Dramatic Approach

October 01, 1995 8 min read

Two teenagers, a girl and boy, are seated next to each other on chairs. “So my friends and I were reading a magazine article about sex,’' the girl says awkwardly to her boyfriend, “and it said how you can get diseases if you don’t use a condom.’' She takes a deep breath. “So just to be safe, I think we should start using condoms.’'

“Why?’' the boy asks, astonished. “Have you had sex with anyone but me?’'

“Have you?’' she aims back.

“I know I’m safe,’' he responds cockily.

“But the article says . . .’'

“But if you love me . . .,’' he interrupts. “Anyway, it doesn’t feel right.’' The boy puts his arm gently around the girl and whispers, “Don’t you want us to keep sleeping together?’'

She hesitates. “OK,’' she sighs.

“Freeze,’' booms a voice from the group of teenagers sprawled on a pale green carpet in a tiny classroom at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Michael Rohd, a tall, lanky 28-year-old, springs to his feet. A former theater-arts teacher, Rohd now uses drama to educate teenagers in communities across the country about AIDS. “Is this real?’' Rohd asks the youngsters, pointing to the couple before them. Some nod their heads.

They’re right. Three out of four high school students have sexual intercourse by the time they reach the 12th grade, and less than half of those say they use latex condoms; one out of five say they’ve had more than four sexual partners.

These statistics are frightening. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AIDS is the sixth leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds. About one out of five people who develop AIDS in their 20s, the Surgeon General reports, were infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, during their teenage years.

Health educators agree that they must target prevention efforts at adolescents. The question is, how do you drive the appropriate message home to teenagers without alienating them or turning them off completely? Rohd thinks he has an answer, something he calls interactive theater, and he has built a national education program around it.

It works like this: Students watch dramatic scenarios presented by teenagers who have been specially trained by Rohd. At any time, those in the audience may stop the action if it doesn’t feel right or real to them. Rohd even encourages them to jump into a scene and explore an entirely different option--as one dark-haired girl in the audience at Children’s Hospital does.

“If you love me . . .,’' the young male actor begins again.

“If you love me, you won’t pressure me,’' the girl declares sharply. “I’m not getting a disease from you or anybody else. I don’t want to get pregnant.’'

“But sweetheart, I love you,’' he coos.

“I don’t care,’' she snaps.

The idea behind Rohd’s project, which he calls Hope Is Vital, is to teach teenagers all about AIDS--from how the virus is spread to how they can protect themselves. But even more, Rohd wants to get teenagers thinking about why they make the decisions they do and to give them skills they can call upon when a difficult situation arises. That is where the interactive-theater concept comes in.

“It puts kids in the position to see what they would do,’' explains Emily Hawkins, a D.C. 10th grader who has been trained by Rohd to lead workshops. “It gives them more ideas of how they can deal with the


Rohd believes interactive drama is a powerful teaching tool. “If education is about young people having experiences that allow them to learn,’' he explains, “then theater is a language that allows young people to shape their own experiences and share them so they can learn through them. Theater can be more powerful if it’s not about catharsis but instead about activation.’'

About half the students sitting on the floor in the Children’s Hospital classroom have received dramatic training from Rohd during a weeklong session. These youngsters go into schools and community facilities like this one and engage peers in interactive-performance workshops. While the focus of the workshops is always HIV and AIDS, other issues--violence, racism, substance abuse--naturally surface, and the program gives students the chance to explore them, as well.

On this particular day, the student-leaders are working with seven teens from a residential facility in nearby Virginia. Everyone sits in a big U around a makeshift set. As intended, these teens don’t just watch; they jump right into the action and create characters, too.

The student-actors bring something to the experience adults cannot, says Irene Addlestone, a health educator who coordinates Hope Is Vital workshops in the D.C. area. “Peer educators are very credible,’' she says. “They model stuff other kids can’t see every day. It’s wonderful to be able to see other kids being responsible sexually.’'

Teaching youngsters specifics about AIDS and HIV is also part of the program. So before the theater part of today’s session even begins, Addlestone asks the group a series of true-false questions. They are told to answer with a thumbs up or thumbs down. “Condoms offer 100 percent protection,’' Addlestone shouts, her own fist raised ready to put her thumb up or down. Most kids put it down, but a few aren’t sure. “Condoms can break,’' a student explains.

Rohd, who is sitting in on this session, says, “You can get HIV from oral sex.’' Some thumbs go up, but again, others aren’t sure. He points out that while the risk is less, it’s still there.

Later, Rohd explains that what he especially likes about Hope Is Vital is that it creates a safe space for students to discuss issues that can be uncomfortable in other settings. “Schools are supposed to be communities, but they aren’t always,’' he says. “Classrooms are supposed to be communities, but they aren’t always. And I think this kind of work allows kids a sense of community and a safe space where they can deal with things that are important to them.’'

It is the end of the day, and most of the students at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School bolt outdoors to enjoy the sunny afternoon. But eight high school students remain behind, playing what appears to be an indoor version of monkey-in-the-middle. While it looks like fun, the activity is really a theater exercise, one of many Rohd uses to get students focused.

This is day six of Rohd’s standard weeklong training session. The eight Lab School students have met each day after school for three hours. In addition, they attended an all-day session last weekend; another is scheduled for Saturday. “It requires a pretty big commitment,’' one student says, “but you get a lot more out of it than you put in.’'

As the students settle down after the exercises, Rohd grabs a piece of chalk and strokes out two columns, one headed “Yes’’ and the other “No,’' on a blackboard. He asks the students why kids might have sex and lists their responses. “Low self-esteem.’' “Peer pressure.’' “Curiosity.’' Then he asks why they might not. “Not ready.’' “Afraid of catching diseases.’' “Afraid of getting a reputation.’' After scrawling out 20 or so reasons, Rohd rubs the chalk dust off his hands on his faded Levi’s and asks each student to choose one of the reasons to have or not have sex and build a character around it. Tomorrow, he says, they will act out their characters’ “stories.’'

After Rohd gives the assignment, Kerry Catlin, an actor affiliated with a Chicago theater group, takes over. She has signed on to oversee the performance workshops the students will present at other area schools after their training is complete. Adult mentors like Catlin are an important part of the program. Because Rohd is the project’s only instructor, he is usually off to another city at the conclusion of each weeklong training session. It is up to the mentor, then, to keep the local project on track.

Rohd first launched Hope Is Vital four years ago at The Sidwell Friends School, an exclusive private school in Washington, D.C., where he taught drama. (The students he trained there later hooked up with peer educators from Children’s Hospital to form Teens Against the Spread of AIDS. Under the guidance of Addlestone, these students now conduct Hope Is Vital workshops in local schools and community facilities, like the one at Children’s Hospital.) After the 1993 school year, Rohd left Sidwell to take his program to communities around the nation. He knocked on schoolhouse doors--from Illinois to New Mexico to Oregon--passing out written materials, showing videos of his workshops, and generally pitching the value of his approach.

The program gradually caught on, as drama teachers and health educators invited him to spend a week or two at their schools. Over the past two years, he’s worked with groups of students in roughly 35 communities. To support his work, he asks schools to pay a small one-time fee--usually about $700 for one week of training--and to cover his travel and lodging expenses.

Theater is Rohd’s passion, and he decided early in his career that he wanted to use it to influence people, especially kids. But the last thing he wanted to do was preach. That’s why the interactive approach appealed to him; a message can be presented, but many different points of view heard.

He tells the story of a workshop he led that also included parents in the audience. A man stood up during a scene in which a young girl was telling her father that she was pregnant. The man, a father himself, argued vehemently that the girl couldn’t be pregnant because she wasn’t possibly old enough to be having sex. Rather than having him stand in the audience, Rohd asked the man to step in and “act’’ his views. “You can’t be having sex,’' he told the girl. “But I already did,’' she responded. What’s more, she was pregnant. The two characters took it from there. “He didn’t walk away a changed man,’' Rohd says, “but I think he thought a little bit, and we’d heard his point of view.’'

Many educators and students who have taken part in a Hope Is Vital session say it is a powerful experience, much more memorable than sitting in a classroom or auditorium and getting the facts. “When you’re involved,’' says Rachel Kravetz, a 10th grader and one of the students leading the Children’s Hospital session, “you’re more likely to listen. You’re doing something worthwhile.’'

Marshall Brown, her acting partner, nods his head in agreement. “When kids learn from someone their own age, they take it a whole lot more seriously,’' he explains. “I’m someone to talk to on their level. I’m a friend.’' He pauses for a moment and then cracks a smile. “Kids eat this up,’' he says.

--Jennifer Chauhan

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Dramatic Approach