Using Drama in Youth Ministry
Some of you reading this will already know the benefits of using Drama and the Performing Arts within the context of Youth Ministry. You may know firsthand how drama can break down barriers to communication between young people and get them actively creating together, developing relationships, and engaging with current issues. You may already value drama for its ability to help young people not only see but also to experience things from another’s perspective, something our society surely desperately needs.
If, however, you do not yet know the joys of drama within youth ministry then allow me to suggest to you that drama offers the youth worker an art form that will foster great relationships between young people, allow them to creatively question and discuss theological and societal issues and explore, in an experiential way, the characters that populate the bible.
Why you should use drama in youth ministry then is hopefully a relatively easy question to answer. Not withstanding all that has already been mentioned drama is also a lot of fun! The more difficult question then is perhaps: How? …How can I use drama to help young people creatively explore societal and theological issues, and have fun doing so. Well I have a few suggestions…
Todd Johnson and Dale Savidge suggest in Performing the Sacred “the way theatre reflects the nature of God, through Incarnation, Community and Presence, is a salve to the soul.”
Incarnation – God chose to incarnate himself through Jesus (Mathew 1:23 ‘Immanuel – God with us’; John 1:1-18 ‘the Word became flesh’) enabling a more intimate, personal relationship, and an experiential theology through Jesus’s divine action. Drama incarnates ideas and most importantly characters allowing us to experience them. This can bring theology to life and help us access complex truths through action and reflection.
Community – Acts 2:42-47 describes the close knit community that the early church was. They ‘were of one mind’ supporting one another and walking alongside each other as God intended. Through warm-up exercises and working for the common purpose of telling the story drama can create this type of close knit community; enabling people to be vulnerable with each other and share on a deeper level.
Presence –In Exodus 31:1-11 God gifts his spirit to Oholiab and Bezalel along with craftsmanship and artistic design to make the tabernacle, a work of art that the whole community was involved in making through which God chose to presence himself: Incarnation, Community and Presence. Drama can foster a community where biblical truths explored through action create a space where God can be present.
So the best bit… practice. I will offer some general principles and ideas for practice when exploring a specific story from the bible through drama. (If possible please see the full workshop plan for more details) I encourage you to take these and adapt and change them so they work with your young people.
Play – It’s really important that you remember this concept; treating the session like a game will allow the young people to be free and more confident in it. You can then be free to extract more serious points and discuss things at length/try them out. But it should always be fun. With this in mind make sure you start off with warm up games and exercises to get the participants moving around and making noise in the space. Your job is to create a space where people feel safe and free to offer ideas and create something.
Explore the story together – Once everyone is warm and enjoying themselves read the story together from the bible and ask various members of the group to act it out (no matter how comically) as you read it section by section. “There was a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho” ask someone to represent this man etc. At various points you can freeze the action and tap people on the shoulder, explain that when you do this you want them to voice their characters feelings. If they don’t know ask the rest of the group how they think this character is feeling. You can ask questions: ‘does this man have a family? How does he feel making a dangerous journey?’ ‘Why is he going on this journey? Perhaps it’s work to feed his family’ etc. This will very quickly deepen the characters in the story and enrich the experience of acting it out. The idea is to identify who the characters are and some of their backstory and emotional life, and this is crucial for later.
Identify the Plot – Next, split the group into smaller groups of about 3-5 and ask them to create three still pictures: the beginning, middle and end points of the story. Give them about 5 minutes to do this and then see what the groups have done. This will allow you to then talk about the important parts of the story (plot) and discuss the story in more detail.
Re-experience the story– Now ask the groups to join their beginning, middle and end together with action so they re-tell the whole story. This will help keep them focused on the story and mean the task isn’t as daunting if they already have a beginning, middle, and end. Give them another 5-10mins to do this and then see each of the groups work. Now you can talk about how the different characters felt during the story and what the issues in the story are.
Explore the issue– Finally ask the group to re-tell the story in a modern context. They can change characters names, jobs, the locations, the words, anything other than the important events (plot). The Good Samaritan might be set on the tube with a homeless guy, Noah might be a scientist and his ark a space ship with the DNA of all living creatures heading off to a new planet, and Zacchaeus up the tree might be the transgender/non-binary person at the back of school assembly. Be as creative as you can, effectively what you’re asking them to do is put the story in their own words and explore what the issue might look like today. This only works if you’ve explored the characters emotions and back stories in some depth earlier. Give them 5-10 mins for this and then get them to perform for each other and discuss the stories and the characters in them. Remember it’s still a game so it should be fun but games can be fun yet important too.
REFLECTION & LEARNING
This process allows a group to begin to become a community and incarnate some theology in the hope that God may be present.
I encourage you to reflect on the session but to do this with the young people. At a future session remind them of what they did and reflect on what it felt like, what emotions were involved and how the characters in the story responded to these emotions. It’s really good to remember that some of the characters we read of in the bible were real people with emotions and concerns etc.
As you get comfortable leading this style of session with your group you can tailor and vary the games you play and allow the young people to lead games and warm ups for each other. This will again continue to develop their relationships and foster that important community.
There is no limit to the stories you can explore in this manner and as the group get more competent and familiar with the style you can ask increasingly difficult questions and really push them.
Knowing the story and its characters well can be really useful in these sessions, so doing some planning and research around the story and what it means, as well as going through the process you will lead the young people in yourself, can be very useful.
The quote from Johnson and Savidge’s Performing the Sacred was taken from page 146. See below for full bibliographical reference.
If you are struggling for games and exercises David Farmer’s book: 101 Drama Games contains a whole bunch (101 to be precise) of drama games and exercises that build on each other and help develop drama groups.
Lots of the games and exercises I have detailed are adapted from Augusto Boal’s work. He developed a theatre called Forum Theatre which can be very politically provocative and is often used with issues of social action; it’s a fantastic style of theatre that is very effective. One of Boal’s most useful and practical books is Games for Actors and Non- Actors.
Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. 2nd Edition. Translated by Adrian Jackson. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.
Farmer, David. 101 Drama Games & Activities. 2nd Edition. Raleigh: Lulu, 2007.
Johnson, Todd. And Dale Savidge. Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.
Ollie is passionate about helping young people develop their unique voice and experience God in creative ways. He has worked as a Youth worker for a Baptist church, and as a professional actor with Searchlight and 4Front theatre companies and is Co-Artistic Director of Atticladder. He currently works at Regents Theological College teaching on the BA Applied Theology and Performing Arts programme.