What is Role Play? - Definition, Scenario Ideas & Activities

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  • 0:03 What Is Role Play?
  • 0:49 Relationship to Improvisation
  • 1:38 Structuring Role Play
  • 2:53 Implementing Role Play
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

Role playing is a fun theatrical exercise that is a cross between improvisation and performing in a play. It blends creativity with structure to help actors hone their craft and is an important skill for an actor to develop.

What Is Role Play?

When it comes to theater, role playing is a fundamental skill that allows actors to be successful in their roles. Role playing allows an actor to step into the shoes of a character. This may sound easy, but it isn't necessarily a natural process. It's a skill that requires a lot of practice before an actor can do it comfortably and well.

Role playing takes place in small groups, where each actor is given a specific character or role to take on for the assigned period. Within the role play - aside from assigning characters such as mother, friend, and classmate - there's also a prescribed situation within which the various characters will interact. The situation provides the boundaries and guides how the characters should behave within the role play.

Relationship to Improvisation

Role playing occurs in the middle of the theatrical road exercise. Improvisation involves short exercises, which essentially hand over the creative reins to the actors with few prescribed boundaries. The actors are given a few parameters and are then free to act out the scene without any preparation and see where it goes. In a full theatrical performance, there would be the confines of the script and an extended time frame in which the actors have to stay in character.

In role playing, there are similar boundaries to what you would find in a script, which is the written document that lays out the dialogue in a play. The actors can still have boundaries and structure, but without the prescribed sets of lines found in a script. Unlike improvisation, in role playing actors are typically allowed some time to prepare. It also builds stamina because role-playing activities typically last longer than improvisation.

Structuring Role-Play

Choice of Scenarios

When structuring a role-play activity, there are two main aspects you need to consider. The first aspect is what scenario you'll use for the role-play activities. As part of role playing is about enabling actors to develop their creativity, the sky is the limit. For example, you might have historical scenarios such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the night the Titanic sank.

The scenario might be task-oriented, such as trying to shop for a list of presents or solving a specific problem. For other role-play exercises, you may want to use more common scenarios such as dinner in a restaurant, a family holiday in an apartment, or a student lab in a science classroom.

Choice of Roles

Next, you'll want to have parts for each actor in the role play. Defining the roles gives the actors a framework within which to build their characters. How you define the roles can range from very specific to more general parts. For example, if you're using a historical scenario, you might have roles for the specific figures who were present, such as Benjamin Franklin or Captain John Edward Smith of the Titanic.

You may also create roles that are more general, like waitress or mom, and provide some background info such as age, significant life experiences (for example, a spouse dying recently), likes, dislikes, etc.

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