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Rethinking health and social education using Applied Theatre

By Michael Anderson - posted Thursday, 25 October 2007

Drama teachers across the nation have grimaced as they sat down on Wednesday nights to watch Summer Heights High’s Greg Gregson (Mr G). Their pain is by the simultaneous recognition and abhorrence for the character who claims the arts can save the world while in the process of destroying his little corner of it.

This week’s disappointing reports on increasing HIV rates has raised a new question about how we "do" health and social education. It is becoming apparent that it is simply not good enough to do what we’ve always done. At the University of Sydney this month a groundbreaking international symposium on Applied Theatre took place. Applied Theatre is a relatively new field in social and health education that uses some new and some tried and true dramatic approaches, such as simulation or role play, to examine the root causes of community problems.

The approach has been used in South Africa to tackle HIV education. In this country, where AIDS is a debilitating problem, the DramaAide project uses Applied Theatre techniques that transform the audience into actors. As they act for each other they explore different behaviours with the safety net of dramatic fiction under them. This approach allowed participants to generate debate about the cultural issues around HIV “well beyond the time frame of the event”. All of those involved said it helped them cope with the issues of HIV more effectively. While we are not facing the problem on the same scale, we are facing a growing problem that demands a fresh approach on sexual health education.


While those presenting at the Applied Theatre symposium do not believe drama or theatre can cure AIDS or stop bullying or change the world, it could and does make a difference to parts of it. In around 120 NSW and Queensland schools the Cooling Conflicts approach has attacked the problems related to bullying and conflict management with strong effect.

Cooling Conflicts asks students to respond to the causes of bullying and, through intervening in scenes of bullying, they can contribute to changes in behaviour. The approach uses a structured sequence of Applied Theatre techniques and peer teaching with students in Years 5-6 and in the senior years of high school. The students undertaking the Cooling Conflicts program reported higher levels of resilience and felt more confident about their responses to bullying. The research evidence suggests this approach helps young people combat the bullies. The program’s evaluation reports that 50 per cent of the Year 11 students involved used the knowledge from the Cooling Conflicts, with over 90 per cent of students saying they found the program useful and intended to use the knowledge they gained during the program. Perhaps if Ja’mie, one of Chris Lilley’s other creations, had done the Cooling Conflicts program she might have thought twice before launching her next bullying atrocity on her unsuspecting friends?

In New Zealand, that other intransigent problem, violence in the family, is also being combated though Applied Theatre. Over 15,000 students have examined the root causes of family violence and used drama techniques to help young people respond to violence from those they often trust and respect. The evaluations of this process report that those involved felt more confident about dealing with family violence and became more familiar with the support available to them.

There are plenty more examples of places and settings in which Applied Theatre have been used to tackle the hardest social problems our community faces. In prisons the approach is being used to help inmates understand the implications of their actions and move closer to rehabilitation.

None of these programs end with the dancing syringe and pills of Mr G’s approach to drama. While there are no quick fixes to these problems, some of the old ways of approaching health and social education do not seem to be cutting through as much as they once did. Perhaps it is time to attack our intransigent community problems with fresh thinking about education; the research evidence suggests that Applied Theatre might be one way to attack the hard questions that face us.

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About the Author

Dr Michael Anderson researches and lectures in drama curriculum and technology in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. He is an author, with John Carroll and David Cameron, of Real Players? Drama, technology and education, published by Trentham Books.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Michael Anderson

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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