(A further) Webpage Supplement to Chapter 9:

Examples of: Process Drama in Education

Gustave J. Weltsek-Medina

September 14, 2006

Examples of using Process Drama in the teaching of:


The following hypothetical example (based on a composite of actual experiences) illustrates some of the principles of Process Drama, drawing on an exploration of William Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

For a moment let us imagine that we are involved in facilitating a class in Shakespeare. The expectations for the school district are that this course serves as an advanced placement English Literature course. The participants involved in this course know that, not only will they get to read Shakespeare, but they will also engage in performance. As the facilitator you want to satisfy the school curriculum, the participants’ expectations and your own need to empower them with a goal to own the educational process. Part of this involves helping the student think critically about the social, cultural, and historical issues implied in the plot.

The play A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been chosen. Already you are confronted with several pedagogical dilemmas. Shakespeare represents a part of the Western canon. Aside from the brilliant construction of character, plot, subplot and the unequaled use of the English language, are the inherent countless opportunities for oppression, repression, and alienation. Of immediate concern might be treatment of the female characters Hermia, Helena, Hypolita, and Titania as subservient to their male counterparts. As Egeus remarks in Act I scene I, “As she is mine, I may dispose of her: which shall be either to this gentleman or to her death, according to our law” (152). Indeed, throughout the play the female characters are beholden to the males, judged in relationship to the males and eventually validated as beings by their love of the males.

Perhaps your concern might not be with the play itself but rather with validating the worth of Shakespeare as a great literary figure while trying to explain to the class that the historical period in which Shakespeare wrote supported the vilification of all minorities. For example the representation of Jews as greedy, lying and unfeeling such as in The Merchant of Venice, or of Africans who where sold as slaves and if represented in a Shakespearean play, as in Othello, were shown to be psychotic murderers. To say nothing of the predicament that ensues when you share that all the roles, in Shakespeare’s plays, were performed by men and boys because it was illegal for women to appear on stage. In truth, in this hypothetical class designed to explore, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are many potential ideological pitfalls one may become victim to.  Through a combination of Product Drama and Process Drama strategies, however, one may use those very pitfalls as a means to share the brilliant characters, plots and the use of the English language, satisfy the school curriculum, mount a production and provide spaces for student ownership.

Process Drama Touchstone One: Exploration

You may be concerned with a few, or all, of the above mentioned pitfalls when exploring A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  However, performing some rudimentary research by speaking with teachers or participants may reveal what topics, texts and assignments are being worked upon in other classes. Perhaps you overhear a conversation take place. On any given day young people stand around and discuss current events, politics, ethical and moral issues. We may view these quorums as gossip or idle chatter, yet with a small amount of critical reflection you might realize that this is the heartbeat of a youthful discourse. For example, after your first class with the group exploring A Midsummer Night’s Dream you hear participants complaining to one another that Shakespeare “seems so boring. Why are we reading that old stuff? They talk so strange. They’re just dead white guys anyway!” Perhaps you hear that in social studies class they are exploring the civil rights movement or maybe the suffragist movement and have similar negative feelings toward those topics as well. As an astute Drama/Theatre Arts educator you will see these conversations as access point through which to dialogue with the participants about their feelings. Simply by posing the question “Why do you feel this way?” facilitator and student/ participants may generate a wide variety of topics and themes.  

Process Drama Touchstone Two: Improvisation

To execute an effective combination of methodologies in you can utilize already active student dialogues and curricular explorations as a means to initiate student oriented dramatic exploration, literary explication and skill acquisition for eventual production. In our hypothetical case the student/participants are already engaged with the concepts of marginalization in their social studies class. A Process Drama exploration may be devised to place participants in positions where they have to confront their own understanding of marginalization. For instance, you might construct a fictional world where the student/participants are people who must decide how to create an exclusive club. In this scenario the concept of marginalization is reduced to its base element of bias. Like in their reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream issues of discrimination, privilege and power will ultimately be revealed. The insights discovered through the Process Drama may be used to engage the student/participants in a more committed reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in so far as they are able to connect their own understanding of marginalization to those experiences that motivate the young lovers to flee Athens. Once the learning group is engaged with the text it is simple to relate how, just like their own Process Drama, the text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was established around a problem or a conflict. Like the Scribian well-made play, both the Shakespearean text and the Process Drama world had characters beholding objectives that led them through an escalating plot structure to a moment of decision or climax that then found a resolution. By initiating a Process Drama improvisation you are providing the learning group with a frame of reference through which one may more closely understand, not only the lives of the characters, but also the very structure of the written play itself. Ultimately you may introduce skill development as a means to assist them in translating their explorations onto the stage.

Product Drama Touchstone One: Skill Acquisition

From initial explorations into your current issue related dialogues you may begin to explore techniques of character development in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By using the participants’ own thematic references the emphasis can be placed on participants experiencing personal growth through an improvised exploration of their understanding of the issues within a scripted play. However, by relating their explorations and discoveries toward discovering literary themes and structures inherent within the Shakespearean text, one has the opportunity to measure a student’s personal growth through the learning of skills. For example you might construct a Process Drama situation where the group confronts obligations to family versus truth to self. This improvisation the situation might find a youth contemplating running away from home. By experiencing the situation once removed from the actual text, the student actor may explore her own relationship to the issue. The connection to Hermia’s dilemma may easily be made and the personal understanding of the issue achieved in the Process Drama utilized as a lens through which one can understand and evaluate the actions of the character in the play. The connections the student/participant makes between his or her life and the lives of the characters during the structured improvisation, provides a rich exploratory space for the examination of character choice and motivation. Moreover once the learning group is thus engaged you may then introduce concepts of movement and vocal production as ways in which the learning group might best share their interpretation of the play with an audience.

Product Drama Touchstone Two: Scripted Material

Once the learning group has explored ideas and themes through improvisation within a fictional world that the group generated from their own personal experiences, experiences can be related to the text, satisfying Product Drama touchstone two’s focus on previously scripted material. However, there is another way in which previously scripted material may be utilized in the combination of Process and Product Drama strategies. Let us consider that you select to share the Egeus quote with group before they ever read the play: “As she is mine, I may dispose of her: which shall be either to this gentleman or to her death, according to our law” (152) thus using it as a Pre-text. The interpretation of Egeus’ thoughts can be taken out of context, explored through improvisation and become a gateway into the reading of the entire play. The Pre-text becomes an incitement, a preview of things to come in the full play. For example, after sharing the quote you might dialogue with the group about the intent behind the words. They do not need any context for the themes of oppression and repression of women to come to the fore. When the group has discussed gender issues you may construct any number of improvisational worlds where the group confronts moments where existential inquiry may take place.
It is through a carefully selected Pre-text that a teacher/facilitator may integrate pre-selected literature into the exploration. In this way touchstone two, for both Process Drama and Product Drama may be simultaneously fulfilled. Although the text is not explored in its original form at this point the inquiry involves related issues and themes by virtue of the Pre-text. Once you begin to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream the interest for exploration has been stimulated and the move from inquiry to mounting the play moves more smoothly. Before performing a script the group should first explore the improvised world as Pre-text. In the hypothetical class the teacher/facilitator might begin the exploration through questioning, “In what situations might people find themselves dealing with issues of female oppression? Where would they live? What would their homes look like?” “What types of jobs would they have?” You will want to ask a series of questions that help to define the parameters of the fictional world in relation to A Midsummer Night’s Dream yet are facilitated through situations that the student/participants would find themselves.

Process and Product Drama Touchstone Three: Shared Responsibility and Teacher/Facilitator Input

When the teacher/facilitator takes on a character she acts as a catalyst to engage the group in the fiction. For example: through a discussion of the Egeus quote the group may have zeroed in on the concept of unwanted advances made in school. You can set the parameters for the improvisation, perhaps a hallway between classes and the characters are people who have just witnessed an incident of harassment. The participants may take on various characters from participants who are friends of the person who was harassed to friends of the person who was seen to harass. The teacher might enter In Role as a person who feels the incident, who must be addressed by the participants. You can encourage group members to take on the problem by themselves.

Through this improvisation discoveries may be made as to the responsibility one has to speaking up for the rights of others. Also issues of gender and sensitivity to personal space could arise. Possibly the group may link the improvisation to ideas of perspectives and interpretations of reality as they negotiate one person’s reading of the moment against another person’s reading of the same moment. As the teacher/facilitator you are proving the group with access points into the ethics and tensions of social interaction. You are also providing access into the concept of personal narratives, which will translate into their reading of the play. Through the improvisation the student/participants become owners of the moment, owners of the narratives and owners of their desire to know.

When the play is presented, the teacher/facilitator helps the group make the transition from their narrative to the narrative of the lives of the characters in the play by recalling moments from the improvisation. For example, perhaps in the above described improvisation the group lights upon the fact that neither individual was correct in their reading of the supposed unwanted advance. Maybe the group explored how there were truths to be found in each person’s interpretation of the moment and that clearer discussion about personal space was needed by the entire school. When reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the teacher/facilitator one might offer the improvised discoveries to Titania and Oberon’s confusion as a link. As the facilitator, once the suggestion is made dialogue with the group takes place and interpretation is shared through questioning during reflection.

Process and Product Drama Touchstone Four: Production and Non-Production

Once the group has explored several different scenarios generated by Process Drama, the group may be encouraged to Step Out of Role and reflect on moments that could directly relate to the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The group selects these moments based on the greatest level of personal and group critical reflection. Returning to the improvisation, devised around unwanted advances explored in the previous section, the group might choose to focus their attention upon the complexity of male versus female perceptions of a moment. In these moments the two methods seem to collide. Now the group enters into the reading of the play with expectations, with a purpose, with a goal to see if their lives and needs are reflected within the Shakespearean text. Interpreting the text now becomes a mission of finding a way to bring their concerns out through the production of the play. The play becomes a vehicle for their needs and concerns.

The moments discovered through improvisation slowly inform the scenes in the play. Participants can create character bibliographies for Shakespearean characters based upon their own life experiences discovered through the improvisation. Following Stanislavsky, you might choose to work on locating “Super Objectives” for their characters, objectives within the scenes, and basic wants. The discoveries in the Process Drama inform the choices. The characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be understood as extensions of the student rather than foreign entities.
At this time the hypothetical situation may turn to exploration of stage directions and blocking so that the group solidifies into the scenes the discoveries they made during improvisational moments. The teacher might also choose to introduce movement exercises to give the group a firm understanding of the ability for the actor to inform the audience through the body. Again the discoveries of the physical life enjoyed in the Process Drama are reinforced, as the group understands the power of the produced play to communicate who they are and what they feel. Similarly vocal production skills may be taught as a means to further the exploration of character and to help participants project their life energy to the audience. A Midsummer Night’s Dream becomes representative of the participants’ lives and not merely an attempt at interpreting the words of Shakespeare.

Through the instigation of Process Drama-oriented exploratory methodologies in tandem with the Product Drama-oriented acquisition of skills necessary for a performance, one may achieve a balance between Process Drama and Product Drama. Teachers are responsible for maintaining equilibrium between the desire to produce an aesthetically pleasing performance by our adult standards and the need for student empowerment via creative license. It is these moments, solidified and shared with an audience, which can make using a balance between Process Drama and Product Drama strategies, a rich and full educational experience. It is these moments we must discover.

Reflective Critical Thinking: An Example

One such moment found the students engaged in a fictional world where the issue of sending young people into an unjust war, where countless lives on both sides are being wasted in the name of freedom, is being explored. At the time of this drama the United States had embarked upon the invasion of Iraq, tearing the country in two as citizens debated the ethics and morality of the military action. Many of the students involved in this drama had family members who were in the military. This highly politically charged issue resulted in students creating characters on both sides of the argument establishing discussions of patriotism, capitalism and even religion. For this group of seventh grade students the issue was very real and very immediate and one, that none of their other teachers, dared to approach.

Feeling abandoned by adults they chose to take the topic on themselves. In one moment a student in role as a parent of a child killed by a missile asked "Do you think we don't love our children?" to a student in the role of a soldier. For the student in role as the soldier this was too much. She stopped the drama and asked us to take a moment to answer the question, "Look, this would never happen. A soldier wouldn't have to answer that question, she'd never ...first of all ...be talking to a mother in war, and secondly she'd probably not speak the language so she wouldn't know what she was saying!" A very real question. Out of role the group discussed her concern, someone suggesting that "Yeah well you never know if she'd talk to her or not and maybe she does speak it." Another recommended that "Doesn't matter this is a drama and anything can happen and besides it's a good question. Our bombs kill kids like us." The student who initially stopped the drama agreed that anything could happen and that it was ok to start again "But remember, this isn't me answering it's the soldier."

When we resumed it turned out the this "soldier" also had a child and that she felt bad about the bombs, that she was only following orders and that she would talk to her commander about it. By pausing the drama and stepping out of role the student was able to address a very uncomfortable position that she found herself in and to discuss the parameters of the fiction. Just how much were we, as a group, willing to allow too happen in this world? Likewise, after the moment was through we again paused the drama, stepped out of role, and reflected upon the soldier’s answers. It was shared that that death and killing were really the issues and that the students were afraid for their family members. If this drama had not occurred these fears would not have been addressed and if out of role discussion had not taken place the students would not have found that other people were going through similar situations. Also, for those who did not have family members involved in the military the drama and reflection provided them with an opportunity to understand the personal ramifications of war.

Cross-Cultural Exploration

In Medina’s work, she and a group of sixth grade Latino/a Spanish speaking English Language Learners, created a fictional world using the bilingual text, Friends from the Other Side /Amigos del otoro Lado, written by Gloria Alzalda, as a trigger for the drama. In the story we find a boy, Joaquin and his mother crossing the Mexican American boarder illegally and seeking refuge in a border town where they meet with support from a girl named Prietita and some hatred from others in the town. For many of the students in Medina’s class, the text mirrored their own journey into the United States. Borrowing from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed strategy of “hot seating,” Medina created a fictional world from a moment in the story that never really happened. This moment was a TV talk show where the border patrol guards were interviewed by an audience of Mexican immigrants. The students in the role of audience members asked the guards why they were doing what they were doing, and whether or not they cared that they were hurting families and children. Here we can see that process drama differs from more traditional forms of theatre in that production for an audience is not the goal; rather, a fictional world is imagined, developed and the participants take on roles in that world where only their ideas direct the characters actions, not a script.

An application in Science: Gus Weltsek (the chapter’s author) created a drama was in which the class became a group of scientists trying to find a chemical formula that dissolves zinc. The students took on various roles: One was a research chemist; another, a custodian in the building who also was a genius about chemistry; a third became a representative of an outside funding agency demanding the solution, and so on. The teacher was integrated into the drama as a lab technician. By taking a somewhat subordinate role the teacher was able to "step aside" and allow the students the space to "be in charge", where the teacher's role as assistant positioned him to take orders. Within this capacity the teacher/facilitator still made suggestions and offered options that aided the explorations. In the search for something that dissolved zinc, the students tried several combinations of solutions of bases and acids. However, in their eagerness they missed trying a pure solution of hydrochloric acid, which dissolves zinc like a charm. In role the teacher offered trying pure solutions and not combinations. In this way the teacher/facilitator lead the group to an answer yet did not provide them with one.

Social Studies

A 12th grade social studies teacher has a unit on the effects of "globalization," more specifically considering what is really involved in reducing tariffs and opening commerce to free market effects. There might be a bit of preliminary reading to become warmed up to some of the issues, but the core of the class happens on day three: Perhaps you utilize Mantle of The Expert and have the students form the Multi-National Corporation and their problem is to determine what recourse they might be able to extract from a certain location.

A small town in Ohio has a multi- national corporation move in. A number of component scenes are held: In the first scene, the executives of the corporation discuss what the implications are of moving to this location. What can they get? How can they use the local resources? What problems might they have relocating the locals? What are the ecological laws of the area that might impact the potential? The teacher helps generate these questions through a discussion period aimed and the creation of a wide variety of focal points. The students then construct the company from the ground up, selecting positions in the company, mission statements, figuring out expenses, researching legal issues as well as solving the initial problem. In this way the students come to understand more about the complexity of international business and finances.

Several days later, the theme continues, but the setting and scene changes: The class members are now the people who live in the town in Ohio that is going to be taken over by the aforementioned Multi-National Corporation. The drama would revolve around constructing their town, their identities and lives within that town and eventually the possibility of losing their town, their homes and their identities. What problems and issues might these people face? Finally, perhaps you select members to represent each of the groups, the Multi-National and the Towns People and bring them together to discuss the proposed take over. What transpires is an intense personal connection to the larger issue of Globalization and a world market economy. By creating the drama the students have "become" the participants in global financing and have had to use their own sense of ethics to navigate the fictional world. In this way students must confront, not an outside sources decisions on what they "should know," rather they decide what they do know.