Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find: Playback Theatre and Character Education
The main focus of the research was to evaluate the efficacy of Playback Theatre as a vehicle for promoting empathy in a school setting. As empathy is reported to be a foundational skill for emotional intelligence and moral development (Borba, 2003; Goleman, 1995), and both are precursors for social responsibility and academic achievement, all children should have the opportunity to attain this basic skill. The central research question was: What is the potential of Playback Theatre as a tool for promoting empathy between students and teachers, or students and their peers? Other emphasis in my research included assessing the effect of Playback Theatre on school climate and the teachers’ behavior, as social learning occurs predominantly through modeling (Theories in, 2004). I also analyzed the effectiveness of Playback Theatre in promoting students’ understanding of the individual traits addressed in each performance and the teacher’s perception of its potency as well.
Additional research questions included:
- How did PBT relate to the promotion of character education traits?
- How was the project related to overall school climate?
- How was the project related to student and teacher interest in character education?
- How did the project influence student interest in drama and theatre?
- How did the project relate to the promotion of empathy and character education?
The project, Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, took place at an “Equity Plus” school in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) system. The Equity Plus designation refers to schools that have a large percentage of free and reduced lunch recipients. In the school in which I conducted my project, the number of Equity Plus students was approximately ninety percent. There are also a significant number of immigrant families and “English as a Second Language” (ESL) families in the attendance zone. The small size of the project, the use of volunteer actors, and the demographics of this particular school prohibit any generalization of the results to other school systems. Another limitation in the project design and implementation is inherent in a qualitative study where the data are gathered from interviews and surveys which weakens its validity and reliability. In addition, my dual role as researcher and actor limited my ability to observe performances and increased my investment in the success of the program.
I chose this school because it was already part of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools research project on the effectiveness of character education and because the students have limited exposure to visiting artists due to the lack of parental fundraising via a Parent-Teacher Association, which is commonly found in more affluent schools.
The project included the formation of a temporary Playback Theatre company that gave a series of three performances to the fifth grade student body, approximately fifty-five students, based on three character traits or issues the school staff had identified as particularly pertinent. The performances were scheduled during school hours so that all students would have the opportunity to attend together. Initially, a workshop was scheduled for the teachers to introduce the form of Playback Theatre and to solicit their support of the project, but due to unpredictable time constraints this piece was cut from the project.
Project Description and Implementation
Protection of Human Subjects
The first step in implementing the project after the school principal had agreed to participate was to secure approval for the research project from the Institutional Review Board of Union Institute and University, as well as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools central office that over-sees research conducted in the public schools. As this study involved research with human subjects, many of whom are minors, both entities required submission of consent forms for the students, their parents and the staff (see Appendixes A, B and C). These consent forms and the design of the project research followed the guidelines and recommendations found in the Handbook for Research of Human Subjects (Union Institute & University Institutional Review Board, 2003). In addition to the child and parental consent forms, I reiterated to the students before each interview that their participation at all times was voluntary, and they could choose to not participate in the study at any point with no repercussions. Subjects were also informed that the school, as well as the staff and students, would not be mentioned by name in order to protect privacy. Additionally, all participants were informed that all tapes of interviews and survey forms would be kept in a secure location. Subjects were also reminded not to write their names on the survey cards or evaluations.
Permission to conduct the study was granted by both entities in December 2004. It was imperative each student’s privacy and emotional well-being be protected at all times and this was conveyed to the actors as well. Prior to the first performance, we discussed how to handle sensitive disclosures and agreed that any student follow up needed by the school counselor would be requested immediately after the show. Fortunately this was not necessary.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Character Education Department and the school’s site coordinator will receive a copy of this report after it has met final approval from the UIU Graduate College.
Preparation for Performances
Prior to the beginning of the performances, I conducted focus groups with the teachers and a group of students in order to get a sense of the current school climate and attitudes about character education, and teacher and student behavior. The teacher focus group also served to denote which character education topics they felt would be pertinent themes for the performances. In an attempt to reduce interpreter bias in my analysis of the focus groups, I extrapolated comments from the transcriptions of the focus groups’ interview tapes (Kvale, 1996).
Focus groups are well-suited for gathering multiple perspectives on a particular topic and gaining insight into a group’s shared perspectives on each participant’s day-to-day life (Gibbs, 1997). As a practical matter, I was able to meet with a greater number of both staff and students than time would have allowed individually. This was especially true with the students as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools required one of their staff to be present during student interviews. I also suspected that the students would feel more comfortable in a group initially as they were not familiar with me. While waiting for approval to begin the project, I worked on forming the company and scheduling rehearsals. We had an intense rehearsal weekend at my office in order to train as many people as possible for the first show. Some of the volunteers had prior Playback experience, but several were new to the techniques. Playback Theatre uses several different forms, including: Fluid Sculptures, Pairs, Chorus and Scenes. There are variations of the Playback forms and true to its spontaneous spirit, improvisation is acceptable with any form in order to further the story.
Fluids and Pairs are typically used for shorter stories and illustrate for the audience the layers of emotion and human experience inherent in any given situation. For example, one teacher relayed her feelings of anxiety and hopefulness in preparing her students to take their EOG (end-of-grade) tests, which was played back using Pairs. In the Pairs activity, the actors generally stand in groups of two, one behind the other. The first person steps forward, and then physically and verbally expresses one of the two emotions the teller has presented by making a gesture with a sound or phrase. The second actor then joins the group, usually on a different level (high, medium or low) to create more visual effect, and expresses through sound and movement the other emotion. This brief story could have also been played back in a Fluid Sculpture. In executing a fluid sculpture, one actor steps forward and expresses an emotion, cognition or other aspect of the story, and one-by-one other actors join in by attaching themselves to create one large living sculpture. Scenes and Choric forms are used with longer stories that have a definite beginning, middle and end. Scenes are like the more traditional form of theatre in that actors are usually designated to play a specific role by either the teller or the conductor (the director who interviews the teller). In the Choric form, everyone plays every character, but often manifesting different emotions, behaviors and cognitions. They typically stay together physically, similar to a Fluid Sculpture, but they move around the stage. This is a more advanced form of Playback Theatre and works best when the troupe has rehearsed and performed together for a longer period of time (Salas, 1993).
Playback Theatre traditionally has a conductor, who interviews the teller and serves as a “master of ceremonies,” four or five actors, and a musician. The musician typically has several instruments at his or her disposal, and must be able to improvise with the actors. Music may be used to heighten the emotional effect of a scene, to create sound effects, and to cue transitions in the story. The musician may also play while the actors are moving their props (usually only a few wood boxes or scarves) or taking initial positions on the stage (Salas, 1993). Having a musician in a Playback company greatly enhances productions, and it was unfortunate that we were not able to find one for this project. Thanks to my husband’s carpentry skills, we had custom made boxes and the conductor provided colorful scarves for the performances.
The project I conducted consisted of three performances one each in February, March, and April of 2005. Attempting to capture or convey the actual performances for this study has been challenging. As Rowe (2005) states:
The research of improvised theatre practice involves significant
methodological problems and opportunities. Theatre is a live event, taking
place in the here and now. Attempts to preserve its ‘liveness’ run into
significant difficulties. Memory of the performance decays quickly and forms of
video and audio recording cannot retain the vivacity of the moment. The
particular contexts of the event: the perceptual sets of the participants and the
particular patterns of meaning that emerge during the performance cannot be
In addition to complexities that Rowe points out, to video tape the performances would have necessitated a release from all of the students in attendance, per CMS policy. The school principal determined that only the children who participated in the focus group and follow-up interviews required parental consent forms, as the other students’ involvement was anonymous. Obtaining these few signed forms necessitated some assistance from bi-lingual staff as a significant portion of the students are from immigrant families. However, a parent video taped a segment of the encore performance, which was not evaluated by the students, but was part of the third and fourth grade year-end awards assembly. The site coordinator dubbed a copy for me and I have transcribed this (see Appendix J) to offer the reader some impression of the actual performances.
Each performance was approximately one hour in length, and the students were asked to fill out a brief survey card immediately afterward. The first performance theme was responsibility, and in our rehearsals the group used personal stories involving responsibility to generate ideas for our format. Our introduction included each actor making a personal statement about responsibility and stating his or her first name, and was presented in the form of a fluid sculpture. In lieu of a lengthy explanation to the students about how PBT is structured, we specifically asked a teacher to be the first teller. He wisely chose to recount a story from his childhood that illustrated his difficulty managing a responsibility his mother had bestowed upon him with a family pet. His story was funny and accessible to the students, and the enactment appeared to be equally entertaining judging by the laughter and applause. As we had hoped, students were quite willing to share their stories after witnessing their teacher’s example of openness to the experience. The first student to take on the role of teller was visibly nervous and spoke so softly the conductor had to repeat most of what she said so the actors and audience could hear. Predictably, her story was similar to the teacher’s, including both a family pet and the wrath of an angry parent. I left the school feeling relieved that the first performance had been executed reasonably well, and optimistic about the future productions.
To prepare for the second performance, with the topic of self-esteem, the group first discussed the previous performance, including perceptions of what worked or didn’t work, and specific changes to implement for the next performance. Self-esteem is a rather nebulous concept and in contrast to the first show’s theme of responsibility, self-esteem is not one of the identified CMS character traits. This performance also opened with a fluid sculpture, with each of us making a comment about self-esteem as well as stating our names. The conductor offered a brief explanation of self-esteem and then presented examples of stories that the audience might choose to share that would be appropriate. The stories that were shared during this show were, in general, more serious, generating a more subdued response from both the actors and the audience. Stories of fear, hope, relief, confusion and joy emerged. One child shared a story of how she triumphed over her fear of roller coasters and another expressed her difficulty coping with a favorite uncle’s deployment to Iraq. The final story offered was on a happier note, with a rendition about the addition of a baby to the student’s family.
Much to my disappointment, none of the classroom teachers were present during this performance. As an integral part of the study, they missed one third of the performances. This also prevented the conductor from asking one of the teachers to share another story. The site coordinator informed me afterward of her astonishment at the depth of the students’ stories. When the teachers requested the topic of self-esteem, they mentioned concerns about hygiene and attention-seeking behavior, but their students explored more compelling aspects of their life experiences. My own reflection on this performance included a deep appreciation for the students’ willingness to share and a sense of satisfaction as an actor participating in Playback Theatre.
The third performance theme was bullying, and the group decided to introduce the topic and hopefully engage the students more fully by adding a brief Reader’s Theatre type skit based on the book The Recess Queen (O'Neill, 2002). The conductor thought that many of the students would be familiar with the story and this would set the stage for the topic that would encourage audience participation. She also suggested that I bring my nine year old son, Austin, to participate in the role of a student on the playground in expectation this would encourage other students to come up on stage to create the crowd described in the book. Ultimately we had four students and two teachers take on roles during this portion of the show, and there was resounding laughter and spontaneous responding from the audience.
Afterwards, however, the conductor veered from the pre-planned format of the show, apparently for the goals of entertainment and instruction. Even upon reflection I have difficulty determining how this situation developed. I remember feeling confused and disoriented, glancing around at my fellow actors and exchanging non-verbal messages of uncertainty. At this point the conductor launched into a mini-lecture on empowerment. She then instructed all of the actors on stage, which included the children who had participated in the previous skit, to line up as if we were in the school cafeteria. She then directed one of the adults to assume the role of a bully trying to make his way to the front of the line while generally harassing other students. This section of the show had a distinct Forum Theatre tone as the conductor would stop the scene at various points and ask the audience for suggestions on how victims and bystanders might respond differently to the bully. She then directed the actors to try out the suggestions, rather than inviting the audience member to take on the role personally. When the scene concluded she initiated a discussion between the actors and the audience, and then ended the show with a recap of her discourse on empowerment.
I left the school after this third performance in a bit of a daze. While admittedly pleased at the level of audience participation, I was frustrated that the conductor had commandeered the entire structure of the show without any forethought as to the research component of the project, or the even the input of the other actors. In the spirit of spontaneity that all improvisation mandates, I endeavored to embrace the change as fully as possible given my emotional reaction, but undoubtedly there were unidentified consequences for the abrupt change in format. After the performance the conductor explained her decision by stating she felt it was important to educate the students and empower them to deal with bullying in positive ways. She also expressed her desire to keep the performance focused on “positives” rather than “negatives”. As this was the final performance for the study, I did not pursue any further discussion with her about her behavior.
The on-going discussion and reflection with my fellow actors in the company was part of the project evaluation and was inspired by my readings on action research methods (Burnaford, Fischer, & Hobson, 2001). Burnaford et al. advocate for on-going discussion and reflection in order to minimize problems and experiment with different methods and ideas in order to enhance student learning. This practice came naturally to me as it closely mirrors the counseling process I engage in with my clients and the professional consultation I employ with my staff, however, in relation to the planning process for the third show, the procedure may have been inadequate. Perhaps a more neutral facilitator would have discerned the conductor’s underlying desire to promote aesthetics over empathy.
After the third performance, which was the official culmination of the project, I requested the teachers and participating staff complete a two-page questionnaire. The following week I interviewed two of the classroom teachers and two of the students, both of whom had participated in the focus group interview prior to the first performance. During my interview with the students, they invited me and the PBT company to return for an encore performance as a “reward” after the completion of their “End of Grade” testing. They also expressed great enthusiasm for theatre in general and suggested that more drama programs should be offered in school. After conveying this information to the site coordinator, we decided that I would facilitate a Playback Theatre workshop with the students who had been involved in the focus group interview, and they, in turn, would participate in the encore performance the following week.
The encore performance was abbreviated to 20 minutes as it was part of an assembly on character education for the third and fourth graders. We began the performance with a warm-up from the audience. We then played a theatre game called Construction, utilizing our student actors. The audience was then asked to recall memories from the school year that they would like to retain. We then performed some Fluid Sculptures based on the tellers’ memories. We concluded with one long form, Scenes, playing back a student’s memory of making a goal in basketball that he had worked at for several months. A week later the site coordinator gave me several thank you notes from the students and a copy of a video segment of the encore show. While these responses were not part of the official research, I have included some of them in my results as examples of informal data collection.
Data Collection and Analysis Methods
Undertaking a formative evaluation seemed the most logical choice for the research design for this project. Patton (2002) states:
Formative evaluations aim at forming (shaping) the thing being studied. No attempt is made in a formative evaluation to generalize findings beyond the setting in which the evaluation takes place. Formative evaluations rely heavily on process studies, implementation evaluations, case studies, and evaluability assessments. (p.220)
He also states that formative evaluations typically rely primarily on qualitative methods as the findings are specific to the program or policy being studied. My design included only qualitative data as this was a new and unique project using Playback Theatre which has not previously been the focus of formal research in a school setting. Limiting the evaluation to qualitative data allowed me to focus in-depth on the effect the project had on the students and teachers involved, thereby illuminating how the program could be improved before conducting further research that might allow for generalization to other schools. Additionally, having multiple sources of data allowed for triangulation which served to increase the validity of my findings.
While impossible to maintain complete objectivity, due to my dual role in the project as actor and researcher, in addition to my on-going roles as counselor and parent, I have relied primarily on the data from the student survey cards, teacher evaluations, and interviews (which were taped and transcribed) for the primary analysis. As both a parent and professional counselor, I attempted to maintain awareness of my conviction that adults have a higher responsibility to model ethical and caring behavior. As an actor during all three performances, my observations of audience reactions were severely restricted due to the requisite focus on the tellers and conductor. During the interviews, my training as counselor mandated that I attend to body language and facial expression, as well as verbal response. These impressions, along with some professional speculation, are discussed in the section describing the interviews.
After each performance the students were directed by the site coordinator, who is on staff at the school, to complete a brief survey card. The card was modeled on a sample developed by the Hudson River Playback Theatre group for use with their school bullying project (see Appendix F). As empathy can be difficult to measure, particularly in written responses on a survey card, I sorted the responses using the categories defined in the article The role of emotionality and regulation in empathy-related responding (Eisenberg, et al., 1998). These definitions are described in detail in Chapter IV (see page 81). I totaled the empathy-related responses and the content-related responses for each show. I calculated the corresponding percentages of each type of response based on the total number of cards received from the students and compared them for each performance.
After the final performance I asked the staff to complete a written evaluation form. I then compiled the number and type of responses for each question on the survey (see Appendix G) and calculated their corresponding percentages for comparison.
The third phase of formal data collection was the student and staff interviews. I interviewed two students and three teachers (see Appendices H and I for interview guides) approximately one to two weeks after the final performance. The interviews were audio-taped and transcribed with several segments included in Chapter IV in an effort to reduce interpreter bias (Kvale, 1996). I subsequently triangulated the various data to improve the validity of my findings. Patton (2002) recommends triangulation during analysis of qualitative data, which is inherently subjective.
The collection of informal data was recorded through note-taking and journal entries, as well as the original thank you cards received by the site coordinator, some of which are quoted in the next chapter. The journal entries were primarily reflective in nature, while the notes were generally observations of or comments made by those directly involved with the project.