Processing Dramas: And the Possibilities of Online Play with Pre-Primary Children

The dramatic space often resembles the world of pretend play that children indulge in when left to themselves. However, the structures created around a facilitated “class”, especially on an online platform can make ‘pretending’ a little more challenging. Entering a space of imagination is only possible when all the players consent to it. What role could we as facilitators play in the virtual space that encourages children to play along?

We (Devika and Akhila) launched into a month-long Process Drama with 6 bubbly 5-year-olds to explore this question. Process Drama is a mode of learning that allows learners of any age to use imagined roles to explore issues, events, and relationships.¹

A glimpse into our Lesson Plan

Week 1: Meet Flippy the Farmer who needs our help to plant seeds.

Week 2: We head to the market where Suri the Seller needs to sell fruits and vegetables.

Week 3: We enter the community kitchen where Bobby the Bavarchi is plating dishes.

Week 4: It’s a Food Mela! Flippy, Suri and Bobby are coming with their friends to visit our stalls and taste the different food items we have prepared.

Cecily O’Neill, an international authority on Process Drama, suggests that the adult should participate ‘from within the creative process, as co-artist with his/her pupils, rather than remain on the outside of the world as facilitator or manipulator.’ ² Therefore, we consciously decided to use Teacher-in-Role — a strategy that allows both the participants and the facilitators to play a role in the drama. While Akhila always played the Teacher-in-Role, switching between Flippy, Suri and Bobby, Devika was the constant auxiliary role, joining the children as farmers, sellers, and chefs as they weaved through the imagined drama. In both roles, we were constantly reflecting and acting with the children on the real-time problems of the drama.

In Week 2 when we switched on our videos and ‘entered’ the market, Suri the Seller peered into the camera:

“Oh wow, I see many more customers than we had expected,” claimed Suri with surprise, her face magnified on the screen.

“Yes, the customers are in my room! I see them!” shouted Manya, one of our most poised (or relatively composed) 5 year olds, exaggerating her facial expressions.

“What do we do now?” asked Devika, also peering into the camera.

“We have to sell our fruits and vegetables, Manya” advised Shrishti, reminding Manya of the rules of the game.

“Yes, and how do we do that? There are so many customers and only a few of us.” said Suri.

“Let’s call them,” said Kanika, crossing her arms, as if she knew the answer all along.

That our characters were well defined and served a very specific function opened up the window of imaginative play. Each character represented real-life situations, problems and emotions. At the beginning of every session, the objective was clear. For example, at the beginning of Week 2 — the children knew that we were about to sell the fruits and vegetables we had grown at the farm. Suri’s claim about the customers in the market problematized the predictability of this narrative and also existed within the realm of possibility. The Teacher-in-Role thus carried the responsibility of making the Process Drama convincing. Once the children saw us taking the drama seriously, involving ourselves in the problem-solving, their own seriousness became reinforced.³ When Suri the Seller displayed her anxiety around the arrival of the customers in the market, Manya mirrored that emotional response declaring that the customers had already arrived and were “in her room”. Somehow, the limitations of being in separate spaces disappeared temporarily and the elements of ‘make-believe’ came alive.

This pushed us to reflect on the dominant reactions offered by the Teacher-in-Role and its implications in this virtual Process Drama. One possible implication could be that because Manya mirrored the anxiety of Suri, Shrishti took on the role of the advisor, reassuring the group of the task at hand and Kanika became the problem solver. These roles were assumed and responsibility felt and shared in a matter of seconds. Moreover, Shrishti referred to Manya by her name when giving advice. In this manner, the Process Drama was also facilitating listening and connection building on a medium where there was no physical connection.

The collective acknowledgement of a problem led to a collective solution. Each of us proceeded to create our own ‘calls’ to attract many customers. We created an action and a tune for our call. Kanika’s was a personal favourite as she got up, stuck her hips out towards her camera and yelled: “Papaya Le Lo, Papaya Le Lo!” (buy the Papaya, buy the Papaya).

In retrospect, we realised that transitioning in and out of the role in front of the children, acted as a metaphor to enter and exit the realm of imagination and absurdity. At the end of Week 2, Shrishti asked, “Where is Suri the Seller?”, subtly declaring her desire to engage with the fictional character and their world. Maybe some comfort was derived in the familiarity that was offered by the arrival of someone she expected? Devika as the auxiliary role added an element of consistency and re-affirmed the fact that their facilitator was only ‘acting’ and eliminated any scope for deception. We believe this enabled an understanding that they could partially control the flow of events.

The Teacher-in-Role continued to feed the virtual drama through off-line activities. Following week 2, Suri the Seller sent Whatsapp audio notes to the parents asking the children to make bowls with dough because they would need that in Bobby’s kitchen the following weekend. Thus the Teacher-in-Role methodology allowed us to reference other roles and build the suspense and excitement for the next setting.

While Zoom and Whatsapp aided the drama and their imagination, they also limited equal participation from all the children. The Teacher-in Role lent itself to collective problem-solving but on Zoom only one person can talk at a time. Devika was constantly juggling between muting and unmuting the children when they wanted to talk. As soon as the stakes of the drama were raised (like when Suri claimed that there were many customers in the market) everyone had a reaction but as facilitators, we only heard a few. As part of the drama, we incorporated a hand signal (5 fingers squeezing together). This action functioned as a visual cue each time anyone wanted to speak but it also slowed down the pace of the drama and interrupted an active contribution from each child.

As facilitators, our overarching objective of the session was to impart certain drama skills like embodiment, articulation, critical thinking and creativity. While we struggled to always facilitate these learnings in a structured flow, through the Process Drama and Teacher-in-Role, the group arrived at these discoveries and actions in an improvised manner. The questions we are left with now are — how do we sustain these improvisations for the pre-primary age group, such that they continue to be more playful than instructional? How can we facilitate connections for children on Zoom without them feeling ‘facilitated’? How can we as facilitators continue to unlearn our patterns and embrace more such possibilities of this virtual, unfamiliar social space?

(The names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the children.)

References:

¹Schneider, Jenifer Jasinski, Thomas P. Crumpler, and Theresa Rogers. “Process drama and multiple literacies.” Portsmouth, NH (2006).

²Neelands, J. (2008). Structure and Spontaneity: The Process Drama of Cecily O’Neill-edited by Philip Taylor and Chris Warner.

³“Drama, Teacher in role guide — Arts-POP.” http://artspop.org.au/drama-teacher_in_role_guide/.

Akhila is an applied theatre practitioner from Delhi. With a passion for playing a game whenever possible, she designs and facilitates theatre-based interventions for corporates, government bodies, non-profits, schools and universities in India and the U.S. Akhila’s practice — which she blogs about like a mad person — stems from her training in the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology.

Devika is an arts practitioner, educator and facilitator, living in Delhi. She works with children and young people in community and education settings, with the intention of exploring, understanding and creating compassionate spaces. She is interested in understanding how arts pedagogy can be used in diverse spaces to facilitate a better awareness of self, leading to more deliberate and conscious action.

Illustration by Devika.

An arts based organisation dedicated to creating inclusive learning spaces that nurture curiosity and critical thought while creating safe spaces for dialogue.