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Theatre in Education: Research and Purpose

Theatre in Education


What is it about theatre that has captured the interest of people for thousands of years and in every culture? Theatre is an important part of many people’s lives, bringing the gifts of entertainment and story sharing to people around the world. Theatre takes different forms in different cultures - Indonesian shadow puppets, Chinese opera, traditional African storytelling and drumming, and fully staged Broadway-style shows. No matter the style of theatre, performances have the potential to create magical and unforgettable moments for their audiences.


The term ‘theatre in education’ refers to using theatre for a purpose beyond entertaining an audience. This purpose is generally to change the knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors (or perhaps all three) of audience members. For my purposes, the goal of theatre in education is to improve young people’s reproductive health, to prevent HIV, and to reduce the stigma and discrimination that come with unintended pregnancy or HIV infection.


The History of Theatre in Education for Public Health


Theatre has always been a bridge between education and entertainment. From the earliest time, theatre has been used to spread news, share history, or educate people about events outside of their communities.


In the past decade, the use of drama and theatre arts for education purposes has undergone a remarkable resurgence. In particular, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has provided a focus for countless dramatic presentations. Television dramas, Podcasts, blogs, vlogs, radio plays, mass media campaigns, comic books, and other imaginative offerings have been used around the world to convey information and influence behavior. Audience members often relate to characters on stage or in the radio or television drama and are motivated to participate in interactive opportunities for discussing the controversial and sensitive issues of sexuality, intravenous drug use, violence against women, and other health-related topics.


Research on the Use of Theatre for Educational Purposes


There is a growing body of evidence on the utility of theatre in education. It is seen as a powerful tool for social change. Theatre can strengthen the emotional and psychological appeal of messages and provide a believable and interesting way to explore sensitive issues, particularly with young people. Watching a carefully designed educational show can change the way a person thinks and possibly the way he/she/they act. Using theatre as a creative educational tool provides an opportunity to debunk myths, present a balanced view, and influence behavior. If used effectively, it is an excellent way to present sensitive topics not usually discussed in public, particularly in educational settings. Theatre allows audiences to receive these messages in an entertaining and exciting way. Under the best circumstances and conditions, live theatre can change how people act: It can play a role in leading youth away from risky, dangerous behavior towards safer, healthier lifestyles.




How Does Theatre Influence People?


At its best, theatre captures people’s attention. Even young people bored by school work, bland television programs or YouTube videos are animated by live theatre.


Theatre engages the audience, focusing their attention and actively involving them in an experience. Active involvement means that the audience’s emotions, not just intellectual or cognitive skills, are affected. It is this ability to touch emotions that allows theatre to influence attitudes in ways that traditional instruction cannot. However, in order for theatre to change the behavior of young people, it must do more than simply create an emotional response. It must deliver its messages in a way that youth can understand and act upon. Hence, theatrical presentations and workshops must be based in educational and behavioral theory. Theatre designed for educational programs should also have an evaluation component so program managers can see how theatre is affecting their target audiences.


Theoretical Framework


Educational theatre, like other forms of ‘edutainment’, is based on the theories of Albert Bandura. Bandura recognized that people learn how to behave - and how to change their behavior - by watching other people. In edutainment, actors demonstrate behavior for an audience. The audience notes the behaviors of both positive and negative role models. Of central importance for the health education aspect of theatre is the transitional model: the character who changes his or her behavior from risky to safe, demonstrating to the audience that change is possible and that a young person is capable and powerful enough to control their own behavior.


Health-oriented educational theatre also draws on the insights of other researchers and learning theorists. Research has shown, for example, that adolescents tend to adopt the behaviors of those whom they regard as role models. Because adolescents are often attracted to riskier behaviors - and to those who exhibit them - thi insight is particularly useful in the creation of transitional models. Those who provide health education through theatre must be careful to craft characters capable of conveying attitudes that are attractive to young people while also demonstrating desirable behaviors. Successful youth theatre often portrays:

  • ‘Hip’ or ‘cool’ characters who wear stylish clothes and use age-appropriate language (for any given community).

  • Types of characters who are familiar to the audience. These characters may have succumbed to, or be considering, high-risk behaviors.

  • Believable motivations for characters to change their behaviors and avoid the consequences of unsafe actions. For example, a dramatic piece shows how and why characters are converting to safer sex and adopting less risky behaviors.


Culturally and Developmentally Appropriate Theatre


For theatre education to be successful, it must be culturally and developmentally appropriate. Adolescents will not be moved by theatre designed for younger people. Urban youth may require a different vocabulary than youth in rural settings in order for the messages to be powerful and effective.


A Great Story


At the heart of great theatre is a great story, with various elements working together. As with any art form, the success or lack of success of theatre is subjective. One person’s idea of a wonderful play is the next person’s wasted hour. Below are the elements that contribute to an engaging story:

  • The story has well-defined characters, with complex, realistic, and relevant relationships that move the story forward.

  • The characters experience some sort of conflict, which engages the audience.

  • There is a sense of truth about the story, which is not to say that the story itself is true, but that there is a sense of honesty and believability about it.

  • The performance uses humor, if appropriate. A story that makes people laugh - at least some of the time - leaves people feeling entertained.


Peer Educators as Actor/Educators


Researchers have found that some of the most effective educational theatre programs for young people are those designed and acted by young people who have received training in theatre techniques and in peer education in a technical area such as reproductive health or HIV prevention. When theatre-trained peer educators use theatre to communicate with their peers, they can bring enormous power to the messages they wish to share.


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