Using Live Theatre Combined with Role Playing and Discussion to Examine What At-Risk, Adolescents Think about Substance Abuse, Its Consequences, and Prevention

Article excerpt


The Chicago-based Music Theatre Workshop's (MTW) Under Pressure Program is an innovative communication-centered approach for involving Chicago elementary and high school students in considering the problems and prevention of substance abuse. The centerpiece of the program is a thirty-minute live professional contemporary musical play: Captain Clean. The play centers on a group of teenagers working on a summer job, dealing with the pressures of living in divorced families, with alcoholic parents and drug abusing peers, and the pressure to get ahead financially by dealing drugs. The play was written after six months of research aimed at capturing the language and concerns of local teenagers. The characters in the play, based on a composite of the teens interviewed, reveal closely held secrets to the audience. Their revelation of vulnerability aims at opening up the audience's own thoughts and emotions. After the play, extensive structured post-performance dialogue and role playing are incorporated in order to explore the pressures and feelings of adolescents in regard to substance abuse. The findings reported here represent one part of an ongoing multifaceted research project. The focus is on what a group of adolescents, judged to be at risk for substance abuse, reported about their thoughts concerning issues related to drug use, its consequences, and prevention.

In an earlier examination of the Under Pressure Program (Safer & Harding, 1993), statistical analysis revealed that students who participated in the Captain Clean presentation displayed positive attitudinal growth, while a comparison group of students who did not experience the prevention program demonstrated no change. A conclusion of this study was that "there is no doubt that theatre provides an exciting form of teaching. The Under Pressure Program seems capable of doing what the school curriculum and many teachers cannot, that is, involve the students, interest them in the topic of substance abuse, lead them to see its revelance to the world around them, and motivate them to learn more," (Safer & Harding, 1993, p. 147). This follow-up study proposes that the teaching method of live theater engages adolescents in a way that not only enables them to change their way of thinking and behaving, but enables the adults in their lives (including teachers, parents, and researchers) to find out more about the way adolescents experience life and think about issues that are important to them.

Related Research

In recent years, educators have been increasingly interested in the role of the media in combatting the glamorization of drugs and drug use. Researchers continue to debate whether the media can provide knowledge or change beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Within the last fifteen years, theatrical performances and the media have been used in alcohol and drug prevention programs with more or less effectiveness. One criterion for success appears to be the combination of discussion and active participation with the media event. For example, Johnson and Ettema (1982) found that children who discussed a television program after viewing it, exhibited more changes than those who did not. Flay (1986) also concluded that without post-viewing discussion, "mass media programs are usually not effective." Studies specific to theater have also noted similar findings. A study conducted by Glickman (1983) of students who participated in an alcohol prevention program that used live theater and post-performance discussion had positive results. Safer and Harding (1993) found that students who actively participate in a musical theater substance abuse prevention program demonstrated a significantly more positive attitude at post-test than at pretest, while a comparison group of students who did not experience the program demonstrated no change.

What is it about an adolescent's active participation and discussion of events such as a theatrical production that leads to attitudinal change and positive growth? …