A Supplement to Chapters 8, 9, 10, & 16

Reflections on Creative Drama, Process Drama in Education, Theatre-in-Education, and Drama Therapy

by Nellie McCaslin

Written, September, 2004. Posted, September 28, 2006.

Prof. McCaslin was a major pioneer in the field of creative drama and the author of major textbooks in the field. Alas, soon after finishing writing the 8th edition of her classic text, in March, 2005, she passed away. Further biographical material and photo at end of this paper].

Theatre in one form or another has been a part of my life for as far back as I can remember. First, dramatic play with toy animals on the floor of our living room; later original shows in my friend’s back yard, the porch as a stage. Then puppets in the basement of our house on Saturday mornings for neighborhood children. Dramatic clubs in high school and college with ushering in a regional theatre and concert hall. Each one contributed to my determination to make some aspect of theatre a career. So when I was invited to contribute a chapter to this book I was delighted to share my passion with readers.

Why is it that theatre has held human beings from time immemorial in its thrall  -- Historically, theatre involved the entire community with no separation between performers and audience. In primitive societies production was a group endeavor most often including movement and music. Some tribes excluded women whereas there are records of their participation in others. Religion was a common source of inspiration not only with primitive peoples but with later societies, for example the Greeks and medieval Europeans. According to Vera Mowry Roberts, theatre historian, "The rudiments of theatre seem to have developed for three basic reasons:

We know that the Greek, Roman and renaissance periods stand out as great eras in theatre history and that then, as now, it entertained, instructed and healed as the audience was purged of its fears and deepest emotions. While it is a temptation to linger here, my concern is with the present, particularly the fact that theatre remains important to both young and old, despite the omnipresence of film and television. Why is it that the child participates in dramatic play for his own, and later his playmates enjoyment -- It is a fact that through play he learns and expresses his emotions by enacting the things that disturb him. He vanquishes his enemies in his role play. Virginia Glasgow Koste (1995) calls dramatic play a rehearsal for life, a statement she documents in her delightful book of the same name. Creative drama, which includes movement, mime and speech, may exist for only a matter of minutes or may be repeated numerous times depending on the interest of the players. Depth and richness of detail are added, sometimes leading to the evolution of a written script with dialogue that has jelled and a plot. At this point it ceases to be creative drama and becomes performance for a play.
Looking at the proposed list of chapters in Blatner’s anthology (to which this paper is a supplement), I realize that many different areas of theatre will be addressed by experts in the field, leaving what I believe to be basic to all of them - creative drama - for my consideration. Why do I use the word "basic"? Because creative drama in essence is improvisation and all theatre begins with spontaneous expression, improvisation, and the unscripted play. It is the process, not the product that comes first. This process is unformed, unfinished, crude and free of the need of approval. Creative drama is an art form that exists for its own sake serving the player as an enjoyable and significant life experience.

The values of drama and theatre for children were first articulated in the United States in 1903, when the Children’s Educational Theatre was founded at the Educational Alliance on the lower east side of New York. The center, like all settlement houses of the period, was located in a ghetto and offered a variety of activities for the immigrants of the neighborhood. Most popular among the adult activities was the theatre. If this were so, reasoned the administration, why not offer a similar program for the young, who lacked entertainment of all kinds and the opportunity to participate in dramatic activities. The director of the settlement house, Alice Minnie Herts, was a social worker but also a theatre enthusiast, who envisioned more than a few Saturday afternoons of fairy tales for children; she wanted a season of the best literature available produced and performed professionally. She included in the new program classes in acting, puppetry and storytelling for young people of all ages. The three guiding principles were:

The Children’s Educational Theatre was highly successful, serving as a model for other settlement houses in urban areas from coast to coast. Indeed, these three stated objectives have continued to guide producers to the present day, although the ranking order shifts according to the purpose of the company or organization. The distinction between what children see and what they do was later defined by Winifred Ward, whose books, Creative Dramatics (1930) and Theatre for Children (1952), clarified the purpose, procedures and practices of each, although the groundwork had been prepared. Since then the terms creative drama, process drama, improvisation, informal drama and play making have all been used, differing mainly in the hands of the teacher rather than in the methodology.

Today, entertainment for children and youth is offered by commercial producers, touring companies performing in schools, community and regional theatres, and college and university theatre departments that produce plays and educate teachers of drama and theatre on all levels. Beyond this are the community centers that offer after-school and weekend classes in the performing arts. Churches, camps, parks and civic agencies have long helped to meet neighborhood interests and needs. These programs, when well run, are popular and, although the quality is uneven, fill in the empty space when budgets are cut and the arts are eliminated from the school curriculum.

I shall always remember my own first experience with one of these programs. It was what I later would call a creative drama class for a group of junior high school girls in one of the poorest sections of Cleveland, Ohio. The settlement house was the core of the neighborhood and still one of my warmest memories. As a twenty-year-old with no student teaching or drama education courses, I simply trusted my instincts and followed the lead of the girls. At the time I had never heard of the term “Creative Drama;” I called it simply “dramatics” and the children called it “story acting.” Never mind that we did much more than enact stories, but what was apparent from the first evening we met was their delight in escaping from the dreary streets outside and entering into the exciting world of theatre. With no pedagogy to guide me, I learned from them what engaged their interests and held their attention. The results, whether improvs or stories, had plots (rarely linear), dialogue (straight from the street but it communicated the meaning intended), and body language (vigorous and free). This was theatre in the most basic sense: honest, straightforward, exciting, crude and of intense interest to the players. I realized later that they were not trying to please me but only to express themselves, free of stress or need for approval.

Although I had not intended to “put on a play,” at the end of the year I gave in to their plea to perform “The Selfish Giant,” a favorite story, for the children of the settlement house. They imagined that the musty old stage was a garden, where suddenly there were flowers and a spacious lawn. The play (unscripted) was a great success; oh, not by conventional theatre standards, but by what was more important and basic: integrity, enthusiasm, ensemble (after a few conflicts over interpretation), and total involvement. As the year passed we had all learned a great deal. They had become more perceptive, more critical. And I had learned something about teaching. We had all learned to trust each other. I returned the following year at their request (and my own need for a part time job); but this time I was a seasoned teacher, my invaluable boot camp behind me.

My next experience with creative drama was in a private school where, again with no education in teaching drama, I had classes from grade three through high school. I won’t go into the details of the seven years I spent there. They were years of learning about drama but also about human development, conflict resolution and much more. I must explain at this point that my lack of preparation was due to the fact that it didn’t exist in my own university and without a professional association, newsletters or conferences in those years information was difficult to obtain.

What became the most important experience of my life however was work with the Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya, who let us know in the first class with her that we would be working improvisationally, no public performances. Other classes covered movement, speech, theatre history, styles of acting but in her opinion the “improv” was basic to acting. Call it by any other name, it was creative drama for adults.

Moving on to children’s theatre, or theatre for young audiences, is there a place for creative drama here? I believe there is! Winifred Ward said that what children do is more important than what they see. I agree with her but I also see a connection. When children, particularly the younger ones, attend a play, they very often re-enact it afterward. For example, I have almost always observed children during an intermission of a play or outside going home, performing scenes that captured their interest. My nephew carried it on for the next two days, re-enacting scenes from The Paper Bag Players and creating more. Yes, children love attending the theatre but theatre also stimulates them to go on to create something of their own. Workshops offered after plays in schools have students improvising ideas that the performance has sparked. Enjoyment and learning from the content plus the plays’ message are the primary values.

Meanwhile, within the past century, other uses of drama and theatre have been recognized and pursued. T.I.E. (Theatre-in-Education) (as discussed more fully in Chapter 10 of the anthology), not to be confused with Theatre Education (training for the professional stage) was introduced in England in the sixties and in the United States in the seventies. Instead of producing the traditional children’s plays and classics, T.I.E. companies based their programs on social issues, aimed at challenging children’s thinking rather than entertaining audiences. By raising awareness of a problem through theatre, attitudes could be changed. Often left open-ended, the program gave the audience a chance to question, discuss, and improvise alternative solutions or other ways of handling the problem. Originally, actor/teachers trained in the T.I.E. technique were in charge and the result could be far-reaching. Only a few of the pioneering companies are still in existence but the concept of theatre as a challenge has had a powerful impact on theatre for children.

It is common today to see problem plays as well as traditional scripts on lists of subscription seasons along with the fairy tales and juvenile classics.The early T.I.E. programs were often didactic, arousing come criticism but they also caused producers and playwrights to rethink what constituted appropriate material, the matter of colorblind casting, and new performance skills. Regardless of previous rules or writing and producing children’s plays, there was a new awareness of what could be written and performed with unexpected results.

The other influence that was to sweep the world of drama and theatre for youth was D.I.E. (drama-in-education) (also known as Process Drama, discussed further in Chapter 9 of the anthology). This was classroom-based, giving students an opportunity to research material, draw conclusions, plan presentations and enact their findings for their classmates. It was an example of “learning by doing,” defined and demonstrated by British leaders Dorothy Heathcote, Gavin Bolton, Cecily O’Neill and others whose workshops prepare teachers for its use in their own classrooms. The concept spread, meeting educational goals just as T.I.E. had met certain social goals. Again, however, success and some criticism. British educator David Hornbroak (1989), expressed his concern regarding what he felt was the loss of theatre as an art form and untested methodology, using theatre as a tool. As he put it, D.I.E. became a sophisticated form of pedagogy itself rather than the subject of pedagogy. He does, however, admit its effectiveness as a way of teaching and learning.

Some teachers in the United States have argued that adoption of D.I.E. is a way of saving the arts from the chopping block. In some cases, however, the action has backfired with the loss of theatre as an art in its own right. I believe that all forms of theatre belong in the well-rounded curriculum. One form does not replace another. There should not be a conflict or even competition among them. The only requirements should be a well planned program, directed by teachers educated in the theatre arts and their uses, with results showing that it entertains, educates and is socially viable. The term that Philip Taylor uses, “applied theatre,” strikes me as the most appropriate description because it includes the various forums of theatre we find today; all are dependent on theatre techniques yet none replaces the theatre itself. Each, I maintain, begins with creative drama.

Another rapidly growing discipline today is drama therapy (discussed in Chapter 16). From ancient times, theatre has been recognized for its therapeutic powers and while there was sporadic activity in the early part of the last century, it was not until Moreno’s pioneering work and the subsequent formation of a professional organization, university courses in drama therapy and the awarding of graduate degrees that drama therapy became a recognized field of study. Obviously, it should be practiced only by therapists with professional preparation and supervised experience. Richard Courtney (1988) gives a simple definition of this unique discipline: “Drama therapy uses the human potential for expression within the medium of dramatic action. Its focus is the self who is being, sounding and moving in ‘the here and now.’” There are today various kinds of therapy; but two examples I should like to cite are designed for the audience as well as the participants. Both begin with improvisation and then develop into performance pieces.

The first is the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped (NTWH), located in both New York and in Belfast, Maine. All workshop members have disabilities of some sort; with their teachers, also disabled, they improvise and work on scenes in preparation for a public performance. These young men and women had been denied the chance to work with drama groups in high school and college; here they are not only welcome into the workshop but a few have even gone on to professional work in theatre both on and off-Broadway. The founder and director of the NTWH, Dr. Rick Curry, S.J., himself disabled, was aware of the rejection suffered by persons eager to take part in drama; and while he does not promise employment, he does promise full workshop participation. Beautifully enacted scenes by blind and deaf actors, young people dancing to music in wheelchairs, and pieces created specifically for the occasion by persons with other handicaps captivate the audience. All work, however, begins with creative drama or improvisation.

The other company that is audience oriented is Roots and Branches (Strimling, 2004), also situated in New York. Different in aim and structure, it is an excellent example of inter-generational theatre. Members of the company range in age from 18 to 97. When a theme is selected, the actors work on it from their own perspectives and experiences. Preparation consists of discussion and improvisation, resulting ultimately in a production. Performances are given for audiences of all ages who are invited to talk to the actors afterward and ask questions about the piece and the way in which it was conceived. According to Arthur Strimling, director, any community-based art should take the audience into a world or situation it had not seen before. It should provide insights, backgrounds, politics, social attitudes and subject matter. There are now many companies with an intergenerational focus aimed at promoting better understanding between generations. The idea is rapidly generating interest.

Finally, we come to theatre for young audiences. What could product possibly have to do with process? Well, more than appears on the surface when we think of scripted plays, polished performances, professional actors and a paying audience. I have mentioned earlier that children, spilling out of the theatre, often re-enact what they have seen and, better yet, take the characters beyond the curtain line into new adventures. For example, I recall seeing a performance of Mummenschantz a number of years ago, when the children in the audience were captivated by the physicality of the performers. They could hardly wait for an intermission not to escape but to try out some of the movements themselves in the lobby. The inventions and contortions of the actors stimulated a virtual explosion of creative energy on the part of the children and I was glad that the ushers did not interrupt such a joyous reaction. For that young audience, children’s theatre led to creativity in the truest sense of the word:

A young person, for whom good theatre is a part of his or her life, finds an interest that can lead to a life long pastime or delight.

As for creative drama, where this paper began, the values are many and are shared with all other forms of theatre. When the imagination is sparked, the creative process begins. Self-consciousness disappears and cooperation grows as players need each other. Under the guidance of a skilled teacher speech improves and learning takes place. Whether it is theatre as an art form in its own right, theatre used to teach other subject areas, drama therapy, applied theatre in troubled communities or the dramatic play of the pre-school child, improvisation is the first faltering step. Creative drama is basic to everything we do in life and therefore to all forms of theatre.


Courtney, Richard, & Martin-Smith, Alistair. (1988). Re-Cognizing Richard Courtney. Markham, Ontario: Pembroke.

Hornbroak, David. (1989). Education and Dramatic Art. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Koste, Virginia Glasgow. (1995). Dramatic Play in Childhood: Rehearsal for Life. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Roberts, Vera Mowry. (1962). On Stage. New York: Harper & Row (p 20).

Strimling, Arthur. Roots and Branches: Creating Intergenerational Theatre. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004.

Dr. Nellie McCaslin (8/20/1914 - 2/28/2005), educator, author and actress , had a distinguished career in educational theatre at Mills College, Teachers College of Columbia University, and New York University spanned seven decades of outstanding administrative and teaching appointments. She was elected to the American College of Fellows in 1977 and received both the Great Teachers Award from NYU and an honorary Doctor of Humanities from Ferrum College, Virginia in 1986. She was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Alliance of Theatre Educators in 1996 and the Medallion Award from the Children’s Theatre Foundation in 2001.

Dr. McCaslin's numerous publications included Theatre for Children in the United States: A History, Children and Drama, Theatre for Young Audiences and a classic textbook, Creative Drama in the Classroom and Beyond (now in its eighth edition!) have widely influenced educational theatre in America. Moreover, her writings, drama workshops and lectures have contributed to European, Asian and Middle Eastern understanding of American educational practices. Her numerous keynote addresses in Canada, Norway, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Israel, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have reminded audiences what helps children to learn through encouragement of imagination and creativity through the arts.

Nellie McCaslin