“I made myself”: Playmaking as a pedagogy of change with urban youth

Nelson, B. (2011). “I made myself”: Playmaking as a pedagogy of change with urban youth. Research in Drama Education Journal, 16(20) 1-17.


Applied Drama and Theater (AD/T) addresses local conditions and perspectives by teaming drama instructors and community members to write, produce, and perform plays. This study examines the AD/T playmaking process in an urban high school class of twenty-four 14-20 year old students. The author designed the project to explore and develop students’ understandings of discrimination, social power dynamics, and their own roles as active or passive cultural members. The author collected qualitative data via classroom observations and interviews with participants. Participating students reported more nuanced understanding of unequal power dynamics and a sense of agency as a result of performing their piece. They also reported a growing sense of community within their classroom and began to understand collective empowerment as agents of social change.

Key Findings:

  • Using AD/T, students were able to explore their position in society and understand the impact of discrimination on a personal and societal level.
  • Through the AD/T process in which students wrote and produced a play about their thoughts on equality, economics, and violence, students came to understand the power of their voice as a tool for positive change in society.
  • The process of sharing personal narratives allowed the students to construct a community of trust and respect within the classroom. As the commonalities between narratives emerged, students began to see themselves as members of a unified group rather than insignificant individuals.

Significance of the Findings:

Direct quotes from filmed interviews demonstrate how students gained appreciation for the power of their voice in shaping society through the AD/T process. As students move from roles of passive sufferers to empowered agents of change, they are more likely to feel comfortable initiating positive projects and contributing to civic dialog. If citizens see themselves as assets in the community they are more likely to act accordingly, contributing what they can to improve society. Educators and policymakers may refer to this study as a call to build upon and initiate new programs to address issues of power, social justice, and community engagement through the arts. This study promotes the arts as a tool for dismantling unequal power structures at the social and institutional level.


Between March and May of 2009, the researcher collaborated with a drama teacher to create a theatrical production with 24 students in a drama class at an urban high school. The researcher collected data by observing interactions in the classroom and through filmed interviews with the students after completing the performance. The researcher ensured the validity and reliability of the study’s findings by triangulating analysis of multiple data sources, by checking analyses with an outside ethnographer familiar with AD/T, and by conducting a member check with the drama teacher and the majority of participating students.

Limitations of the Research:

The nature of ethnographic studies, which explore the unique cultures of distinct groups, resists generalization of findings. The participant group of 24 students from one school does not provide a wide enough sample to suggest similar findings will necessarily occur if AD/T is applied elsewhere. However, ethnography allows deep understanding of the targeted culture. The questions posed by this study focus on community dynamics and students’ perceptions of their identity in society, requiring qualitative analysis of the students’ testimony. Causality of empowerment through AD/T is not demonstrated by this study design. Students were interviewed only after the project was completed. A pre-test establishing initial attitudes compared against an exit interview might have helped to show how perceptions changed throughout the course of the project. While the researcher offers a description of how she ensured the validity and reliability of her analyses, the article does not include a detailed description of the process through which she analyzed her data. Such an account could aid readers of the study in their own independent assessment of the strength of the study’s findings.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How can the voices of youth, when expressed through artistic media, positively affect their communities? How do students’ beliefs about social justice leaders of the past influence their own community engagement and leadership? How does AD/T instruction influence continued patterns of community engagement as students move out of the program?