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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

Exploring Oceans or Just Following Drain Pipes in Teaching Drama

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

Students sometimes say they want to teach Drama.

I'm not sure what they mean ...

Plumbing and drainage is a crucial part of building and city infrastructure. It can't really function without effective engineering and construction. It is largely hidden and requires very high levels of architecture, engineering, maintenance and highly skilled technicians and trades-people to ensure the effectiveness of its on-going operation. In effect it is critical for civilization. Its utilitarian form serves both an obvious and less obvious function; obvious function might be to provide drinking water or to remove sewerage from domestic locations; less obvious functions might be to support quality of life functions that require aesthetic and moral and ethical considerations! Water through drainpipes, through to the ocean and to the rainfall can be seen as being inter-connected. And so it is with art, living and survival. Drama, being part of an artform, interconnects utilitarian human functions with perception, expression and communication.

Elementary Drama Drain Pipes

Drama is about linking body, mind and perhaps that thing referred to as consciousness. The body has physical mechanisms for nourishing itself and eliminating waste. When considered with the mind, the body also has ways to process emotions, perceptions and sensory experiences. Can we learn to understand this process? And then maybe shape it into form? So when people talk about Drama, I'm really never sure what they mean. In many ways the key elements of it are really hidden; like the drains and pipes easing the flow of essential water under city! The glib reciting of "elements of drama" that teachers will promote after some superficial education in Drama will not sufficiently or adequately indicate the form.

And sure, the elements of the stage and theatre are certainly part of the practical shaping of drama expression. Like the drainpipes and plumbing, specific knowledge is necessary to give shape to expression and communication. But this begs the question of the very nature of the kind of expression and communication being attempted. Are we simply teaching by having students follow the drain pipes of physical usage? The "practical" person might say "YES". The philosophical will say "maybe"?

Step Back in Time

But let's step back a few paces before continuing!

When Drama became recognized as a separate subject from English or even Theatre as a cocurricular subject in schools in the 1970s, it drew on the works of people such as Brian Way, Peter Slade, Dorothy Heathcote, Gavin Bolton and later in Australia from people such as Brad Haseman, Bruce Burton and John O'Toole.

One of the most significant contributors was Dorothy Heathcote who drew on some of the processes suggested by Brian Way. The ideas of role play and Drama as a means for engaging with the self and with the world beyond psycho-drama or mainstage theatre took a strong hold over the advocates of Drama as a powerful education tool. The term "Process Drama" became a kind of mantra. While it has largely died out in Australia, it still has impact in parts of the world where it is practiced.

The approach as identified by America's Lincoln Centre, can be summed up here:

"Process is the purpose. According to theater scholar and educator, Cecily O’Neill, process drama begins with “a task to be undertaken, a decision to be made, or a place to be explored.” The teacher and students create an imaginary world and work to address challenges or events through dramatic improvisation. So there is no written script." (The Kennedy Centre)

The emphasis in Australian education on ranking students and assessing them according to reductionist criteria has all but wiped out the 1970s to the 1990s focus on Drama as a wholistic process. Most Drama Teachers new to the profession will be totally unaware of the concept of "Process Drama" and its main strategies. Ironically, Haseman and O'Toole, having begun within this domain, have all but obliterated the concept of Process Drama from the vernacular of Drama Education. And of course, there is some good reason for this!

But more on this shortly.

An essential element in Drama as a subject from the 1970s onward was the notion that the physical body linked to creative imagination was the centre of work. Drama was the phenomenological centre of education and personal enquiry into life and existence! The child as participant worked in-role with the teacher and other students to discover significant and life-affirming aspects of life's many shades from the dark to the light of recognition and experience.

This relied on the teacher to expose their own limitations while working in-role to also enroll the students into situational scenarios that might be explored while stepping in and out of role; stepping out to reflect on what had transpired in the role-play. Heathcote coined the expression "Mantle of the Expert" to highlight and focus a powerful educational tool. The obvious empowering of children to be experts holding it over the teacher in role cannot be quantified.


I remember very fondly the work of my time at La Boite Theatre with The Early Childhood Drama Project (ECDP) in the late 1970s. Under the leadership of Phil Armit and La Boite Artistic Director, Rick Billinghurst, there were some amazing explorations in theatre and education that probably were never fully realized in later years. The incorporation of play into artistic form was incredible. It had nothing to do with mainstage theatre experience or promotion. Yet it created experiences where people were confronted with decisions based on ethical reasoning and moral efficacy ... and remember such decisions were from 4 to 6 year-olds!

The skilled adult actors used characterization; however they worked in role with children who were basically playing and yet were able to grapple with quite complex issues.

So what was going on there?

Art Liminal

The participants were playing. They had no trouble jumping between the make-believe and the reality of their roles. That was natural for them. They weren't thinking of elements of theatre or the artifice of theatrical form. They just were!

Thirty years later, I came to understand the concept of liminality in art and theatre. But that was not on our radar in 1977 - 79. Had it been clear to us then, some of the problems of Process Drama and the related areas we explored might have been reduced.

When I worked in Canberra, I used some of the Dorothy Heathcote techniques and approaches with Stage Coach Theatre School in the mid 1980s to 1994 (not to be confused with the current International Stagecoach drama schools). It meant going into role as both character and Narrator of contexts, situations and story lines. It meant also stepping out of role to provide time for reflection and where-to-next when working with participants. It meant working with "inner-form"; a concept completely unknown in community theatre environments. I would be asked why not put our work on the Playhouse Stage? How absurd! The Stage Coach students were, in the main, not your ego-centric prima donnas that schools cherished and promoted to main roles in school productions.

Much of the work back then asked "what if"? The answers came in play mostly. The teacher / director was less a person outside of the form but rather a figure within it; yet one that was able to step outside and call time-out to reflect on where things were going. The teacher / director worked in-role with students and participants. This is probably a major difference with the current modes of Drama teaching and practice. Teacher in-role is now relatively rare. It is mostly a role of giving feedback and assessment!

Form and Process

So returning to the present, what is Drama now? You want to teach Drama? So what do you expect to do?

Teach plays? Basically be a school based Acting School? Or perhaps teach Drama games and be a glorified child-minding centre? Or perhaps sort out the psychological damage people have done to students by being a Pscyho-Drama therapy place ... while still giving grades for achievement within the academic system??????

The problem with Process Drama was that there was little attention given to the participants understanding of the demarcations between reality and play. In Canberra, I learned of instances where Process Drama achieved the opposite of what was intended. Students not seeing the boundaries of the art experience from the real were left traumatized by experiences of well-meaning process drama activities that were meant to stimulate awareness. In some instances, it failed to realize that most people were in sociological straitjackets and couldn't be shaken by using some of Artaud's principles that involved liminal experimentation. The liminality was, in these cases, problematic.

Yet people want to use Drama to evoke understanding. O'Toole and others moved from Process Drama techniques which were virtually impossible to asses. They advocated a system involving clearly advanced "elements of drama" to provide a system with boundaries that could provide teachers with clearly marked systems for assessment and reduction of experience into rubrics of quantifiable information.

The easiest way through this was to teach theatre. Plays provided the answer to evading the personal construction of reality to one provided by writers. In some ways the world of Process Drama was lost.

But form and process were thus combined!

Curriculum documents from the senior secondary curriculum and the Austalian Curriculum pertaining to Drama in the ACT are of little help in this. Both are so vague while ignoring advice from practitioners. They have politically tied Drama to Arts education and made it seem as if all arts fields were really just varient on ONE! Perhaps whoever is calling the piper's tune is being placated by the very people who should be standing up to the value of Drama education.

Dance, Music and Drama teachers might easily teach their various techniques to channel students into the drain pipes of technique and tunneled achievement. But what of the oceans out there that call for adventures in art and exploration? Must we stay in the drain pipes? Teaching specific techniques that will be outdated within twenty-years? Techniques we quantify as current practitioners but have students playing to us for approval and acceptance? Giving high grades to students whose techniques achieve teacher directed choreographies?

What about beyond the field? Beyond the known and into the ocean of possibility? Are we facilitating that?

Can we define the form through which we work? Or are we reliant upon the specifics of the past? What can our students take from us as processes for their own lives and creative activity? Are we venturing on the oceans of possibility or simply following the drain pipes of known necessity?

So what is meant by "Drama" when someone says they wish to teach it?


Joe Woodward 1 Jan 2023

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Under the Light movie


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