Tips on Teaching

Theatre Activities to Support Student Learning

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Theatre can be a powerful tool for learning. I have used a variety of performance-based activities in my own teaching to help engage students in understanding and applying course concepts. Often, these activities take the form of impromptu scenarios where students are asked to think (and act) critically or problem-solve in role-defined teams (e.g., the thinker, the maker, the critic, the compromiser, etc.). I also have students act out case studies they have read for class, inviting them to move beyond reflection and discussion toward the practical application of course material in real time. These activities immerse students in the study of a particular topic or issue and create the conditions for learning to happen through experience. A crucial component of the experience is the post-performance discussion when students are asked to consider how they can apply the learning to their own life (Jacobson & Ruddy, 2004). My students often end up talking over one another because the performance has generated so much energy and “light-bulb” moments of realization for them. By moving from play to reason in this way, the use of theatre activities in the classroom can be a very transformative and empowering educational experience (Boal, 1979).

If you are interested in using similar theatre activities in your teaching, I recommend first asking yourself “Why?” and “How will the activity support student learning to meet course goals?”. These are important questions to consider when designing any learning activity for a course. Importantly, they will help identify the relevance of using theatre activities in a variety of disciplines outside of the performing arts such as business, healthcare, or law.

Next, identify a specific concept, theory, problem, or skill around which you can devise a context for performance and discussion. The degree of “scripting” you provide to students will vary depending on the goals of the performance and the information they will need in order to meet those goals. For example, performing a case study for discussion might require students to do some reading first so they are familiar with the situation before they enact it. In contrast, performing a course concept might be a more impromptu invitation. Consider a management course where an instructor asks students to role-play different types of workplace conflict. Students are given freedom to write their own script to perform and the classroom audience is asked to recommend strategies for managing the conflict. This type of impromptu spectator-actor interaction, popularized by theatre practitioner Augusto Boal (1979), is a powerful technique for getting everyone involved by creating and reacting to the performance in real time. Whatever form you choose, be sure to explain to students what you are asking them to do and why you are asking them to do it.

Finally, I recommend using the post-performance discussion as a way to informally assess student learning. Be intentional with the questions you ask students to consider so they reflect the goals of the activity as well as the broader course goals. Hopefully, the learning that happens for students through the experience of performing will contribute in some way to their success on more formal assessments such as reflection papers, exams, or group projects. Again, being explicit about the purpose of the activity will help students begin to make those connections.

This blog post is a very brief introduction to using theatre as a pedagogical tool. To learn more about this topic, you can explore the resources linked below. I am also including links to videos of three former Innovative Teaching Fellows discussing how they integrated performance-based activities into their courses. As always, if you would like to schedule a teaching consultation to discuss this topic, please contact the Reinert Center by completing this form.


Innovative Teaching Fellows

Cathleen Fleck, Ph.D. (2017) | Art and the Body

Amy Wright, Ph.D. (2016) | Performing “Solitude” in Community

Mark Wilson, M.F.A. (2016) | Introduction to Theatre


References and Additional Resources

Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the oppressed. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Groups, Inc.

Boal, A. (1995). The Rainbow of desire: The Boal method of theatre and therapy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Boal, A. (2002). Games for actors and non-actors (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Jacobson, M., & Ruddy, M. (2004). Open to outcome: A practical guide for facilitating and teaching experiential reflection. Bethany, OK: Wood ‘N’ Barnes.

Middlewick, Y., Kettle, T. J., & Wilson, J. (2012). Curtains up! Using forum theatre to rehearse the art of communication in healthcare education. Nurse Education in Practice, 12, 139-142.

Nissley, N. (2010). Arts-based learning at work: Economic downturns, innovation upturns, and the eminent practicality of arts in business. Journal of Business Strategy, 31, 8-20.

Wasylko, Y., & Stickley, T. (2003). Theatre and pedagogy: Using drama in mental health nurse education. Nurse Education Today, 23, 443-448.

Wilson, J. (Lecturer) (2018, March 1). Interactive theatre enters the classroom. Teaching in Higher Ed [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from