Directing Teaching Drama

Drama is Transformative

Written by Lindsay Price

Episode 64: Drama is Transformative

Lindsay chats with Janae Dahl, owner and creator of The Drama Notebook – the World’s Largest Collection of drama activities for kids. We talk about the transformative nature of drama and why we desire to make drama teachers’ lives easier.

In this podcast we cover:

  • Why drama is transformative.
  • A voice projection game.
  • Encouraging teachers to devise theatre – don’t be scared!
  • Why it’s important to make drama teachers’ lives easier.
  • Where is drama in education going?


Show Notes

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Episode Transcript

Welcome to TFP, the Theatrefolk podcast. I am Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk. Hello, I hope you’re well, thanks for listening.

Today I talk to Janea Dahl, owner and creator of The Drama Notebook website – We’re part of a mutual admiration society Janea and I are as we both believe so strongly in the importance of drama in the classroom. This was a really lovely talk with a few drama games thrown in there and ending with a very important question – Where is drama in education going?

Here’s Janea!

Lindsay: Alright, so hello out there, our podcast listeners. I have the great opportunity to speak with lots of people in our field of drama and education, and it’s always awesome when one of them is willing to come on the podcast and talk to me. So today I have Janea Dahl, and she is from the Drama Notebook. Hi, Janea.

Janea: Hi, good morning.

Lindsay: Hi. Oh yes, you’re morning, we’re afternoon, because you guys are out of Portland, Oregon, right?

Janea: Yup.

Lindsay: Awesome. Has that always been out there? Have you been in West Coast through all your life?

Janea: I was actually born and raised in Portland, Oregon.

Lindsay: [Laughs] So you’ve never left. [Laughs]

Janea: I never left.

Lindsay: [Laughs] That’s okay. I’m an Ontario girl—Ontario, Canada—and I’ve never left here either, so. Some places you just never leave, right?

Janea: Well, it’s so beautiful here and, you know, it’s actually a really inspiring state in which to write because in any…if you go an hour and a half in any direction you can hit the ocean, the mountains, rivers, the desert. So we’ve got like everything within driving distance. And the state is just…I’m always in awe of how spectacular it is, you know, just in a short distance.

Lindsay: It’s totally on my list, my to-do list of places to go, so…

Janea: Come visit me. [Laughs]

Lindsay: …now you’ve made it even more interesting. I love that lots of different…textures is really the wrong word, but like nature textures. I think that’s really cool.

Janea: Yeah, different landscapes.

Lindsay: That’ll do. That’s a good word. Okay, so you are the creator, yes, of the Drama Notebook.

Janea: Yes.

Lindsay: Which is an online site, And you bill it as “the world’s largest collection of drama activities,” which is by far I think the most excellent subtitle.

Janea: [Laughs] Well, I can’t find anything bigger or better, so I’m just going to put that out there. [Laughs]

Lindsay: Well, why not? Absolutely. But the first thing I want to do is kind of start with you and what’s your theatre background, like let’s build up to where you are now, but where did you come from?

Janea: Yeah, well, I discovered theatre when I was a youngster and I actually went to college and got a theatre degree. I felt like that was just a really beautiful way to reach mankind, you know, in terms of telling a story onstage. I fell in love with the artistry of it. So I got my degree in theatre, and then I spent 12 years in professional theatre both as an actor/director. I really wanted to focus more on the playwriting and directing side of it, so I spent 12 years in that.

And then I got married and had a son and kind of fell away from it for a period of time, but then when my child, when my son hit first grade, I realized there was a remarkable lack of meaningful drama programming in the school system. And so I actually created a drama outreach organization that grew very quickly from six schools in our first term to over a hundred schools ultimately.

Lindsay: Wow, that’s awesome.

Janea: Yeah. Yeah, and I really felt it was important for youngsters to have access to, you know, not just a drama program but a drama program that was transformational by nature. So I ran that for eight years, and one interesting thing I did was I really wanted to support my teaching artists. I have 30 teaching artists—I had 30 teaching artists—and I felt like in order to give them a really high level of support, I will provide them with a notebookful of games and activities and little scripts that I wrote, and do you know that every teacher who came to work for me said…they just said, “Wow, nobody’s ever given me something like this. This is amazing.”

And so I kept writing and I just kind of did it out of the love that I had for the program and the kids and the teachers. So in the wee hours of the night and on the weekends and in the summer vacations I would be writing more stuff for them, and it eventually grew to be too large to even fit in a folder, so I created a really simple little secret website where they could log in and have access, you know, pick and open folders. And so it probably grew to over…it’s probably over 2500 pages now.

Lindsay: Wow. Over 2500 pages, that’s amazing.

Janea: I’m not going to attempt to count it anymore, Lindsay. [Laughs]

Lindsay: [Laughs]

Janea: I did in the beginning, but… So once, you know…then in 2008 I was kind of struggling a little bit with that business, you know, service business, serving all those schools. It sounds like it would be extremely lucrative but it really wasn’t, but I had a deep passion for what I was doing. So I started to think, “Hmm, how else can I serve the educators and kids?” And it occurred to me, “You know, if my own teachers appreciate this material, I wonder if teachers all over the world would appreciate it as well?” So I spent 18 months researching and developing membership websites and then formatting the bulk of my material and organizing it in such a way that it would be really easy for people to find exactly what they needed.

So it was a totally, you know, an unproven thing. I didn’t know. I was just going to put it out there. So I opened that about three years ago. I launched Drama Notebook online, and now we have over a thousand members worldwide. And I actually got to the point where I couldn’t handle running the outreach organization and also doing the…holding the website, so I sold my outreach organization to the local children’s theatre, and now they’re joyfully continuing the work. It quadrupled…

Lindsay: [Laughs]

Janea: Yeah, quadrupled their outreach and, you know, I love them, they love me, the work continues on, and now I’m free to just serve teachers with content, new material.

Lindsay: Why did you decide to…because the Drama Notebook is very much a comprehensive website as opposed to a single ebook. And why did you decide, “Let’s make it a website for members,” as opposed to something like a book to sell? Why that particular platform?

Janea: Um, mostly because it was working in practice in my own, you know, with my own organization that teachers—one of the things that I really encourage teachers to do was to work with an individual group of kids and meet their needs and do the things that they were very passionate about, which meant having access to a huge amount of material that they could pick and choose was more advantageous than handing them a book and saying, “Here, do this.”

Lindsay: Yeah.

Janea: Because as a teacher, I would say 50% of the equation is offering something that you personally are excited about.

Lindsay: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Janea: And my teachers loved the idea that I said, “Look, you’re overqualified to do this, so I’m just going to empower you to do what’s right for the kids,” rather than telling them what to do. Plus, I don’t know if you’ve ever brought a book that’s 2500 pages. Is there a book that’s…? [Laughs]

Lindsay: [Laughs]

Janea: The shipping alone, you know? [Laughs] So that said, I have also been contracted with Kaplan Early Learning to custom-create nine-week lesson plans that do say, “This is what you do within each hour, every single week for nine weeks.” And I’ll be adding a store before the end of the year that has 10 of those. They’re all themed. So if you’re a teacher who does want to just, you know, be told that like you can pick a theme like Monsters and Nightmares or Ye Olde Village or Around the World in Stories, so you can still pick one that appeals to you but the work is already spelled out and the lesson planning is completely done.

Lindsay: I find that the access at fingertips is one of the most useful things for teachers because they just don’t have the time, you know? If we can provide like lesson plans, for example, they’re going to put it into practice – they just need a place to find it, right?

Janea: Oh, absolutely. And they can relax and have fun and feel like an expert is guiding their hand because there’s also freedom for them to toss in whatever else wild or crazy thing they want to do.

Lindsay: Where does your material come from for your exercises?

Janea: Well, originally—I’m friends with Gary Schwartz who is…and he lives in my area, and he was Viola Spolin’s protégé.

Lindsay: Oh, okay.

Janea: So, originally, a lot of it was Spolin-inspired work. And I actually got on the phone with him and said, “Hey, do you mind if I transposed a lot of this?” and he said, “No, absolutely.” Viola would call him mensch, which I thought that was a bad word. [Laughs] So I got his permission. And then, originally it was just all those improv games that sort of flowed out in the universe that no one person in particular has ownership of, and we all make it into something else.

So that’s what was the beginning of Drama Notebook, but I’m just super-creative so I just started making things up and giving it to my teachers. And I was teaching myself, so I had a lot of opportunity to try new things. And I don’t know, I just feel like my stream of creativity is endless. Just when I think I can’t come up with another idea, 10 more pop in. I don’t know if that happens—that happens to you too, huh?

Lindsay: You know what? It’s when you channel…I find when you can channel it into a specific focus where you’re just not sort of flinging ideas everywhere, but focus is what makes creativity endless for me. And I think the same for you, because you’re just focused on the coming up of exercises.

Janea: Yeah, yeah. Just when I…like for example, if I need to teach voice projection—everybody knows about Bear in the Back Row where you put three bears and you have the kids…three bears in the audience – one close, one in the middle, and then one far away, and then the kids have to project loud enough for the bear in the back row to hear them. Well, I get tired of using that same old thing, so I’ll just like think to myself, “How else can I make a voice projection game?”

And I came up with one that’s…it’s called What, and it’s a little old man…one kid plays a little old man working at a candy store and the other kid is a customer. So the kid comes in and Child Number Two has to ask for a specific kind of candy. The old man is hard of hearing, so he has to say, “What?” And then the person has to say, you know, “May I have a Hershey bar, please?” “What? I can’t hear you.” “May I have a Hershey bar, please?” So by the third one they’re really projecting their voice, and then the kids switch and the little kid becomes the old man and a new customer comes in.

Lindsay: Awesome.

Janea: I just made it up, you know? [Laughs]

Lindsay: When you come up with something new, do you test it? Do you take it to some kids and go, “Here, try this?” What’s your process?

Janea: Well, because I taught for myself for eight years, now I know whether something is going to work or not, so I don’t always test it. I just know it’s going to work, Lindsay. And then, I made up that game, set it out, you know, put it out there for all my teachers, then I went and taught a class and I thought, “Oh, I’m going to try out that game that I made up,” and the kids loved it. They wanted to play it all day long.

Lindsay: [Laughs] And work on their voice projection at the same time.

Janea: Yeah.

Lindsay: It’s a win-win.

Janea: I mean, really, I am 47 going on 7. I know what kids like, you know? [Laughs]

Lindsay: [Laughs] Do you think that’s why your exercises mainly focus on K to 8? Do you think that’s why that’s your primary focus in terms of the Drama Notebook?

Janea: Yes. I have a personal joy for it. Yes, absolutely. And I don’t have a lot of experience teaching high schoolers. That said, in the near future I am collaborating with someone who is very highly specialized in that and she’s going to help me develop fresh, original stuff for high school teachers. And they also have a lot of—let’s face it, drama games work from ages 4 to 90.

Lindsay: Absolutely.

Janea: So I have plenty of high school teachers who say, “I absolutely love your site. I get so much out of it,” and I would like to provide them with more.

Lindsay: Awesome. Well, keep us apprised of when your high school stuff becomes available. We’d absolutely love to share that.

Janea: Absolutely.

Lindsay: Okay. And what is the number one thing that drama teachers are looking for you think when they come to your site?

Janea: Well, I would say a lot of teachers have been asked to teach drama and they’ve never done it before…

Lindsay: Right.

Janea: …and so that, I’m very good at taking somebody from knowing absolutely nothing to feeling competent and excited and enthusiastic in I would say an hour and a half. Based on an hour and a half on my site, they’re going to feel really good, and then they can keep going from there.

The other kind of teachers who tend to gravitate to my site are…they’re real burned out. They’ve got their same old books and their same old go-to activities and they’re just not feeling inspired. But because I have so many things that I created with my teaching artists and refined and worked on over the years and I keep making new stuff, they go on and they see things they’ve never seen before and it reignites the passion for what they do.

Lindsay: Isn’t that a cool thing when you can do that for someone?

Janea: Oh, I love getting the email from a teacher who said she was actually not going to teach that year, then she stumbled on my site and now she’s all excited all over again. It just warms my heart.

Lindsay: I think more than anything, I think teaching is one of the most difficult jobs. I’m only in the classroom, you know, as a guest artist. So I come in and I’m something special and I get the kids on their best behavior, and I know just by talking to teachers just how difficult it is day to day to day to day and how much more it is than just giving information. So I think we’re both on the same page where when we can make a teacher’s life easier it’s a wonderful feeling.

Janea: Yes, and I’m glad that you brought that up because yes Drama Notebook is a business, yes it makes money, but at the very deepest core of my being I desire to serve and uplift those people who are doing this incredibly meaningful work in the world. And really, igniting children’s imaginations and bringing them together through music, stories and dance is a world-changing endeavor. And so I actually feel very deeply honored that I can be a part of making their lives easier and inspiring them and having a hand in what they’re doing.

Lindsay: Earlier you talked about how you wanted to start a program that makes drama transformational. Do you think that’s why, because it is sort of world-changing element?

Janea: Well, I imagine that absolutely yes. And I imagine…my own personal experience with drama was that it took me so deeply into a place of self-acceptance and then a feeling of really belonging. And this is like a way to be a human being, not just an actor, but it’s a way for us to…theatre provides a way for us to connect on a deeply human level and to imagine a different world. We can actually change the terrible things that are happening in this world if we tap into, as Einstein said, “Imagination’s more important than knowledge.” So I look at a kid who comes into my drama program, I’m not going to try to make them an actor. I am going to try to help them feel really good about themselves, their relation to others and their ability to share their creativity.

Lindsay: Well, that would be transformational, I think.

Janea: Yeah, so there’s a deeper level…you know, my intention is to have a deeper-level impact, and on the surface it looks really fun but I desire to have a hand in changing the world.

Lindsay: I think drama games at their core are really the most important skill-building activities that kids can learn, for all the reasons that you just said, you know, that…I mean, to give a kid self-confidence, to give a kid an outlet for finding how to be creative when all they’ve been told their whole life is that you’re not creative or you can’t act, you can’t…all the “stereotypes” of what theatre and drama is, when in actual fact it’s all of those games that give them the skills that will make them successful.

Janea: Oh yeah, Here’s where we start preaching to the choir. [Laughs]

Lindsay: [Laughs]

Janea: And your last podcast was all about how drama games and theatre specifically address executive functioning of the brain and how it absolutely relates to, you know, like the mandates and the standards. It totally speaks to that. Kids learn collaboration, innovative thinking, the ability to synthesize to concepts…

Lindsay: All of the standards that they’re supposed to be learning, like the core curriculum standards. I can’t thinking…of course we’re biased…

Janea: [Laughs]

Lindsay: …but I can’t think [laughs] of a better place to learn them than in a drama class, you know?

Janea: I know, and then they use the arts program. They’ll put under a broad sweeping, you know—the arts are very important, but specifically theatre because theatre incorporates visual art, dance, music, and literacy, you know? It’s all in the one art form. It’s so amazing.

Lindsay: I know. [Laughs]

Janea: [Laughs]

Lindsay: It’s you and me. We’re just basically going…we’re just ping-ponging about how much…

Janea: Patting each other on the back. [Laughs]

Lindsay: [Laughs]

Lindsay: “No, you’re so good.” “No, you’re so good.” “Oh, we’re so good.” Okay, okay. So all around this, do you have a…what’s your favorite…and I know you have 2500 pages, but do you have a favorite activity that you just see kids shine at, that just makes you, you know…

Janea: Hmm. That is so hard. That’s unfair.

Lindsay: I’ll bet.

Janea: That’s unfair.

Lindsay: Okay.

Janea: But I will tell you this: The favorite thing that I have on Drama Notebook is a lot of encouraging teachers to do what’s called the devised show, and this is by the way part of the reason that I love your work because yes you have a script, but you have this beautiful ability to do…create an ensemble piece that’s very artistic and has room for all kinds of different interpretations. So I am not a big fan of learning by rote, learning song and dance steps and putting 120 kids on stage at once and cramming them into a production that’s stressful for everyone. So I’m a huge advocate of device theatre, and a lot of teachers are really scared of it because it means…

Lindsay: Yes.

Janea: …it means that you’re going to make up your own show, but I have a lot of really solid instructional materials that show you exactly how to put on a devised show and how to pick your theme, and then I even have a whole list of probably over 100 themes in case you’re, you know, not…[laughs] in case you’re not feeling creative. By the time you skim through that list you’ll start feeling creative.

Then the other thing that I have on Drama Notebook that I’m super-excited to offer is they’re called Print and Play Games. So let’s say—you know that game Bucket or Lines in a Pocket?

Lindsay: Yes.

Janea: Okay. So for those in the listening audience who don’t know, two people onstage improvising a scene, and then all of a sudden the director calls out “line” and the kid pulls a line, an arbitrary line, out of his pocket, something like, “Oh my goodness, did you notice that turtle behind you?” or you know, some weird arbitrary line and they have to work it in. Well, usually you just read the description of that and have to make up the lines yourself, but on Drama Notebook I’ve got…it says Fifty Print and Play but I think it’s 75 now…

Lindsay: Wow.

Janea: …where you just print out the list and cut it apart and you’re done. You don’t have to think of all the lines.

Lindsay: Well, this goes right nicely into a couple of things on your site which I love. I love your…first of all, anything that any teacher can print off I’m down with. So that your Ten Essential printables page with the, you know…

Janea: Lists and…yeah.

Lindsay: Lists. Occupations, objects, but not only that – like here’s a list of objects, and then here are the games you can play, the exercises you can do. And my favorite is your…it’s the showing a character through costuming…the shoe game where you mime, “I’m putting on a pair of shoes,” and it all of a sudden transforms into a character.

Janea: Uh-huh.

Lindsay: So it’s very practical and show, which was…that’s all we want to do in theatre, is teach kids to show instead of tell.

Janea: Uh-huh.

Lindsay: That’s my number one playwriting pet peeve, “Show me. Don’t tell me, show me.” And to all of a sudden, you know, you put on a pair of ballerina slippers and you can show a character and abouthow costuming affects character, and I think that’s just fabulous.

Janea: Yeah, and that game, so I just came up with the concept because I got a new pair of shoes and I had a shoebox sitting there and I was like, “Hmm, what game can we play with a shoebox?” And so I thought, “Okay, take a list of shoes, print it out, cut it apart, put it in the shoebox, and put the shoebox in the middle of the circle and each kid comes up and they draw, you know, like rubber boots or ballerina slippers like you said. And then they have to…they read it silently to themselves and then pantomime it, and everybody else has to guess what the pair of shoes were. And then, yes, then you can extrapolate it further and go into developing a character based on that and then little skits, yeah.

Lindsay: Yeah, I love it. Okay, so as we’ve been…we’ve been chatting away, so as we sort of wrap up here, where do you think drama and education is going?

Janea: Well, I’m hoping that the powers that be start to really pay attention. And you know there is that movement, The Partnership for the 21st Century—that’s in the United States anyway—where business leaders and educational leaders are getting together to encourage putting all the arts back in the programming because they’re realizing that they’re not getting innovators. Our education system isn’t providing like…pfft…churning out, you know, into the workforce people who have, like I said before, the ability to synthesize to concepts, collaborate, innovate, and they’re recognizing that the arts is the number one way to do that.

Lindsay: Is that true? Is that something that’s really…because that’s a fantastic concept if that’s actually happening.

Janea: Oh yeah, it’s

Lindsay: That’s fantastic.

Janea: Yeah.

Lindsay: Well, because we, you know, with standardized testing it’s teaching kids to learn by rote, which is a lower level of thinking. Like we want, as you just said, we need the higher order of thinking, which is creativity, synthesis, analyze, you know.

Janea: Oh yeah, it’s a legitimate movement. Charles Fadel is a big proponent of that and he wrote a whole book on it. So I’m hoping that those of us who have selflessly and tirelessly kept the arts alive in the schools pretty much at our own expense will finally have our day and be recognized for being the brilliant people that we are. [Laughs]

Lindsay: And that everyone will come to our…they will fall to their knees in front of us and genuflect and say, “Oh my gosh, you were right all along. It’s really the arts.”

Janea: [Laughs] Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Lindsay: Yeah, it would be amazing. I’m not sure that’s going to happen but, you know, the thing is that at some point, hopefully, we’re all going to be on…this is going to be on the wrong side of history, you know, that this learning by rote and that the way that students now are thinking is surpassing what is being given to them and that at some point they’re going to stand up and say, “I don’t want to be taught like this.” When that happens, and actually when those people who are in school now start to be getting to positions of power, hopefully they will look at what’s all around and go, “This is not the way this has to be. We need thinkers.”

How do we create thinkers? I’m not sure. I don’t know how much I—I’m going to go with you. I’m going to go with the…that I hope that that’s our future.

Janea: There are some pretty fierce debates around assessment now and how exactly they…because you can’t test for the kind of brilliance that theatre teaches. There isn’t…

Lindsay: I know.

Janea: It’s not multiple choice. [Laughs]

Lindsay: No. Well, and it’s all growth. It’s like, how do you assess growth? Because, well, that’s what happens in a classroom. I mean, you can certainly…I’ve seen it, you know. You see a change in a student from day one of class and then day 100 of class.

Janea: Oh, huge, huge. And the parents and their children’s regular classroom teachers tell me, “I can’t believe what a big difference I saw.” Like for example, you know, I have a kid who would never like answer questions in class before she took drama, and then she just suddenly started participating in all of the discussions.

Lindsay: I know. I just find it…again, we’re preaching to the choir and we’re biased, but I think it’s a good bias and I think it’s really important. It’s important to say over and over and over again because that’s I think the only way people will hear how important this is for students.

Janea: Yes, and those of us who are actually doing the work know it, and we will just continue doing what we do because we know that we’re making a huge difference.

Lindsay: And we’re rock stars.

Janea: And we’re rock stars, woo-hoo! [Laughs]

Lindsay: [Laughs] Oh, this has been so lovely. I’m so glad that we had a chance to talk here on completely different sides of the continent, and I have…let me just say this again: This is the, all one word, and you also have…is Drama Notebook on Facebook as well?

Janea: Uh-huh. Oh yeah, I post a free daily drama game every school day, and a lot of them are things that I just made up, so it’s inspiring and fun.

Lindsay: Join Drama Notebook on Facebook to get your free daily game. And I also noted on your website that there is a free seven-day trial, so this is not something that you have to jump into willy-nilly – you can go and see the fantastic stuff for yourself.

Janea: Yeah, and from there it’s only 10 bucks a month and you join for as long as you’re teaching and cancel when you’re done and come back and tell your friends. So I try to make it really affordable for people too, because I know educators are not the richest people on the planet.

Lindsay: Absolutely fantastic. Oh Janea, it was so good to talk to you, and thank you very much.

Janea: Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, Lindsay. This has been delightful.

Lindsay: Awesome.

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Music credit: “Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

About the author

Lindsay Price