Improbable Players:
Using Educational Drama in Addictions Prevention

© Lynn Bratley, M.Ed., Founder, Artistic Director, Improbable Players

Improbable Players interactive role play workshops are designed to guide middle school and high school students in creating scenes and stories around alcohol or other drug issues that they face: handling the pressure from peers to use, seeing through media messages, identifying classic roles people play where there is substance abuse, how to do a simple intervention, and more.

The Players want to encourage teachers to bring the arts into the health curriculum with lessons that foster critical thinking and creativity; explore tough issues through role play and improvisation; use theater to reach others on a critical issue; and motivate students with real-life experiences rather than bore them with lectures. The curriculum is called “Gotta Act!” because the consequences of substance abuse are not somebody else’s problem —we all gotta act. 

Improbable Players, Inc. is a touring theater based in the Boston, Massachussetts area, though its company tours in other parts of the USA. It was founded in 1984 to teach audiences in schools, colleges and conferences about addiction and recovery through plays, drama workshops and discussion sessions that help people recognize situations in their own lives and seek the help they need. All the actor/teachers are theater artists in long-term recovery. The plays are written based on improvisation and scripted from the actors’ experience, strength and hope.

Although adolescent alcohol, tobacco and other drug use in the US had been declining for the last decade, the most recent evidence suggests an increase in both alcohol and marijuana use (Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 2009; Johnston et al., 2009).  Alcohol is the most widely abused substance among teens and “underage drinking in America constitutes a major public health and safety problem that creates serious personal, social, and economic consequences for adolescents, their families, communities, and the nation” (Surgeon General’s Perspective, 2009).  Research indicates that “underage alcohol use can also cause alterations in the structure and function of the developing brain” (Surgeon General’s Perspective, 2009) and “adolescent alcohol consumption may affect cognitive functioning and/or change the developing brain in ways that increase the risk for future dependence” (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism).

An estimated 22 million Americans abused or were dependent on drugs, alcohol or both according to the the 2002 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Some 19.5 million Americans -- 8.3 percent of the total population ages 12 and up -- currently use illicit drugs, 54 million take part in binge drinking and 15.9 million are heavy drinkers.

We all know someone who has been affected negatively by alcohol or other drugs –everybody knows someone. All of us play a part in the tragedy of substance abuse: our own personal struggles with it, in our relationships, our families, and our neighborhoods. Improbable Players created these lessons for teachers and group leaders so they could work with participants to uncover their own community’s stories and shed light on solutions to community and personal challenges through dramatic role play. The guide describes interactive role-play workshops that interweave school curriculum strands of health with those of drama and acting.

In these role-play sessions we encourage youth to be empowered to try out new behaviors through characters who try out brave, healthy, and interesting responses that they might not have ever dreamed possible on their own.

Theater is a powerful way to learn—it captivates, educates and motivates. One vivid scene is worth a thousand words. It is another way to reach people about a devastating public health problem: the impact of substance abuse on ourselves, our families, and our communities. 

The Improbable Players’ residency provided many students the chance to participate, to think about issues, to explore healthy options for themselves, and to demonstrate creative choices. These sessions brought together their intense personal concerns and experience with substance abuse issues with their training and enjoyment of theater arts to make an exciting theater piece for their peers.”  - Richard Blanchard, Drama Teacher, Harbor Schools and Family Services, Amesbury, MA


Channeling real life stories through sociodrama
We use true to life stories to teach about substance abuse prevention and to inspire through sociodrama This style of theater concerns itself with group issues: it is a group action method in which participants act out an agreed upon social situation spontaneously and discover alternative ways of dealing with that problem. This style of role play provides a safe environment to explore issues. It also takes the spotlight off the personal and on to the solution. These drama workshops are not therapy but sometimes they can be therapeutic.

Students create characters and scenes about real and important issues in their lives that they face, learning that there are classic roles that people play where there is substance abuse and how they can give voice and action to their solutions to drinking/drug abuse.

The key to this process is that students are asked to not use ideas from their own personal lives. This is a very important point: we do not ask students or teachers to reveal anything personal about themselves. We are asking them to create scenes about people, places and things in their community, not their own personal experiences.

Young people know a lot about alcohol/drug use on some level from personal experience - they have tried it, they see it in their family or friends, they watch television, movies, read books and magazines, and explore the internet. But they may not know accurate information or how to understand it and act on it. They may not understand that they can “act” in real life to protect themselves.

Weaving health and theater into each session
Discussions about scenes present opportunities to teach basic concepts about alcohol and other drug use/abuse:

Discussions about scenes present opportunities to teach basic concepts about drama

Theater lends itself to active education

It can portray complex emotional issues in a safe environment.  People can talk about characters when it is difficult to talk about their own behaviors.  Characters provide a common reference point: the audience can refer to characters and situations in the play and compare them to their own experience.

Role play workshops allow individuals to practice behaviors in simulated reality. If one behavior doesn't work, another can be tried without real consequences, while the group gives support and suggestions.

Theatre is developed by people who have a story to tell.  When performed to audiences of peers, these plays stimulate discussion.

In role play workshops, people can safely learn how to act through exercises, scenes, theater games, and interactions between people where there is never any expectation of performance.

If a group decides to take their work to the stage and seek an audience, the performance creates an event that brings people together: it attracts an audience, keeps people's attention, communicates the message, and makes a long-lasting impression.

The teacher is asked to:

Workshops are improvisational and organic: they are planned and have a basic structure, but the group leader must be open to what happens during the workshop as participants express their thoughts and feelings, solve problems, clarify values, and be willing to follow the action and conflicts that arise.

The core topics to cover
Improbable Players teach five basic lessons around this topic: 1.Brainstorming; 2. Addiction affects every member of the family, 3. Peer pressure is a fact throughout our lives, 4.  Intervention is possible, 5.  What I do when there’s nothing to do. The lessons could be covered in five days, five weeks or each of them expanded to an entire semester: they are rich with possibilities. Suggested workshop length: 1 to 2 hours.

The topics were chosen because they span a range of questions around our relationship with alcohol/other drug use/abuse. They ask the questions: 1. How are we affected personally by alcohol/drug use/abuse? 2. How are we affected as members of our families? 3. How are we affected as members of our peer group? 4. How can we help another person? 5. How can we strengthen our personal resiliency by engaging in activities we love to do throughout our lives?

The first workshop sets the stage for the other workshops: assumptions, rules, trust, and the organic nature of the process. The workshops are always culturally appropriate, because the problems, the characters, the stories and the conflicts come entirely from the group – even though we ask that the experiences do not come from the participants. The teacher/group leader plays the role of stage director. The group leader guides the improvisations, points out the roles people are playing, asks the questions and guides the feedback.

Evaluating, measuring and reporting the results of our work



                                                Adapted from The Hundred Languages of Children,The Reggio Emilia Approach—                                                                       Advanced Reflections, by Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Forman



Is alcohol a problem for you?
For teens:


Alcoholics Anonymous:
Al Anon:
Narcotics Anonymous:

Addiction/Recovery Advocacy

Faces and Voices of Recovery:
Join Together:
White, William, Slaying the Dragon: History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America

Social Action Theater

Applied and Interactive Theater Guide—
Blatner, Adam, Interactive and Improvisational Drama,  2007   (        
Boal, Augusto, Theater of the Oppressed, 1979 and The Rainbow of Desire, 1995, Pluto Press
Dayton, Dian, Ph.D., The Living Stage, A Step-by-Step Guide to Psychodrama, Sociometry, and Experiential Group Therapy, 2005
Moreno, J. L., The Essential Moreno: Writings on Psychodrama, Group Method, and Spontaneity, Jonathan Fox, M.A., Editor, Springer Publishing Company, New York
Sternberg, Pat, and Garcia, Antonia, Sociodrama: Who’s in Your Shoes?

Arts Education

Arts Education Partnership— - Provides information and communication about current and emerging arts education policies and importance of creative learning and teaching artists in schools for the  21st Century Workforce.
Gardner, Howard, Frames of Mind: the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, 1993
Massachusetts Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework.

The National Art Education Association, NAEA Advisory, The Stories That Student Art Tells: Examining Student Work as a Strategy for Arts Advocacy, Don Glass, Annenberg Institute for School Reform, VSA Arts.
Universal Design for Learning -  a framework for guiding educational practice that provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged, reducing barriers in instruction.
The Contours of Inclusion: Frameworks and Tools for Evaluating Arts In Education by Don Glass

Bratley, Lynn, “Gotta Act!” Improbable Players how-to guide for using drama in prevention education, 2009 is available from Improbable Players
Improbable Players, Inc. is a  501 c 3 non-profit corporation

© Improbable Players 2011.