Roles and rehearsals: Think like an actor

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

In her book, How Art Works, psychologist Ellen Winner describes a prison program, aptly named, Shakespeare Behind Bars, where inmates, convicted of serious crimes, spent many months rehearsing for a Shakespeare play. Apparently, the recidivism rate of those who took part in the program was much lower than the national average. While this was not a scientifically controlled study, the results lend support to the immense power of theatre as a therapeutic and cathartic tool. In this article, the third of a four-part series on creative endeavors, I focus on the many positives that accrue to children when they pursue dramatic activities.


Winner describes a study which found that students who enact stories from their English language texts exhibit stronger verbal skills. Acting out the stories led to greater comprehension, possibly because the students engaged with the text more actively and deeply when they had to take on roles. More interestingly, students who learnt through drama showed superior comprehension even on new texts that they hadn’t acted out. Thus, it appears that they had acquired skills to extract meaning from text more dexterously. Additionally, the drama group also displayed higher reading, oral language and writing scores. In short, enacting texts boosted children’s verbal skills.


What about children’s affective skills? Does drama also enhance children’s emotional abilities? Winner makes a useful distinction between three different types of empathy. Knowing, at an intellectual level, what someone else is feeling constitutes cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy, on the other hand, is feeling what another person is going through. Lastly, compassionate empathy involves acting to alleviate the pain or sorrow of another person.


Another study conducted by psychologist Michael Chandler assessed whether drama promotes cognitive empathy in children. In fact, he selected children and adolescents who had a record of antisocial or delinquent behaviour and first measured their perspective-taking abilities by asking them to predict the reaction of various persons in a series of cartoons. He then divided the boys into three groups. The acting group had to perform skits on real-life events. The skits were performed repeatedly until every child had played every role.


The children in the film group made cartoons and documentaries, but they couldn’t act in them. The third group did not receive any intervention. After 10 weeks, the three groups were again given the perspective-taking test. While all the three groups did better on the retest, the acting group exhibited greater gains than the two control groups. More importantly, a follow-up after 18 months found that the acting group exhibited less problematic behaviour in the real-world as well.


Another fillip to dramatic play is provided by a study, cited by Winner, involving kindergartners. Children, who engaged in role-playing activities over an eight-week period, exhibited less personal distress when they witnessed an experimenter get hurt compared to control groups. Role-playing, involves following socially-prescribed rules, according to acclaimed Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, and, this, in turn, helps children acquire better emotional control.


Theatre director, playwright and educator, David Farmer, argues in his book, Learning Through Drama in the Primary Years, children’s naturalistic play typically includes dramatic activity. Hence, teachers may capitalize on this proclivity towards drama to extend learning across the curriculum. As drama involves multisensory experiences, it engages children more actively and enhances a host of skills like creativity, communication, cooperation and confidence.


Further, as we have seen in the examples above, drama provides a safe space for children to explore and engage with difficult emotions. Farmer points out that educators may focus on the process rather than the product when using drama as a pedagogic tool. So, children may take on different roles to gain different viewpoints. Drama games, carefully selected, can also help children interact more deeply with curricular material and can provide them with an experiential perspective to learning. So, if children are learning about marine ecology, they may assume various roles including the creatures that inhabit the different layers of the ocean, a recreational scuba diver, a marine biologist researching the hadal zone and the CEO of a mining conglomerate doing deep sea drilling.


While drama activities may be used in classrooms to foster children’s involvement and understanding, children who are inclined may also participate in staged productions. Besides being an exhilarating experience, being part of a theatrical show can bestow a number of advantages on children. Right from memorizing lines to delivering them on cue, performing in front of an audience builds confidence and a sense of community among the cast. Rehearsing repeatedly with a group promotes patience, perseverance and team working skills. Making props, designing sets and costumes involves creativity, ingenuity, envisioning and artistic skills. Moving in tandem and on cue can augment attention and motoric dexterity.


As even seasoned actors can attest, theatre also nurtures your ability to improvise. No matter how many times or well you have rehearsed, actors have to learn to handle inevitable mishaps like a fallen microphone, a line delivered at the wrong moment or a costume tearing, with elan and composure. Problem-solving and thinking-on-your feet are indispensable, not only on stage, but in the theatre of life as well.

The author’s forthcoming book will be published by Rupa Publications. She can be reached at

[email protected].

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