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Theatrical pedagogy and interactive service.


Students in a University of Montana Drama class create dramatic programs for K-12 classrooms as part of their service learning. An interactive, performance-based lesson on the parts of speech created for fourth graders is offered as an example of how theatre can be used to teach discrete academic or social subjects. As the university students gain valuable information about drama and pedagogy from the fourth graders, they learn a valuable lesson themselves: they are not the only ones providing a service.

Theatre in Education: The Model

In 1965 the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, England began an educational project that sought to explore the value of theatre as an educational method. The result of this endeavor was the creation of a unique form of contemporary theatre called Theatre in Education (TIE), which uses theatre in the service of education. This method, although still not prevalent in the United States, has become quite celebrated in the United Kingdom. There, numerous TIE troupes operating with both local and national backing travel to schools and agencies to facilitate theatrical programs.

A simple definition of TIE does not exist, but there are several characteristics that distinguish it from other types of educational theatre such as children's theatre. First and foremost, Theatre in Education uses drama as the primary teaching tool by offering students an interactive experience. Although a traditional play is often part of a TIE experience, TIE is not merely a play designed to educate; it is an entire program that asks audience members to actively engage with the performers before the play, after the play, and even during the play. Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal's coinage of the term spect-actor (1992 p. 19), to describe one who simultaneously observes and acts elucidates the TIE philosophy of audience and performer interplay. In a TIE program, both performer and audience member are spect-actors, conspiring together to gather knowledge and then to put their new knowledge into practice.

Another characteristic of TIE programs is that the subject matter arises out of the social and curricular needs of the audience in question. TIE companies produce programs that seek to address subjects and issues pertinent to the audience. For example, if an elementary class is having problems with bullying, a TIE program could include a play about a young boy who is taunted by his classmates or picked on by the older children who share his bus ride home. TIE does not discriminate when it comes to the subjects to be presented and explored. It is inclusive of every social issue and academic area.

Finally TIE seeks to develop, in its participants, an intense interest in the subject discussed in the program. The goal is for everyone to head out of the program with an impetus to learn even more about the subject presented. This interest should be cultivated so much so that the spect-actor seeks to reflect on and engage with the subject outside of the traditional classroom or theatre space. This component of Theatre in Education completes the experience by authentically connecting the subject taught to the participant's real world. Ideally a student who experiences a TIE program about bullying will be able to apply some of what they learn in the theatrical lesson to their real life. Whether the participant is a bully, a victim, or a bystander, the program should offer them tools so that they are able to change their actions and behaviors in the future.

Theatrical Pedagogy: The Form

Students in my University of Montana service-learning course Theatrical Pedagogy study the theories and styles of the Theatre in Education movement in order to develop what I have come to call, "interactive, performance-based lessons" for K-12 classrooms in Missoula, Montana. I refer to the students in this class as "actor-teachers," the term used by the Belgrade Theatre in 1965 to denote a new type of "hybrid" actor (Williams, 1993 p. 91) who is both a gifted dramatic performer and educator. The first year I offered this course, the actor-teachers created twelve original programs for populations ranging from a first-grade classroom to the entire junior and senior classes at an alternative high school to university professors at the annual conference for the American Alliance for Theatre and Education in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The programs the class created addressed both academic subjects and social issues and covered such topics as arachnids, geography, gun safety, and the parts of speech. After reflecting on and evaluating the approach used by the first Theatrical Pedagogy class used to create their programs, I drafted a specific process to guide future students as they designed additional interactive, performance-based lessons. It is this process and the connections to service learning that I wish to share in this essay.

Seeking to unite the power of the dramatic experience with components of experiential learning--knowledge, activity, and reflection--the Theatrical Pedagogy students follow three basic steps as they design each interactive, performance-based lesson. First, they work with the classroom teacher to develop an introductory lesson on a subject that is pertinent to her students' needs. This lesson, which typically runs about 45-minutes, is implemented by the classroom teacher the day before the University of Montana class visits the school. Second, the actor-teachers write an original play that focuses on the subject matter dealt with in the introductory lesson. This play is short (anywhere from 10-25 minutes) and typically ends with a problem. The university performers then break the traditional theatrical illusion and turn to the students to ask them to enter into the action of the play in order to help. Finally, there is a reflection that takes place on two levels: first with the combined group of actor-teachers and classroom students in order to express individual and group responses to the subject matter, and later with the actor-teachers alone to discuss the methods used in the program in order to celebrate what worked and to consider what could have been done differently both in terms of process and product.

Theatrical Pedagogy: Process and Product

The introductory lesson designed in collaboration with the classroom teacher is intended to prepare the K-12 students for the interactive lesson they will soon experience by introducing information critical to the subject matter. Since it is the classroom teacher who delivers the material, there must be a clear lesson plan with ascertainable purpose, content and outcomes. This lesson works in tandem with the play that is to be performed by the actor-teachers. For example, a recent Theatrical Pedagogy program for fourth graders at Chief Charlo Elementary School in Missoula titled, Zagnut is a Noun, included an introductory lesson that familiarized the students with the parts of speech. The goal was to help the students understand how the parts work together to create meaning. For the introductory lesson the UM class has the classroom teacher, Mr. Dan Adcock, place approximately fifteen large index cards with words written on them on the board. He then chose two cards from the group: Mr. Adcock and danced. He placed these cards above the others and invited the question: How can we make this sentence more interesting? The students responded verbally first and Mr. Adcock then asked individuals to come up to the board and to take other index cards with a word written on them to add to the sentence. The part of speech of each word was then named and discussed. Next, the students were broken up into groups of five or six and each group was given a small bag including a blank piece of paper, a glue stick, and approximately 150 words cut up individually. The mission of each group was to collaborate to write a short story using only the words they were given. Each group then read their story aloud to the class. Finally the groups were asked to choose their favorite sentence from their story to dramatize and perform for the actor-teachers from the University of Montana who were visiting the following day.

The second step of our process entails both an original conventional play and later, audience interaction with the characters and events of the play. The original play begins in a typical theatrical fashion: the audience watches the performers interact with one another. This play contains information essential to the discussion of the subject matter and it ends with a problem--one that the characters cannot solve alone. In the case of the "Zagnut" program, the play opened with the classroom teacher, Mr. Adcock, reading a story that used the exact words the fourth graders had used to write their short stories:
 Twenty full moons ago, in the autumn of the year, a spirit named
 Zagnut learned to write. Zagnut was lean and strong with a gentle
 voice and a joyful temper. She had four sisters and one brother and
 they were very close. However, they had one terrible problem: they
 were constantly harassed by an evil warlock. One day Zagnut could
 stand it no more. "Enough," she told her family. "We must find a
 way to make peace with our enemy forever." Her brother and sisters
 agreed in unison, "What can we do?" The spirits decided to
 challenge the warlock to a writing contest. Everyone knew that
 language skills were his greatest asset and most powerful tool.
 When Zagnut was chosen to represent them in the contest she became
 sad and withdrawn. "I cannot write," she moaned. "I mean, I know
 how to write words, but I don't know how to put them together."

This story not only provided a bridge between the exercise the fourth graders had engaged in the previous day and the interactive lesson, but it presented the plot and characters of the original play to the students. As Mr. Adcock read the story aloud, the characters sprang to life in front of the children, jumping up from the audience onto the stage as they were introduced. In the dialogue of the play that followed this reading, Zagnut and her siblings bemoan their lack of writing skills, particularly their understanding of the parts of speech. Mr. Adcock interrupts their futile attempts to create sentences to offer his help. He tells them that he happens to be working on the parts of speech with his fourth graders and that he is certain that his brilliant students would be glad to help the struggling writers.

It is part of our process to ask audiences to participate in the dramatic fiction by playing roles alongside the actor-teachers. By contributing to the action and providing much needed information on the parts of speech, the passive audience became activated and entered Zagnut's world to work alongside the UM actor-teachers. The stage shifted to encompass everyone in the room and the fourth graders actually became characters in the play. Here, the students were required to apply their knowledge of the parts of speech to help Zagnut and her siblings solve their problem. At this point in the program we had Mr. Adcock break his class up into groups of approximately four or five and each small group was assigned one character to tutor. The groups worked together with both Mr. Adcock and myself monitoring their work and it was here that the fourth graders really helped to teach Zagnut and her siblings the parts of speech. After the small group work, the ensemble of spect-actors reconvened to witness the contest between Zagnut and the warlock. Throughout the contest Zagnut continued to ask the fourth graders for help.

Reflection is the final step in any service-learning process. In the case of the Theatrical Pedagogy course this involves an activity that takes the subject matter outside of the theatrical experience and the classroom and into the student's consciousness. This activity seeks to encourage the classroom student to pursue the subject outside of the school environment. My service-learning students approach the practice of reflection in a number of ways, always with the goal of focusing on how the experience contributes to the student's understanding of the subject matter. We typically implement a group closing activity at the end of each program that seeks to pull everyone back together in order to discuss the subject and to mediate upon the ways in which the knowledge has been synthesized; however, we continue to experiment with other techniques ranging from individual homework assignments to class projects, and even other theatrical performances in addition to the closing activity. More often than not ! find the reflections that take place via performances to be the most successful because they ask the students to articulate their understanding of the subject matter in the way that was modeled for them by the university students. In the case of the Zagnut program, Mr. Adcock's students wrote about what they learned from the interactive program and they also utilized some of the dramatic techniques we brought to their classroom when they performed their own play for their parents later on that month.

Conclusion: Natural Connections

In their article, "Pedagogy Applied to Nonformal Education," Stephan Carlson and Sue Maxa discuss Dewey's experiential learning as being a "cooperative enterprise that awakens the learner's curiosity and intelligence" (48). A "cooperative enterprise" inherent in both the interactive, theatrical lesson and in the service-learning project provides both the university students and their K-12 community counterparts the opportunity to simultaneously teach and learn. Just as Augusto Boal's spect-actor must simultaneously observe and act, so must all of the participants of a Theatrical Pedagogy program. Driving away from the first classroom visitation in 2001, my students discussed what they had learned from the experience. "The best way to reach young kids is with full-blown, over-the-top endless enthusiasm. The kids not only learned about spiders [the subject of the first interactive lesson], but they learned that learning can be interesting and so did 1," piped one young woman from the back seat, and another summarized what many of the troupe members were trying to articulate, "I learned that the subject of the lesson and an emotionally supportive teaching environment cannot be mutually exclusive."

Service learning is reciprocal, experiential learning in which both the university "provider" and the community "partner" benefit from an educational experience. The term "provider" is used for the academic institution merely because the college classroom site is typically where the project is initiated; however, the terms "provider" and "partner" quickly become interchangeable. Service learning courses do provide a service to a community organization, but what they gain in return often goes well beyond what is offered. Edward Zlotkowski discusses this component in his article "Pedagogy and Engagement," when he states that service learning "deliberately seeks to reverse the long-established academic practice of using the community for the academy's own ends" (p. 82). Service-learning projects may be authored by academic institutions, but in practice it is the community partner that provides the rare and authentic experiential learning opportunity for the university population by offering their organization up as communal teaching and learning site.

As is typical of many first time service-learners, my students originally looked on the classroom visitation as a teaching opportunity; they were right but they were not the only ones doing the teaching. The first class of Theatrical Pedagogy students was excited and intrigued by what they had just witnessed as they headed back to the university after visiting Mr. Adcock's classroom, and the subject of reciprocity was broached by an actor-teacher, "They weren't an audience, but part of our theatre troupe, that's what education should be--teacher and student learning together."


Boal, A. Games for Actors and Non Actors. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Dewey, J. Experience and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938.

Carlson, S. & Maxa, S. "Pedagogy Applied to Nonformal Education," The Center, Vol. 2, 1998. pp 48-53.

Williams, C. "The Theatre in Education Actor." In T. Jackson Ed. Learning Through Theatre. London: Routledge, 1993. pp. 91-108.

Zlotkowski, E. "Pedagogy and Engagement." In R. Bringle Ed. Introduction to Service Learning Toolkit. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1999. pp. 81-99.

Jillian Campana is an Assistant Professor of Drama at the University of Montana. Her doctoral dissertation is on popular theatre and brain injury survival.
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Author:Campana, Jillian
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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