Research Basis

The Treehouse Theatre program is based on CBT-Exposure Therapy models of trauma recovery and Narrative Therapy, delivered in an environment informed by the trauma recovery goals espoused by Judith Herman (1993). The program draws on Narrative Exposure Therapies (NET) (Schauer, Neuner & Elbert, 2011), Outsider Witness Practices, (Carey, & Russell, 2003) to reduce active symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, ADHD and to improve confidence and relationships.

How Does it Work?

Meets Trauma Recovery Goals:
– Safety
– Attachment
– Purpose
– Dignity

Judith Herman, 1993

What We Do

Twice a year we take about 15 young refugee students from West or South West Sydney. They tell stories in group counselling sessions. We write the scripts and create movement pieces culminating in performances in professional theatres.

The Process

– Recruitment of cast
– Family consent
– Group story telling and counselling
– Scripting stories
– Rehearsal
– Performance
– Evaluation


Based on the ‘Tree of Life’ and ‘Suitcase’ metaphors, the group story telling, rehearsals and performance are organised in the following format:
– Happy childhood stories
– Trauma stories
– Stories of resettlement in Australia
– Celebration

Narrative Therapy
The Tree of Life Project (Ncube, 2006)
The Suitcase Project (Clacherty, 2006)

Our Goals

For the cast:
– Trauma recovery
– Improve English language skills and cross-cultural understanding

For the audience:
– Educate the public (especially school students) about refugees and thus improve community acceptance

What We See in High School

– Tiredness
– Poor concentration/memory
– Headaches and other somatic symptoms
– Disruptive behaviours
– Fighting and violent behaviours
– Social isolation
– Poor attendance
– Poor learning outcomes

Exposure Therapy

Story telling circle and rehearsal process – helps to process the trauma (Schauer, Neuner & Elbert, 2011). Fragmented memories are transformed into a coherent narrative.

The traumatic memories are moved from the emotional and sensory parts of the brain to the cognitive parts of the brain, where they can be contextualised and recalled normally as a past event.

Outside Witness

The process of being heard and understood are key to trauma recovery (Carey and Russell, 2003).

We share stories in a story circle. Often these stories are disclosed for the first time. The telling, listening and the response (witnessing) of the group provides validation and builds deep connection between group members. All of this aids trauma recovery.

The second layer of Witnessing comes from the audience. Their emotional response – laughing, gasping, crying, cheering – provides peer and community validation. Perhaps the ultimate form of acceptance in their new country.

Psycho-Social Education

An important component of Treehouse Program is Psycho-Education.

We provide strategies to cope with anxiety and depression such as regular emotional check-ins, self-observation techniques (body scanning) and relaxation strategies.

We explain how trauma affects the brain and the changes participants are likely to see as they recover from the effects of trauma.

Psycho-Education is often built into the script to reinforce these concepts. For example, a performance piece call the “Trauma Brain” was incorporated into the last 2 shows, “Flashbacks” (2020) and “Survivors” (2021). Students played the roles of the Neo-Cortex, the Thalamus, the Amygdala and the Fight, Flight and Freeze responses.

Another example was a performance piece called the “Effects of Trauma”. This piece involved the filming of student interviews about nightmares, flashbacks, attention, poor sleep and somatic issues. The piece was screened during the show.

Building an Accepting Society

Building an accepting society means changing minds, changing attitudes to refugees. Research shows that “rational argument” does not work (Drew Westen, 2008; Jonathan Haidt 2013). We need an emotional hook, and that is exactly what Treehouse performances provide.

Is the Program Effective?

“Theatre performance that ‘Tree of Life’ provides, gave others and myself the chance to interact and break the ice between us refugee students and Australian general public. On the stage I am able to be who I am, and let the audience know who I am, what I feel, and what I stand for, then wait if they would accept me, and they surely did. This was my second birth, one here in Australia. I was born again as a new person that appreciated his difficult past yet was optimistic about the

— Akeel Abbas, 27 February 2013

Treehouse Evaluation: Collaboration with STARTTS

The Treehouse program was evaluated in collaboration with the Service for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS)

Data included:
1. PTSD and emotional wellbeing questionnaires completed by students before and after the program*2. 
2. Objective measures of attention and impulsivity administered before and after the program*

Tests used:
– The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale – Shortened version (DASS-21; Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995)
– The Child PTSD Symptom Scale (CPSS; Foa et al., 2001)
– The Test of Variables of Attention (TOVA; Greenberg, Holder, Kindschi & Dupuy, 2007)

This data was analysed and presented in a paper by Peter O’Malley entitled Evaluating a Drama Intervention Targeting Symptoms of PTSD, Emotional Distress and Attentional Difficulties in Adolescent Refugees in Australia (Publication pendig as of April 2022). This paper is available at the link below.

Results suggested significant improvement in trauma, depression, attention and anxiety after completing the Treehouse Theatre program.

This powerpoint presentation outlines the Treehouse Theatre process and rationale for helping the children deal with and recover from trauma.


Clacherty, G. (2006). The world in a suitcase: psychosocial support using artwork with refugee children in South Africa, Participatory Learning and Action, Vol 54, April.
Carey, M. & Russell, S. (2003) Outsider witness practices: some answers to commonly asked questions. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work. Vol 2003, Issue 3.
Herman, J. 1993, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, (Revised Ed.) Basic Books.
Haidt, J. (2013) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religions. Vintage Books.
Ncube, N. (2006) The Tree of Life Project. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work. Vol 2006, Issue 1.
Westen, D. (2008) The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Public Affairs.
Schauer, M., Neuner, F., Elbert T. (2011). Narrative Exposure Therapy: A short Term Treatment For Traumatic Stress Disorders. (2nd edition). Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe Publishing
Van der Kolk, B, (2014), The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, 1st edition), Penguin Random House UK.