I’ve long been interested in the power of drama to inspire social change. Playwrights have often doubled as opponents to social injustice. There are many stand-out examples: Vaclav Havel, Luis Valdez, Augusto Boal.
When I introduced the idea of social change to my students, we first asked an important question: Why is it so hard for people to change their opinions or behaviors? The answer, I think, goes something like this: People rarely think about what has always been the case, no matter how crooked it is. There’s an old parable I told my students. Two fish are swimming in the ocean. They swim past an older fish that greets them by saying, “Hey boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish swim on a little way, and then one of the fish turns to the other and says, “What’s water?” We rarely reflect on what’s always around us.
Drama allows people a chance to step out of the water of their situation and see it at an objective distance. The power of drama is rarely in the straightforward declaration of ethical principles, but rather in the creation of an opportunity for people to talk about what they are otherwise inclined to ignore. The purpose of drama, Hamlet famously tells us, “both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere a mirror up to nature.”
At the beginning of our drama course, we talked about these concepts. I had the students identify social issues in our own school. In the course of the discussion, the focus shifted primarily to the competitive games of dodgeball and soccer that happen during recess, and the way that students often spoke unkindly in these heated atmospheres. After hearing their input, I went ahead and wrote a play.
The play was titled “A Neglected Sandwich Stinks up the Place.” I lifted the title from a short story by Leo Tolstoy, “A Neglected Spark Burns Down the House.” Tolstoy’s story was about a minor feud between neighbors that leads to the destruction of both families. It seemed like a good place to draw inspiration from.
The students put their energy into practicing and putting on the drama. Their energy and drive was inspiring, and I became aware that, as a teacher, I was standing in a much deeper pool of dramatic talent than I knew or expected. They completed two fantastic performances. After the performance, the Jr. High and High School students gathered together to talk about the themes of the play. The play had served its purpose. The play had sparked an opportunity to talk about issues that were important to them. We had a great discussion about kindness, competition, and setting an example in their conduct during recess.
In raising kids that are ethical and kind neighbors, we have to give them tools to influence their society for the better. Drama is a powerful tool. I’m not saying that they’ll always be able to put on a play when things are off, but hopefully they’ll think back to this class and remember that you often have to find creative ways to confront people’s resistance to change.
- Mr. Reese, Jr. High Teacher