First published in London and South East Connections Magazine 2004 and updated in August 2021

Overcoming shyness through drama
Claire Schrader at the book launch of From Wallflower to Sunflower

Performing, the pathway to freedom

Once painfully shy, Claire Schrader has devised a unique approach which she now calls the Sunflower Effect. Working through an adapted form of drama, she creates a safe space for shy people to discover their true, authentic selves.

Overcoming shyness through drama

I know what it feels like to wish the ground to open and swallow me up.

I spent the first part of my life being shy. I felt as if I was trapped in a box, always on the fringes of things watching other children participating and enjoying themselves.

I desperately wanted to get out of that box but I didn’t know how to.

overcoming shyness through drama
I preferred to hide away

Greatest Fear = Greatest Freedom

Something inside me told me drama was the way, even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. To go on stage, to expose myself, I would need to let go of what others might be thinking about me.

But in fact, I discovered that our greatest fear is the passage to our greatest freedom. Performance set me free and set me on a life course that I had never dreamed I would follow.

I did it the hard way. A career in drama is not an easy one. Now I help people to find their freedom in the most pain-free and joy-full way. I work mainly through myths and fairytales, which are powerful in their own right, and through performance.

Performing in public is pretty high on most people’s “To be avoided at all costs” list. To stand up in front of others, to be watched equals for many people to be shamed, to look stupid, and to be criticised. It can elicit some of our most uncomfortable moments from childhood and lots of people carefully construct a life that avoids having to ever feel like that again.

Life calls us to Speak-Up

And yet more and more life calls on us to speak up for ourselves, to express ourselves. Career pathways may be blocked as a result of a failure to be competent in that. Maybe alongside that, there’s also a feeling of not quite being alive, of not quite living your potential.

By this measure, performance can be liberating, exciting, bring a sense of achievement, of being in touch with all your senses. Performing can enable you to express something that is beyond yourself: beyond your thoughts, your mind.

Through performing you can engage with yourself and others in a unique way that is also emotionally satisfying. It will free you, and release surprising energies within you.

Would you like to experience this?

overcoming shyness through drama
Participants in one of my more advanced Performance Courses. People who would previously have described themselves as quiet, shy, introverted or lacking in confidence.

The Right Conditions

But before any of this is to happen the conditions have to be right. Even an experienced actor needs the right conditions. Needs preparation before he or she can give their best performance.

The first and most important condition is safety. A safe place in which you have permission to fail, to make mistakes and also to explore. This is an environment, free of interruptions and invasions. Where you won’t be peered at and where you are free to express yourself in whatever way you feel. And too, where you can make a lot of noise if need be.

The most important part of this is the emotional safety that isn’t present in many drama classes. The block to most people’s expression is not just fear of what others think of you, but what you think of yourself. It is the inner observer watching what you do, censuring everything you say and do. It is always trying to control, suppress and constrain your behaviour.

Removing the Inner Critic

So the first thing is to learn how to remove the judge within. This is often known as the inner critic. This will allow you to “be”. It will allow you to live in the moment. Most importantly, it will enable you to respond naturally and instinctively. It will take away the inner pressure to perform well and look good, which is the cause of so many confidence issues. Then it is amazing what you will begin to express. You will begin to find your true voice and your authentic way of moving and behaving.

overcoming shyness through drama
The first thing is to learn is how to disable the inner critic also known as the Cop in the Head

But before you even start “doing” anything, preparation is needed. This takes the form of warming up your body, voice and imagination through games, movement and interaction. These are your tools of expression. You will be learning how to play, and how to express feelings through your voice and body. This may be a new experience for you. of it being fun to express feelings.

This will enable you to release repressed emotions. You will learn how to let your body lead you.


As you learn how to get out of your head, you are ready for the next stage. Working with the drama. I call all the drama-based work we do “exploring”. This is because many people have negative experiences of doing drama. But we are working with drama in a very different way in the Sunflower Effect.

You will be invited to work in a group to explore the aspect of the dramatic story that interests them most. You can choose any way you would like to express the story. This could be through movement, mime, puppetry, music or dramatic enactment.

I have a box of dressing up clothes, hats, brightly coloured fabrics, scarves, shoes, masks and wigs through which people can create their own costumes. There are also musical instruments and simple lighting effects through which to create an emotional atmosphere.

The Power of Being Witnessed

Then comes the moment when the groups are ready to share their “explorations”. This is when you will be moving from the private world of idea-sharing into showing the work to others. Of performing.

But the focus of the performance is on what you experienced when you performed the story. How you felt and what you discovered about yourself in the process. The audience (who are the other group in the course or workshop) thus become “empathic witnesses”. Their watching/witnessing is not as judges assessing the skills of the performers. But as those who empathically bear witness. They are an active part of the process. In their witnessing they assist in empowering those that are performing. This can be very liberating for shy people.

The stories I choose to explore are designed to give many opportunities for self-expression. The story is a structure that gives permission to express a wide range of feelings though dramatic enactment. There will be a number of characters which you can choose from. And it is often the darker characters that permit the expression of feelings that are most beneficial.

Reclaiming Lost Power

Recently I ran a workshop on the Russian story of the Baba Yaga, in which there were a number of unpleasant characters. The Baba Yaga herself (a very nasty Russian witch), an evil stepmother and a number of jealous stepsisters. There was a man in the group who had never done any drama before. He chose to play the stepmother, who had similarities to certain aspects of his own mother. He was thus able to express the aspects of his mother that had impacted him negatively throughout his life.

Instead of being the victim of his mother, he could “be her” and feel very powerful. At the same time he was contributing to the experience of other people in his group. They could enjoy playing against him, confronting him in a safe way and finding their own strength and power in relation to him.

overcoming shyness through drama
The Baba Yaga (a very nasty Russian witch)

Renewed Energy 

Since that experience, he has felt better than he can ever remember. He has renewed energy to do all the things he wants to in his life. He has found more confidence in himself, and is relating to people in a totally new way.

The beauty of working through creativity is that this good for emotional health in detoxifying the body of suppressed feelings that over time can cause physical harm. It can also completely transform the blocked energy into a form that is both aesthetically and emotionally satisfying for the participant.

It never ceases to amaze me how people with very little drama experience can produce spellbinding, complex and fascinating pieces of theatre that outshine most West End productions. (This is without any of the “lovey-dom” and competitiveness associated with the theatrical profession).

Powerful Instinctive Connections

Participants achieve this because of the powerful instinctive connections between group members that would take a director months to achieve, and because of the supportive, non-competitive group atmosphere.

These pieces are so moving to watch because the emotions expressed are very real and keenly felt, bringing laughter and tears. And in the process of expressing these feelings, participants are setting themselves free from self-imposed restrictions, trauma and limitation.

In most of my courses and workshops, the performing part is contained within the group. But I have also worked with a number of different groups creating performances that have a healing intention.

Healing Performance

I experienced this directly for myself, when I created a performance around the death of my father. It was part of my training in dramatherapy. It was the most personal performance I had ever done. After I had finished it, apart from the energy I was able to express through the performance, I felt something very dramatic shift in me. I was in a state of shock for quite a while after that, which was intensely healing.

My relationship with my father had been seen by others and shared in a creative, symbolic form that had drawn out their compassion and empathy. I felt able to mourn and acknowledge my father in a way that enabled me also move on from his death.

Now I am becoming more and more interested in exploring the healing aspects of performance and am in the process of setting up performance courses and projects with a healing intention. One of the positive aspects of working with creativity is that new ideas are continually changing, these come both from my own interests but also from the people I work with. Their creativity and ideas inspire me to develop in new directions in an endless cycle of co-creativity.

A scene from a performance course that I developed subsequent to writing this article

Claire Schrader

(Connections Magazine Dec 2004)


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