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Process Drama in the Classroom

When we think of drama in a school setting, we almost always think of the extracurricular activity that involves auditions, role assignments, and a rehearsal period culminating in the performance of a full production. We think lights, costumes, music and movement, forgotten and remembered lines, farewell performances by the seniors and breakout performances from the freshmen. If we’ve been directly involved in a school production, we’ll remember the bonding, the hilarity, the tragedy (there is always drama in the drama department), the late nights of tech week and the dreadful exhilaration of opening night. These are some of the things we associate with primary and secondary school drama.

However, in addition to plays rehearsed and produced, another kind of drama thrives in primary and secondary educational settings, and I am not referring to the drama of corridor cliques and lunchroom love triangles. The other use of drama in an educational setting is drama directed not toward a production, but toward mining the values of the dramatic process itself.

Process drama modifies and employs the strategies commonly associated with a rehearsal process in a reciprocating relationship with conventional curricular subjects. The skills taught through process drama include concentration, cooperation, listening, physical and vocal control, and others. While they may come as sidecars attached to the standard curriculum, these skills are not taught as the focal subject, whereas they are explicitly taught in the rehearsal process. Regardless of whether or where they are taught, they are essential to learning and to life. We will communicate our thoughts more clearly if we can articulate and project. We will listen to our neighbor more closely if we have practiced listening. We will write, speak, think, and indeed do any undertaking more fruitfully if we can focus and concentrate. These last two, focus and concentration, may be the most valuable of all in our fast-paced, distraction-oriented, information-laden society.

The use of process drama is an increasingly common form of arts integration, the classroom technique whereby the subject content and an art form are incorporated into one coherent lesson that meets equally the content and artistic objectives. For some brief examples: students in a history class may stage a mock radio interview of Alexander the Great or Cleopatra. Students in a math class may create a perspective painting as they study proportion.

Process drama can be a lot of fun, and arts integration is an intriguing idea. But two dangers lurk in opposite corners of any arts integrated classroom, and one big obvious monster sits right in the middle of the room, ready to devour the inattentive.

Lurking in the one corner is the danger that drama will detract from the class by becoming a replacement from the designated class subject. That is, the students could end up with an excellent lesson in concentration and improvisation, but no substantial understanding of Alexander the Great or Cleopatra. This is easily avoided by preparing the class content itself before embarking on the drama. In order to play the radio host, students would need to have a list of questions to ask, and after getting a suggested list from the well-prepared teacher, would have to comb through the textbook ahead of time. Likewise, playing the role of Alexander or Cleopatra is contingent on a thorough reading and thoughtful discussion. The better students’ knowledge of the facts, the more sincere and enlightening their answers will be when in role.

The danger lurking in the opposite corner is that the drama skills themselves are neglected, or reduced to the honey on Lucretius’s bitter cup. Lucretius made the arguably perverse claim that art and poetry are sweet confections designed to lure unsuspecting students into studying things they would otherwise hate, specifically philosophy. This bold claim is suspect insofar as it undermines the fundamental value of both poetry and philosophy. If philosophy has to be disguised, then we cannot see its true beauty, and if art is just faultlessly-dressed propaganda, then it is manipulative and destructive, not constructive or creative. No true educator should undermine the value or validity of their offering, and an arts integrated classroom should provide opportunity for growth in both the assigned content and in drama skills.

So much for the two lurkers. The devouring monster in the middle of the room is the danger that the class can become a disorganized free-for-all. In other words, nothing substantial, including drama, ever gets taught, because everyone is having fun doing improv games, drawing pictures, or just bouncing off the walls because they don’t have to sit in their seats. However, this most often happens because the teacher presents the exercise carelessly or as a distraction; hence the need for a careful setup procedure and clear parameters set. While painstaking setups or the minutiae of coaching language might at first seem trivial or only marginally relevant, establishing a disciplined tone signals to the students that this is a real and worthwhile project. Establishing clear rules or parameters gives them the firm footing they need in order to engage fruitfully.

But being wholeheartedly dedicated to two different things at once seems either a paradox or an impossibility. Even with the most careful preparation, how does one teach both drama and the prescribed subject simultaneously? If arts integration is possible as defined, then drama and the subject it accompanies must be oriented toward a common goal, not just their own individual aims. So, how does drama have a common goal with other subjects? How do drama and conventional curriculars enhance each other when exercised together?

The goal of any class, whatever the subject matter, is to help the students grasp something. This “something” may be an intuitive insight, a step forward in clear thinking, or any of the things that we might call lightbulb moments. In these moments of discovery we see and understand something we haven’t seen or understood before. Illumination changes us for the better. And illumination is a gift: it doesn’t happen by force. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The water is a gift, but if the recipient declines, a gift loses purpose. While methods such as compulsory memorization of poems or quizzes on facts are indeed sometimes necessary in the classroom, these can sometimes hamper discovery unless accompanied by other offerings or forms of presentation. This is especially true in a culture that focuses on the visual and on movement. On the other hand, if overused, the methods described above can also reduce teaching and learning to a kind of mechanical checking off of required boxes on a standardized test prep list.

So how do we open the window to let in illumination? What motivates students to drink from the fountain of knowledge? A good place to start is with the idea that we all learn better when we make the lesson our own. The scientist Archimedes expressed his own lightbulb moment by shouting out, “Eureka!” which means, “I found it!” That sense of personal discovery is the heart of all learning.

This is where process drama comes in. Process drama is an effective way to present curricular content as a personal experience. It creates a scenario in which the student is free to explore and discover, and a structured environment in which they can confidently express their thoughts on the given topic. A student who becomes Marie Curie or Isaac Newton wants to express the thoughts of those great scientists well. When they put those thoughts into their own words, they make the ideas their own. It becomes a more personal and a more memorable experience. This is one brief example of how process drama can enhance learning of conventional curricular subjects.

True to the purpose of arts integration, these curricular subjects reciprocate by enhancing learning of drama skills. Random improv games, tongue twisters, stretches, and the like, can teach those skills, but these exercises do not necessarily help the students understand the underlying significance of the skills. Even in production drama such exercises often serve only as warm-ups. They are not the rehearsal, and certainly not the performance. Such exercises need a context and a goal to be most beneficial. In production drama, the objective is the play. We may or may not connect our exercises to a broader understanding. But in process drama, the objective, more directly, is the play of real life. Paired with curricular content, process drama can help us understand ourselves as human beings, whether or not we ever auditioned for a single play. For example, exploring different physical postures in a stand-alone exercise is good, but doing this to understand the changes in character of the boys in Lord of the Flies is much better. In the context of the literature, we gain a more explicit sense of how significant bodily posture is.

To sum up, process drama and the conventional curriculum are each rewarding in their own way. Properly blended in an arts integrated classroom, each enhances the goodness of the other. The next step would be to explore specific process drama strategies and their best applications. These strategies include hot-seating, character interviews, slideshows, theme theatre, and many others. They are far too many to outline here, but are all, done properly, effective, engaging, and nourishing to the learning person.

About the Author

Joseph Bissex

English, Drama, Latin

Joseph lives in Rockville with his dear family, a mountain of books, two mountains of board games, various small animals, and a collection of 150 shot glasses. He can rave endlessly about the awesomeness of Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Tempest, so say “Penelope” or “Prospero” and see what happens. An avid fan of all things theatrical, he has directed and performed in over seventy high school, regional, and community theater productions. He intends to be in every Shakespeare play (17 so far) before shuffling off the old mortal coil. Joseph directs the Omnibus Players of The Heights School. Omnia Omnibus!

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