What Is Drama? Essay

The question asked is ‘what is drama?’ Can we truly define it? Is there a ‘textbook’ definition of something that can be so personal? What is drama in relation to theatre? Why is drama so important? What are its uses, its aims? Some have said that drama develops self-esteem and encourages creativity and imagination. This is true, and will be demonstrated through examples from personal experiences.
Usually the first thing that occurs in a drama class is that someone will ask for a definition of the word drama. Most of the class will look away, as if in deep thought praying that they are not called on, because they do not know the answer. At first glance, it seems a simple question, but as one begins to delve into the true nature of drama, the answer is not so cut and dry.

For some, drama is a type of television show, such as a hospital or lawyer show. For others, it is that section of the movie rental place where all ‘chick flicks’ are. For still others, drama means Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. For teachers, drama means all and none of these things. A clear definition is needed in order to lead the students in various activities, and towards various goals. What good is it to have the students explore within themselves if the teacher does not know what the aim or direction of the exploration is? Many teachers claim that their purpose of drama is to develop the child’s sense of self. This however is slightly vague. Most people in education strive for this in one way or another. Bettering the child in body mind and spirit is a general goal for teachers, so this idea is not particular to drama. So then, what exactly is drama?
There is one school of thought that defines it as an expressive process which is best understood through the idea of symbolization and its role in the discovery and communication of meaning(McGregor 24). This is an accurate definition, as it also goes on to explain that drama is ‘multi-faceted’ and that he child gains experience through voice, language, the body as prime means of expression; and the associated media of light, sound and space(McGregor 24). I have had many opportunities to participate in dramatic activities, and to express myself in different ways.
One such activity I engaged in was a dance drama while attending my final year of high school in Toledo. The song was entitled ‘Forever Young’ and it was about growing up and growing old without knowing one’s place in life, without ever being happy. The melody was almost regretful in tone, and the lyrics were pleading in nature. At this point in time, I was two months away from graduation, about to leave the place I had called home for five years. I was not yet ready to leave my youth and enter into the unknown world of university. I was afraid, reluctant, and introspective, much like the protagonist of the song. Through dance, two other girls and I expressed our feelings on graduation. We used gentle movements; always aware of the softness of the angles our bodies were making. The arms were always curved, the head rolling into positions, as opposed to jerking. The lights were dimmed, with only a pale, white light focused on the center of the stage, giving it a bit of a glow.
Since we had three characters, we decided to act out three stages in life: the child, the teenager, and the adult. The child was dancing in the center of the stage, playing with the light, dancing with imaginary friends, happy, carefree, oblivious to its surroundings, and interested only in the moment. The teenager was standing just beyond the light of childhood, attempting to interact with the child, but never actually crossing the light. She would circle around it, look inward with longing, then turn with her back to the light, facing adulthood with fear and trepidation. She would take a few steps in one direction, then turn the other way, and take a few more steps, as if she were lost and confused, like in a maze. She could always see the child behind her, but not the adult in front of her. The teenager’s movements were mostly turns, implying confusion, and constant changes of direction. The adult was seated on the edge of the stage, watching the action. She began as an observer, as if remembering her past, but as the dance continued, she would stand up, walk around a little, then sit back down again, making good use of levels, but never distracting from the main action. The adult was reminiscent; she watched and reacted to the other two as if reliving her time as a teenager and her apprehensions on growing up.

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We were expressing our fears and worries through body movements and non-verbal expressions. Each of us had the chance to play all three roles, so we could experience three different emotions. Switching around like that allowed us to see the issue from different points of view. After this experience, we all felt a little more at ease with the transition we were about to make and ourselves. By expressing our fears, we had overcome them.

When developing one’s self through drama, there are a number of things one can concentrate on. The first is the senses. By using all of one’s senses, whether each by itself or all at once, one begins to explore themselves and one’s surroundings in greater detail than ever before. One becomes more aware of the physical world, i.e. the sound of the wind through the grass, the taste of a hand, and this leads to being more socially aware in the future. The senses are heightened, allowing the individual to be more perceptive around others and therefore have better relations in the adult world.
Another aspect one can concentrate on is body movement and non-verbal communication. We say so much about ourselves through body language. If we can learn to control each part of our bodies and the movements it may make, we can be more in control of our lives. How we use our bodies is what we are most judged on by others. If we are aware of what messages our bodies are sending we can manipulate these messages. By performing such activities as mime, tableaux, and mirror imaging we can learn to restrain any unnecessary movement and to make the most minuscule action mean so much.
Focus and concentration also plays a large part in drama. Each person involved in the group must not only focus on what he/she is doing but also on what the group as a whole is doing. It is only through focusing on the tack at hand that any dramatic activity may be completed. One must block out all outside stimuli and distraction and concentrate on what is required of them. The rhythmic skipping exercise required the class to skip in time to the music, to skip in time to each other and to follow the commands of the teacher at the same time.
Personal feelings are not the only subject for drama. Drama can be used to introduce the student to a number of different topics, be it historical, political, scientific, or artistic. A variety of situations can be concocted, allowing the child to explore his actual social relationships at the real level, and an unlimited number of hypothetical roles and attitudes at the symbolic level(McGregor 24). By experimenting with various roles in society, the child becomes better prepared to face these challenges in the real world. As well, by allowing him/herself to experience things as a different personality and by letting the imagination grow free, the teacher is building up the child’s confidence in him/herself and the validity of their own ideas and feelings. The child is now more perceptive to the needs and feelings of others, having portrayed many different types of people. This fits in nicely with Gavin Bolton’s definition of dramatic action as a tool for learning that rests in its capacity (1) to separate and objectify an event and (2) to break down established concepts and perceptions (142).

At the beginning of the course, we performed a few activities that illustrated this point. By using all of our senses, or deliberating inhibiting one of them, we as individuals were able to break down pre-established ideas about our environment and our fellow classmates. The objective given to us was to observe your own hand using all seven senses, i.e. sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, beauty and humour. I had never before taken so much time to explore any part of myself. In the past, I had always considered my hands as small and wrinkly, in fact I find all hands revolting. To me, hands had always been the filthiest part of the body, as they consistently were exposed to all kinds of germs. My hands were especially ugly. I had crosshatched lines covering my palms. During this exercise, I stared intently at my hands for a good ten minutes, following the lines up and down the palm, taking detours on the smaller lines; it looked like the road map of a large metropolitan city. I took time to notice that my hands were soft and smooth, the pads of my fingers were fleshy, but the bones of my fingers were pronounced and stiff. I noticed the difference between the first joint of one finger I had broken and one that I had not. When I listened to my hand, it sounded like the ocean. It was then that I discovered that my hand was no longer a hand, but a seashell instead.
All along, I thought that my hand was ugly and useless, but drama had helped me to overcome my prejudices to see that I truly had something beautiful. This also occurred when I had the opportunity to compare my hand with someone else’s. We told each other the story of our hands, and I actually could see the tree and its leaves on her hand. We were using drama to learn more about each other and to correct any prejudices we may have had against the other.
The other exercise we participated in also occurred near the beginning of the semester. One of each pair of students was blindfolded and the other had to lead them around the vicinity, exploring familiar territory in a different light. I led my partner to the reservoir to walk through the grass and to explore the stone walls along Elm. I had always considered the ‘res’ to be a dangerous place; somewhere I should never walk through at night. This time however, while leading my partner under archways and along the bike path, I discovered things I had never seen before. In the alcoves, there were large stone columns and intricate spider webs as large as picture windows. We found a tiny ditch filled with beautifully coloured leaves running alongside the field. What was even more wonderful was that she was discovering all that I was, but without seeing them. When I took off her blindfold, she could not believe where she had just been.
My turn was next to be blindfolded. My partner led me down Main Street to Elm through the long grass at the side of the road. We then walked along Elm, taking a detour through the slight embankment leading up to the apartment buildings. I felt a number of seemingly foreign objects, including a bubble-like structure which I later found out was a window, and some sweet smelling flowers. On a regular day, I would walk by this area at least four times and never before had I seen the things I had just explored with six of my senses. Drama had helped me to see my surroundings in a different light, in fact without seeing at all. What I had established previously as an ugly building with an overgrown lawn became a refuge for Mother Nature in the middle of an urban apartment complex. Drama had truly broken my preconceived notions to show something beautiful.
Drama is a very strong force in my life; it has determined the course of my development as a child. It is unfortunate however, that drama has not always existed in the way we know it as today. Agreed, throughout history there has always been some form of dramatic expression, but drama as an educational tool is a fairly recent development.
In the early 1950s, a man named Peter Slade wrote a book entitled Child Drama. The world was changing; people’s perceptions were changing. Children were finally seen as people who needed to be nurtured, directed, guided. Unfortunately, there were still some groups who felt that the traditional outlook (drama with an audience) was the way to go. Slade was advocating drama for personal development. He stated that he sees formal theatre as a final stage in a child’s development(Bolton 22). Many traditionalists extrapolated from this statement that he was anti-theatre. He was not anti-theatre, he merely felt that not all activities had to be performed; some were for self-exploration only. He wanted to turn away from the formalised styles designed to make all children sound like ‘little adults’ and turn back to the natural direction that children wanted to take. Slade stood for ‘personal circles’ and ‘child-centred activity’ and individualisation. It was not until Dorothy Heathcote came along that the focus went back to the importance of the collective experience and in doing so brought again to the fore the possibility of group members becoming united in their shared response to dramatic symbols(Bolton 31).

Dorothy Heathcote concentrated on the material objects that the drama was based on. She took a scientific approach; to her the material objects of the world provide the common source of the scientist’s view of knowledge (Bolton 59). Content is very important to her; the action must be focused on some topic or object. The child will be aware of the object and by examining and exploring it, he/she will celebrate it.
Brian Way, another celebrated dramatist, has a different view of drama and development from Dorothy Heathcote. He is very close associate of Peter Slade, and hence their styles are similar. Way tried to educate teachers to understand that children were capable of more than just clowning around on a stage. They could reach into themselves and explore feelings such as sorrow and pain. There are four things that Brian Way concentrated on: (1) the individual, (2) exercises, (3) expanding horizons of what may be included in a drama lesson and (4) intuition. Some teachers who felt as if they had to train each child by itself and who subsequently ignored the group unfortunately misconstrued his work on the importance of the individual. Way included in his books a number of exercises that teachers could use as a starting point for their classes. These exercises consisted of instructions that the teacher would continually give to the students which put the teacher almost entirely in control, it also invites a particular kind of mental disposition from the participants(Bolton 48). He also strove to include a number of topics into creative drama, in order to teach the children about as many aspects of life as possible. He incorporates all these ideas into one phrase, his definition of the function of drama: [leading] the enquirer to moments of direct experience, transcending mere knowledge, enriching the imagination, possibly touching the heart and soul as well as the mind(Way 1).

I believe that Way’s definition of drama is the one I most agree with. For me, drama has always allowed me to become characters that I would never play in real life. Play-acting has made me more creative; I can use my imagination to its full potential, as I no longer feel threatened by an audience. I have always found play-acting and other creative drama exercises to be therapeutic whenever I was distressed. By interacting with others in the group I have developed an appreciation for the mind and for the spirit. My view of society has changed; each one of us has a place in it, and it is up to the individual to define that place, however it is the duty of the group to adapt to each individual. This is the only way to lead a successful and happy life outside of the classroom, in the real world.

Bolton, Gavin. Drama as Education: An argument for placing Drama at the centre of the curriculum. London: Longman Group Limited, 1984.

McGregor, Lynn, Maggie Tate, and Ken Robinson. Learning Through Drama. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1977.

Slade, Peter. Child Drama. London: University of London Press Ltd., 1954
Way, Brian. Development Through Drama. London: Longman Group Limited, 1967.


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