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Productive Tension

In an article entitled "Productive Tension", Dorothy Heathcote wrote:


The main challenge is to create the binding circumstances that hold the group in the fictional world at a level of attraction that catches their interest. If the attraction holds, then the attention, interest, investment, commitment, concern and productive obsession will progressively deepen and widen the range of interaction. Involvement follows and promotes reflection about being human. (1)


Productive tension is "productive" because it creates the “bonding” in the group, in a particular situation.


In dramatic situations, tensions can include: “The danger named but not entirely controllable, e.g. unusual forces”; or, “Dangers known in advance and yet entered bravely, e.g. to find something and escape or release someone.” (1)

In Mantle and the Commission Model, productive tension comes primarily from an awareness of the client and their needs (the “client in the head”).

The unknown element


Dorothy stated: A simple working description of productive tension would be “leaving something in the situation to chance which cannot be controlled entirely”. This does not preclude planning in advance in case a particular element crops up. (1)


This is evident in this example of Dorothy working with a group of students in Canada, who wanted to do a drama about an attempted assassination on President Trudeau.

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Now you see, we're faced with the thing is: they want to save Trudeau, but they want the biggest risk to Trudeau. They’re going to have him killed, or attempted to be killed, at a public banquet. ... So you see, it was really a game of “murder”. We were there to protect Trudeau, and we couldn't tell him he was likely to be shot at; so we didn't know when it might occur. All we knew was, somebody was going to be a guest, and we'd have to spot that guest; and we couldn't do it by frisking people, it was pretty crude at a public dinner, with all the ministers, and all the different presidents of the different provinces, and so on and so on, you see. So the slow tension and build-up took days. (2)

Here is another example, from a drama about the death of Thomas Becket. The children had said: “It would be very frightening for Becket when he was praying and he heard these people coming behind, marching up”.


… and it all hinged on at what stage would he turn around. Now you see you don't need to turn around until you can't stand it anymore, was what I said to Becket. By also saying, “We are agreed he’s kneeling and are we agreed that the knights are walking - right well we've got all we need haven't we? You are going to go on going forward because you spotted who it is, he is going to try and go on praying until he can no longer bear it and then we'll see what happens.” The result is of course a moment of enormous significance because they know not to stop until something stops them and he knows not to turn around until he thinks he couldn't bear it any longer.

Afterwards, the boy playing Becket said: “Oh me heart nearly burst when I saw those four standing there”. Dorothy commented that she “didn't know what they were going to do” at that moment when Becket turned round; this was the “unknown”:

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What I did was make sure whatever happened would be significant and therefore they would be affected by the moment and so you see the child has a chance to, in that significant moment, make something of new significance that you'd no idea he'd do. I spend my time structuring to leave holes very carefully, so that people fill them with their own moment of discovery. (3)

Frame and Productive Tension

When Dorothy Heathcote worked with a group on a dramatic “crisis” event such as the story of the Good Samaritan, she did not make them direct participants in the event itself, but chose a “frame” or point-of-view which seemed more distant on the surface, but would draw them into the event.

The “frame” always included an element of “productive tension”, which involved the participants in the dilemma and gave them the responsibility for dealing with it.

Here is an example Dorothy gave of the “frame” of “guide” in a drama on the Good Samaritan. (The “guide” is someone who has seen the event and can tell you about it.)

The Good Samaritan to me is a horrendous tale. It is so evil. To get the full horror of what it must have been like - and bearing in mind that the whole place was under the heel of Rome. Roman soldiers were everywhere, supposedly keeping order around here, and these sorts of things could go on. And who would they sympathise with? And how would people see the Romans?

So I chose as my “guides,” shepherds who saw it, and realised that their hut had been used by the thieves. And they have seen it and know they have been seen seeing it. And that is really scary. ... They have found their hut has been invaded, they inadvertently see a man beaten and so on, and robbed, and know they have been recognised. “And men who would do that to him, and will use our few puny supplies, and possibly kill one of our sheep, will come back.” So when their [the shepherds’] wives come and say, “Why are you not home?”, they can tell of it. They saw. And they saw the priest and they saw a Levite, and they saw a Samaritan do this thing. But they know they were seen, and their lives won't be the same.

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Now do you see why you get closer to the horror of it? But of course, I had to invent a scenario. I had to invent people who could be the “guide”. ... Only people from afar [watching on the hill] could see all of it, and know that he was taken to an inn. Because from high up here, you can see it. But if you see it knowing you were seen, it's quite different, in terms of the tension. (4)

[(1) Dorothy Heathcote on Education and Drama: Essential Writings, ed. Cecily O'Neill, p.57; (2) From Video Series D: “Teacher intervention and strategies in the four levels of drama progression.” Dorothy Heathcote Archive, Birmingham City University; (3) “Dancing with a Whirl Wind,” interview with Tony Goode, in: Heathcote at the National, NATD publications, 1983; (4) From the unpublished transcript of training event for teachers at UCE, on 8 May 1992.]

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