Role play: from the ridiculous to the sublime

I don’t like the term role-play. I’ve not liked it since I was asked, as part of a group of PGCE students, to ‘fly’ around the hall pretending to be snow-flakes to the sound of Aled Jones singing, Walking in the Air. I felt a right nob.

This hatred of role-play intensified later in the year, when, as part of an Inset day, I was asked to role-play being a bully, picking on another adult role-playing being the victim. It was excruciating, the two of us play-acting our roles in front of a room of a friends and colleagues. When I had finished and went to sit down, those in the audience avoided my eyes, they were as embarrassed as I was.

I was ready to call time on anything that even hinted at drama. I believed firmly it was nothing more than a form of excruciating torture: an agonizing embarrassment of stomach-churning humiliation, with no other purpose than giving extroverts the opportunity to show off and piss about.

My views changed entirely the first time I was involved in something that was genuine and real: authentic drama, not pretending or role-playing. Luke Abbott, a former student of Dorothy Heathcote’s, was working with my class of Year 2s. Within a few minutes of starting the children, in-role as an emergency rescue team, were discussing what equipment they going to need to rescue people trapped in a giant sink-hole. They were talking about ropes and winches, helicopters and ambulances, night-vision goggles and remote controlled cameras, all without a hint of irony or embarrassment. Luke soon had me involved as an accident victim stuck in the hole, under a pile of rubble, unable to move and badly injured. The rescue team could only talk to me through their remote controlled robot:

“Can you move?” They asked.
“No,” I replied, “There is something heavy across my legs. I can’t see what it is in the dark. Can you help me? I’m scared.”
“Do not worry,” they replied, “We will be with you soon. Hold on. We are going to send you some water and a torch. Are you bleeding at all?”

I remember sitting there in the corner of the classroom, talking to my hard to engage class, everyone one of whom was crouching with Luke in rapt concentration. Totally focused on this gripping scenario, totally immersed in their roles as the rescue team. It gripped me too. For the first time I was enjoying drama. I wasn’t being asked to pretend to be injured, screaming in agony and writhing on the carpet, nor was I embarrassed by trying to act my part. All I was being asked to do was represent someone who was trapped, injured, and unable to move: Someone who needed rescuing. Any acting on my part would have distracted the children and taken away from them the mantle of expertise that Luke was so carefully building.

This was an important moment for me. I realised that drama could be an incredibly effective way to teach, but only if it was done well. All my previous experiences of drama had been dire, but now I realised they weren’t ‘real’ drama, in the sense of being authentic experiences, but silly, frivolous, play-acting activities. No one, before this session with Luke, had ever bothered to ‘protect me into’ the drama. Previously it had always been a jarring, awkward, jump from sitting on a chair, to ‘warming up’ with a game, to pretending to be a bereaved father or something. Luke worked in a different way with my class and I. He built a context first and then ‘inducted’ us into the experience, a little at a time, at our own pace. I don’t remember any feelings of embarrassment or any sense that we were pretending or acting, just a gentle, seamless, series of small, coherent, activities that ended with me on the carpet, holding my leg, and the children at the other end of the room, talking to me through imaginary walkie-talkies.

I don’t call this role-play, although some might. I call it drama. For me, the focus in role-play is stepping into someone shoes and pretending to be them; a very difficult thing to do well, even for trained actors. In drama, you imagine yourself, in that situation. You have a different point of view, you may imagine having a different set of values, certainly the things happening to you will be different, but you are essentially yourself. Heathcote borrowed from Goffman by calling this framing: essentially, we are always framing and reframing the world and ourselves in relation to it. As adult/teachers we are different at home to how we are in class, we are different in staff-meetings than we are in the pub. We are still ourselves, but the relationship we have to the situation is different. This is what drama-for-learning attempts to create in the classroom; different worlds, different situations, different contexts, and different points of view for the students to explore and learn from.

Not something to be dismissed lightly.

One Comment

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  1. Michelle Sowey January 13, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    This is a wonderful post – thank you. I’m so glad to have discovered your blog.

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