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date: 17 October 2017

Drama in Education and Applied Theater, from Morality and Socialization to Play and Postcolonialism

Summary and Keywords

The field of drama education and applied theater is best understood through a consideration of the major developments and aspirations that have shaped its trajectory over three historical periods: the latter years of the 19th century up until 1960, between 1960 and 1990, and the years encompassing the turn of the 21st century, 1990–2015, which was a decidedly more globalized epoch. The drama education/applied theater scholarship of the English-speaking world, including the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and North America, offers a fascinating distillation of the relationship between making drama and learning, including the history of alternative forms of education. Scholarship from Asia drawing on traditional forms of theater-making, as well as imported and adapted structures of Western drama education movements, speak to hybrid and ever-expanding practices across the globe.

Although young as a discipline within the academy, drama education/applied theater has all but made up for its relative immaturity by spanning a wide domain of multidisciplinary thinking, embracing an eclectic theoretical field that covers an enormous breadth of social issues and a vast range of learning theories, while straddling a compelling spectrum of political positions. The development of the field is infused with pioneering ideas that broke with entrenched historical traditions and habitual ways of learning, harkening toward new ways of thinking, being, relating, and creating. Taking the world as its source material and humanity as its target audience, the history of the progressive discipline of drama education/applied theater tells the story of an ambitious, flawed, idealized, politicized, divisive, and deeply humanistic scholarly and practice-driven field.

Keywords: Drama education history, applied theater, democratic citizenship, progressive education, decolonizing drama, political and cultural practices, ethics and aesthetics, drama research paradigms, embodiment, social conditions and relations

For as far as one can recall, the field of drama in education, now more commonly known as drama education/applied theater, has been deeply engaged in the development of its own discipline, drama’s applications in the world, and the questions that it poses for social life, broadly conceived. This means that drama’s power and influence as an artistic practice, as well as a social(izing) one, have been central to the growth of the discipline as a body of knowledge and a cultural practice. Though contexts and cultural preoccupations change, drama’s temporal dimensions, its conversation with its own “times,” endures. Drama has been pressed into dialogue with the great questions of social cohesion, citizenship, and morality since its inception, whether that has happened in formal institutions of learning or on grand stages, and whether it has been positioned as a process or a product. Drama has been variously seen as a model for learning, a way of relating to others, and a worthwhile artistic pursuit in its own right.

And because discussions about, and studies of, drama have always included dialogue on the urgent philosophical, ethical, and social concerns of the day, drama has never really escaped the ubiquitous and instrumental question of its ultimate impact. How does drama engage the whole person, and to what effect? How does drama ignite discussion about self-other relations? Although the manner of measuring the effects of drama has changed over time, the need to appraise and articulate its effects has not. Consideration of drama’s effective, as well as affective, functions has occupied much space in the scholarly literature, policy debates, and the popular media. From its inception right up to the present, drama has always been a site of lively, multidisciplinary deliberation.

In this article, we will consider the aspirations of drama education/applied theater over three historical periods: the latter years of the 19th century up until 1960, between 1960 and 1990, and finally, the years encompassing the turn of the 21st century, 1990–2015, a decidedly more globalized epoch. We shall draw primarily from the literature of the English-speaking world, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and North America. Although a young discipline within the academy, drama education/applied theater has all but made up for its relative immaturity by spanning a wide domain of multidisciplinary thinking, an eclectic theoretical field, an enormous breadth of social issues, a vast range of learning theories, and a compelling spectrum of political positions.1

Before the period of time under study, during the Victorian era on both sides of the Atlantic, there is documentation of middle-class children engaging in drama in the private sphere, in the form of at-home theatricals. “Getting up a play” in middle-class homes was a beloved activity of the young and brought a certain pleasure to parents and relatives, the primary audiences for their work. In studies of early at-home theatrical work, scholars have considered amateur theatricals as a venue for exploring identity and developing agency, particularly for young women (see Cobrin, 2006; Mazur, 2012; Norcia, 2010, 2013). From the earliest days of using drama as a medium for exploration and make-believe, claims of increased agency and valuable identity formation have been associated with it [see Fitzsimmons-Frey (2015) for an excellent and comprehensive study of at-home theatricals and Victorian girlhood]. This article, then, is also the story of a private form of entertainment as it made an expedition into public schooling and other forms of public and community engagement.

Core Themes and Developments: 1880s–1960

Leading up to the 20th century, major changes in communication, entertainment, transportation, and working conditions were prevalent. Inventor Thomas Alva Edison introduced the light bulb (1879) and the phonograph (1887), as well as the motion picture with W. K. L. Dickson (1891) (Dyer & Martin, 1998). The turn of the century marked the start of the assembly-line workforce and corresponding mass production of diesel-fueled cars, as well as the emergence of the struggle for labor rights (Jacoby, 2004). Notions of global citizenship and nationalism became urgent in the wake of World War I. The Great Depression left millions destitute through the 1930s, many of whom only returned to employment with the start of World War II in 1939. Women entered the workforce at unprecedented rates, taking jobs left vacant by soldiers, and feminist texts and media began to challenge the image of women as less than men (Zeisler, 2008). Racial strife occurred in the United Kingdom with the influx of Caribbean immigrants arrived to reconstruct the postwar nation (Layton-Henry, 1992). In the United States, the 1950s brought about the Civil Rights movement with landmark cases such as Brown vs. Board of Education that struck down the premise of “separate but equal” that had served to legitimate a segregated society (Kozol, 2005).

The main benefits of drama purported in the literature from the early 20th century through the 1950s included its positive impact on child development, pedagogy, human spiritual nourishment, and the health of society. Through drama, people of all ages could gain a sense of responsibility greater than oneself, a vital esprit de corps and belonging to counter the dehumanizing conditions of life both in the midst of a mechanized industrial age and in the crises of global wartime (Sweeney, 1936). The aims, uses, and principles of drama in schools and in communities were shaped by the progressive educational movement begun in the 1920s, but also by the widespread sense of urgency to build and nurture a democratic citizenry.

Drama for the Spirit in the Industrial Age

Educators and academics in the Industrial Age looked to drama as a way to bring spiritual healing to society at a time when, as one high school teacher stated, there exists “the danger of developing in our people . . . an inclination to be . . . machine like” (Humiston, 1919, p. 122). In 1926, the Adult Education Committee in the Board of Education in England reported a similar apprehension and provided witness testimony from scholars, educators, and student-actors that offered firsthand evidence of drama’s positive impact on the humanizing project when applied in communities and in formal educational settings. Beneficiaries of drama described its ability to provide much-needed “emotional release [and the] gift of evoking imaginative sympathy” in the post–World War I era of industrial growth, wherein employment and education took on a highly mechanistic, dispiriting form (Humiston, 1919, p. 169). A factory worker advocated to the Board of Education that participation in drama, as he had experienced, would fulfill his plea on behalf of industrial workers throughout the nation: “Give us the real education of an informed, sympathetic and vital spirit” (Humiston, 1919, p. 168).

Drama as Democratic Socialization and Character Education

Scholars and educators throughout the industrialized world defended drama as a necessary part of the school curriculum, often by claiming its capacity as an instrument for moral development in children and as a form of socialization aimed at instilling democratic values. In 1886, the American Social Science Association published an essay examining the value of drama in education and the changes required for its potential to take hold in society. The essay posited that drama is necessary for all ages and should be “an essential part of the curriculum,” so as to stimulate noble attitudes and actions by “presenting moral problems so as ultimately to affect and purify the will” (Partridge, 1886, p. 192). The education scholar Marguerite Bro (1930) commended drama for its socializing properties in the context of the university. Of the many values that drama is imagined to help instill, Bro pointed especially to the recognition of one’s place in the “rhythm of the whole” as the most vital (p. 833). The ultimate goal of education, Bro proclaimed, is “self-realization [to] become a constructive part of the social order,” and drama, it was thought, offered the ideal environment for achieving this goal (p. 833).

The Little Theatre movement, started in Chicago in the 1910s, was seen as a site of artistic democracy, where the talents and imaginations of nonprofessionals were applied to the art of playmaking and performance. In 1916, the United States established its first “Little Theatre” in a public school setting in Indiana. The collaborative nature of the plays involved students and teachers from throughout the school, highlighting the “extremely democratic character” of the theater (Perego, 1916, p. 485). In defense of the inclusion of “acting” in the curriculum, educator Ina Perego (1916, p. 483) urged, “[W]hat is more valuable in the struggle for existence than a knowledge of the motives that impel men to live, to labor, to achieve and to die?” In 1926, students organized a Little Theatre in a Boston public school with the help of an adult supervisor who praised its influence as crucial to “send forth men and women mentally and morally fitted for life” (Madden, 1928, p. 730). Another community Little Theatre children’s director remarked upon the capacity building that drama enabled the young dramatist to become “better equipped to take his place in the larger democracy of the outside world” (Storms, 1925, p. 376).

Experiences in dramatic play and production served as character education for students and enabled them to develop understanding for others and a sense of collective responsibility for the good of the world at large. Scholars and educators directed attention to the selflessness and the “sincere esprit de corps” developed in school drama settings as students worked together to create a performance (Sweeney, 1936, p. 301). In the wake of World War II, it became all the more crucial that students build awareness and acceptance of those different from themselves as a way to heal from conflicts and prevent future ones. In a 1954 symposium on the purposes and goals of drama in education, Marjorie Dycke of the prestigious School of Performing Arts secondary school in New York City foregrounded the social objective of drama “[to] awaken sensitivity to other people and the world around them” (Hodge, 1954, p. 110). In the years immediately following World War II, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) created the International Theatre Institute to collect and share plays from 13 countries in four continents (Kase, 1949). It was believed that dramatizing experiences other than their own could stimulate empathy within students, solidify their identity as caring global citizens, and create a safer world (Lippman, 1951; Katona, 1949). Many of these deeply aspirational ideas for drama continue today.

Drama in the Progressive Education Movement

The progressive education movement, originating in England in the late 19th century, recognized drama in schools as a vital means for teachers to nourish and develop the whole child as a unique moral being. Abbotsholme, the first English progressive school, was established in 1889 with a vision to “develop harmoniously all the powers of the boy,” including aesthetic and emotional sensibilities through poetry, music, and the dramatic arts (Searby, 1989, p. 1). These “New Schools” were inspired in part by Rousseau’s concept of the human’s inherent goodness, whose morality may be accessed through connection to one’s inner world of emotion, as through the arts within an educational curriculum (Skidelsky, 1969, p. 152). Educator Harriet Finlay-Johnson (1911) advocated for dramatic play as a venue that would allow the necessary freedom for children to discover and to develop a fully authentic self. Henry Caldwell Cook’s The Play Way: An Essay in Educational Method (1917) illustrated opportunities for arts inclusion in schools, including the first dramatic stage space at the Perse School in Cambridge, known as “The Mummery,” where he served as an English teacher.

In 1921, A. S. Neill founded Summerhill, an alternative boarding school that honored the emotions and imaginations of students in a way never before seen (Miller, 1937). The self-governing democratic schooling model became known as a “free school.” Drama in schools frequently took the form of original productions that often included experimental modalities, such as interpretive dance or jazz and rock and roll musical accompaniment by students (Neill, 1960). Neill (1960, p. 94) considered acting “a necessary part of education,” one that took the form of “spontaneous acting” that enabled students to gain confidence and to build empathy through the freedom of improvisation.

Appreciation for drama in education was not limited to alternative school settings for very long, however. In 1922, the English Board of Education recommended drama as a pedagogical tool to enliven the curriculum. Not only would drama stir the interests of students across the curriculum, it was thought to stimulate the imaginations of students who found formulaic modes of learning challenging and demoralizing. The board praised dramatic participation as a space for these students to experience “self-respect” and “joy,” echoing the new values of education as espoused at Summerhill (1922, pp. 51–80). The 1931 English Board of Education’s Hadow Report on primary schools drew on wisdom of the time from child psychologists, who characterized drama as potentially vital to cognitive and emotional development. The Educational Drama Association was founded in 1943, and by 1951, the New Ministry of Education described drama as “an established and worthwhile part of school life” (Hornbrook, 1997, p. 9).2

Across the Atlantic, in the United States, the progressive education movement was led by John Dewey (1934), who advocated strongly for the need for creative expression and exploration in his many influential works. In 1926, Hartman and Shumaker of the Progressive Education Association published the book, Creative Expression: The Development of Children in Art, Music, Literature and Dramatics. Literature in the United States emphasized how dramatic play provided freedom from the traditional authoritarian teaching style, which hindered emotional expression and individuality (Fisher & Robertson, 1955; Lease & Siks, 1952). Termed creative dramatics, play-based improvisation in the classroom became a key technique in schools and community drama projects in the United States to encourage students to express themselves creatively and develop language and thinking skills, as well as for teachers to “see the child’s real self” (Storms, 1925, p. 376; also see Trommer & Regan, 1933; Viola, 1956).

Seminal Texts on Mid-20th-Century Drama in Education

Three seminal works on drama with children from the middle 20th century highlight the connections between dramatic play and child development. Each book provides both a practical handbook for educators and a set of robust justifications for the vitality of drama in schools and communities. In 1947, Winifred Ward published Playmaking with Children, with a second edition completed in 1957 after the first gained much respect and popularity. The book is comprised of age-specific activities for creating dramatic works from kindergarten through junior high school in various educational settings, including schools, religious education, recreation, and therapy contexts. In her introduction, Ward identifies five core objectives in playmaking (pp. 3–8):

  1. 1. Provide a controlled emotional outlet

  2. 2. Provide an avenue for self-expression

  3. 3. Encourage and guide the child’s creative imagination

  4. 4. Give young people opportunities to grow in social understanding and cooperation

  5. 5. Give children experience in thinking on their feet and expressing ideas fearlessly

Creative Dramatics in Home, School, and Community by Lease and Siks (1952) delineates developmental needs and corresponding dramatic principles and skills for teachers to include in their curricula and community programs to support overall growth. Lease and Siks make a case for drama and the health of the individual child, the education system, and society at large. As they put it, the moral and social development involved in well-instructed dramatic play and production allows students to “develop a tolerance . . . that is strong and real” and, therefore, “the community and the entire country benefit” (p. xv; p. 17). The appendices offer specific materials for dramatization, as well as resources for positive child development and for drama’s uses, from home to social work and from speech classes to music education.

Peter Slade’s (1954) book Child Drama is the quintessential text in mapping out the importance of drama to education and to all elements of human life. Slade draws his sources from experts in child medicine, psychology, philosophy, education, and art, as well as from personal experience as an educator in formal and informal drama settings. Among his contributions is a set of child development stages connected to attributes acquired through engagement with drama. For instance, the “Dawn of Seriousness,” developed between the ages of 6 and 10 years old, is defined as “the ability to discern good and evil, awareness of society, and joy in work” (Slade, 1954, p. 12). Following this stage, children acquire “Group Sensitivity,” defined as “a knowledge of the needs or desires of the group as opposed to oneself alone” (p. 13). Slade argues for drama as important in and of itself, while also providing the most comprehensive evidence for drama as it serves a broader humanity. The influence of this text will be explored further in the next period (1960–1990), as its inspiration seeped deeper into a culture primed to explore more radical ideas about education and the freedom of children to play and to learn.

The Emergence of Applied Theater, Professional Development, and Drama Research

Accounts of applied theater are rare in pre-1960s literature, and those that do exist depict only isolated instances. Educational researcher Arthur Katona (1949) reported that at Michigan State College in the 1940s, students created “social dramas,” plays that portrayed critical issues with the purpose of instigating discussions with the audience after performances about topics such as racism and anti-Semitism that affect the school community. Katona offered recommendations for the use of drama in professional development for teachers, social workers, and researchers, but no examples of such application could be found. Social Growth Through Play Production, published by educator, social worker, and theater practitioner Jack Simos in 1957, documents drama in treatment centers and with emotionally disturbed adolescents, which may suggest the emergence of applied theater as a spin-off form of drama education—that is, theater that is used in contexts other than theaters or schools, with populations other than teachers and students, and for achieving specific ends.

Theater research institutes and societies were created in many European countries throughout the 1930s and 1940s. These academic bodies paid much attention to consolidating dramatic texts and literature on theater within national libraries, and research took on topics such as national theater history and drama’s cultural importance and impact in given national contexts (Schnitzler, 1950). Theater researchers had not yet taken up formal studies in educational drama, however. Psychologist George Thompson wrote in his book, Child Psychology (1952), that studies on art and education are “not even in blueprint form” (in Morrison, 1957, p. 276). This would, of course, change significantly in the next few decades of the 20th century.

Core Themes and Developments: 1960–1990

Three events at the beginning and the end of the 30 years between 1960 and 1990 encapsulate the spirit of struggle for and against democratic possibilities in different regions of the world. Each contained the potential to affect an individual’s daily experience in the larger world, but also, perhaps in subtle, emblematic ways, to affect the imaginations of children and young people in classrooms:

  • A feminist consciousness ignited in the popular imagination.

  • On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States, and he promised the “New Frontier,” a package of laws and reforms that sought to eliminate injustice and inequality in the United States.

  • The construction of the Berlin Wall began in 1961.

Encourage, don’t force. Suggest, don’t show. Play. And let play. Disrupting earlier speech and drama practices and in tune with a postwar spirit of possibility, Peter Slade’s work, coming just a few years before the heady, experimental 1960s, prioritized dramatic play in the classroom. Slade (1954, p. 342) identified the sincerity and deep absorption that the child brings to play and championed its pedagogical and human value: “Play associated continually with beauty, with the treasures of knowledge through the agency of an understanding adult mind leads to better creation, more joy, has a marked effect on behaviour and results in the discernible phenomenon of an Art Form. This is Child Drama.” Critical to Slade’s vision of dramatic play in the classroom was the benevolent participation of “an understanding adult mind” which guides the action with vigilance and acute sensitivity.

Does this herald a revolution in education? In his introduction to Child Drama, editor Brian Way (1955, p. 9) wrote: “Peter Slade was the first person to point out that there exists a Child Drama, an Art Form in its own right with its own shape and development. He points the way—revolution is not what he seeks.” Rather, Slade proposed that educators rethink how the child lives and is met in the drama classroom. His capitalization of the word “Child” throughout the book made his priority clear. He was proposing child-centered drama education—where the teacher’s role was as a “loving ally” (Slade, 1954, p. 350). Slade introduced drama that prioritized engagement in process rather than the more familiar, product-oriented teaching of drama that often leads to the school play.

What did Slade look for in a child drama lesson? Joy. Zest. Group sensitivity. Every child getting an equal chance for creation. Slade’s teacher is a creative artist—a unique guide who nurtures individual children. There are no shortcuts; there are no rules. Slade stated that the teacher’s love for the child (compassionate presence) was the source, the well, of a deep sense of justice. Together, teacher and child have the potential to discover a new kind of wisdom, an acknowledgment of life that fulfills the goals of education in the fullest sense of the word.

Many innovative theatermakers of this period were also rejecting prescribed rehearsal techniques in favor of processes that looked like play—that inspired imagination and human becoming. In her foreword to Child Drama, Dame Sybil Thorndike wrote that Slade’s vision for play (spontaneous and creative drama) had the potential to infuse mainstream theater with new life in England. Radical theater voices (e.g., Blau,1964; Boal, 1979; Brook, 1969; Grotowski, 1970) shared this dream of creative reform with drama educators. In Seattle, Geraldine Brain Siks (1961, p. 7) writes:

Good drama feeds a child’s heart and mind and causes him to dwell in realms of wonder. Whether a child experiences theatre vicariously as an audience or actively as a participant in creative dramatics, he grows. He becomes a little more understanding of the glory of creative living.

And yet, she worries. There is a question of readiness: “Will our society with its present values system recognize the unique contribution that this art offers for children and youth?” (Siks, 1961, p. 7). She feared that America is not ready for art to play a central role in the whole development of the child.

Brian Way’s (1967) Development Through Drama tackled teachers’ and parents’ anxieties directly. His book contained chapters titled “Consider a Human Being,” “Begin from Where You Are,” and “A Space Where Anything Can Happen.” Way’s book was practical and thoughtful, providing teachers with a “how-to” manual, alongside gentle rationales, for making drama in the classroom rather than producing a play onstage. Way (1967) proclaimed that “transcending mere knowledge, enriching the imagination, possibly touching the heart and soul as well as the mind” (p. 1), this work has the potential to “in part avoid delinquency” (p. 53). He admitted that this statement was an oversimplification, and yet his words ring true today when one considers the explosion of drama and applied theater projects that have mobilized marginalized youth in more recent years.

James Clancy (1964, p. 25) at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire was optimistic; “we are part and parcel of the more noticeable historical shifts in educational aim and method.” He argued for “a New Tradition” in arts education, envisioning an educational model that included both the academic (liberal arts) and the practical (the arts). Clancy defended the in-depth education of man’s feelings and mind essential to the development of the whole man, stating that without both, “we are half men: intellectual sentimentalists or feeling fools” (p. 26).

An article from an International Conference on Theatre Education in Washington, D.C. (Brockett, 1968), reveals the emergence of an even more global reach: Delegates of 10 countries gathered to refocus on creative drama and high school theater activities, affirming their commitment to theater as an instrument for international understanding. The tone of the American conference might be described as liberally conservative: creative dramatics (the American term for drama in education established by Winifred Ward), followed by “classical” plays for 14–18 year olds.

1969: Experimentation Requires Rigor

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space program’s Apollo 7 landing on July 20: The United States left a footprint on the moon and astronaut Neil Armstrong stated, “That’s one small step for [a] man. One giant leap for mankind.”

The Empty Space, Peter Brook’s pivotal text, was published in 1969, the same year that he wrote the preface for Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre (1970) and produced his iconic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Richard Schechner and the Performance Group created their experimental Dionysus in 69 in New York City. New processes were replacing old ones. In each of these workspaces, new forms of discipline were sought and practiced to support these radical ways of creating new works.

In A Formalist Theatre, American critic Michael Kirby (1987, p. 14) observed that since the 1960s,

every aspect of theatre in this country has changed . . . scripts have lost their importance and performances are created collectively; the physical relationship between audience and performance has been altered in many different ways and has been made an inherent part of the piece; audience participation has been investigated; ’found’ spaces rather than theatre have been used for performance.

1970s: A Period of Invention, Challenge, and Change in the Public Domain

Assumptions about rules and the place of authority came into question in the 1970s. Does a “freer” society mean chaos? Critics warned that giving in to this perceived lack of authority would lead to an irreversible breakdown in civil society.

These societal changes were felt—sometimes feared and sometimes celebrated—in the drama classroom. Critics of drama in education feared that a lack of familiar authority in the classroom would lead to the end of a disciplined child. Way asked teachers to think differently about such issues. Does the messiness of a play space or the seeming disobedience of a child who will not stop playing reveal the breakdown of authority or something else? Is there another way to understand these behaviors? He encouraged the teacher to reexamine notions of obedience and to find ways of letting the child discover how order may actually serve the play rather than impede its unfolding. He pointed out that not only might such an orientation develop good habits in the child, but also that these new habits might now be learned in ways that were more profoundly educational than forced obedience allows.

The Discipline of Playmaking and Embracing the Pioneering Heathcote’s Three R’s: Rigor, Realization, Responsibility

Discipline was embedded in Dorothy Heathcote’s playmaking model. While she urged teacher and student to develop and trust intuition, her methodology was rooted in three R’s: rigor, realization, and responsibility. Heathcote’s unique process was enquiry-based, following neither the rules of the traditional theater classroom nor the newer processes of Child Drama. Trained as an actor, role playing, material problem solving, and rigor were central to her playmaking process.

Doors for debate were flung open with the bold language of the 1972 Drama in Education Annual Survey in England. Self-described as a forum for mainstream drama practice, editors Hodgson and Banham (1972) called for “fringe ideas as detonators” (p. v). They declared, “our stage is all the world” (p. vi). Des Crantson (1976) looked at the role of drama in assessing trauma in Northern Ireland. Hobgood (1976) reported that creative drama activities based on Viola Spolin’s 1963 Improvisation for the Theatre were thriving in urban centers, which she described as “slums” (p. 62). Activists, educators, and theatermakers shared common ground in community-organizing projects. By mid-1976, there was a need for research to support the next phases of drama in education. Peter Slade (1976, p. 91) deplored the “disgraceful” training of teachers in Britain, proposing a reconstructed educational system based on drama. Meanwhile, Richard Courtney (1976, p. 121), in Canada, lamented the lack of “basic empirical facts” to support the developmental aspects of drama in education.

1980s: Drama Is Explored as Key to a Whole Education

In the 1980s, Charles Lundy and David Booth in Canada published two books that filled a void in the writing and thinking about the uses of drama and improvisation in Canadian classrooms. Although many, in the tradition of Brian Way, had extolled the virtues of child’s play—essentially improvisational in nature—well before this time, these authors made improvisation the explicit subject of their text and produced drama textbooks for schools that were not theater history texts. These were books that bore the full weight of the turn to play and process that was evident across the English-speaking world. In 1983, Lundy and Booth published Interpretation, which became a household name in high school drama classrooms for its multiple ways of using scripts creatively and effectively in a classroom. Then, in 1985, they published a companion coil-back text called Improvisation—equally dense, at 200-odd pages—with creative suggestions for what they subtitled Learning Through Drama. They write:

Then what is drama? It is something that happens when all the participants in and witnesses to a make-believe situation find themselves believing in the situation, because somehow the situation has come to represent things that are important to everyone. The learning in drama is something like a voice saying: “This is what life is like; this is how people are; this is the way that human encounters work.” Improvisation (1985, p. ix, cited in Gallagher, 2010)

In England, Gavin Bolton was strategically mapping the contributions of those who came before him, while drawing attention to the collective value of drama as it brings us to more acutely understand and question what we have in common with each other. Bolton (1984, p. 186) concluded that the potency of drama as a model for learning lay in its capacity to arouse “psychological and social” development, making explicit a move toward social engagement. By 1986, writers everywhere were talking about a movement away from direct experience to a dramatic process that requires both experiencing and reflecting on the drama. Richard Courtney’s writings in Canada in the 1980s contributed to the deepening and widening critical conversation, extending Way’s work, seeing his developmental drama as the basis for all learning and growth. In Drama and the Whole Curriculum, editor Jon Nixon (1982) also argued for innovation and the need for changes in the pedagogical orientation toward a whole-school approach to drama.

The progress from Slade’s Child Drama to Courtney’s 1968 publication of Play Drama and Thought to his 1990 Drama and Intelligence: A Cognitive Theory reveals the increasingly diverse theoretical inquiries at the heart of the field. The two inscriptions in Courtney’s book Re-Play revealed the complex thought that is illuminating drama in education—Marshal McLuhan’s “re-play is re-cognition.” and William Blake’s “Negotiations are not opposites; Contraries mutually exist” (Courtney, 1982, p. iv).

End of the 1980s—A Struggle for the Teacher: Attainment Targets or Cooperative Enquiry?

The field of drama has known its share of controversies and political and pedagogical divisions. David Hornbrook (1997) proposed skills learning and “attainment targets” to restore the dramatic product (the school play) to the central position. In his role as school arts inspector in England, he was critical of Heathcote’s “mystifying” belief in “authentic experiences” and rejected “the strange freemasonry of drama in education” (Hornbrook, 1997, p. ix). Instead, he insisted school curricula return to learning about drama as opposed to the favored learning through drama, in the drama in education model. Lewis and Rainer (2005, p. 4) articulated the ”watershed” moment of the late 1980s in drama in schools in the United Kingdom as the publication of both the Educational Reform Act and David Hornbrook’s “polemical and iconoclastic book,” Education and Dramatic Art. Day and Norman (1983, p. 2) strive to combat the pressures of “increasing educational functionalism” while deepening understanding of the drama in education process as a model for “a liberating, cooperative, enquiry-based process of education.”

1989: Changing of the Guard: Some Signs of Hope

In 1989, tension escalated between progressive and conservative ideologies. Young people took action—making art and taking space as acts of resistance. Three events reveal that struggle, the tension between an old guard and a new vision, affecting the lives of youth across the world:

  • Destruction of the Berlin Wall

  • Margaret Thatcher resigns as prime minister of Britain

  • Chinese in Tiananmen Square rallying for democracy

Across these three decades—1960 to 1990—drama in education practitioners, in unique and increasingly nuanced ways, envisioned a democratic playground that rejected unyielding power and prescriptive lessons. Their shared hope was for a space where guided play and reflective enquiry would contain the seed of authenticity, cooperative engagement, and a living experience for the child and the children in a drama classroom.

Where would we go from here? The way of the Square, or the way of the Wall? Or another way to be imagined in the future?

Core Themes and Developments 1990–2016

Crossing the Century

It is impossible not to feel the particular import of passing into a new millennium, and this crossing into “Y2K” seemed fraught with the urgency of rapid change—change without forethought; changes that would have serious social, cultural, and political repercussions; and changes that have literally threatened the environment of Earth. The 1990s saw the rise and rapid proliferation of the World Wide Web, likened to the impact of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Perhaps nothing has had such a serious impact on art, ownership, access, and blatant consumerism than the Internet, not to mention its prolific impact on social media. Moving into the 21st century, this would bring up further issues of privacy and protection that became particularly compelling after the terror attacks in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. From the Iraq war to Afghanistan, and now to the Syrian refugee crisis, it is not surprising that drama/applied theater have responded to these crises, because art always does. This dramatic meaning-making manifests itself in countless ways: through the rise of Theater in Development (TiD) projects; the thirst for knowledge and understanding produced by international research collaborations; the continued effects to develop and support drama in education at every level, from the very youngest learner to the very oldest adults; and the clear focus on the ethical and moral dilemmas that surround present-day issues at the local, national, and international levels.

Drama in Education or Theatre in Education?

From the 1980s on, the field has seen its share of lexicon wars. “Theatre in Education (TiE)” is now more commonly known as “Drama in Education (DiE).” Thought to be less flexible, “theatre” in education was seen as a more product-oriented approach, with embedded ideas that were less adaptive than “drama.” DiE was commonly argued to be process-oriented, with a focus on student-led initiatives that would harness knowledge focusing on devised performance work and lead to a “desired state of artistic autonomy” (Somers, 1999, p. 6). Given the undeniable influence of British drama educator Dorothy Heathcote over the last 50 years, it is no surprise that DiE emerged with the most currency. Her pioneering methods, especially her Mantle of the Expert approach, became a touchstone for drama teachers the world over (Heathcote & Bolton, 1995). Using drama as a mode of enquiry across curricular subjects, her challenging reversal to have teachers “in role” and students as “experts” incited a movement in teaching and learning that continues today. Countless dissertations and books have been published by the many disciples of Heathcotean drama, especially exploring her famed “teacher in role” construct. Judith Ackroyd (2001) continues to explore and reconsider this complex way of engaging both teachers and students with acting, representation, and role as it plays out in DiE. From the world of critical education, Henry Giroux would consider such repositioning of traditional classroom hierarchies a highly political act. “Pedagogy itself is a cultural practice,” providing a powerful filter through which we “establish values regarding history, politics, power, and culture” (Giroux & Shannon, 1997, p. 233).

Process drama is another term that gathered a powerful momentum during this contemporary period. Cecily O’Neill (1995) in the United States, and John O’Toole (1992) in Australia, both introduced the model in the early 1990s. The process consists of a teacher establishing an extended improvisation with students as coartistic devisers and coinvestigators exploring an educational topic or theme that transforms the classroom into an imaginative world (Bowell & Heap, 2013; Taylor, 1995). By creating this liminal space, process drama provides unbound opportunities for discovery through authentic, embodied experiences that enable each student to “[become] a more knowing participant in the social dialogue which constitutes all discourse” (O’Neill, 1989, p. 528).

Along with other drama techniques, process drama became an educational device in expanding literacy curricula (Baldwin & Fleming, 2003; Edmiston, 2007; Edmiston, Enciso, & King, 1987; Miller & Saxton, 2004; O’Toole & Dunn, 2002; Belliveau, 2014). Initiatives such as the School Drama program in Sydney, Australia, have taken root in schools to promote literacy education through partnerships with educators and teaching artists (Ewing, Hristofski, Gibson, Campbell, & Robertson, 2011). In the case of process drama in particular, these extended interactions in the classroom have proved to be an especially effective tool to enhance second-language learning (Dodson, 2002; Kao & O’Neill, 1998; Stinson & Winston, 2011; Winston, 2012). Yaman Ntelioglou (2011, pp. 183, 186) identified process drama as a “socio-cultural approach” that not only serves to strengthen linguistic communication, but also to assist in bolstering knowledge about “how culture(s) operate(s) and “build[s] on prior knowledge and that [is] culturally responsive.”

Heathcote’s methods continued to make real incursions into mainstream schooling. Many drama practitioners, academics, and educators have taken up the mantle to cover new ground and explore related ideas. Fellow British scholar and drama practitioner Jonothan Neelands advocated for the use of stories as powerful ways of making meaning and forging connections. Wary of oversimplification, he described the power of narrative as a universal touchstone that champions the idea of “faith” as integral to social and artistic change in the classroom and beyond. Neelands (2004, p. 47) characterized the use of such transformative narratives as “localized testaments to miracles” with positive outcomes based in “a socially committed pedagogy.”

For Kathleen Gallagher, such claims for social transformation are related to hope—a radical hope often practiced by the disenfranchised youth central to her research program (Gallagher, 2000, 2007, 2014). Such ideas recall the powerful writings of bell hooks, who railed against “the disembodied spirit,” the lack of passion found in the classroom and the curriculum (hooks, 1994, p. 193). Neelands and his University of Warwick colleague Tony Goode continued to add new dimensions to the DiE canon, formulating an entire approach based on the idea of “drama structures.” This new scaffolding included diverse “varieties of form” based on the idea of theater as a “process of communicating and interpreting meanings,” as well as “conventions” that studied the “exploratory and rehearsal stages of dramatic inquiry and performance,” a fascinating amalgam of form, convention, and content (Neelands & Goode, 2000, p. 2).

Theories of Play in Drama Education

Theories of play—its function in the development of the child and its role and structure in the drama classroom—weave across the history of drama education. Play is variously said to draw on the child’s capacity to engage in a present reality, to suspend disbelief, allowing the child to temporarily accept illusion and to share this creative action with a playmate. In play, the child is seen to develop the ability to imagine alternate possibilities, discovering the pleasure and usefulness of collaborative improvisation, and accessing the raw material of the creative process that Keith Sawyer (2007, p. 13) calls “group genius.”

Inspired by their observation of child’s play, radical educators in the 20th century proposed child-centered approaches to education and the drama classroom (Dewey, 1934; Slade, 1954; Ward, 1930). Richard Courtney began his investigation of Play, Drama, and Thought (1968) with a description of the many faces of play—as the natural, desirable state of the child (Rousseau, 1791; Froebel, 1887), as an outlet for surplus energy (Schiller, 1875/1910), as an instinctive, imitative, gateway to art/mastery (Spencer, 1897; Groos, 1901; Lee, 1915), as recuperative recreation (Guts, 1970; Kames, 1817), and as genetic inclination and development (Huizinga, 1955).

Dramatic play is rarely unstructured. In his 1933 lecture on “Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child,” Lev Vygotsky drew attention to the importance of rules in dramatic play. “Whenever there is an imaginary situation in play, there are . . . rules stemming from the imaginary situation . . . In play the child is free. But this is an illusory freedom” (Vygotsky, 1933/1967, p. 10). Julie Dunn (1998) finessed this thesis when she wrote, “child structured socio-dramatic play is being recognized as a key form of dramatic improvisation...adopting the concurrent roles of actor, playwright and audience, guided only by a set of unwritten rules” (p. 65). Dunn (2011) drew on O’Neill’s 1995 argument, reminding us that “the participant assumes at least part of the playwright function, doing this from within the event” (p. 30). Structure is malleable and real. Children simultaneously invent and overturn rules, synthesize offerings, build texts, and revise the game—all the while following each other’s lead and/or proposing/assimilating a new, seemingly unsupportable direction. This lively dramatic (dramaturgical) process resonates with French theater pedagogue Jacques Lecoq’s insistence on le jeu (play) (in Murray, 2003). Lecoq’s actor is tasked to play within the ever-changing rules of the theater game. In both instances, the play activity is contained within and responds to the exigencies of unwritten (unfolding, emerging) dramatic structure. Present tense is paramount, the players say yes, and the illusion flourishes.

Dunn (1998) pointed out that child-structured play has been favored in preschool settings, while teacher-led play (e.g., process drama) prevails in the later primary classroom. Drawing on Heathcote, Bolton, O’Toole, Best, Bateson, and Kelly-Byrne (among others) in her paper, Dunn called for the inclusion of child-structured play in the later years, arguing that “process drama, with its rich array of structures and strategies . . . alone cannot provide children with the chance to generate more individual meanings that child-structured dramatic play allows” (Dunn, 1998, p. 65). She concluded that “playfulness as an approach to action has the potential to spill over into other more structured drama forms, enriching our student’s use of role and symbol” (p. 65). The rich debate on theories of play and the dramatic structures that it enables continue to inspire complexity in the drama classroom.

Theory Meets Practice

An ever-richer theoretical terrain in the field has inspired new and complex questions. Theoretical frameworks can also be read as the ideological underpinnings of practice. And practice, or praxis, is always an active and mobilizing force that produces engagements that are necessarily political (Boal, 1979, 2006; Freire, 1972; Kershaw, 1992, 1999). Further, theory and practice are conducted through, and complicated by, relationships—researcher/practitioner, facilitator/participant, teacher/student—especially as these roles become more fluid. A consistent discourse across all forms of Applied Theatre (AT) considers theories, ethics, and relationships as powerful and complex when put into practice. Do AT practices challenge the status quo or simply reinforce it (Kershaw, 1999; Gallagher, 2011; Gallagher, Wessels, & Ntelioglou, 2012; Salverson, 1999)?

Given the undeniable influence of Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, can we extricate it from its historic position in critical education or its patriarchal structure (Schutzman & Cohen-Cruz, 1994, p. 5)? Can it be relevant in the diaspora? What needs to change when theories, forms, and practices cross borders (Giroux & McLaren, 1994)? How do we combat the oppression of a colonial legacy that runs so deep as to perpetuate a self-colonization that often goes unrecognized (Maracle, 1996)? Enjoying the benefits of an education in the imperialistic structures that privilege a Western hegemony and are arguably prescriptive, how can we maintain a creativity that allows us to see not only the existing theories, but beyond them?

Australian scholar Philip Taylor (in Ewald, 2003), has urged us to think about these binaries, theory/practice and researcher/practitioner, as potentially transformative. He and others invite us to ask why we embark on any project, examining how our project and processes will unfold, and questioning the sustainability of any AT outcome. Resisting and reevaluating the effects of the global, neoliberal education movement that gained momentum in the 1980s, drama scholarship since that time has become increasingly reflexive about its position, its politics, and its responsibility. Long-standing concerns with issues of social injustice, citizenship, identity, creativity, and narrative have created a deeper engagement with the political, cultural, and social complexities that inform theory (Nicholson, 2014). Participants and their voices in research have moved to the foreground, recognized as the experts of their own narratives, and harkening the early work of Heathcote, who positioned her drama participants as the experts of their created worlds. James Thompson from the University of Manchester wrote, “we are not speaking about but to and with people” (in Prentki & Preston, 2009, emphasis added).

V Padma of the Stella Maris College in Chennai, India, lives the philosophy that Thompson outlines. Having devoted her life to Tamil theater since the early 1980s, she creates feminist theater using traditional and experimental forms, with a focus on community theater projects like Voicing Silence, providing a voice for the voiceless (Singh, 2013, p. 487). From AT initiatives that tackle issues like transgender and female infanticide in India, to advocating for DiE, Padma worries about the lack of performing arts in education. She has cited the importance of an “embodied understanding of cultural practices” as it loses ground to “a generation that is fully sold out to virtual spaces with no experience of live art” (Singh, 2013, p. 501).

While DiE has arguably lost some ground in the West over recent years, it has gained great momentum in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, as well as across South East Asia, particularly as a decolonizing tool. Wan-Jung Wang of the University of Tainan, Taiwan, wrote hopefully about the “progressive cultural and educational policies that have developed” alongside the rapid economic and industrial growth of the East (Wang, Po-Chi, Joo Kim, & Kok, 2013, p. 78). Never easy to negotiate, she advocates for DiE and AT as a means of “confronting the coexistence of postcolonial and postmodern conditions culturally, in the era of globalization,” and recognizes it as an empowering tool to “reconstruct identities through decolonization” (Wang et al., 2013, p. 79). As vastly different as their geographies, histories, and artistic traditions suggest they are, these countries have found common ground in scholarship to investigate issues like “the subversion of fixed educational ideology in the arts, an expansion of academic training for practitioners and researchers in the field, and a challenge to Confucian philosophies of interaction” (Wang et al., 2013, p. 80). Similarly, Wang and her Eastern colleagues identified the potential of AT to promote “active citizenship” and support theater and art in “strong, public spaces” in their efforts to counteract a “unified voice of government” in countries where the political climate may range from democratic to dictatorial (Wang et al., 2013, p. 80).3

One drama research community, the International Drama in Education Research Institute (IDIERI), grew out of a drama education conference in Exeter, England, and established in 1995 a research-focused series of conferences to address and explore issues and disseminate research as a more united, global community. The distilled information generated from these conferences is rich and diverse, covering themes like research paradigms (1995/1997), questions and theories (2000), and colonial legacies (2006), to list only a few. With such strong voices inside the community, some have argued that DiE needs to find support outside its own terrain and be recognized by scholars across disciplines (Anderson & Dunn, 2013). With “back to basics” rhetoric privileging literacy and numeracy in education and reductionist characterizations of “the arts” embedded in our political and social consciousness, the status of drama and the arts remains an ongoing challenge today.

Research Paradigms

Alongside this effort to celebrate, create, and critique theory is the need to discover new knowledge with rigorous research practices that become essential for the generation of new theory. New research models, along with accompanying measurement tools to provide accurate assessments and gauge success, have become more urgent in recent years, given the often precarious positioning of the arts in primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Unlike many other disciplines, drama experiences can be fleeting, ephemeral, and difficult to capture and analyze with traditional research methods. The idea of cognitive and behavioral transformation, along with its subsequent impact for both participants and audience, are hard to track over time (Kershaw, 1992, p. 3). The subjective experiences of participants, facilitators, educators, and audience (including their diverse makeups) must be taken into account, along with process and content choices, institutional conditions, stakeholder expectations, and cultural context.

These demands may in part account for the burgeoning of novel research methods over the last several years in the field of drama/applied theater, developing frameworks that highlight contextual questioning. Arts-based research models query their own positions and investments, influenced by more recent poststructural contributions to theory, with a self-reflexivity embedded in their praxis. Participatory action research and community-based participatory research privilege the voices of participants and factor them directly into the measure of so-called success, conscious of a long legacy of intellectual colonialism in Western scholarship (Anderson & Dunn, 2013). One might also suggest that recent growth in global research collaborations supports the idea and politics of anticolonial solidarity, a theme reflected across several conferences over the last 10 years [i.e., IDIERI, International Drama Education Association (IDEA), European Association for International Education (EAIE), and International Conference on Education (ICEDU)]. Another shift has taken place regarding assessment criteria. Canadian AT researchers Prendergast and Saxton (2009) identify four areas of focus for evaluation: learning, aesthetics, impact, and reception. Beyond assessment and outcomes, they caution that AT practitioners are “ethically bound” to provide an exit strategy at the end of a project [in specific communities] with an action plan to follow their departure (p. 196).

Nowhere has the search for new methods and assessment tools been more prevalent than in the field of DiE. Building on a historic practice and a prolific body of scholarship, and invigorated by the creation of higher education programs around the world, DiE researchers have made considerable progress spanning qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods paradigms. With such growth in the research field, UNESCO created its first-ever chair in the field of arts and learning in 2007, with Canadian Professor Emeritus Larry O’Farrell holding the chair. A 12-country, European Union–supported project (running from 2008–2010), Drama Improves Lisbon Key Competences in Education (DICE) used an interdisciplinary approach to study the effects of drama on youth in schools. Its intention was to design new cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, and longitudinal methods of data collection and analysis in the hope of narrowing the research gap between science and the arts and between qualitative and quantitative paradigms. With a team of educators, drama practitioners, researchers, sociologists, psychologists, and scientists, the study went on to prove that drama studies positively affected five of the eight key competences and, most importantly, added a new competence identified by the students themselves—a universal competence of “what it is to be human” (DICE policy) paper, 2010, p. 32).

Such a finding is unsurprising to drama researcher Kathleen Gallagher, whose international, ethnographic studies over the past several years intentionally bring youth, drama pedagogy, and citizenship into rigorous conversation. Her work considers the role that drama practices and pedagogies play in inventing new avenues of civic engagement, asking what makes the classroom a forum of civic engagement in the present, as well as an experience that may cultivate civic engagement later in life (Gallagher, 2014). Studies such as these have generated new embodied and digital methodologies that effectively use video software programs to organize and analyze multisite and multilingual data. Her work in digital media, along with that of several others (Davis, 2012; Dunn, Bundy, & Woodrow, 2012; Jensen, 2012), have begun to push the field into new and expansive digital territory.

Young people, teachers, and researchers today are reimagining a new and provocative drama practice across communities, technologies, and forms. Carroll (2002, pp. 131–141) recognized the potential for young people to playfully enact and/or engage with digital technologies, creating “a threshold experience” that has the potential to be shared by peers in multiple sites. Such drama and digital storytelling projects create a fertile space for communicating radical narratives of identity, culture, and community. Megan Alrutz (2015) examines the revisioning practice of digital storytelling with marginalized youth. Anne Harris (2014) traces the lineage of the emergent digital from Walter Benjamin through Marshall McLuhan in The Creative Turn. Harris (2013, p. 812) unravels the “possibilities for recreating queer in the 21st Century” with her work on intersectionality within digital collaboration.

In their themed edition of Research in Drama Education (RiDE): The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, editors Michael Anderson, David Cameron, and Paul Sutton (2012) revealed the accuracy of Carroll’s prediction and applauded drama teachers (even those who had expressed early apprehensions) for their capacity to “create makers rather than interactive consumers of media and technology” (p. 471). The diverse content of this issue include articles such as Joanne O’Mara’s examination of digital gaming and literacy and Prue Wales’s insight into the potential of digital storytelling “blending everyday technologies with drama techniques” (p. 475). This special edition of RiDE reveals the breadth and depth of current activity at the intersection of the digital and the live in the drama classroom.

Different Sites of Theater-Making: Classrooms, Prisons, Refugee Camps, Hospitals, and More

The term Applied Theatre has come to be accepted as a field that drama scholar Helen Nicholson (2014) identifies as applied drama, theater, and performance all at once. Providing an overview of a field so diverse and far reaching, though arguably young in terms of the academy, is no small task. Working to establish a coherent position in the world of scholarship since the end of World War II, drama and performance studies have been engaged in what educator and philosopher Paulo Freire would describe as a highly mobile and often contentious “process of becoming” (Freire, 1972, p. 84). The controversy of “what’s in a name,” “drama,” or “applied” theater seems to have subsided, and there is general agreement that theater practices applied in “educational, institutional and community contexts” constitute “Applied Theatre” (Nicholson in Schonmann, 2011, p. 242). Prendergast further identifies AT as outside mainstream theater, rarely scripted, performed in nontraditional settings, often with marginalized communities and with or for an audience who are implicated to varying degrees (Prendergast & Saxton, 2009).

Berthold Brecht’s idea of political theater, reinvigorated and more recently explored by Baz Kershaw (1992) as “radical theatre,” has become a driving force in the field as various new applications of theater arise. From this vantage point, the purpose of theater is to raise a critical consciousness by making socially conscious theater, recognizing the politics surrounding cultural intervention as innate to the practice, and acknowledging the inevitable tensions—ethical and otherwise—these interventions create. Coopting art and theater for political purposes continues its long and contentious history as new concerns arise.

One of the more persistent issues is drama practitioners’ responses to a rapidly devastated environment, over the past two decades in particular. Struggling with issues such as global warming and “ecological modernization” the world over, Shanghai-based director Zang Ningbei uses eco-theater as a means of galvanizing local action through grass roots, community theater productions to escalate political concerns and invite engagement. Working to strike “a balance between environmental protection and economic growth under intense pressures of rapid urbanization,” Ningbei created Jianghe xing (River! River! River!) in 2009 to draw attention to the disastrous “environmental and ecological impact of hydropower generation projects in the Three Rivers area in Southwest China” (Zhuang, 2014, p. 244). River! River! River! identifies with minjian xiju, a form of Chinese theater tradition known as “theater among the people” or “theater of people to people,” and uses its “performative potential to create a public forum” that not only provides information and insight into issues tightly controlled by the government, but empowers citizens to critique and question those very political and environmental decisions (Zhuang, 2014, p. 244).

Such concerns have been addressed by a growing number of AT practitioners who take their practice and research into natural disaster regions to create theater with survivors and study its effects [see O’Connor, in Hughes and Nicholson (2016a), for an example of this kind of work]. The ubiquitous issue of human displacement and war have also taken center stage in AT interventions across the globe (Balfour, 2013) and led to more explicit connections between drama and human health (Cahill, 2013).

This theater of activism has become increasingly complicated in a global world where access to information has become easier, even instantaneous. The implicit pressure of politics, stakeholders, and competing agendas weighs down the field. A concern over the rapid production of knowledge, along with its swift mobilization and infinite capacity for reproducability, plagues the field (Gallagher & Kim, 2008). Further, its potential to harm the very communities that it seeks to serve by putting them at risk, reproducing the colonial experience, or, even more insidious, leaving communities feeling further isolated, misunderstood, and disempowered (Prentki, 2015; Thompson, 2003) is also a considerable burden and ethical mine field. The proliferation of critical, social, and feminist theories that bring ethics and human rights issues to the fore are now regularly deployed in the critique of such projects across diverse geopolitical spaces.

This spread of new forms and applications of AT, however, has also helped galvanize a movement toward interdisciplinarity in theory, research, and practice. To engage in new modes of inquiry, AT has begun to seriously consider what Jan Cohen-Cruz (2015, p. 4) calls “uncommon partnerships that build knowledge” and “foster systemic appreciation of diverse professional fields.” Community theater, Prison Theater (PT), Theater in Health, TiH, and DiE, to name only a few “sites,” using a multitude of drama forms (Playback Theatre, Process Drama, Reminiscence Theater, and Theater of the Oppressed, among others), require expertise that stretches across and beyond the fields of sociology, psychology, education, philosophy, political science, and anthropology. These disciplines will undoubtedly help to answer some of the critical concerns that the field continues to grapple with: the role and dynamic relationship between theory, practice, and research and the gaps that lie between them; a search for new qualitative, quantitative, postqualitative, and mixed-methods methodologies with analytic tools to move beyond old paradigm wars; and anticolonial, community-based ways to address the burgeoning field of ethics and aesthetics that demand a new reflexivity in research, new kinds of reciprocal and collaborative practices, and attention to the mobilization of knowledge in a digital world (Gallagher, 2008; O’Connor & Anderson, 2015; Taylor in Ewald, 2003; Thompson, 2003).

In 2010, at the Central School of Speech and Drama at the University of London, researchers and artists gathered for a conference called “Theatre Applications,” subtitled “Performance with a Purpose.” In its call for papers, it suggested that the conference would address “applied, social and community theatre, and forms of performance that are intended to make a difference to participants’ lives. [It will] provide[s] scholars, practitioners, participants, and funders with an opportunity to engage in debates about changing artistic practices, new circulations of power, and new conceptions of the political in theatre.” However, the turn to seeing drama in classrooms and drama in other sites as related practices on an expanding continuum is nowhere more evident than in the changing of the name of the English journal of record, Research in Drama Education, to Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance.

This new name added a decidedly strong message about the journal’s interest in the various applications of theater in all its multifarious contexts. Under this rubric, AT validates play and promises a social agenda, with emancipatory ideals. This name change, as well as a number of conferences and emerging themes in the field, seemed to suggest that greater attention was being paid to the applied nature of theater—the applications of theater for social change. Longtime editor, scholar and theatermaker John Somers established the journal in 1996 because he saw the need to create a space to explore and investigate this rapidly developing field across countries. His hope was to create a more “cohesive field with a shared lexicon” centered around “rigorous and systematic reflection” (Somers, 1996, p. 5). He actively sought international contributors and championed a diverse readership. He felt that scholars, teachers, artists, and students all had valuable perspectives that needed to be heard; he also made continuous appeals for non-Western authors to counterbalance the inherent hegemony in drama education studies. This impulse was picked up and further extended by current editor Helen Nicholson, who sought to open up the field to consider drama made with and by students in classrooms to a range of other, more informal sites of learning, using a wide array of practices. Coming now to the end of her tenure, one wonders where they journal may go in terms of interdisciplinarity, social and political agendas, aesthetic considerations, and theories of learning.

Ethics and Aesthetics: A Self-Reflexive Movement

Since the turn of the 21st century, a focus on ethics and aesthetics has permeated the discourse surrounding questions of agency, identity, representation, and narrative in drama and AT. Three broad questions come to the fore: Who is making theater, for whom is it intended, and what is at stake? Nicholson (2005) interrogated the practice of AT from a human rights perspective. She urged us to “disrupt horizons” and cautioned against the use of Augusto Boal’s “redemptive narrative,” where Theater of the Oppressed tactics are used in situations like TiD and PT, for instance (p. 119). Two early founders of Playback Theatre, Americans Jo Salas and Jonathon Fox, were already using feminist theory to critique Playback’s position. They were concerned about an unconscious racism that might be part of the inherent structure of their AT practice and wanted to locate its psychodramatic history in a postmodern set of concerns (Fox, 1994, p. 244). The colonizing implications of many forms of AT seem all too apparent, and the accompanying global gaze, given a concomitant proliferation of nongovernmental organization projects, is undeniable. Building on anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s concern about the fragility of culture, Judith Ackroyd succinctly illustrated the problem. She posited that the use of “applied theatre can be reductive with explicit intent to translate, adapt, transform upon, between, [and] against” the communities and cultures who have trusted “outsiders” and agreed to participate in an AT intervention (Thompson, 2003, p. 199). Again, what happens when theories and their attendant practices cross borders? What new questions must be asked of a globalized drama practice?

TiD is one of the forms of AT most at risk of abuse because of the legacy of colonialism and ongoing power imbalances in the so-called developed and developing worlds, though many other forms of theater also fall into this category. TiD is especially implicated by “cartographies of power” (Nicholson, 2011, p. 1); its position is further complicated by the multiple stakeholders who are often involved. Beyond the artistic team are the funders, the policymakers, and the government, whose expectations all must be realized.

Content and context are equally complex. What issues will be addressed by the drama, and who will benefit from the work? Who will direct the project, and whose voices will be privileged? That is to say, who is overseeing the aesthetics of representation, and will cultural difference be seen and respected or disregarded and flattened? What are the local and surrounding contexts and politics that could be seriously affected or offended by this work? Are any purported outcomes sustainable?

James Thompson had an understandably ironic take on the “trauma industry” (Prentki & Preston, 2009, p. 118). He has seen things go terribly wrong when shortsighted tactics guide a short-lived project rather than sustainable strategies addressing long-term goals with ethical and politically astute legacies. For Canadian Julie Salverson (1999, p. 37), the “aesthetics of injury” is multifaceted and requires serious ethical consideration. She wrote of the responsibility involved in AT work as a process of knowledge production and of meaning-making. Guiding her studies were the power-knowledge relationships, as articulated by Michel Foucault, and the “ethical dilemma,” as articulated by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1991). Contemporary interdisciplinary drama and AT practitioner-researchers like Salverson often return to the field of philosophy, faced as they are with pressing ethical considerations in their work.

The Body

Increasingly, scholars in AT are turning to considerations of the body and embodied methodologies in their artistic and research work. This may seem late in the game, but it should come as no surprise, given that Western thinking from Plato onward has effectively separated mind from body, privileging the former over the latter. The body, however, is inseparable from knowledge and culture and bears the imprint of both.

This kind of experiential authority is recognized by feminist scholar Helen Thomas (2003, p. 215), who argues that the body is inextricably part of our “cultural knowledge, a somatic mode of attention which incorporates mental and emotional aspects, elements of cultural history, and belief systems and values,” providing “layers of insight into culturally contingent relations and practices.” Ethnographic research methodologies come closest to making this essential connection but often still do not go far enough. Social anthropologist Paul Connerton (1989) respects the body as a valid repository of knowledge, knowing, and meaning-making. His idea of social memory recognizes and valorizes the kinetic experience as a real and accumulative repository of social history and thus, social action.

Given this line of thinking, the body is implicated in somatic and pedagogical practices that obviously shape personal and educational experience, but also, more broadly, are implicated in cultural, social, and political change. The physical and social body, then, should be a recognized part of every discourse, most especially in the arts. Giroux and McLaren (1994, p. 13) consider this a “radical pedagogy,” an inclusive ideology that looks for knowledge by recognizing “difference as the condition of contemporary culture.” Major theorists like Foucault, Lacan, Kristeva, and Butler all privilege the notion of social performance to acknowledge the power and politic of the body, its overt and subversive communication systems, its signifying practices, and the psychology and ideology of regulation and control.

As we have argued, the age of technology asks us to further consider bodies in space and time, virtual and real, hybrid and multiple. As some claim, the Internet may mobilize and democratize access to education, knowledge, and information, but with it comes an instability, a critique of authenticity or truth, foundational thinking as rejected by poststructuralism, and ongoing and newly conceived questions of ethics. As research continues to become more global and collaborative, profound ethical questions will certainly need to be reconciled with the growing complexity of a digital world.

Challenges and Hopes in Current Drama Education

In another recent special issue of RiDE: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance entitled Drama and Curriculums, scholars from around the world articulated obstacles and possibilities for drama in school settings. Issue editors Prentki and Stinson declared that drama practitioner-researchers are now “faced with the imminent demise of our discipline within formal state education” (p. 7). The articles traced drama curricula “in specific social contexts and relations,” thus illustrating historical and current sociopolitical dilemmas (Gallagher, 2016, p. 21). Scholars, such as New Zealander Peter O’Connor (2016b), have identified the need for monetary investment and a fundamental ideological shift toward upholding universal drama education access in this neoliberal era of competition and socioeconomic disparity. He and others claimed that the resulting social isolation and national financial crises, such as in Greece, have led to a loss of empathy, critical consciousness, and understanding of one’s role in relation to others, both in the classroom and the world at large (Giannouli, 2016). Indeed, neoliberalism’s logic would hold that for one person to succeed, another must fail. In contrast, Prentki and Stinson (2016, p. 2) called for a “relational curriculum” to counter this individualistic and free market paradigm, which they connect to the perpetuation of extreme environmental damage and to injustices against vulnerable populations. In their words, “the call for drama to be restored to and sustained in the curriculum is no more or less than a call to put morality back into both formal education and the dealings between people in the wider world” (p. 8).

Scholars in Brazil and Palestine point to the lack of interest and support from federal policymakers and the importance of community-based organizations and NGOs in training teachers and expanding student access to high-quality drama education that emphasizes critical thinking and community development. Writing of national curriculum standards in Brazil, Nogueira and Pereira (2016, p. 130) lamented that “in the land of Boal” (a theater practitioner dedicated to participatory politics), “the theatre is not seen as a tool to achieve other purposes.” While the federal government in Brazil has not advanced policies supporting the expansion of drama education, organizations such as the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) have prioritized drama education and currently collaborate with Nogueira and Pereira in the training and proliferation of theater teachers in their schools as part of their agrarian reform initiative.

In Palestine, drama and theater are absent from school curricula; however, troupes such as the Ashtar Theatre train teachers to integrate drama. Other organizations, such as the Freedom Theatre in South Africa, work directly with children, youth, and adults in communities for personal and social development and healing, and in order to develop and perform dramatic productions for cultural resistance that expose injustices (Rivers, 2015). In these settings, whether inside schools or outside them, whether enshrined in formal curricula or flourishing in informal learning contexts, drama serves the vital function of bridging “what this world is and what it might be [through] … the relating of creativity with criticality” (Prentki & Stinson, 2016, pp. 4, 6).

Socioeconomic and racial differences determine access to drama education in countries such as South Africa and in many Nordic school districts. Despite attempts to integrate schools at the end of apartheid in South Africa, current school fee systems have exacerbated the racial divide. Disproportionately, poor black students attend free schools labeled as “dysfunctional,” whereas students with financial stability (mainly white) pay for better-resourced schools, which often include drama programs (Elliott, 2016, p. 57). Nordic countries devote a great deal of teacher education to integrating drama with other subject areas. Despite its “welfare model [of] equity,” ensuring that all young people have free access to social services such as education, Nordic countries also have fee-based “cultural schools” that limit admittance based on wealth (Österlind, Østern, & Thorkelsdóttir, 2016, p. 52). These schools position drama education as an independent course, rather than as a learning medium across the curriculum. By contrast, in the Philippines, although schools have decreased programming in drama education over time, Pañares and Cabangon (2016) contend that creative theatrical expression is still a major part of the ongoing traditional practices within communities.

Scholars in India, Canada, and Australia also offer some hope. At the Prerna school for girls in India, director Urvashi Sahni (2016) and educators (many of them Prerna alumni) utilize drama to achieve the personal and collective empowerment of its female students. Through “critical dialogues,” student-led, community-centered initiatives, and dramatic play, devising, and performance, the school strives to “ensure that [students] emerge as women with a perception of themselves as equal persons having the right to equal participation in an unequal society, and to equip them with the appropriate skills for such equal participation” (Sahni, 2016, p. 135).

In Canada, the drama curriculum has remained well enshrined, even if district-level leaders and teachers fear the inevitable competition with a growing appetite among young people for “new technologies” that are always in competition with “the arts” as chosen options of study for students. Gallagher (2016, p. 34) nonetheless concluded, “The curriculum in Ontario seems determined to engage young people in activities and experiences that invite them to contemplate the diverse world in which they live and learn, to examine and question perspectives, and to consider issues of power and exclusion.” The 2015 Australian Curriculum: The Arts Version 8.0 offers the rare example of a federal policy that upholds the importance of arts education as a whole (Stinson & Saunders, 2016). While there are still concerns about equitable implementation, researchers and educators remain cautiously optimistic about institutional commitment to drama education.

An Ever-Evolving Field

Over the last 25 years, drama education and AT have unsettled many assumptions about artistic practice, education, and social conditions and relations. New and reimagined practices have provoked important questions regarding ethics, representation, and human rights that speak to something much more than the development of a field and the research and work produced within it. These collective and embodied practices and projects speak of our world, its peoples and practices, its stories and communities, and its aspirations and social imaginaries. It is precisely what the youth who participated in the DICE study discovered: Drama teaches us “what it means to be human.”

The field has undergone its share of theoretical and conceptual variances, taking interest in diverse and distinct spaces and populations in its cultural, education, and performative practices. The idea of education itself has undergone much theoretical rethinking, moving from a more instrumentalist understanding in its earliest days to a set of ideas that constitute education in broad terms. The very notion of humanism has given way to posthuman and materialist theoretical frameworks, while the idea of education as the province of the young has also been cast aside in favor of lifelong learning.

Theater institutions have broadened their mandates to concern questions of education and not simply marketing, understanding that professional theaters have an important role to play not only in the education of future audiences, but also in the development of artists themselves and in complex and creative processes of civic engagement. For instance, many established and independent theater companies around the globe—too many to name—have developed programs that engage young people in dramaturgical and performance work, as well as textual analysis and writing for theater, all work that moves well beyond simply developing an appreciation for drama. It would be difficult to predict where drama education and applied theater, both in schools and in communities, might move in the next quarter-century, but we will likely see more collaborative work across formal and informal contexts for learning, as well as the blurring of lines between youth, amateur, professional, and independent artistic production.

Finally, the tracing of a field often privileges the current moment. Ahistorical narcissism invariably positions the current moment as more enlightened than anything that has come before. But, as we trust this article has illustrated, the field of drama education/applied theater over time is filled with extraordinarily innovative ideas that break with entrenched historical traditions and habitual ways of seeing, to hearken a new way of thinking, being, relating, and creating. Drama education/applied theater is engaging relentlessly in a lively conversation with its times; it takes the world as its source and humanity as its target audience. We have aimed to offer here a brief history of an ambitious, flawed, idealized, politicized, divisive, and deeply humanistic scholarly and practice-driven field.

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Notes:

(1.) We note that the terms applied theater (AT) and drama education are not synonymous; they have grown up as fields of study with unique histories. There are certainly those in the field who continue to debate their distinctions. Schonmann (2005, p. 36), for example, decries the instrumentalist language of applied theater and claims that the focus on “by-products” comes “at the expense of [AT’s] aesthetic and artistic roots.” From her perspective, applied theater discourse may limit the development of drama education as a larger field, not traditionally bound to social outcomes or artistic products. For the purposes of this article, however, we have chosen to group the two fields, focusing more on how they are related, despite the fact that applied theater is a more recent area of study and may certainly owe as much to the history of community theater as it does to drama education. We are choosing not to be distracted by debates about definition or boundary and offer, instead, a historical and present view of the fields as related to one another in broad terms. Drama education has been commonly understood as the formalized study of drama, in and out of school, taking many different forms in many different places around the world, while applied theater has been less associated with institutional spaces and formal instruction. For applied theater, we follow Prentki and Preston’s (2009) understanding of it as theater created for, with, and/or by communities for the purpose of improving social conditions through emancipatory and active engagement.

(2.) Initially, in these early days, drama would be housed with the discipline of English, especially in secondary schools. Only much later would drama assert itself as part of the arts, including visual arts, music, and later dance and media studies.

(3.) Exploring the vast history of drama and theater in Asia and South East Asia is beyond the scope of this article. However, their diverse political, geographic, cultural, artistic, religious, and ideological traditions deserve careful attention. Their rich arts and theater traditions span not only centuries, but millennia. While this literature review focuses heavily on European and North American history, traditions, and scholarship, there is a wealth of Applied Theater happening in Asia that would be best represented by a scholar of Eastern studies who can do justice to these compelling cultural and historic theater traditions. Helpful sources include the Asian Theatre Journal, the Journal of Drama and Theatre Education in Asia, and Theatre Journal’s Special Issue on Asian Theatre and Performance.