Friday, January 25, 2013

Simple Notes on Using Drama in the Geography Classroom


"...and Fergie was topless and standing by the pool."

The above statement has little to do with geography, political science, or drama by themselves; but it does illustrate the nature of plays or dramatic presentations. They are meant to be exciting in some way, to grab us in some way, so that a message is driven home to the audience. Some examples:

  1. We can read in a history text about the abusive nature of the political-social system in nineteenth century France, but the drama of Les Miserables on a Broadway stage drives the message home with a vengeance.
  2. We can read about the staggering beauty of the Alps in Central Europe, but the opening scene of Julie Andrews signing in the Sound of Music sticks in your mind. You begin to see those mountains in terms of that musical from that point in time forward.

Play Construction

Beyond excitement, the drama must have gone through a careful construction process in which the elements of character, setting, script, and plot are assembled for maximum impact and, in the classroom case, learning. Basic development occurs around a frame of:

    • Topic
    • Setting
    • Characters With Characteristics
    • Unique Twists
    • Script

Topic: The topic is obviously the main idea you are attempting to convey. Educational dramas must contain an idea or message; there are plays and movies that miss this point.

Setting: The setting consists of the place in which your drama occurs and its environmental characteristics. The setting must be established in the drama. Often the backdrop provides clues. The World Trade, Empire State, or Chrysler Buildings signal New York City. A cable car on a hill, as in TV's "Full House," signals San Francisco. The nature of the plot and characters may be influenced by this choice.

Characters with characteristics: Character development is an important part of play-writing. People relate to people. A play without characters who are well developed will fall flat on its face. The audience has no one with whom they can identify.

Unique Twist(s): Plays work best when they contain unique twists that contain dramatic strength. Plain and simple action is easily boring. The uniqueness of the action makes the story. Romeo and Juliet are just kids in love until they find that their families hate each other. With that twist two kids in love become the romantic drama pairing of the ages.

Consider the following example as you use this sequence:

    • Abortion in LA
      • Topic: Abortion-the legal and personal complications it can cause. The topic is timely. It has appeal and generates emotion for a large variety of people.
      • Setting: Los Angeles. The city is well known and currently has severe class and economic problems. The dialogue can be used to illustrate elements of LA people and their lives. The accents might be those of "Valley Girls." Elements of the good weather or the massive highway system could be mentioned. The backdrop could be that of some known LA feature, such as the "Hollywood" sign up on the hill. Cell phones and pagers are required.
      • Characters with Characteristics: Alice is an abortion protester, afraid of having sexual relations, hurt by failed relationships with parents and boyfriends, admires Jay Leno, The Bangles, and Jimi Hendrix. Felicia is an abortion clinic operator with a seventeen-year-old daughter, loves her husband but their sex drives do not match, thinks "Grey’s Anatomy" watched from a hot tub is a great experience, hates football. Now here are people who can talk, discover each other, and argue.
      • Unique Twist 1: The two are trapped in a car that is chained shut and surrounded by protesters screaming about "baby killing."
      • Unique Twist 2: Felicia’s daughter is pregnant and wants an abortion at her mother's clinic. Placing the above on the table, a drama can begin to develop. Brainstorming about the above, followed by brainstorming about how these items can all be used is the process to follow in putting the basis of a drama together.
      • Role Playing: The next step is role playing. Take some time and think how the characters might talk and act within the setting and plot. You may start with a conclusion and work backwards or take the normal "start at the beginning" route. Repeat the process over and over until you have it. Next say the lines aloud within your group. Take roles as characters, become the character, say things until they seem right. Then work and rework it.

On Stage

Practice is crucial to a good play. If you do not adequately rehearse, you make it impossible to be in character and ready to convince an audience that they are seeing characters in a staged setting--they merely see you stumbling along through a script. The audience is not likely to learn a whole lot from this type of show.

Some Do's and Don'ts

1. Characters argue--arguments are very dramatic. Argument lifts the volume level and grabs the audience. The crucial element is that the volume level changes. Change promotes interest. A monotone volume becomes boring no matter what is being said. Argument is an easy way to change volume, but just having characters raise and lower their normal volumes is a help. Also consider the following list of things characters might do to further the plot or action: argue, fight, lust after each other, kiss, speak up, hurt, cry, harass, die, live, create pathos, be lost. The list goes on...

2. Once on-stage, become the character and stay in character. The basis of acting is that you become the character. Do not laugh or smile about being in the play--this is not professional behavior at all. If you are embarrassed to do something on stage then you have the wrong attitude. On stage you are no longer you, therefore you should not be embarrassed.

3. Face the audience as much as possible. Drama performance sometimes requires that the stage action not be fully realistic. The action must be worked out to avoid talking to the back of the stage, even if that is the obvious place to where your line should be directed.

4. Speak up! You must project your voice to the audience. Students often need encouragement to speak up in front of audiences. They will need this skill in real life, work on it now.

5. Memorize all lines. Without this the dramatic effect of the play is greatly reduced. Scripts in hand are just not a part of real life. With a script in hand, you create the same problem many people have with opera when an aging, heavy-set woman is playing a twenty-year-old beauty about to be lusted into the sack. It bothers people who are not attune to opera's unique dramatic rules.

6. Avoid narrators. They may be used to introduce items or provide a method to shift setting or time frame, but otherwise they will tend to fail. The worst case is where a narrator is always reading, something not seen in professional work. This fails as drama.

i. One likely outcome of having a narrator is that the actors/actresses will tend to sit there or meagerly mime while the narrator reads. Unless you are one of the playwrights of the century, the play is dead when this happens.

ii. If a narrator is used, she/he should memorize all his/her lines and be on the stage, not off to the side. Our Town is an example of the good use of a narrator.

iii. Identify the elements that make your set work and make them large. Avoid using unnecessary items or small item.

7. Movement on stage can be difficult to grasp if you have never been directed in a play. The basic rule to keep in mind is to remember what the audience can see. People must avoid blocking each other. Groups of people may have to angle themselves on stage so that each actor/actress can be seen by the audience.

8. The set and props can be suggestive. Drama, outside of the movies, uses a process that suggests place and other items through the selective use of color, words, or items on stage. As an example, a line might be directed off-stage that suggests a crowd of people are there. A voice or two might enhance the suggestion, making the crowd more realistic. The audience will accept that a crowd is there, but they never see it. A whole seacoast might be suggested by the presence of a lighthouse light beaming across a stage. A couch suggests an apartment or living room.


A play is a complicated operation, but it can be made simple and easy if you follow the sequence from Topic to Unique Twists and assemble the script via role playing. On stage act like a professional who cares deeply for what she/he is doing. Know your lines and speak-up.

Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 1995, 1999. Simple Notes on Using Drama in the Geography Classroom. Brochure.