with but you’re helping them add value into the place everyone is living,” she said.
Bailey makes it a point to create opportunities for herself and her students to work with other community entities, like the school district, the library and retirement communities. It gets her students experience and a chance to make a difference outside the classroom. Bailey herself also often participates as well.
“At so many different levels, you can contribute to the community,” she said. “That helps the students learn so much more. It’s not theoretical then, it’s real. And it helps the community benefit from having the university in town.”
Bailey said the support of K-State has been invaluable to her program and that it is part of why the department has grown. She said the university has always understood what she was trying to do.
Jennifer Vellenga, associate director in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, said Bailey been a proud advocate for drama therapy.
“Sally is a treasure,” Vellenga said. “She cares tremendously about the community and her students. She is thoughtful, creative and a great colleague who is always championing the work of faculty, students, and her beloved special populations.”
In working with students, Bailey said she enjoys working with people from all sorts of fields, because she likes connecting the skills used in drama therapy to other areas. She said she thinks the concepts can be useful for students in communications or pre-med majors.
“It has really changed the way they’re able to relate to other people, and it’s gotten them back in touch with their creativity,” she said. “And it’s gotten people back in touch with the permission to play, which is one of the most special things one can do.”
Bailey said she has seen the profession grow over her decades in it. Another professor will join the department this semester. Agencies that were once asking for other therapy type jobs are now asking specifically for drama therapists.
“Once they hire a drama therapist, they only want a drama therapist,” Bailey said.
She said when people finish a drama therapy program, it’s uplifting for those around them to see the change.
“I get to see somebody achieve something they’ve never achieve before and have their friends and parents be blown away by it and see them in a new way,” Bailey said.
She said she sees how the power of theater can help people connect with humanity, and that using imagination and play is natural and universal.
“Drama therapists can work with just about any kind of person, because it takes into action and practicing how to change what’s wrong and make it right,” she said.