Living Citizenship through Popular Theatre, Process Drama and Playbuilding
As a long time drama teacher and teacher of drama teachers I have always professed that drama teaches many life skills including teamwork, the ability to give and receive feedback, and the confidence to explore one's ideas in groups. It has only been recently that I have become aware that those who are involved in certain types of dramatic activities are, in fact, learning and practicing citizenship skills. They learn to make group decisions by listing to one another, debate the points of view expressed and reach courses of action that are informed by the collective. This paper provides three concrete examples of different dramatic experiences and explains how these activities engage students in living citizenship.
Act 1 - Popular Theatre
Two people are on stage sitting on a sofa facing the audience. One, in this case a male, appears to be playing a video game. He is engrossed and virtually unaware of the other's presence. She watches him with the hopes that he might stop soon. He doesn't.
She gets an idea, leans over and tickles him playfully.
He responds with a giggled, "No."
She waits, debating what to do next. She again tries the same tact.
He responds with a firmer, "No."
Rejected, she waits, plotting another move. Finally, she reaches over and covers his eyes.
He looses his "game life" and is now willing to devote some attention toward her.
"Do you want to play?" he asks.
She nods gleefully.
A friendly game of tickle begins with each person reaching over, trying to tag/tickle the other. It is a friendly playful game with each laughing as they both send and receive the tickles.
The audience laughs along with this gleeful but short-lived moment. The game escalates over time with the male enjoying his power over the female more and more.
They end up on the floor, with him on top, tickling her mercilessly.
She asks him to stop by begging, " No, it hurts. I'm serious,
no more. I give up. Please, you're hurting me." There is a black
out immediately after her scream, "Stop it."
In the workshop that follows the audience is invited to rework the scene. The actors start over and the audience is asked to raise their hands when they believe that there is a misuse (unintentional) or abuse (intentional) of power. It doesn't take long for an audience member to respond with a suggestion to the character on how to change his/her behaviour. An early interruption might be, "He is ignoring her." A later one is, "He said, 'no' and she persisted." At times, some don't offer suggestions but come to the stage and try acting it out themselves. In either case, the audience members take the performance's invitation to examine the uses of power. In so doing they begin to explore ways the characters and themselves can live respectful lives together. They, both concretely through living the scene reenactments and abstractly through their comments, practice citizenship.
This is one example of the many scenes that Mirror Theatre, a drama for social change troupe, performs to upper elementary through high school students to assist them in analyzing and articulating their beliefs on appropriate social behavior. As they make suggestions to the actors and debate the actions taken, they become a community of learners who are engaged in a process of what Freire (1971) would consider conscientization. Through the use of the theatrical mirror they are able to determine what they consider to be uses, abuses and misuses of power in their own lives.
On one occasion, when high school students reenacted the "tickle" scene, the male left the stage just prior to the point where the actor usually began the shift from enjoying the playing to enjoying the power. At the end of the day, this male approached the director who was leading the reenactment and said. "I just wanted to let you know that the best thing I did was to walk away." He was able to use the drama to determine his own appropriate course of action.
The above story is one of many taken from the records of Mirror Theatre (Norris, 1998 and 1999). The cast research, co-author and rehearse scenes that invite the audience to examine their own beliefs through their projections on the actions of others. They live in the magical, "what if…" moment examining and reexamining the consequences of particular actions and phrases. The drama, acts like a mirror assist them in articulating what they believe to be appropriate behaviors. They come to their own conclusions rather than experiencing a dictum of top down orders that tell them how to behave. Through the drama they live in a democratic community experiencing it directly, rather than participating in the hidden curriculum of subservience and compliance that is the pervasive in many teaching methods. Through the drama students become aware that they are not only consumers of knowledge but producers as well. They pre-live citizenship as they explore how to live just, responsible and ethical lives. They do it by voicing their current opinions in a thoughtful way, willing to change their ideas as they are informed through the discussions and the drama. They do it, through participation.
This example is one of three major ways in which students come to
understand citizenship by living it. The above example is what would
be considered a "popular theatre performance" (Boal, 1979)
in which the actors do not bring prescriptive scenes to preach at
an audience, but rather present problematic scenes that the audience
must work through. The hidden curriculum of some top-down civics lessons
that lecture on citizenship thereby reinforcing a passive involvement,
is replaced by an active and constructivist (Phillips, 1995) one,
that invites participation.
The social studies teacher enters the room with clipboard in hand signaling to the students that she/he is using the teaching technique, teacher-in-role. He/she speaks. I am sorry the mayor cannot be here today. She was called away late last night by the "governor" inviting her to discuss the new federal funding for highways. This could mean millions of extra dollars to fix your streets that you so badly need. My name is (Make one up) and I represent ward five in the city. The mayor has asked me to take her place and chair this town-hall meeting and convey your thoughts to her when she returns.
You must understand that tonight's meeting is the first in the series to decide what to do about the paper mill. We are aware that a number of citizens want it shut down. They claim the pollutants are making them ill and believe that our city is of such a size that we can get by without it. Others claim that their very livelihood depends upon mill and if it shut down there will be enormous hardship for them and their families. We also have representatives from the mill and the environmental protection agency. The mayor wants me to let you know that she has the best interest of all citizens in mind.
The teacher puts down the clipboard, signaling that this part of the role is over and asks, "What types of people could be at this meeting?" She/he asks questions to expand the brainstorming from the typical polarized choices exploring the complexity of the situation including someone who doesn't want to loose her job but does believe the mill is old and needs replacing and someone who lives near by and wants it closed but has friend and family that work there.
Using this brainstorming the teacher divides the class into groups and asks them to create some characters who will be present. Sheets of paper with character building questions can be given out fleshing out the general role to a specific person (including new names). All are asked, what will their characters gain and loose based upon the mill remaining open or closed and then create good arguments for their position and maybe some solutions.
Once ample time is given the teacher picks up the clipboard and says, "Let's call this meeting to order. Who will like to begin?" The improvisation usually unfold nicely as student have been given ample time to develop their thoughts and the teacher, by choosing the subordinate role of "messenger", can control the drama without being drawn into it. The teacher concludes with, "Thank you for coming to this evenings meeting and I will pass on you thoughts to the mayor."
After the drama is finished the teacher moves to debriefing out
of role. Here questions about the issues are discussed and how democracy
works/doesn't work. Rather than seeking closure the teacher keeps
the discussion going by drawing the students' attention to the complexity
of the situation. Using the magic phrase "What if", variables
can change and new challenges and possibilities unfold from them.
The main point is to look a situation from many perspectives.
These students have been involved in an experiential learning experience that has become known as process drama (O'Neil, 1995). Through various forms of participatory drama activities including role-play students learn first by doing and then by reflecting on the doing. They examine situations they may face and analyze the complexity of the situation. Here too, they could replay it using "what if", trying different approaches until a plausible course of action or change of attitude emerges. In so doing they inform each other what they believe to be appropriate ways of living together. They learn citizenship by living it and the debriefing assists them in understanding it.
Such activities can be a common occurrence in social studies, civics
and citizenship lessons as students begin to be aware of and understand
the people behind the concepts. But it takes a while to learn. Some
teachers have said, "I have tried drama once and it didn't work."
forgetting the many lectures that went through the same process. Process
drama has much to offer and the publications of Bolton (1979 and 1984),
Neelands (1984 and 1990), O'Neill (1995), Wagner (1976) and others
provide many insights to assist teaching in moving toward a "lived-through"
Students are gathered around the room and begin to brainstorm things that they would like to write a play (Collective Creation) about (Berry and Reinbold, 1985 and Norris, 1989). The list grows and it is clear that some students are more excited about a few topics more than others. Students provide their vision of the play that will emerge and why they think that the topic is a good one to do. After each has an opportunity for input the teacher asks, "How are we going to decide?" Different classes arrive at a different course of action, making such decisions unique. Sometimes each student is given four votes and goes to the board with chalk in hand and gives four votes. They debate whether a person could give four votes to one topic or spread them around. They discuss the pros on cons of a secret and public ballot and eventually decide how they will decide. Sometimes before the voting, three or four topics are be collapsed into on, so as not to "split" the vote. For example, teen suicide, drug abuse, bullying and anorexia may be placed under a title "Youth in Need". After the voting is tallied a second vote could be taken allowing each student one vote for the top three or four topics and sometimes a straw ballot is used prior to this point. The teacher carefully adds other decision making possibilities until the students have created a process that works for them. In so doing, they live citizenship at a very fundamental and experiential level.
After the decision both the process and the result are discussed with the students, drawing focus on how the process determined the outcome. It is pointed out the process is an adversarial one where sides are taken and now they all have to regroup and become committed to the one chosen. They realize that the process could leave some feeling alienated and their job is now to be inclusive. At the same time some dissention is encouraged as through diversity other options become available.
Neelands (1984) make this very clear in his book Making Sense of
Throughout the playbuilding process the students are put into groups to research and design scenes that later "may be" placed into their play which will be a series of vignettes on the topic. There they debate, negotiate and sometimes argue over their beliefs about what decisions to make. The teacher talks about conflict resolution, group decision making, collaboration, the value of debates and the need to create a working relationship with each other. Trust and respect make up the foundation of the drama classroom.
Also in rehearsing scripted plays and working on scenes for puppetry, stage lighting, choral speech and a myriad of other dramatic forms, the students are quite engaged in developing the social skills to complete the tacks assigned. This is not secondary but primary to the approach of many drama curriculae. It is recognized that without these social skills, the drama will be lessened.
In conclusion, drama classrooms go a long way in teaching the social,
interpersonal and citizenship skills required for daily living. While
the focus may be on the product, the play, the students themselves
have also produced themselves, as they have learned to work together.
In the first example, students were not drama students but audience
members who were invited to discuss the play that they had seen. In
the second the students were in a social studies lesson and through
a structures role-play saw the complexities of democracy at work.
In the third, they were in a drama class writing making many decisions
on how to decide and what forms their work would take. In all three
they can be actively engaged in exploring/living many citizenship
skills. Drama is a natural learning medium for those who wish students
understand the complexity of citizenship by living it.
Berry, G. and J. Reinbold. 1985. Collective Creation. Edmonton, AADAC.
Boal, A. 1979. Theatre of the oppressed. London, Pluto Press.
Bolton, G. 1979. Towards a Theory of Drama in Education. Burnt Mill,
Bolton, G. 1984. Drama as Education. Burnt Mill, Longman Group Limited.
Freire, P. 1971. "A Few Notions About the Word 'Conscientization'." Hard Cheese 1: 23-28.
Heathcote, D. 1980. Drama as context. Huedersfield, The National
Association for the Teaching
Neelands, J. 1984. Making sense of drama. London, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.
Neelands, J. 1990. Structuring drama work. New York, Cambridge University
Norris, J. 1999. "Representations of violence in schools as co-created by cast and audience during a theatre/drama in education program." In Building Foundations for Safe and Caring Schools: Research on Disruptive Behaviour and Violence, eds. G. Malicky, B. Shapiro, & K. Masurek Edmonton: Duval House Publishing. p. 271-328.
O'Neill, C. 1995. Drama worlds: A framework for process drama. Portsmouth, Heinemann.
Phillips, D. C. 1995. "The good, the bad, and the ugly: The
many faces of constructivism."
Wagner, B. J. 1976. Dorothy Heathcote: Drama as a learning medium.