The Elements of Drama

The following article is comprised of an extract from Beyond the Script Take 3: Drama in the English and literacy classroom by Robyn Ewing and Jennifer Simons, with Margery Hertzberg and Victoria Campbell.

Planning drama lessons

To ensure a good drama lesson, planning needs to include several important elements of the art form of drama including role, focus, tension, space, time and symbol. Each of these elements is introduced here.


As Atticus tells Scout in Harper Lee’s (1960) To kill a mockingbird, none of us can ever really understand another person until we have had the opportunity to ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it’. If the essence of educational drama is enactment, the way to enactment is to step in imagination into another person’s shoes. By taking this step, students learn to assume roles that are both similar to and different from those of their real lives, temporarily adopting another person’s perspective. They use their bodies to explore the consequences of thinking in this way, committed to maintaining their stance whilst other members of the class, in different roles, interact with them. 

It is important that the teacher is also prepared to take on a role within a fictional event. The teacher may first need to demonstrate to the class how that is done – moving in and out of role so that the students can see that sometimes the teacher is pretending to be, say, the Wicked Witch or an advertising executive, and sometimes stepping out of role and speaking to them as the teacher. Students may also need to try walking around the room, coming in and out of role, so that they can understand the differences between the character and themselves. 

Although many children and adults now spend lots of time in virtual worlds, some personalities can accept fiction and pretence more readily than others. There is a whole range of reasons for this. For instance, some people prefer staying anchored in the ‘real’ world and find it quite frightening, difficult or embarrassing to move into a fictional world. Thus, when introducing drama, the teacher may need to spend some time allowing students to learn that adopting a role is non-threatening, and that what happens in the drama should have no consequences outside it. 

Moving into role

One of the most important concepts of drama for the teacher to convey and model is protection into role. This does not mean avoiding emotion – it means structuring the work so that students are able to explore their emotions safely. The roles adopted in drama should be different from those in our own and students’ lives. If a distance is established between the students’ reality and fiction, they are saved from confusing the fictional world with distressing elements of reality. Before starting the drama proper, some time can be spent establishing a fictional context or background. For example, the characters’ ages can be moved up or down several years and a fictional background created. Students can name and draw the setting. If the drama involves a school, it can be placed in a different part of the country so that the students are not obviously talking about their actual environment. If the material is ‘hot’ (i.e. potentially threatening), such as the Big Bad Wolf threatening the pigs, then using detached, more contemplative techniques like tableaux may be preferable to plunging into real-time improvisation. 


Drama can be seen as a form of game playing, and students need to understand the rules of a game before they can participate. One of the rules for working in-role is improvising – not everything is planned, and thinking on one’s feet is important. The essence of improvisation is spontaneity. In everyday life, much of what we do is fairly predictable – we catch the same bus, socialise with the same people and our friends can often predict how we will think on some topic. When confronted by unexpected events, however, we are forced to act immediately and spontaneously, drawing on our intuition, imagination and perhaps our past experiences of similar events in order to solve or manage a problem.

To improvise successfully with other characters, students have to respond to ‘offers’ of action – statements with embedded suggestions of context or character that can be taken up or rejected. They need to be able to pick up and elaborate on contextual cues, some of which can be very subtle. For example, if one student says: ‘Oh, Humpty Dumpty, you look a bit broken up there – what’s happened to you?’ ‘Humpty Dumpty’ has to be able to recognise the allusion to the nursery rhyme and quickly give an appropriate response (e.g. ‘I fell off the wall’). Depending on students’ background knowledge of culture or stories, they may need to have a class discussion and pooling of ideas before improvising so they are able to explore emotions safely. If a distance is established between the students’ reality and the fiction, they are saved from confusing the fictional world with distressing elements of their lived reality. If, however, the students have sufficient background information and are confident using improvisation, they may enjoy making an abrupt leap into the drama world.

Making an offer

Working in-role is a collaborative exercise in which participants build a composite picture of the imagined world, negotiating its reality as the characters interact. Drama depends on students being able to accept each other’s ‘offers’ at least in part. Although any participant’s line of dialogue or action (an ‘offer’) may be rejected, a particularly solid rejection may block the drama. For example, if the offer: ‘How come you’re wearing a green dress?’ is met with a response like ‘It’s not green, it’s red’, that could finish the drama. The students may need to be taught how to accept an offer, or how to disagree without blocking – for example the response could be: ‘Oh, do you think this is green? Through my sunglasses it looks red.’ It is also possible to accept part of the offer and adjust some of the details, as in: ‘No, take those greencoloured glasses off – they’re affecting your sight’.


Although role can be seen as an essential element of drama, good drama practice only emerges when the work is focused, centring around a worthwhile educational goal. When drama fails, it is often because it has no form or tries to cover too much. All of the great plays have a central focus – a worthwhile theme to which all the events contribute. The Merchant of Venice, for example, looks at issues of justice and equity; The Crucible examines what can happen when fear overtakes rationality; Pygmalion explores the notions of class, language and appearance. The teacher needs to decide what the focus will be and how drama can help the students explore this central issue. For example, the focus can combine an aspect of life that the students know from their own experience with a new or an unknown factor. Students might explore a nervous or dithery bushranger rather than enact a stereotype based on their limited knowledge about bushrangers from films or books. If the focus is on a nervous bushranger, they can bring to the drama a second dimension – one that they have experienced themselves. Their enactments are enriched, and so are the questions that might be explored. For example: "Do I trust my friends?" "Am I a brave person?"


Drama examines the processes of living, which usually involve competing drives or forces. A continuing state of tension occurs when conflict is unresolved – and drama is created. Tension produces the excitement, or the ‘edge’, that engages learners both intellectually and emotionally, and motivates them to become involved in the drama activity. Usually once the tension is resolved the drama is over. Lesson planning for drama therefore needs to identify possible sources of tension and maintain them.

Time and space are two considerations in planning for tension. In a simple sense, tension can be maintained by postponing the resolution. The teacher can build in one or more constraints to serve this purpose. For example, slowing down the time frame in which students are operating can be considered: they could become astronauts in space, weightless and only able to walk in very slow motion. With running away made impossible, students need to work out a different plan for escaping the space monsters. Thus the lesson has a built-in tension – a constraint that is going to delay the resolution of reaching the safety of the spaceship. More suggestions are provided in the section that follows. Alternatively, the action might be constrained by space so that the students have to crawl on hands and knees through a tunnel. This kind of constraint will set up a different kind of tension. In a role-play where characters are arguing, the constraint could be provided in the instructions to the students in-role – for example: ‘I want her to know that you’re angry but you’re not allowed to put it into words; you can’t actually say “I’m very angry with you”’. The students have to try less direct, more ambiguous, methods of communication. Similarly the use of violence can be constrained by suggesting that no guns were used in establishing the drama world.

Reflection and disengagement

Because students use process drama to learn about other people and themselves, it is important that each student has a chance to articulate what they have learned, and to compare their experiences with those of others in the group. It is also important that they spend time disengaging from their roles, especially if their strong emotions have been aroused. The teacher may need to encourage them to talk in a distanced way about the roles that they have been playing in order to help them make a clear distinction between fiction and reality. They might focus on the techniques that they used, or answer questions like: ‘When you were being the werewolf, what did you think about the magician?’ This will help students to take a ‘step back’ from the role.

With students in earlier years, this ‘step back’ could be quite literal: when first introduced to drama they can trace around their feet and cut out a cardboard replica. Later, or at any time, they can then take an actual step back from the character or spin around to signal they have re-entered reality. Another technique involves setting up a narrow space with chairs pushed together so that students have to travel through to get into and out of the drama world.

To conclude this section on reflection it is helpful to quote Miller and Saxton’s (2005, p. 6) summative comments on its importance: Reflection on and in thought and action offers models for a dialogic classroom where all voices are heard and all (including the teacher) are seen as co-learners. In the construction and concretization of thought, the negotiation of power can be felt, expressed and mediated. These skills are not outcomes in drama, they are the means by which we make our art and that is why drama is such a valuable methodology. Careful reflection enables powerful learning.