Theatre and Bullying: A Useful Tool for Increasing Awareness About Bullying and Victimization
Theatre has been used in a variety of ways over the last few decades as a strategy to address bullying in school settings. Common approaches typically include:
- Teachers using role-playing activities (in conjunction with anti-bullying programs)
- Artists in schools
- School productions
- Visiting theatre productions.
In my experience, the latter seems to be the most common. Here, professional companies or other social justice oriented groups present dramatic plays that expose bullying issues to school-aged students. These plays vary in production value and content, yet most depict the negative consequences of bullying. Nonetheless, the plays that also illustrate strategies to address bullying tend to be more beneficial in promoting healthier relationships, in that they offer ways for children to either prevent or cope with bullying.
The Goal of Using Drama in School
The primary goal of using drama in schools is to help students better understand themselves and the world they live in (1). Teaching improvisation and role playing helps students
- develop emotional (as well as cognitive) intelligence,
- negotiating skills,
- and the ability to transfer ideas to a new situation (2).
Drama is unique because it allows participants to imagine without having to live with the consequences of their imaginative actions (3). Therefore, it provides a safe approach to learning, and “creates a distance between individuals and their real-life situations through the characters and situations being enacted (4)”.
By the same token, as drama activities unfold, the line between what is being symbolically represented and the so-called real life experiences begins to blur. Neelands suggests that “the fictional situation and characters become more and more recognizable to the creators of the drama, and the relationships begin to form between what is happening in the drama and what happens in the outside world (5).” Drama allows and encourages participants to shift positions, to represent multiple perspectives and points of view. Ultimately, the dramatic activities enable participants to experience vicariously that which the other may be living through (6).
Activities Help Students Unpack the Issues around Bullying
Beyond the content of dramatic plays, pre- and post- activities are crucial in helping students unpack the issues and discuss strategies to address, and hopefully diminish, bullying. Most touring troupes develop lesson plans related to their production so that teachers can further explore the issue (i.e., bullying, conflict) with their students (see www.respect2all.org). Schools should include parents in the process, so that parents can play a significant role by debriefing with their children. Tapping into resources offered by theatre companies and encouraging discussions in the classroom and at home are a vital part of generalizing the learning that the plays spark.
An Example of Practical Research
I developed a research model to examine the effects of viewing an anti-bullying play, You Didn't Do Anything! on Prince Edward Island, Canada. The goal was to deepen the theatre experience for school-aged students by watching the play and to create pre and post-production activities. Prior to seeing the 30-minute anti-bullying play,1 students actively participated in a 30-minute workshop in their classrooms.2 For example, we looked at props that were used in the play and asked the students in small groups to find relationships and connections between such pieces and possible characters in a bullying situation. Then, in small groups, volunteers were asked to show, through frozen body images, how some of these characters might come into conflict. Students often commented on how the pre-activities encouraged them to pay close attention to the play because they recognized various objects in the live production and compared the conflict scenarios they created prior to seeing the show (7).
The post-show debriefing would begin by following-up and elaborating on the question and answer session that took place after the play. This would then lead to working with a few scenes using Forum Theatre techniques (8). In brief, students in small groups (4-6) would be given the description of a short scene from the play (1 minute) where a conflict arose. They would be asked to role play it as best as possible, keeping the essence of what was happening versus memorizing lines. After rehearsing a few times, the students would play out their scene for another group whose task was to try and find ways to prevent, change, or manage the negative behavior. After presenting the short scene once, the students repeated it with the intent now of possibly being interrupted by the viewers who were given the opportunity to stop the scene at any moment and replace a character in hopes of addressing or changing the negative behavior. What we discovered was that although the play impacted the students, survey and focus group responses strongly pointed out how pre and post-show activities were key learning sites that allowed for deep personal connections (7, 9).
Thus there are three components to this process: the pre-show activities, the play itself, and the post-show activities.
- The pre-show became a mechanism to “hook” students, increasing their attention and recognition.
- The dramatic play acts as an important stimulus for thinking about bullying and other topics.
- The post-show activities became a site for applying their learning.
There are other models to consider such as drama workshops and playbuilding anti-bullying plays with your own students. These should be encouraged, but they take time and require skills that teachers may not have.
My research, thus, suggests that teachers should seek out theatre troupes who are willing to come to schools and ask them to develop pre- and post-show activities with each class to deepen the engagement for students.
- O’Neill, C. (1995). Drama worlds: A framework for process drama. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- Henry, M. (2000). Drama’s ways of learning. Research in Drama Education 5, 45-63.
- Edmiston, B. (2000). Drama as ethical education. Research in Drama Education 5(1), 22-
- Bouchard, N. (2002). A narrative approach to moral experience using dramatic play and writing. Journal of Moral Education, 31(4), 407-422
- Neelands, J. (1990). Structuring drama work: A handbook of available forms in theatre and dramas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Gallagher, K. (2001). Drama education in the lives of girls: Imagining possibilities. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- Belliveau, G. (2006). Using drama to achieve social justice: Anti-bullying project in elementary schools. Universal Mosaic of Drama and Theatre - IDEA Publications. 5 (2006): 325 – 336.
- Boal, A. (1995). The rainbow of desire: The Boal method of theatre and therapy. London, UK: Routledge.
- Belliveau, G. (2004). Pre-service teachers engage in Collective Drama. English Quarterly, 35(3), 1-6.