Acting Up

by Debdutta Ray

Children enacting a role play during Debdutta’s session at one of the Muncipal Schools Apni Shala works with

Perhaps, like me, you too believe that actors (usually trained) are those who are in the acting business, whereas non-actors are the rest of us, common people…Right? Wrong. It turns out, we are all actors. Brazilian theatre director and writer Augusto Boal, the pioneer of the Theatre of the Oppressed, theorised that everyone has the capacity to act in the “theatre” of their own lives; everybody is at once an actor and a spectator.

At our social emotional learning (SEL) classrooms, we use a plethora of activities with the objectives of helping build…

“… skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning; CASEL).

Drama, or role-play, is one of the many modalities that is amply used in SEL.

There exists enough research to support the effectiveness of drama as a teaching tool, which helps foster young children’s healthy development and learning. But I am someone who learns things best experientially — I need to try things out to know. Coming from a non-acting background I had almost no idea as to how theatre practice could be facilitated in classrooms. Also, really, how could I get a child to genuinely emote in scenarios, never mind that they are drawn from or are relevant to their own lives, that are to a large extent made up, artificial? I had an abstract anxiety around the particular aspect that if you are simply “acting”, are those actions and emotions “authentic”.

Previously, the whole effect of performances of my students across all my groups was to my mind either ambiguous or chaotic, if not caricaturish, thus ineffectual. Disappointedly I would denigrate role plays as a mere preparation for a discussion and debrief, which come right afterwards. I used to believe that the discussion was the core, rest everything else was noise. Huddling them up in a conversation would give me as well a chance to partake in the activity.

By and by I noticed what I was considering as a waste of time, was something they were most engaged in doing. There is something telling when a child whom you would otherwise perceive as indifferent and susceptible to conflicts shows so much sensitivity when it comes to enacting scenes of grief and loss of another classmate/co-participant that everyone is left speechless. I have observed how it puts children at ease when they are asked to respond through role-plays, as opposed to thinking and answering in group discussions, out of which come mostly safe, measured opinions.

The plays in my classes are without exception raw and idealistic. But even those idealistic situations serve to frame these children’s thoughts, where they get to live inside their created worlds for a while. And that in itself is quite empowering. Idealism is fine for our purposes right now, as long as these children realise that they have a say in their lives.  

The more I think about it the more I am fascinated by how the theatre mode literally makes us embody both old experiences and new ideas. Everything becomes that much more tactile and real. Empathy flows easily. In my sessions, not a single drama activity goes by that the children are not excited to plan and offer something improvised. Suddenly, their shyness is gone. Suddenly, their attention (even with the seemingly inattentive ones) is back at the task; they are busy planning. And stage fright… what stage fright? I find all these things valuable in the process of learning. And what’s more, one of my groups even put in a request to bring in a professional actor to train them in acting, when I sincerely apologised that I could barely stand in for an acting instructor.

About the author: Debdutta Ray holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Media from K.C College, Mumbai. Previously, she has worked as a content writer/copy editor for publications and e-learning companies. She’s joined as an Apni Shala fellow.

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