Teaching Drama to At Risk Youth

Dear Janea,

I’ve been asked by the local education office here in south west Ireland to teach drama to at-risk youth in a local outreach centre. Youth Reach helps kids with problems such as substance abuse, literacy problems and basically kids who have slipped through the cracks in our education system. Due to cutbacks in funding for these projects, I’ve only been allocated only 5 sessions of 2 hours each to work with these kids, so I would really appreciate any help and advice that you can give me.


Dear Chris,

You may already know a lot of what I’m about to give you, but I’ll send it along, hoping that I am giving you something new and helpful.

Given the very short time-frame, I would suggest having the kids either perform monologues, or short scenes in pairs based on personal experiences. You’ll want to start with powerful bonding activities, then move on to innovative story-telling methods. I’m hoping that you are familiar with Augustus Boal or Theatre of the Oppressed work?  I’m going to give you some ideas in order: bonding games, skill building activity ideas, then ideas for monologues. I don’t think you have time for actual scene work but you may be able to pull it off, given your extensive acting background, and depending on the dynamics of your group.


To get to the place where kids will share their inner worlds with you in a relatively short period of time, you’ll need to establish trust and bonding in the group right away. This can be done with “touching” activities, and personal sharing activities. Human touch breaks down barriers like magic, but it must be done eloquently with your at-risk kids.

Some activities that can really bond kids fast involve touching each other in a non-threatening way. You can do this by playing “3 Noses,” or the greeting game where the kids shake hands with one person when they meet them, and they can’t let go until they are shaking hands with someone else. You can also have them do a blindfolded “guided” walk. I did this once with teenagers, and I only let them guide each other by using their index fingers (pointer fingers) touching. Kids REALLY had to focus.

Some easy personal sharing activities include:
  • Me Poems. Students fill it in anonymously and take turns reading one line from the sheet they were handed in a circle.
  • Story of Your Name-One at a time in a circle, or in pairs if the group is large, players take turns telling the story of their names. If a player does not know the story, or if it is something they do not wish to share, they can lie!
  • Compliment Bombardment (once they know each other a little better) Break the class into groups of four to six; students focus on one member at a time. Have the students in the group tell all the positive things they can about that person. Encourage compliments that focus on behavior rather than something that cannot be altered or developed like a physical characteristic. No put downs are allowed. Every comment must be positive.
Skill Building Games

STATUES – Have 1/2 the group stand in a circle facing out. The other half stands around the inside circle players, such that everyone is facing a partner. Ask the inside circle players to strike a pose suggesting “what it feels like to be ignored,” or “what it feels like to be at school,” or “what it feels like to miss someone,” or whatever you wish! When the inside circle has found their pose, their partners “mold” the statues to make them even more interesting…their goal is to make whatever they see in the statue more obvious.  Then, you have the outside circle players walk around the circle looking at the statues as if they are in a gallery or a museum. They must call out words and feelings they see in the statues.  Next, the inside circle players trade places with the outside circle players. Give a prompt that is exactly the opposite of the first prompt. “What it feels like to be ignored,” turns into “What it feels like to be seen or listened to,” and so on.

STORY GIFTS – put kids in pairs. Give them one minute to think of a time when they felt afraid. Then announce that each person will have two minutes to tell their story. The goal of the listener is to listen as carefully as possible. The goal of the teller is to be as descriptive as possible. When both stories have been told, each person goes off into their own space in the room and makes up a re-telling of the story using only movement and a bit of dialogue. Here is what they should include:

Elements of “Story Gifts” :
  • Starting pose ( a physical pose evocative of the writer’s point of view)
  • Five motion action (sequence of five movements that pantomime something you heard in the story)
  • Line of text (one line of spoken dialogue from the story that may be repeated as often as you like)
  • Jump (physical action that everyone incorporates into their work)
  • Site in the room for your performance (choose a place in the room that suits your piece).

The end result of Story Gifts are that the teller sees a moving piece of poetry reflective of their experience. There are no “rights” or “wrongs,” and they almost always feel like art. After the story gifts are created, they are shared one-on-one, and then if anyone wants to share in front of the class, they may. (And they almost always do!)

Performance / Monologues

Students can be given a list of prompts or starting lines from which to base their monologue or scene such as:

  • The worst day ever.
  • The thing you did that you wish you could take back.
  • The time you felt the most loved.
  • The time you felt the most alone.
  • The closest you ever felt to a friend.
  • The saddest you have ever felt.
  • The time you felt the most proud of yourself.
  • The hardest decision you ever made.
  • The thing you loved most and lost.

Elements of a good monologue:

  • must start with a powerful opening line
  • we must care about the character telling the story (something about the character we can all relate to)
  • story must have conflict, or something exciting that happens
  • something must be at stake
  • satisfying ending (does not have to be happy, but must speak to the human condition)

If your group turns out to be very advanced, they could either perform scenes in pairs, or triads. Ideally, for this group, the scenes would be based on either the Story Gift stories, or on a separate prompt given by you. Feel free to contact me again if you get that far, and feel stuck for prompts. I would also suggest that the end of this mini-course includes a reflection on how theatre is relevant to society, and how telling our stories can shape and change our world.

Here are some contemplation questions:

  • Do each other’s stories have an influence on us?
  • If so, what impact do they have?
  • Did you learn anything new about your peers during this process?
  • Did you learn anything new about yourself? If so, what?
  • How does this relate to other areas of your life?
  • What is the importance of stories for our culture/society?

Please contact me for anything. It is a joy to be of help!


Resources: Guided Imagery and JourneysBag of Titles40 Pantomime Activities;