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A Drama Therapist’s Perspective on Teaching Theatre in Times of Crisis

I am often approached by theatre educators who report feeling underprepared when they notice signs of distress among their students. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid shift to remote learning, these inquiries have become more frequent. My graduate students and I were certainly caught by surprise when, in the middle of the spring semester, we were faced with quickly replacing our embodied encounters with a flat screen. In this environment marked by fear, isolation, and uncertainty, I relied on my skills as a drama therapist to promote a sense of safety, playfulness, and connection. Some of these skills are transferrable regardless of whether or not you are a therapist, and they contribute to what my colleague, Judy Atkinson, refers to as educaring.

For those who may be feeling overwhelmed about the prospect of teaching online or in person again this fall, I have a few tips to share, beginning with an understanding of the effects of fear on learning.

The trauma-informed movement in education is tantamount to acknowledging the truth of what has happened or is happening in someone’s life, the resources one draws on to respond to challenges, and how this reality continues to be expressed in thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships in the present. These truths may include singular experiences of harm, such as one event of physical or sexual assault, or exposure to multiple acute or chronic events, as in the case of complex trauma involving neglect, racism, and/or poverty. Like the ongoing threat of white supremacy, the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing, wavelike, and ambient—at once everywhere and nowhere. Death feels closer even if we are not infected ourselves or on the frontlines. The danger has not passed.

a hand reaching toward a laptop open to a zoom video call

Seeking Connection. Photo by Nisha Sajnani.

When we are threatened by something or someone, it is normal to experience a range of responses geared at getting us out of the potentially harmful situation. Our autonomic nervous system regulates our bodies’ life-sustaining functions such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion, and body temperature. It may be thought of in three parts. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-flight-freeze response and the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down after the danger has passed, though this can also look like dissociation. A third type of nervous system response, which Stephen Porges calls the “social engagement system” in his polyvagal theory, helps us to navigate relationships. This third facet of the autonomic nervous system places emphasis on the subtle vocal, facial, and gestural cues that we perceive and transmit to communicate a sense of safety to one another. As social beings, we help each other to co-regulate stress and restore a sense of connection. This insight is also reinforced in studies that point to the role of social groups as a protective factor that may help mitigate the impact of stress.

The stress that builds up from ongoing exposure to a frightening situation can lead to serious physical and psychological complications, including headaches, digestive problems, and difficulty concentrating and managing emotions. Unchecked threats can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and suicide. Even when the threat has passed, our anticipation of similar threats, whether based in reality or not, can prompt us to organize around fear in harmful ways, such as social avoidance, defensiveness, aggression, or self-harm. Therefore, understanding and addressing the impact of fear on learning is necessary alongside advocacy directed at changing the environmental conditions that produce or enable harm.

Understanding and addressing the impact of fear on learning is necessary alongside advocacy directed at changing the environmental conditions that produce or enable harm.

Here are a few ways that theatre educators can respond in the classroom and online:

Develop and use practices that help you manage stress. Students pick up on signs of stress and safety on our faces and in our tone of voice and gestures. While we cannot and should not pretend to be unaffected by the reality of this crisis, we are in a better position to support our students when we draw on practices that help us to relax.

Respond to instability with stability, not rigidity. Predictability is important given how unpredictable our current situation is. Several students in a graduate course on improvisation and leadership that I co-taught online this past spring told me that just knowing they had class at the same time each week offered a sense of shelter and that they looked forward to a space where they could play and connect with others. Consider returning to theatre games you established when you first formed a sense of community in your classroom. Creating routine ways of beginning and ending a class can further solidify a sense of ritual and enable students to take more creative risks. Connected to this is the need to practice maximum flexibility. Here, system-wide responses are necessary. For example, some universities, including my own, instituted a pass-fail option in the spring so that students could opt not to be graded when it was clear that their efforts could be compromised by the pandemic.

Slow things down. Fear has a way of speeding things up leading to a disembodied experience. Slow things down during regular check-ins with your class or when explaining tasks or assignments. In writing and theatre groups I co-facilitate in collaboration with StoPD for adults with Parkinson’s disease, we begin with a few deep breathing exercises with a longer exhale than inhale. This stimulates the vagus nerve, slows down heart rate, and promotes a sense of calm. In another example, I slowed down a simple movement check-in exercise in which I asked graduate students to express how they are doing at the beginning of the class through a movement with isolated parts of the body (e.g. just with eyes or just with hands) and have this mirrored back by the rest of the class. By slowing down the movement, students reported having the opportunity to feel their own bodies and feel more viscerally connected to the rest of the class. I have written further about the importance of attending to embodied and aesthetic presence in remote teaching for the Arts in Psychotherapy journal.

The importance of movement and play cannot be overstated in co-regulating and discharging our stress.

Prioritize relationships before content. Strong relationships help people learn. Foster a sense of connection by making time to get to know your students and for them to get to know you and each other. Sociometric theatre games like A Great Wind Blows, where students share something that is true about themselves and other students who relate to the statement respond by trading chairs, promote playful connection and progressive intimacy. Of course, in these times, this game would need to be modified. I have adapted this exercise for use online by having all students begin with cameras off and turning them on only when they relate to a statement made by a peer.

Play and move. The importance of movement and play cannot be overstated in co-regulating and discharging our stress. Recent research has demonstrated that playful improvisation can actually help people manage uncertainty and increase our sense of happiness and creativity. Stretch and movement breaks are important in any class over an hour long and can also be integrated into playful exercises. Turn on some music and take a dance break!

Offer regular, clear communication. Even though our circumstances continue to change almost weekly, it is important that students know they have a consistent resource for information. Since the move to remote teaching and learning, I have held a regular weekly drop in hour online for students to discuss whatever is on their minds and to update them on our plans.

Pretending can help us deal with reality. A few weeks into remote teaching this past spring, I asked students to read Conrad Panganiban’s “A Cure for the Virus,” a one-minute play featuring two characters discussing what would be lost if they had to give up going to a concert headlined by the Cure. I asked students to select a line that spoke to them and write a response. Other options might have included writing in a third character or continuing the scene. This approach draws on what drama therapists refer to as aesthetic distance, a balance between critical reflection and emotional arousal. While trauma makes the present absent, theatre seeks to make the absent—that which has gone out of view or awareness—present again. Roles, masks, stories, costumes, and puppets are projective veils that paradoxically permit us to feel more freely and think with greater clarity and perspective.

Both educators and students can benefit from practices that allow us to be here now, focusing on the reality of what is happening around us and what we can control.

Focus on the here and now. Fear pulls people out of the present moment. Along with our students, we may find ourselves playing out possible future scenarios and doom scrolling on our phones late into the night. Of course, this takes a toll on our wellbeing. Both educators and students can benefit from practices that allow us to be here now, focusing on the reality of what is happening around us and what we can control. This is not the same thing as accepting things as unchangeable. Indeed, the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd reflect a reversal of the well-known Serenity Prayer: rather than only accepting the things we cannot change, we can and must change the things that we cannot accept.

Create opportunities for students to bear witness to each other’s experience. In early May, I coordinated an international performance festival online featuring the experiences of drama therapists and other care providers. Audience members showed their love for those performing through the chat function on Zoom. It was apparent from our follow-up study with the over 350 people who participated that being witnessed and being able to witness another’s experience was a significant factor in reducing a sense of isolation and stuckness.

Enrole and de-role. Just as costumes help us get into role, asking students to dress for class (and avoid joining from bed where possible) can aid in both transitioning into the demands of the day and, conversely, help them to de-role after classes are done for the day. De-roling is also a useful concept to keep in mind when working with actors and students of acting, now and beyond this pandemic, as research has demonstrated that enrolling in character produces traceable physiological and affective changes that linger beyond the life of a play. Recent research highlights the value of de-roling from virtual roles and identities as well.

Know your limits and remember that you are a part of a community. Ensure you have a list of resources and referrals that you can use for the moments when your concern for a student moves beyond what you are equipped or are ethically able to address.

As we move into an endurance phase with this virus, knowledge about how our bodies process stress can help educators intentionally design opportunities that help students feel relaxed, protected, and connected, which may facilitate learning and put them in a better position to respond to what comes next.

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Nisha, this is truly a wonderful, and practical article. Thank you. As someone who will be teaching for the first time since the pandemic began, I'm going to use this as a basis for approaching the process. Thank you and stay safe and well


This is a terrific article--(it goes along with, and amplifies, and clarifies everything I know about writing and working in Theater of Witness for many years)--with sound, practical and empathic advice. Thanks so much.