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The Transformative Power of Drama

In third grade, Abigail rarely raised her hand to answer a question. When she did speak, her voice was soft and small, and tenuous. She was an avid reader and an imaginative writer, but it seemed like she tried to take up as little space as possible in her boisterous class. A wild rabbit senses alertness, and sniffs the air, anticipating danger.

Our class was putting on a play, an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. I asked each of my students to fill out a form listing their top three choices for what part they wanted and why.

I was shocked when Abigail put the part of Annemarie, the lead in the play, as her number one pick. Intrigued, I went to speak with her after school and asked if she understood what she was asking for. “You’ll have to speak really loudly, in a stage voice, in front of many people. You’ll have to memorize hundreds of lines, act like a completely different person, and every eye will be on you. Are you ready for that? “

Abigail nodded vigorously. “Yes, Mrs. Levy, I understand. I can do it.”

“OK,” I said, “auditions are tomorrow. Practice the try-out pages for Annemarie.”

I was concerned for Abigail. This was unlike anything she had ever done before and I didn’t want her to freeze or begin crying in front of the class, but I had learned that motivation goes a long way.

When Abigail stepped on stage the next day to read for her part, her demeanor was no different. She seemed timid, mousy, like she might bolt at any moment. Then, to our amazement, her entire countenance transformed. She began to read in a loud stage voice, with perfect expression, as if she’d been in the theater for decades. Everyone in the room was stunned.

Others read for the part, but it clearly belonged to Abigail. Except for blocking directions, I don’t think I ever had to coach her about how to play her part. She never faltered and clearly, it was an extraordinary experience for her. She had never been in a play before and her parents were as surprised as the rest of us.

Abigail continued to act at our elementary school and continued in high school. She has graduated college and started her own theater which produces plays with Christian themes, some of which she writes and acts in.

I’m not sure what would have become of Abigail if she had not experienced the power of drama. It changed her life.

Fifth grader Andrew, new to our school, (and wrestling with many issues) wanted no part in the upper school play, a requirement for all 5th through 8th graders. We were performing The Tempest and he asked for, and I gave him, the smallest part – a mariner during the opening storm scene who says only, “Save us!” But the power of drama got hold of him and the next year he tried out for and was given a bigger part in our play about Queen Esther, and in addition, was excited to work the spotlight. Here’s what he wrote about the experience:

I was part of a team that was building something so large it would have been impossible for any one of us to do it on his own. The show that we were creating changed from day to day as each contributor had new thoughts and ideas they wanted to try out. It was alive and real and even though it took on more and more shape, week by week, no one knew exactly what it would look like on opening night.

The next year, Andrew was one of the scriptwriters, directors, and lead in our production of The Bronze Bow. Experiencing drama had a profound effect on this student; what if he had not had that opportunity?

I’m concerned that curricular demands are squeezing out the time it takes to involve students in drama, an experience that few forget. Whenever I ask adults, “Who still remembers lines from a play they were in as children?” almost every hand goes up. Here are some other powerful effects of giving time to drama:

  • When we give students meaningful stories to enact and guide them in reflecting on their character, we are providing what Jamie Smith would call “an embodied material practice.” One student who had played the part of Queen Esther as an eighth grader was living in a Muslim country a few years later, acting as a mother’s helper for two young girls. The missionary parents were attacked one night with hatchets while the girl was paralyzed with fear in another room with the two young children. She finally guided the girls out of the house to a hiding place where they were safe. Later on she told me that what gave her courage that night was the line Mordecai said to her in the Esther play, “Yet who knows whether you been raised up for such a time as this?” This young woman’s character had been formed, to some degree, by embodying the part of a courageous queen.

  • Being part of a play, whether onstage or off, is an experience that can help students understand what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. Every member is singularly important. The play cannot go on if even the smallest part is missing. Not everyone has the same gifts, but any member of the cast can shine in their part.

  • Students may discover hidden talents as they take on scriptwriting, directing, lighting, stage managing, singing. So many talents are needed to put on a play and most of them aren’t touched in a purely academic curriculum. One boy in fourth grade had rather severe learning disabilities, but he desperately wanted the part of King Herod. His image of himself (and his teachers and parents’ image of him) was that it would be almost impossible for him to memorize the lines. But, he was given the part and was the first one of the cast to have all his lines perfectly memorized. His success in the play transferred to other areas of his school life.

  • Plays can be woven into the Bible, social studies, or language arts curriculum. Students who have “lived” the story of Daniel or Joseph or Esther in a play will have that story in their hearts for the rest of their lives. The students who acted the part of mill girls during the Industrial Revolution, pioneers during Westward Expansion, migrant farm workers, etc. will have a new understanding of history and an empathy for people who lived those experiences. Drama doesn’t have to be an ”add-on” to the curriculum; it can be an integral part of it.

  • Students can be asked to journal about the core values they needed to engage to be part of a successful play. One of our words is integrity, an essential value when students are waiting to rehearse, have a deadline for memorizing lines, and are helping their castmates stay focused. Journaling about the core values of the characters in the play is also valuable, even when a student plays a character we would not want them to emulate. What core values was the character lacking? How would the story have been different if the character had lived out our core values? A boy who acts the part of Edmund in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” will recognize betrayal and redemption in a deeper way.

Drama is such a powerful tool for gaining depth in historical, literary, and Biblical understanding. I’ve seen its potential to transform students’ lives, both in how they see themselves and in engaging core values through the embodiment of a character and the tasks and skills needed to produce a play. It’s an effective way for students to take ownership. And over the course of 30 years of putting on plays, I have found no pedagogical tool that surpasses the motivation, excitement, and engagement engendered by drama.

A practical suggestion:

If putting on a play seems daunting to you, try writing, or helping your students write a one-act play based on an event you’re studying in history, a chapter or incident from a book you’re reading as a class, or a story from the Bible. Kids love costumes, even very simple ones. The set also can be minimalist. Start by performing it for another class in your school. Keep it simple and have success, then you can get more complicated.

And may God bless your efforts in giving this gift to your students!


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