Webpage Supplement to Chapter 9:

Process Drama in Education

General Considerations

Gustave J. Weltsek-Medina

Slightly Revised, June 6, 2008

The book chapter presents a general overview of this complex subject. In this website, further information is offered for those who might want to learn more.

Further History (Beyond that which is discussed in the book chapter):

Precursors: In the late 18th century, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated an approach to child-rearing and education that was more natural: “The first impulses of nature are always right.” The educator Friedrich Froebel in the early 19th century again supported a more child-centered process in education. Both were attempting to counter the more prevalent approach that views education primarily as instruction, a way to transfer outside knowledge into the student. The teacher was positioned as an expert responsible for making certain that participants “learned” an absolute body of knowledge. Rousseau and Froebel had another view. For them, “learning” took place internally based on an individual’s needs and a teacher was responsible for helping a student explore those intrinsic needs. In this way the child’s needs were placed at the center of the educational experience relocating the teacher to a position of guide or facilitator. As a result of the new child centered approach a discussion about educational Drama arose in England.

Central to the discussion was the importance of process to the learning experience. In the early 20th century, Harriet-Finlay Johnson, school teacher and drama education practitioner felt that too much focus was given to an adult’s interpretation and aesthetic valuation of the product or performance of the plays worked on in schools. She felt that a play should be by and for the student. To Johnson it was not important for the teacher to select a play and then lead the participants through the “proper” skill acquisition necessary to perform that play. Instead, the student should create the play regardless how an adult might perceive the outcome. In other words, Johnson proposed that a child’s aesthetics be the gauge through which the value of the theatrical experience was judged. In this way drama/theatre education might move away from teacher centered to student centered.

Although Johnson’s theories concerned traditional concepts of performance, later adopted by Caldwell Cook and termed “The Play Way,” she described a situation in which the student’s growth was central to the dramatic experience, placing less emphasis on exercises and activities that teach skills directed at production. She contended the mounting of a play could be the end product of a process-centered class. She argued for the importance of the student’s personal experience with and through the drama. Ideally, the subsequent creation would be representative of the student’s vision, rather than that of an adult. Perhaps most important, Johnson felt the creation should not be valued by adult standards and expectations, but rather valued in terms of the student’s experience and needs.

Nearly a century later in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s another group of English Drama Educators reopened the discussion of the purpose of drama/theatre education. This time a distinct separation was made between a traditional teacher centered production orientation from a student centered process orientation. Drama/theatre educator and theorist Brian Way polarized the discussions by questioning whether children should be trained as “professional” actors or if the imaginary nature of the experience in itself held educational value. By stating this Way questioned whether plays/performances of any sort should be part of educational drama. Out of these discussions a “new” understanding arose of what drama/theatre education might facilitate when not focussed on production. It became known as Drama in Education of D.I.E..

Dorothy Heathcote, one of the most famous pioneers of D.I.E., was concerned that the experiences of the participants were being neglected. She maintained that the primary way a student should interact with drama was through an intense personal relationship with the material. Intimate involvement with the presented issues in a dramatic moment would challenge participants to confront not only their understanding of the issue, but also, would be the best way to communicate understanding. The essential difference between Heathcote, Way and Johnson, however, was in their view of final product. Heathcote and Way argued that a final product did not enhance the value of a drama as a learning experience it might in fact hamper it.

Gavin Bolton, a contemporary of Heathcote’s and one of the leading theorists and practitioners of Process Drama, argues that performance, in itself, has educational merit. However, he warns against an understanding of the material prompted by the instructor’s imposed vision, rather than the student’s understanding of the material.  Bolton proposes that both participants and teachers may be misled to believe that the performance of a work necessarily leads to understanding that work. He asserts that unless participants and teachers consciously analyze the politics embedded within a text and in the performance of that text they may simply reproduce the agenda of the playwright, rather than commenting upon it, understanding it or owning the interpretation of it.

Bolton emphasizes the need for intense personal exploration by the participants. He recommends that participants and teachers reevaluate their goals within the dramatic experience and questions the separation between exploration of a theme or issue within the drama and the goal of mounting a production. In this way a Process Drama becomes a medium through which any life experience may be explored, with a focus upon content as opposed to the form of a production.  A great deal of Bolton’s work rests upon the value of D.I.E. as a viable educational strategy. He references Piaget and his distinction between types of play. Piaget observes that children tend to engage in two types of play aiding them in cognitive growth. One form is said to be a repetitive play where the child does the same action over and over again like throwing a ball. It is believed this play helps to develop motor-physical skills. The second form is a pretend play where the child imagines that a fictional world where what happens is up to the child. This type of play, it is believed, helps develop the ability for a child to engage with the world. It is the second type of play that Bolton observes takes place within D.I.E.. Moreover, he feels that individual’s who engage in this type of play through a Process Drama are actually developing complex problem solving skills. These theories are in direct conflict with the theories and practices of a Drama Education system that primarily focuses upon performance and the transmission of those technical skills necessary for a production (Product Drama).

Peter Wright in Australia noted in September, 2006: Process drama is a term used first by Brad Haseman: (ref: Haseman, B. (1991). Improvisation, Process Drama and Dramatic Art. The Drama Magazine - The Journal of National Drama(July), 19-21.) It grows out of the teacher-in-role tradition developed by Dorothy Heathcote (and Gavin Bolton). There are slight variations on a theme. Creative Drama being more game- and sometimes literature-based, Process Drama using strategies to elicit the 'story' from the students themselves.

John O’Toole, in Melbourne, ( j.otoole@unimelb.edu.au) agreed, and emailed that “actually Brad and I both started using the term informally in the years after we wrote dramawise (1988-1990), and coincidentally but obviously serendipitously so was Cecily O'Neill during the same period. Brad used it first in print in that 1991 paper referred to by Peter Wright. My 1992
book The Process of Drama doesn't use the term but does define the genre and the nature of dramatic process and processuality. By 1995 Cecily used it wholeheartedly in her book Drama Worlds, and in the books of her American mentees like Chris Warner and Pam Scheurer. So from then the phrase was established as common parlance. Each of the three of us has been credited with the first use, but Cecily and I are both happy to give it to Brad who really made it a credible term in that 1991 paper ( & who is still in the 'process' of writing the next 'definitive' text on process drama).  

The Debate over Process and Product Drama

Essential to understanding how Process Dramas may function as a means to explore a variety of intense personal, social and educational issues is an understanding of how it differs from the theatrical strategy of improvisation. Dr. Cecily O’Neill postulates that most non-theatre arts people understand the term improvisation to be synonymous with theatre games. This definition carries with it images of games or warm-ups before a performance or rehearsal, as a tool for relaxation or devised as a means to find implicit moments within a scene that may be alluding the performers within a production. There are several essential points made in this definition.

Foremost is the use of the word “games.” In contrast to how improvisation is thought if in process drama, such improvisational exercises in many theatre arts practitioners thinking seems to place this activity in the realm of extras, supplements to some other predetermined outcome. For example, improvisations are viewed as a way to help actors discover the “proper” motivations for the lives of the written characters in a play. The implication in this more traditional approach is that all discoveries the actors make are a direct result of the reality painted by the playwright and interpreted by the director.

The amount of personal exploration and realization involved in this type of improvisation is concurrent to the way in which the exploration benefits the needs of the production. What seems important for theatre artists is not the personal growth of the actor but the growth of the character. Although improvisation may definitely be utilized in this manner, the inference is that it is a supplement to some other more formalized dramatic experience rather than central to learning.

These definitions of improvisation lie in direct opposition to how it is used within Process Dramas. Improvisation is the heart of Process Drama. Through improvisation fictional worlds are created and maintained where participants explore deep personal connections to themes and issues. The improvisations provide the impetus of questions as participants take on fictional roles answering who, what, when, where and why that fictional character exists in the fictional world. In this case, however, the characters traits, actions and justifications for actions are not predetermined or defined by some outside source. Instead, the actions characters take in a Process Drama are determined solely by the participants themselves. The characters lives in a Process Drama can only develop in direct relationship to the lived experiences of the participants themselves.

For example; in the creation of the fictional court room in a scripted play the actor playing the prosecuting attorney may have to hate the defendant because that is what the playwright has written and the director is going for in order to move the plot forward to the climax and subsequent resolution. In a Process Drama, however, the participant who has taken the role of prosecuting attorney may feel empathy for the defendant’s situation and choose to explore the ethics of prosecuting someone whom he or she understands.

The focus of the Process Drama has changed due to the individual participants understanding of a moment and could lead the entire group into a completely different exploration. This definition and use of improvisation argues that more traditional uses and understandings, while providing the individual’s involved a greater sense of the life of a character, do not provide a firm grounding for the development of a dramatic experience and thus a deep personal exploration. Although, the traditional use may assist an individual in freeing up their creative self, it is determinate and exclusive. On the other hand, the view of improvisation as the dramatic experience–an end in itself, not a supplement to something more formal–requires the participants to dive completely into the fiction and discover the life of their character based solely on the participants own lived experiences. In other words, there is no script directing the individual towards answers or solutions. It is up to each person to decide what happens next and why. The only thing you have to base those decisions on is you. Any discoveries that are made within the fictional world benefit the individual and not the forward movement of character development in the plot of a production.

Theory Behind the Method

In order to understand the methods for a Process drama it is important to understand some of the basic theory behind it. To do that it is necessary to get into a brief discussion of three primary theorists, Dorothy Heathcote, Gavin Bolton and Cecily O’Neill.  When examining the basic tenets of Heathcote, Bolton and O’Neill we discover four basic strategies.

The concept of (1) student Empowerment through Questioning and Problem Solving–to be discussed in greater detail in the next few pages-- initially unifies these theorists. It acts as the catalyst, as well as the motivating agent throughout the duration of the dramatic experience. Questioning and Problem Solving may be seen as vital in the remaining three strategies: Living Through, Teacher in Role, and Stepping Out of Role. Living Through is a term coined by Bolton that describes an experience that may occur in any dramatic exercise where the participant has a moment of existential growth. In essence, the participant has allowed her or his own understanding of reality to be used within the drama, and that understanding has changed as a result of the dramatic experience. Stepping Out of Role is a strategy where the Teacher or Student in Role momentarily leaves the reality of the fictional world as a means to insert information relevant to the forward movement of the exploration. It is important to note that all of these strategies, although containing very distinct elements, are used in conjunction with one another, as complementary parts of a whole. An in-depth explanation of each of these strategies in terms of their relationship to each theorist is presented on the related webpage: procdrmethodswb.html.


Through the examination of the basic strategies found in Process Dramas, it is possible to see two distinct approaches to using drama/theatre. These uses have been presented as Process Drama and Product Drama. By comparing and contrasting the various uses of the fundamental strategies of Process Drama:
Questioning,  Living Through,Teacher in Role,Research, and Stepping Out...
 with the basic strategies of Product Drama of:
Skill Acquisition, Script Analysis, Play Production and Assumed Teacher/Director Authority--
  touchstones may be seen that position a strategy as either Process- or Product-oriented.These touchstones will come in handy when constructing a Process Drama exploration. The touchstones for a Process Drama are:
 (1) The emphasis is placed on participants experiencing personal growth through an exploration of their understanding of the issues within dramatic experience
(2) The generated topics are explored through improvisation
(3) Student and teacher share equal places in the development, analysis and production of the drama
 (4) The drama is normally not performed for an audience

Conversely, in a Product driven exploration:
 (1) The student’s personal growth is measured through the learning of skills
 (2) The study is facilitated through a scripted work not of the student’s making
 (3) The teacher transfers her or his interpretation and analysis of the drama
 (4) The primary objective is formal play production
It is hoped that the problem solving strategies discovered in the Process Drama will aid the person in their daily lives should they come across similar problems, whether that problem is ethical, moral, philosophical or mathematical.