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“A Thousand Voices in the Head”: Teacher-in-Role

One of the key building blocks in drama teaching, for Dorothy, is the use of “sign.” In the book Drama for Learning (co-written with Gavin Bolton), she writes:

… of course the main source for authentic SIGNing comes from the teacher. With the position of an actor the teacher adopts appropriate body attitude, gesture, tone of voice, style of delivery, distance, pitch, choice of vocabulary, deliberate uncertainty or confidence, deliberate vagueness or precision.

At the Interactive Research Conference at UCE in 1976, Dorothy asked delegates to consider how trainee teachers could be prepared to use the “building blocks” of drama - for example, “teacher-in-role”:

How can you help a person who doesn't feel they’ve got a dramatic “bent”? Who’s never been terribly interested in how theatre works but enjoys being beguiled? Any why shouldn’t they? How can you teach people to have a thousand voices in their heads? Because that is one of the skills. To hear voices: to hear pitch and tone, and vocabulary and intention, and the voice. So that the voice is an instrument played in the room. And I spend my life trying to think how - what else can I try? So you don't know how the voice will become, but you know the intention the voice must have.

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And then you gradually realise you've got six you can summon, and there’s another dozen you can fight for, and there's another 30 you could make a small attempt at.


My “fairy” voice is terribly underdeveloped. I try ever so hard. I really could, you know, if I really [tried] - but I can't quite. Though I have been a little red elf once in North Carolina, totally convincingly, because the children were kind. I think that's my top moment on “little elves.”

Role Conventions

This is from an unpublished paper which Dorothy wrote on teacher-in-role, and the importance of “edging in”:

There are gradations in role function which will be designed into the work by the leader participant. In other words we can “edge in” to role work. We do not have to provide fully activated representations which the theatre naturally requires, because audiences expect to see actors living out their roles fully in now, immediate time.

Thus “edging in” circumstances are absolutely essential if teachers are fully to exploit the potential of role work for learning.

I find these are rarely discussed and demonstrated in teachers’ own accounts of classroom work, so it is these “tunnellings” into full role I should like to explore

[The first “tunnel” involves a shift in teacher language, to start to talk in “now” time.]

The next tunnel involves the task becoming “imaged” in some way[;] blackboard (infinitely more useful than whiteboards ... which are in process of superseding them), charts, group drawing, assembling and reassembling to name a few of the many tasks we can invent to suit purpose/s.

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The next involves some limited demonstration to be influenced by the group who begin to “own” it, to recognise their influence in creating the role. The demonstration will be only verbal at first, then some entry of deliberate signing in gesture and demeanour, gradually more firmly demonstrating attitude, social stance [etc.] …

All these tunnellings build belief and are often perceived as deliberately delaying “getting started”! They conform to [Jerome] Bruner's stages of exploring for understanding:


- iconic (the drawing, plans, images, made public to all); 

- symbolic (using words to represent); 

- experience (behaving “as if.”)

Here is an example of “edging in” from Dorothy’s work. 

In a drama with the class of 6-year olds at the Herbert Strutt School in Belper, Dorothy introduced a teacher in role as George Herbert Strutt.

The teacher was introduced first as himself.

There was a portrait of Strutt, hanging on the wall.

The children arranged the teacher in costume, to represent Mr Strutt.

He was posed as a “portrait,” modelled on the actual portrait on the wall.

Then, the “portrait” came to life. The children spoke to him as if he was now in their “time”; they asked him, “What is it you've come for?”

These steps not only give the children ownership over the role and the drama; they build the idea of the Other in their mind.

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