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Billy King


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Making a drama of a crisis – or of an everyday event

Some notes on drama and related areas in group work

Drama is an important learning tool which should be a part of most facilitators’ tool kits. But terms like 'role play' are sometimes used very loosely. This may be fair enough in many situations but the result can be confusion if the same term means different things to different people – so clarification is often needed. This piece seeks to make a few definitions and explore a few options. 'Role play' and 'drama' have obviously a generic meaning though people can apply them in a very specific way. On the other hand 'Dramatherapy' and 'Psychodrama', which are similar but different, are terms which are much more specific and there are professional training associations associated with them. Some of the following are definitions by practitioners of particular approaches. This piece is not intended as anything like a comprehensive review of dramatic methods.

As always, a facilitator needs to know their own limits, undergo training and accreditation as necessary before using particular techniques, and be prepared to support people who expose their vulnerability or emotion. But using sociodrama or role play to explore political, social and community issues which are unlikely to have much personal trauma associated with them should be safe enough for most reasonably experienced facilitators. Drama is powerful and emotions, such as tears, can be exhibited in which case the facilitator can a) acknowledge the person and the emotion without making it too big an issue in the group, b) check whether the person concerned is happy to continue, where possible checking quietly beside them c) take a break if need be and provide immediate support to the person concerned, and d) check up with them at the end of the session and arrange any necessary support.


While usually thought of in terms of a stage-play, drama in group work is a generic term for enacting a particular situation or series of situations to try to learn from it. The word itself is derived from the Greek for 'action'. The use of drama for personal development has obviously been recognised for a very long time in terms of self confidence and assertiveness.

Dramatherapy offers a special kind of drama where the process rather than the product is the therapeutic vehicle. By providing a safe space for experiment and risk-taking, dramatherapy can initiate the possibility of change, of different ways of being, on the journey to wholeness.
Dramatherapists can be found working in, for example, psychiatric hospitals, hospitals and training centres for mentally handicapped children and adults, educational establishments, residential homes and community organisations.

Psychodrama is a form of group psychotherapy where an individual enacts his/her problems or conflicts instead of talking about them, in a kind of spontaneous sketch, with the support and participation of the group and under the direction of a trained psychotherapist. Insight is gained personally through the action. Essentially personal conflicts are explored. Psychodrama was originally developed by Jacob Moreno.

Role Play
Its purpose is outlined by Martin Jelfs (from "Manual for Action") as follows; "to analyse situations and tactics; to understand people and their roles; to anticipate new situations; to reveal emotive aspects of action; to develop interpersonal skills; to develop strategy and test theory." Role play can generally be thought of as drama in a form of group work looking at the roles people play. More specifically, in nonviolent action training, role play would be used principally as a means of examining the best (= most nonviolent, and least likely to cause violence) response to particular situations. 'Role play' may mean other things in other situations.

Sociodrama involves dramatic enactment of social and cultural issues. The scenes enacted reflect the group's concern about belonging to a particular category, e.g. class, sex, religion, culture, race, age etc., and the effect that this has on their life experience. Essentially sociodrama explores group issues.

Community Drama
'Community drama', for example, was used as a term of convenience by James King and there was a course of that name taught by him at the University of Ulster (UU). Included in that course under the banner of community drama were: 'Theatre of the oppressed' (including Forum and Image Theatre); Playback Theatre; Instant Theatre; Reminiscence Theatre; Aspects of Educational Drama; Dramatherapy Methods; Drama Games; and Street Theatre. Two Theatre and Community modules and an Educational Drama module are now included in the UU drama degree, covering a variety of modes of practice and facilitation skills. The programme team has also been involved in a UK national project on group work in drama, Assessing Group Practice with resources available online.

There are numerous different techniques in storytelling and using it to explore issues, some of these overlap with drama (e.g. ‘hotseating’ where the person sitting in the hot seat adopts a persona/role and answers questions speaking as the person in that role).

A few techniques in sociodrama......

- 'Freezing' action and asides; the drama is halted ('frozen') while the actors answer questions such as 'How are you feeling?'. 'What are you feeling that you're not saying?', 'What would you like to say that you can't say?'

- Doubling. Another person stands behind a participant in the drama (maybe putting a hand on their shoulder) and speaks for them.

- Changing the people playing particular roles (helps to avoid having people 'stuck' in role) and also -

- Role reversal (two people change roles). Extremely useful in helping someone see both sides of a situation.

- Moving the drama on: a drama dealing with a particular protagonist can move from a work or school situation to the home, from there to a social setting such as a pub (dramatically - not literally!), etc., to explore different aspects of the situation. This brings in different people that the protagonist is in contact with and their reactions to the issues.

The reluctant participant…..

“I don’t like/do role play” says the workshop participant or participants. What do you as a facilitator do when you want to use drama to explore the issues? Pushing people beyond their comfort zone can, according to the situation and the individuals concerned, be an occasion for resentment and trouble. There are a number of choices including:
a) Gently encouraging them and enabling them to participate in a ‘safe’ way, e.g. by allowing them to choose their role and checking they are all right. Emphasise that it is about learning, not about anyone’s skills as an actor. Or put off using drama immediately but give support in a break and/or see if there is appropriate support available from others in the group that the person concerned would trust.
b) Not involving everyone in the workshop directly in the drama, thereby allowing individuals to opt out but participate as an observer/reporter – a role which is likely to be required anyway.
c) Doing the drama/role play as a ‘one to one’ so that the reluctant person is in the least threatening position possible of only sharing in a drama with one other person. If this is still too difficult for someone in a one-to-one, the pair can simply discuss the issues and the type of things that might happen.
d) It is a general rule in non-therapeutic drama that, when taking situations for enactment from real situations, actors do not take a role they hold in real life (e.g. someone who was/is bullied in school would not play that role in a drama). This needs to be remembered in the context of a reluctant participant, particularly in case the drama is too close to someone’s heart. But, if someone’s situation is taken, they can have the opportunity to comment afterwards.
e) Avoiding dramatic enactment altogether, at least at the initial stage, by brainstorming what might happen in a certain situation or better still as a flow chart (including different directions the scenario might take). You might then test the water about dramatising it, or choose to dramatise it or part of it using those who are willing.
f) Whatever option chosen, it is good practice to check up after the end of the session with anyone who expressed difficulties as to how they are feeling. They may gain confidence to try it the next time but need to feel in control of what they do. Drawing too much attention to their stand or discomfort in the group is obviously counterproductive but they do need individual attention – the extent to which this is possible depends on the context, time available, and individuals concerned.

…….And remember, drama is usually a fun way to learn.

Copyright INNATE 2016