Drama for Change

By Mary Moynihan

Writer, Director, Theatre and Film Maker,

Artistic Director, Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality

Drama for Change – using creative processes in adult education

Mary Moynihan


The Drama for Change Theatre Curriculum was designed and authored by Mary Moynihan who is a writer, theatre and film-maker and Artistic Director of the Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality. The curriculum was designed with support from Freda Manweiler, Dr Eric Weitz, the Drama for Change partners and Jenny Macdonald, Sinead O’Loughlin, Mary Duffin and Kate Harris. For access to the Drama for Change Theatre Curriculum and Toolbox of Resources click here.


The following is a presentation given in Vienna, Austria  for the EPALE Conference Upskilling Pathways – Equal Opportunities and Participation through Adult Education, EPALE and Erasmus+ Adult Education.


Drama for Change was a three-year European partnership project funded by Erasmus+ that ran from 2014 to 2017 with five European partners from Ireland, Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.  The project used creative methods of theatre to develop a new Drama for Change Training Curriculum and Toolbox of Resources for adult educators, using the arts to promote anti-racism, equality and diversity. Drama for Change brought together a cross sector of organisations that work with marginalised groups in adult education. The five European partners were Smashing Times Theatre Company, Ireland;  IFES, Valencia, Spain; Pressure Line Visual and Creative Communications, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; The dialogue, Lindau, Germany and KU TU Ltd, Sofia, Bulgaria. Drama for Change addressed a gap in training for adult educators using creative processes to address issues of rising inequality and racism and the lack of inclusion for marginalized groups. 


Drama for Change resulted in the creation of a five-day ‘train-the-trainer’s’ Training Curriculum and Toolbox of Resources that provides adult educators including teachers and artists with the skills necessary to work with adults through the creative medium of theatre in order to promote anti-racism, gender equality and diversity. The training curriculum, titled ‘Drama for Change Training Programme: Using Theatre to promote Anti-Racism, Gender Equality and Inclusion’, is contained in an interactive Pdf available on each partner website and on EPALE – Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe – and was developed in response to two questionnaires, the first with adult educators and the second with potential participants, both developed to identify the needs of educators and artists wishing to learn how to use drama and theatre games and exercises to promote issue based work.


The Drama for Change curriculum contains a selection of theatre games and exercises which can be used by adult educators to promote equality, inclusion and anti-racism work, and a series of hand-outs including guidelines for drama facilitators, key terms and a bibliography. A Toolbox of Resources accompanies the training and consists of five on-line Research documents with information on cultural diversity and current policies and legislation in each partner country, and five Video Demonstrations on how to conduct a selection of the game and exercises, showing a step-by-step approach demonstrated by a theatre facilitator working with a group of participants. 


As part of the three-year Drama for Change programme, a series of events took place across Europe including seven transnational project partner meetings, a ‘train the trainers’ training programme, and a series of multiplier and dissemination events reaching 471,696 people.


 “Fantastic play! Motivating! Great speakers, wonderful people. I had an opportunity to mention the refugee camps, which was great and so was the response. Thank you!” Symposium Participant


Drama workshop as a collaborative event

A drama workshop can be referred to as a collaborative event that involves a group of people working together through the methodology of drama, everybody takes part and there is not usually an audience. According to Chris Johnson in House of Games, Making Theatre from Everyday Life, a drama workshop is easily adapted to suit the needs of all those in attendance which makes the work accessible to everybody including those  who are excluded or choose to exclude themselves from mainstream culture. Drama is a community activity ‘because it nurtures values which are concordant with community ideals, respecting cooperation, sociability, and equality of opportunity while engendering mutual respect’.


In a drama workshop the aim is to become comfortable as an emotionally expressive person. When using drama in adult education, three levels of ‘learning’ are taking place. Firstly, participants are developing basic drama and theatre skills such as focus and concentration, imagination and team work. Secondly the workshop brings people together to promote learning and exploration in relation to a particular issue or subject matter, and thirdly a key part is to develop ‘life skills’ in terms of active listening, collaboration, communication skills, confidence building and self-esteem, problem solving, critical thinking, decision making, independence, innovative thinking and  team building.


The focus is on active, physical participation as participants work together through games, exercises, image and improvisational work, to promote respect, trust, empathy and to build genuine and meaningful connections.  A drama workshop can free the emotional self, promote active listening and generate a shared openness and a sensitivity to others. The facilitator creates a supportive environment as participants need to ‘feel safe’ in order to take risks.


The nature of the artistic medium enables the learner to be actively engaged in the learning process and provides a structure for self and group learning, enabling participants themselves to generate further content in relation to the key themes. 


A curriculum such as Drama for Change provides the form or structure for exploring anti-racism, inclusion and equality as well as providing content (for example key terms and case studies) while at the same time ensuring a freedom of creativity, openness and experimentation where content is generated by the participants themselves.  The nature of the artistic medium enables the learner to be actively engaged in the learning process and provides a structure for self and group learning, enabling participants themselves to generate further content in relation to the key themes. Theatre develops life skills as it is, by its very nature, ‘self-educating’, generating an experiential knowledge of a particular issue and the opportunity for participants to explore a particular subject in their own way.


Because we use our bodies and are emotionally engaged in the workshop, the work opens participants to new perspectives in a way that intellectual discourse may not. There is an embodied form of learning that takes place, generating shared connections and commonalities while respecting difference.  Participants are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone and are supported as they explore new or previously hidden territories. The drama provides a space for participants to literally stand in the ‘other’s’ shoes’’ and  explore a shared humanity.  As a result, theatre can open up a safe space for the discussion of contentious and difficult issues and helps us to imagine a better future. Participants can step outside of themselves and their own personal positions and step into dramatic roles than support them to try out different alternatives. Suspending reality and using make-belief combined with the safe space  of the facilitated group environment empowers creative understanding and problem solving and generates empathy, changing ways in which we perceive, value speak about or act towards the ‘other’.


According to Peter Hussey, a theatre maker and cultural youth worker with Crooked House Theatre Company and a lecturer in Adult, Community and Further Education and Youth and Community Work in Maynooth University, Ireland:


‘’An aesthetic engagement is one in which you have to use all of your senses, employ your intellect, be aware of your feelings, use your body, and open your imagination, to whatever is in front of you. You are fully engaged in the activity and your brain is producing hormones like adrenaline that help you engage in the activity. An aesthetic engagement is the opposite of an anaesthetic engagement, which, as Ken Robinson succinctly outlines (in his 2007 TED talk on the role of creativity in education) mostly dulls your senses and puts you to sleep.(3)’’. [1]


Hussey also refers to the ‘fun’ aspect of theatre in social and learning contexts. For example, Smashing Times run an annual programme called Acting for the Future that uses creative processes of theatre and film  to promote positive mental health and suicide prevention. Although the subject matter being explored is a serious social issue, participants regularly comment on the ‘fun’ nature of the work as the theatre process itself generates a positive sense of sharing and communal exploration.


Going Beyond What We Already Know

The Drama for Change curriculum draws on the work of inspirational theatre practitioners such as Viola Spolin (1906-1994) and Augusto Boal (1931-2009).  Boal, a Brazilian theatre practitioner and founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, wrote that the first language of theatre is ‘the human body’.  His range of techniques include image theatre (making statues with your bodies to create a visual image which shows a perspective on a given theme) and this exercise is regularly used in Drama for Change as a non-verbal inclusive methodology (we all have a body) by-passing for example the barrier of language. American theatre practitioner Viola Spolin writes about the ‘experience of going beyond what we already know’ and states that ‘’the physical is the known and through it we may find our way to the unknown, the intuitive and perhaps beyond to the human spirit itself’’. [2]  


Diving into the Unknown

A drama workshop is easily adapted to suit the needs of all those in attendance, thus making the work  accessible to everybody. The following is an example of the inclusive nature of the work. I remember planning my first workshop for people with physical disabilities and realising that the majority of theatre games and exercises involved some kind of movement.   I asked myself ‘How can I do a drama workshop when some of the participants are in wheelchairs?’.  In preparing my lesson plan, I decided to leave out a number of key theatre games and exercises simply because they involved movement. I arrived in for the first workshop and decided to re-think my workshop plan. Reminding myself that theatre is about risk-taking and diving into the unknown, I decided to bring back the movement exercises.


I started with Energy Circle from Drama for Change. Participants stand in a circle and using their hands and whole bodies, each person passes a clap on to the next person on their right and so on. The clap is passed around without either anticipation or delay and the aim is to get a rhythmical flow of movement and handclaps going around the circle without a break. When this is established, the direction of the clap can be changed as variations are added in. I started the clap and passed it to my right.  The next two to three people were wheelchair users and were able to pass the clap through movement of their hands and upper bodies.  Then the clap arrived at a person who was unable to move from the neck down. There was a pause. Then the participant used her eyes to pass the clap on.  But it was not just her eyes. We saw and felt the will and energy of the ‘movement’ created by the participant, an extraordinary moment as the game continued. After that I never made presumptions as I realised there are multiple ways to involve people and to  implement a game or exercise. I remember Christine, a poet and one of the participants, create and perform in extraordinary improvisations even though Christine was unable to speak or move from the neck down.  Christine has sadly now passed on however her extraordinary work and presence remains with me, highlighting the power of the human spirit.


Support for the provision of training in creative processes

Using the arts to promote experiential learning in a collaborative context requires a high level of experience and expertise in the artform. As we move forward, there is a need for sustained government and local authority support for  the provision of training in relation to using creative processes in adult education and in social and applied contexts. For example, there is still no recognised third level qualification in Ireland specifically  for drama facilitation in educational, social and community contexts. Support is required to enable artists, educators and researchers to continue to work together developing innovative creative-based approaches to adult education that promote human rights, gender equality, social inclusion and diversity and for the work to be supported by  evidence-based research and evaluation. Smashing Times extends a very special thanks to all those involved in Drama for Change with a special thanks to Erasmus+, Léargas and The Arts Council.   For access to the Drama for Change Theatre Curriculum and Toolbox of Resources please click here.

“The event was amazing. The performances were great – and they opened my mind for new ideas and perspectives. The song in the end said it all.” Drama for Change  Participant






In addition to the Drama for Change curriculum, the following resources are available free to download from Smashing Times, supported by the Europe for Citizens programme:


Women War and Peace book with a foreword by Marian Harkin, MEP, Ireland, containing  articles, research and 23 women’s stories from WWII and the Holocaust – highlighting stories of women from Ireland, Spain, Germany and Poland who promoted liberty, spoke out against totalitarianism and advocated for peace. Click the following link: https://smashingtimes.ie/projects/the-art-of-peace-reconciliation-and-democracy/european-project-women-war-and-peace/  


Women in an Equal Europe book containing interviews with twenty-one women today from Ireland, Spain, Croatia and Serbia – to promote a remembrance of women’s equality and experiences of life in Europe  ensuring women’s voices and stories are equally heard and acknowledge. Click the following link: https://www.smashingtimes.ie/women-in-an-equal-europe/





Mary Moynihan

Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equaity


Mary Moynihan is a writer, director, theatre and film-maker, and Artistic Director of Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality.  

Website: www.smashingtimes.ie

Facebook: www.facebook.com/smashingtimestheatrecompany

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Smashing_Times

Email: mary@smashingtimes.ie 

[1] Presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills, Tuesday, 21st February 2017 by Peter Hussey, page 2.   


[2] Improvisation for the Theatre, A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques  by Viola Spolin. North Western University Press. Page 16

Mary Moynihan, Smashing Times, leading theatre workshop at EPALE symposium, Austria