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Posted on Tuesday 21st July 2015 by Melanie Boyd

Melanie Boyd is the International Health Humanities Network Canadian Correspondent. This is the third in her series of interview-based articles featuring Canadians engaged in Health Humanities work. In this edition, you’ll meet:

~Andrea Halwas, Ph.D.
~Dr. Nicholas Nicholas, MB
~Little Bear, Assistant to Dr. Nicholas

Calgary, Alberta


As Dr. Andrea Halwas settled in my office, I went off to make us some tea. By the time I returned, two more guests had arrived. One, dressed entirely in white and equipped with stethoscope and head mirror, clearly was a doctor. The other, perched beside him on my desk, wore brown but nothing to indicate his profession. Both, I should note, were teddy bears.

I’d hoped Andrea would bring her colleagues, Dr. Nicholas Nicholas (aka Nicki) and Little Bear.  After introductions – in which I noted Nicki’s gregarious, talkative nature, and Little Bear’s demure, silent one – we began….

MB: Andrea, you completed undergraduate and Masters degrees in drama. What led you to an interdisciplinary doctorate combining theatre and therapy?

AH: After I lost my father in a farm accident, I felt raw grief for the first time. I wanted to know I’d be okay, so I started searching for stories and memoirs of people who’d gone through the same thing and come out the other side of it. For example, I drew from Victor Frankl. His logo therapy spoke to me because I was looking for a way to find meaning in the world after my dad died.

MB: How did that connect with drama?

AH: I became interested in examining the therapeutic effects that dramatic tragedy might have on individuals facing difficult life experiences. So I wrote and produced a play – a tragedy – and then interviewed performers and audience members about the play and its characters, as well as what the play meant to them. In those interviews, what didn’t surprise me is that everyone had been through loss, but that everyone was motivated to share their story.

MB: What did you draw from this insight?

AH: It led to a major turning point in my thesis. The arts have always existed. Although we sometimes think of them as entertainment, they are a crucial part of how we relate to each other, and how we attach significance and meaning to our life experiences. We do go to theatre, to tragedies, to sad movies to find a sense of how other people deal with loss. And we find ways to deal with it ourselves through the safety of the once removed. In knowing others go through this, we also find community. We’re not alone.

MB: Tell me more about the play you wrote.

AH: It was about saying goodbye, and I guess I needed to do it in a really big way – a theatre production! [laughing] The play was my research, but I put myself in the research as far as I could to see if it was working for me, so it was reflective as well. And it did work. It really helped me make sense of losing my dad. So going through the experience of my father’s death and this research process, I felt that I’d earned the right to walk with people who’ve lost someone. But everyone has their own way to grieve, and all of them are right.

MB: How does your research translate into your current work as an Expressive Arts Therapist?

AH: A big component of my work is based on the fact that we don’t have to be defined by our stories. We have stories, but can move forward from them and redefine ourselves. For example, someone going through an illness might think: “I am cancer; this is now my life.” No, you can have cancer but you can tell your new story and become who you really want to be.

MB: So you’re not just addressing death and grieving?

AH: I use techniques from drama therapy to assist individuals going through difficult times in life – be it loss, bereavement, trauma, illness.  It’s going back to Augusto Boal’s idea of Theatre of the Oppressed: you can change the outcome of a scene in an improvisation. You don’t have to follow the scene the way it seems to be going. You have the power to alter what’s happening.

MB: How does it work?

AH: In talk therapy, there’s mindful control over what you tell your therapist. Your logical left brain tries to reason and organize all of your experiences coherently, without consulting the accompanying emotion for each of them. With improvisation and drama, once you get up and moving, you begin to embody your emotions. And – this is key – in improv you can’t say ‘no’ or block what’s offered you by another person. Instead, you have the control and power to explore ‘what if.’ Newfound inventiveness takes over and you’re able to tap into the rich information and emotion that your brain’s creative right side was trying to express. 

MB Can you give me an example:?

AH: If we’re doing a scene and I say, “Do you want to go for ice cream?” and you say, “No,” the scene ends right there and we have nowhere to explore. So in some way you have to say yes. Like “Sure, let’s go for ice cream,” or “Sure, but only if we take my pet bunny,” and then we explore what that looks like. Anything goes. You follow the impulse.  We were on our way for ice cream and now we’re riding unicorns. You’re allowed to go wherever you want in this creative sense, and really profound things come out of it.

MB: So if I’m the person in therapy, I can’t ignore the instances where the ideas and responses in the improv come from me. I see they aren’t fixed by my habitual thinking.

CW: Right. Improv allows you to act out those ideas, to experiment, and to follow through in a safe, confidential space.  It provides options and gives you a chance to try them out. Afterwards, we debrief and talk about what came up, how it felt. And that’s where you start making connections back to issues in your life. The more you do improv, the more creative you become in your responses to real life situations.

MB: How do Nicki and Little Bear fit into all this?

[With this, Andrea lifts the bears from their perch on my desk, sets them on her lap and directs a question to them.]

AH: Are you two okay with me answering that question?

NN (via AH in Nicki voice): It’s okay, Andrea, but I reserve the right to correct you.

AH: Of course, Nicki, and I’m sure you will. Little Bear?

[Little Bear leans into Nicki and whispers in his ear.]

NN: Little Bear says it’s okay.

AH: Thanks guys. Like me, Nicki and Little Bear suffered family loss and trauma. Nicki’s very special mom died, and Little Bear got separated from his family when they were taken to the zoo.  Nicki wanted to share his mom’s optimism and love for the world and people, so he trekked south from the North Pole and completed his medical training at the Rocky Mountain Bear Hospital.

NN: Where I got my Medical Bear credentials.

AH: Yes, Nicki, your MB. Sorry I forgot to mention that. And you ran into Little Bear after he’d been wandering alone for a long time…

NN: I took him under my wing – I mean paw – and we’ve been together ever since.

[Little Bear whispers something to Nicki]

NN: Little Bear wants me to mention that I talk for him, but I say exactly what he says. I don’t make it up. 

AH: But you have other ways of talking don’t you, Little Bear?  You wave, and shake your head, and kiss and cuddle, stuff like that, right? 

[Little Bear nods vigorously, aided by AH]

AH: The three of us work together with individuals or families.  Although I have an idea of what I want to accomplish in a session, I must be able to react in the moment and go with what I’m given.  I always open the session (as myself) to create a context before I introduce Nicki and Little Bear, who take over from there.

MB: How would a typical session go?

AH: Nicki is voice of the work. He tells their stories, about where they’ve come from to be who they are today, who that had to say goodbye to – so there’s this idea of growth and progression in their work. They were inspired by people in their lives – or bears in this case!

MB: Do you – I mean do Nicki and Little Bear – improvise the session in the way we discussed earlier?

AH: Definitely. And clients as well. Plus, when Nicki and Little Bear work one-on-one, they have to be willing to explore what the client brings to a session – to be willing to shift gears to best suit the client’s need. For example, they might move from improv to music, storytelling, art making, or creative writing.  Sometimes they bring friends along.

MB: Friends?

AH: Yes, other puppets.

NN: We’re not puppets, we’re bears!

AH:  It’s true, you’re both bears, but when you bring friends, they’re the kind of puppets people put on their hands.

MB: Why the difference?

AH: Hand puppets are easier for people to use. But for Nicki and Little Bear I chose traditional teddy bears because I want people to see they don’t need anything fancy – like an expensive puppet – to be powerful, to stimulate the imagination, to have them let go and believe in the story. It can happen with a teddy bear they already have on their bed.

MB: Can you give me an example of a session where Nicki and Little Bear bring friends?

AH: Whether puppet friends come along or not, it can take a while for people to find their creative voices, so we begin sessions with warm-up and improv activities. The big thing is this: if I create a safe world of drama and play – through Nicki and Little Bear – they’re more willing to come along in terms of characterization and vocal work.

MB: And after warm-ups?

AH: Each person gets a puppet – for example, from a family of ocean puppets – and they create a story for them. Their assignment is to figure out who they as are as puppets and how they know each other. Then they might be given a conflict that they have to work through – in puppet character. This starts to teach the human family some of their problems and the methods they use to solve them.together, finding new ways to deal with a situation, to become more creative and free.

MB: Is this always evident to the family?

AH: I end the session as myself, so I can debrief and help the family uncover some of those things. After a few sessions, they’re often surprised to find they’ve opened up to new ways of responding.

MB: Are you involved with any other client groups?

AH: Since 2013, I’ve worked in Calgary for Carya in their Act Out Program and Creative Classroom Program, where students use drama as a conduit for self-expression and building resiliency. And I’ve led expressive art therapy exercises with mixed ability and special needs adults through Inside Out Theatre. Recently, I joined Juno House, where I run Girls’ Groups and work one-on-one using expressive arts. I’ve worked in the Healing Arts Program at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, offering arts-based program for children and their families facing cancer diagnosis and treatment. And I’ve offered expressive arts consulting to YOUth Riot (Third Street Theatre), Woods Homes and Wellspring Calgary.

MB: That’s an extensive list! I see your focus is youth and families.

AH: I’m starting to work with individual adults, too.

MB: Adults and teddy bears?!

AH: It doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve had some great success with adults breaking through old issues with improvisation, including with Nicki and Little Bear. Creative arts therapies are a resource to help someone having difficulty getting to a trauma, expressing it, and finding ways to work through it in traditional talk therapy. So my work with drama helps find another way in.  But it also helps people become more resilient when they’re facing real life challenges. They have new tools in their belt to deal with them.

MB: Thanks very much, Andrea. This is fascinating work. Nicki and Little Bear, is there anything you want to add before you go?

[Little Bear leans into Nicki to whisper a message.]

NN: Little Bear wonders if he could give you a kiss goodbye….


For more information on Nicki & Little Bear:

On Andrea:



Humanities Subjects

Health Care Areas

  • Arts & Humanities Research Council
  • The  institue of mental health nottingham
  • National Institute of Health
  • Centre for Advanced Studies
  • The University of Nottingham United Kingdom China Malaysia
  • De Montfort University Leicester
  • OPPNET Basic Behaviour & Social Science Opportunity Network