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Process Drama: Definition & Techniques

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Theater can be entertaining, but also a great teaching tool. In this lesson, we are going to talk about process dramas and see how they are used in both the theater and the classroom.

Process Drama

Is theater educational, or is it entertainment? Why can't it be both? In the realm of theatrical performance, an idea that has gained a lot of attention in recent years is that of process drama. As opposed to traditional theater, which is all about rehearsing and preparing a polished performance for an audience, process drama focuses on the action of creating a scene. It's a different way to think about theater, and one which is seeing use in classrooms and stages alike.

How Process Drama Works

So, how exactly do process dramas work? In this form of theater, the leader (presumably a teacher), presents a scenario and then the entire ensemble acts it out together. It is essentially improvised, with an assumption that some sort of background has already been established about the scene. So, the focus is on the process of creating and acting out a scene, not on a polished and refined performance.

Process drama is not the only form of theater to rely heavily on improvisation, so what else makes it so unique? The other defining trait of process drama is that it is not intended for any audience. While traditional theater is focused on creating an experience for the audience, process drama is internal. It is meant to benefit the actors themselves, and is not routinely observed by anyone else. Even the teacher or director participates. It is a group exercise in improvisation, communication, and storytelling with a single, internal audience--the participants themselves.

Process drama has no audience and is entirely internally focused
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Process Drama and Teaching

The rise in process drama's popularity is largely thanks to the fact that it makes a great teaching tool. Obviously, theater teachers can use process drama to teach various aspects of theater, but its use actually goes far beyond that. Many teachers working in primary through higher education have begun to incorporate process drama into their lessons.

Imagine that you are a high school history teacher conducting a lesson on the Constitutional Convention during which the United States Constitution was drafted. That convention was full of drama and debates, with various people disagreeing on practically every issue. As a teacher, you could lecture to explain each of these issues, but you could also ask your students to embrace the attitudes of the convention's participants as their own. In this classroom, the process drama would let students step into the shoes of historical figures and act out unscripted exchanges from other people's points of views.

During this scenario, some students could represent the Northerners who wanted a strong central government, while others would represent the Southerners who wanted a weaker central government. Ask students to get in character, thinking about the issues relevant to their sides of the debate. What experiences did each character have during the American Revolution? What has life been like since the end of the war? As the teacher, you can also participate in this process drama as president of the convention. This lets you maintain control of the scene, but most of the interaction would still be between the students.

Students could take on the role of any number of participants in the Constitutional Convention
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Many teachers are embracing process drama because it teaches students how to empathize with the lives and realities of historical figures and presents a new way for students to learn material that may otherwise seem irrelevant or boring. The process of improvising helps them think about the issues in new ways, and live interaction helps each student become an expert in his or her character's experiences. For this reason, it can be used to teach a variety of subjects, including foreign languages, multiculturalism, and social skills.

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