A Theater-as-Education Project Discourages Tobacco and Alcohol Use

By Bell-Ellison, Bethany A.; Forthofer, Melinda S. et al. | Middle School Journal, September 2009 | Go to article overview

A Theater-as-Education Project Discourages Tobacco and Alcohol Use


Bell-Ellison, Bethany A., Forthofer, Melinda S., McDermott, Robert J., Zapata, Lauren B., Nearns, Jodi L., Curran, K. T., Calkins, Susan A., Bryant, Carol A., Brown, Kelli R. McCormack, Middle School Journal


Theater has been used as an educational tool since the Great Depression era, and it is currently considered an effective tool for health promotion and reducing risk-taking behaviors among youth (Sequin & Rancourt, 1996; Starkel, 2001). For example, Emory University's EN-ACTE theater company, Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa's Acting Out! Teen Theater Troupe, and Atlanta's professional Alliance Theater address a range of contemporary adolescent health issues, including drug and alcohol use, unintended pregnancy, date rape, and HIV infection (Alliance Theater, 2007; Rangus, 2007; Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa, 2007).

Theater projects are well suited for communicating prevention messages to youth audiences because they can depict real-life settings and characters who can change during the performance in different ways as the story unfolds. Such character portrayals and settings can offer accurate health information, dispel myths, and illustrate important refusal skills and other preventative practices. These qualities may increase the likelihood that audience members will adopt prevention behaviors. Furthermore, because theater productions communicate health messages to many individuals simultaneously, these messages may become topics of future conversations in classrooms as well as outside school among peers and, possibly, parents and siblings at home. Finally, by simulating dialogue, live theater may help alter social norms regarding adolescent risk behaviors (Starkel, 2001).

Although theater-as-education may be effective for addressing a wide range of health and risk behaviors, previous programs that have used this strategy have experienced limitations. First, many programs fail to use a theoretical foundation, thereby ignoring principles that can be transferred to teaching and practice settings. Second, theater-as-education projects often lack systematic assessment of their impacts on audience attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, so the effects of these programs are not well documented. Last, many theater-delivered programs fail to employ a community-based process, which limits their contextual validity.

This article describes the development and assessment of the theater-as-education component of a prevention marketing campaign that addresses attitudes toward tobacco and alcohol use, the demonstration of refusal skills, and the clarification of norms regarding use of these products among young adolescents. This program addresses the limitations discussed above, and it provides a replicable model for developing a theater-as-education production for schools and communities to follow.

Sarasota County Demonstration Project

A coalition of professional and lay leaders in Sarasota County, Florida, collaborated with the Florida Prevention Research Center (FPRC) at the University of South Florida to conduct community-specific research on the local determinants of youth tobacco and alcohol use, and to develop, implement, and evaluate strategies to prevent youth from initiating use of these products. This initiative employed a framework known as Community-Based Prevention Marketing (CBPM), a community-directed social change process that applies marketing theories and techniques to the design, implementation, and evaluation of health promotion and disease prevention programs (Bryant, Forthofer, McCormack Brown, Landis, & McDermott, 2000). Using the results of the community-specific determinants research, the coalition developed a prevention marketing plan and multidimensional intervention strategies that became the Believe in All Your Possibilities prevention marketing campaign (Florida Prevention Research Center, 2007). One of the key strategies in the Believe in All Your Possibilities prevention marketing campaign was the creation and delivery of a theater production performed by youth.

Local development of theater-as-education

Data derived from youth, parents, and key community stakeholders (Figure 1) were the basis for the development and implementation of the local theater production and the overarching community-based prevention marketing campaign, Believe in All Your Possibilities. …

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