The Epiphany in Process Drama and Language Learning

Patrick Pheasant

To Cite this Article

Pheasant, P. (2015). The Epiphany in Process Drama and Language Learning. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 2.


As process drama and TESOL practitioners, we are often witness to the eureka effect – those aha! moments in the classroom, when the students have a breakthrough in their language learning as a result of their participation in process drama. This research aims to develop a deep understanding of these peaks of heightened aesthetic engagement in the classroom; explore what they are, why they occur and how they contribute to learning. Using process drama pedagogy in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), research at the University of Sydney Centre for English Teaching explores how students in and out of role become aesthetically engaged, how the eureka effect impacts their learning experience and the implication of such engagement on language learning, intercultural competence and transformation. A facilitator with experience in using process drama art form and TESOL pedagogy is video recorded conducting three workshops over three weeks with ten adult international students studying at the university. Phenomenography is used to crystallise the aesthetic engagement occurring in the dramas. Three key moments are further investigated through video recall, interview and analysis to explore the development of intercultural competence and the resultant transformation. Several teaching and learning techniques and strategies emerge that promote aesthetic engagement, such as teacher in role, scaffolding and play-building. Metaxis, metacognition and meta-emotion are determined to be key catalysts in process drama for deeper learning and developing intercultural competence. Conclusions are made about the transformative nature of process drama in language learning and the true nature of the eureka effect.


Process drama, aesthetic engagement, TESOL, English language, ESL, metaxis, metacognition, meta-emotion, phenomenography, eureka effect, aha! moment, dual state awareness, language learning, intercultural competence, transformation, drama education, dramatic tension, drama pedagogy.

Research Context and Questions

Language educators are drawn towards the power of process drama to teach languages. Simultaneously, experienced drama facilitators recognise the importance of language, acknowledging in their dramas the responsibility they have in the development of students’ communicative, global and intercultural competencies. Recent research in dramatic techniques in language learning focuses on drama techniques used in the classroom by English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. Studies in using drama in the language learning classroom show students generally enjoy the experience more and retain language learnt during dramatic activities for a longer period (Anderson, 2008, Catterall, 2002, Hui, 1997, Wagner, 1988, Winner and Hetland, 2000). There is some research into affective learning in the drama classroom and how drama fulfils socio-affective requirements of language learners and improves the students’ experience (Haseman, 1991, Lui, 2002, O’Toole, 1992). There is limited research in the mechanics, dynamics and poetry of the aesthetic experience during process drama in language learning.

As process drama and language learning practitioners, we are often witness to aesthetic engagement – a precursor to those “aha!” moments in the classroom. Also known as the Eureka Effect, this is when the students have a breakthrough in their language learning as a result of their participation in process drama. Research has shown that the aha! moment has positive effects on memory, problem solving and idea or thematic conceptualisation (Auble, Franks, & Soraci, 1978; Danek, Fraps, Muller, Grothe, & Ollinger, 2012). Drama researchers have explored aesthetic engagement in process drama (Bundy, 2003, Bowell and Heap, 2010, Stinson and Freebody, 2006, Piazzoli, 2011) and it is a well-described state of being. What is not so well described is the actual Eureka Moment in aesthetic engagement – a heightened state of being likened to an epiphany.

This paper aims to develop further understanding of these peaks of heightened aesthetic engagement in process drama and language learning classrooms; explore what they are, why they occur and how they contribute to learning. Using process drama pedagogy in teaching English to speakers of other languages, we can explore how students become aesthetically engaged and the implication of such engagement on language learning.

This research was conducted at the Centre for English Teaching at the University of Sydney in Australia. The following question was investigated.

What is the nature of student aesthetic engagement in learning English as a second language through process drama?

The workshops were designed according to feedback and principles from experts on process drama methodology to ensure maximum opportunities for aesthetic experience and engagement. Research and guides for teachers exploring drama as a teaching methodology were drawn upon in the design and specific process drama conventions were scheduled to ensure use of these in the workshop (Neelands and Goode, 2000). A published process drama was used in the program to enhance reliability and validity in the design (Bowell and Heap, 2001). Incorporating the theme of the Australian Goldrush in 1850, the process drama narrative begins in Victorian London, enrolling students as potential immigrants bound for Australia hoping to find gold. The first workshop was based around leaving London for a new country. The second workshop was set on board the ship “Balengeich” during a storm resulting in the loss of a passenger, the fictional character “Little Johnny”. The third workshop was based in Sydney and the goldfields of Ballerat where the participants find gold. This process drama was chosen because of the parallels to the journey international students undertake in choosing to study English in Australia.

An experienced process drama facilitator was sourced to conduct the workshop. Extra drama activities were incorporated throughout the process drama to allow for reflection, feedback and deconstruction. The workshop program was videoed from three angles and classes observed by the researcher. Students and facilitator were asked to identify exactly when, during the process drama, they observed a heightened sense of emotion, engagement, connection, animation or awareness. These are considered components of aesthetic engagement (Bundy, 2003). These moments were then triangulated with the observations of the researcher to further identify the key aesthetic experiences of the student. Students were asked to write out-of-role reflective journals after each workshop. They were invited to attend video recall sessions after the last workshop. The teacher was also interviewed after each workshop. From here, multiple reiterations of data analysis were made from a phenomenographical perspective. Transcriptions were made of the workshops and video recall. Three key moments, one in each workshop were intensely analysed, coded and recoded. The final key moment in the last workshop was explored from the perspective of each participant.

Analysis of the process drama workshops was made through four different lenses or perspectives of process drama: pedagogy and art form, engagement, dual state awareness and transformation. These are conceptualised in Figure 1.


Figure 1

It was hypothesised that in order for students to experience aesthetic engagement, they would need to have an understanding of the art form of drama and a sense of the process of adult learning. This paper first explores this perspective and then moves towards defining aesthetic engagement in the context of the workshops. Analysis is made of the teacher and student behaviours before, during and after each key moment. Specific drama forms are identified as key catalysts for aesthetic engagement, affecting the quality and quantity of the language used by participants. Finally, tension, role and narrative are explored as major mechanisms and a framework for how these three dramatic components interact is presented.

Process Drama as Art Form

Process drama as an art form in the context of this research refers to techniques that employ elements of drama to engage and make meaning for students through the art form to heighten aesthetic engagement. At an elemental level, these are exercises that leverage the components of drama: focus, tension, space, mood, contrast, symbol and role (Haseman and O’Toole, 1987). At a more complex level these are specific genres such as extended improvisation, role-play and play-building. Data analysis of the three workshops revealed the following demonstrations of manipulation of the art form by participants, most notably use of tension, manipulation of role and characterisation.

Use of tension

The manipulation of tension was undeniably the most powerful tool demonstrated by the participants in moments of aesthetic engagement. Dramatic tension is the glue that binds the teacher and students to the art form. It is also the most difficult to manage. Too much tension and the teacher alienates the students and causes them to retract and not take further risks in the drama and in the classroom. Too little tension and the process drama can be boring and meaningless for the student. Excellent process drama facilitators manage tension and utilize it to their advantage.

There are many types of tension in dramatic art forms – tension of character, relationships, task, time and surprise. Understanding these elements and how to create them is paramount. The facilitator used activities such as countdowns to create tension of task. A simple countdown to performance or role-play built tension for the students and developed focus. The teacher in the workshops used this often – a technique learned from teaching high school students. It also worked with adults to pull focus and raise energy before performance.

Surprises worked well to raise tension. In the drama, there was a message in a bottle found at sea from another ship that introduced new text and information. Gold nuggets were hidden throughout the room to be found in the goldfields. These surprises introduced new elements to the drama to reenergize the narrative, the students and the language used.

Polarizing and incrementing are two further techniques that were identified to build tension. Polarizing refers to adding polar emotions to the students’ characterisation in turn to create extremes and allow students to experience opposite ends of a character. For example, students were asked to mime first the positive things they would hope to find in Australia on their journey. This was counterbalanced with a consecutive mime developing the things they would miss – the negative aspects of the journey. This worked well in developing the character space of the drama.

Sounds were used to build belief and tension. The teacher used soundscapes to create the sea and non-verbal utterances, sighs, breath and screams to create tension. This was first introduced to students in warm ups through games and reinforced during later soundscapes. A tambourine and bells also pulled focus and added tension to the student play-building.

Teacher in role

In addition to changing the power differential and empowering the students, the process of teacher-in-role shifted and changed the direction of the drama and added believability to the narrative. The teacher created a likable character – the Ship Captain – and developed this over the three workshops. She added an accent and often expressed her concern and care for the participants in the drama and on the ship. Students liked her and this enabled them more in the drama. They really wanted to go to Australia on that ship and also felt sorry for her when she expressed remorse at losing a member overboard during the storm. Her status was also important. Although the teacher was in a position of authority as the Ship Captain, she appeared kind and humble. She made sure to ask questions of each student and used positive active listening reinforcement to acknowledge their emotions and thought-tracking. The teacher also played other characters – the shadowy character of the Town Crier telling Londoners about an opportunity to find gold in Australia and the old Gold Digger in Sydney upon arrival who whispered about possible gold in Ballerat, Bendigo or perhaps Adelaide. These characters moved the drama forward but presented opportunities for the students to add to the narrative and contribute to the story.

The teacher managed moving in and out of role through use of a prop, a change in voice and accent, change in use of space or by a sound device like a bell. Students very quickly switched roles too with these cues, changing from the student role out of character and to characters in the drama.

Writing in role

Writing in role is a powerful tool in process drama. It is also an important element to include for second language learners. Students experimented with different genres depending on the situation or context of that point in the process drama. Before they left for London in the drama students wrote excited informal letters to their family. After the death of Little Johnny at a storm at sea, students wrote poetic forms expressing deep emotion and sympathy. Writing in role also broke up the tension of the drama and allowed for reflection. The teacher was able to take a moment’s rest and consider the next stage of the process drama. Students were also able to rest and think inwardly. These moments of reflection enhanced the motivation behind the writing and enabled the students to reach for more complicated language and be exposed to the different forms.

Pinning their diaries onto a world map on the classroom wall after the students had finished the drama was a way to validate their own feelings and expression. Placing the writing samples on the map was a symbolic and powerful way to acknowledge the writing and to also keep track of the narrative (the world journey of the ship) and visualize their journey.

Characterisation and play-building

This was an on-going and cyclic process of introducing piece-by-piece parts of the character for the students and getting deeper with their stories and belief in their characters. The process of characterisation resembles the cyclic process of learning language. Each time the cycle of learning is repeated, the students go deeper into their character and use more complex and difficult language.

The teacher used open questioning techniques to elicit the students’ ideas about their characters’ situation. This was then repeated by asking deeper questions about motivation and history. Accessing the character initially through kinesics, the teacher asked students to express character emotions through their facial expressions. The next time they practiced mime or tableau, the teacher built on this and asked them to express it in their hands and feet. Later she asked them to focus on experiencing the character with their whole bodies. This spiral of increasingly more complex questions and kinesics, elicited an increasingly more complex language form.

Props and physical objects were introduced very early on in the first workshop. Students carried the props through to the second workshop. Surprise elements such as the message in the bottle, blue material for the seascape and the Town Crier’s bell, aided character building and added real elements to a fictional world.

Rehearsal at all stages in the process drama was important. In the third workshop before performance, the students had several rehearsals. The teacher encouraged the students to practice in entirety first then let them run through a scene first before adding direction. This use of direction techniques, similar to the rehearsal techniques used in play-building, helped students focus first on the narrative, and next on character building and finally on dramatic elements to enhance their performance.

It was observed by students, facilitator and researcher during the workshops that characterisation occurred on different levels and for different purposes. An initial and superficial character was adopted through use of physical space, simple facial gestures and body movements. This pattern developed quickly to use of symbolisation, ritual and props in the room to represent a more complex character. Deep characterisation followed, during which students and facilitator responded to further stimulus of interaction with each other and the task at hand. This in turn led to development of and commitment to role over time.

Aesthetic Engagement

Upon reiterative and deeper analysis, a clearer definition of the participants’ perception of aesthetic engagement began to form. Two thematic categories unique to aesthetic engagement were identified. Firstly, there was an input category, which included elements that were present in order for aesthetic engagement to occur. Secondly, observations were made of an output category, the measurable components that were exhibited by students and teachers during or after aesthetic engagement. An analysis was made of both these categories. Three 15-minute segments were identified in the workshops as specific moments of aesthetic engagement by triangulation between feedback from the participants, the facilitator and the researcher. These moments were transcribed in detail and analysed from multiple perspectives – language quantity and quality, proxemics and kinesics. This analysis was purposely kept to cross-workshop analysis but an additional layer was explored. Phenomenographical perspectives of four key student participants were analysed.

Further information about the key building blocks for aesthetic engagement in TESOL though process drama was sought. Consequently, narrative, tension and role are explored in more detail, as these were identified by the participants as being integral to their aesthetic engagement.

There were moments of learning where the participants specifically referred to a breakthrough of some type. This was definitely cognitive, they were aware of the moment and experienced some change in awareness as a result of the moment. There was a sense of moving through an obstacle, hurdle or challenge and reaching a new state of being after the moment. Participants reported a greater sense of freedom after these moments. They also reported that this was an end result of a process – referring to breakthroughs happening “finally” – indicating that this was something that had been elusive to them that they had climaxed to after some attempt at noticing the specific hurdle before being able to do anything about it.

This breakthrough is more than just learning language. The students are referring to “being finally free to express themselves” and overcoming emotions such as “shyness, embarrassment, worrying about what others care about me” and “being able to participate fully”.

The breakthrough is expressed by one student as the moment where the participants were just forced to act without thinking about it too much. He refers to planning time about the role-play for finding gold and not being able to find a good idea for the role-play. Yet when he was enabled to act his experience to him felt freer. He had to think of something on the spot with no preparation.

I think that moment when we felt more free was starting at the moment when we did the two teams. We had to think of something. We had to think within ourselves, what are we going to do, and after that, do it, and doing that at that time was when I think that we feel free to express ourselves (Student 1).


The teacher was skilled at beginning sequences of the drama through story-telling. The most powerful demonstration of this was in the first workshop where she began the drama by telling stories about life in Victorian London. Her dramatic use of expressions and descriptive language drew the students into the fictional world. This was also conducted in a circle and was reminiscent of a teacher telling the students a story from a book. The students connected here in that way – most students were told stories as children by their parents or role models and could recognise, relate and act within this genre.

However, the teacher took this further and asked for input from the students and developed the story, involving the students’ ideas and co-creating the drama. There is a parallel between story-telling to young children and handing over the ending of the story to the adult student. This very rarely happens in the traditional language-learning classroom. Narratives in the TESOL classroom usually have an ending.

In discussions with participants during the video recall, there was a real sense of student understanding of the narrative and of what makes good story telling. There was a sense of what made good entertainment. This collective understanding of what would be “funny” or entertaining or what is interesting also adds a further element to aesthetic engagement.  The students were experiencing a story but also collectively moving the story in some new direction. Questions raised here included, “How do students know what constitutes a good drama? What are their frames of referencing? If aesthetic engagement also needs an understanding of what makes good drama, then where does this come from? How can we heighten this in order to create more aesthetic engagement?”

Students were definitely relating to the story as well as to the characters. Concepts such as distancing came into play. Pretext and the volume / mode of the pretext is important too – messages in a bottle, gold nuggets – they all added to the story line. Patterns that emerged here included students distancing and aligning their journeys, both real and metaphoric; contexts merging within and outside the classroom; students moving towards a collective understanding of what constitutes good entertainment; and development of narrative or story-telling techniques and devices.

Exploring narrative adds another dimension to the complex matrix the students and facilitator are operating in. There are multiple narratives occurring simultaneously in the process drama classroom – the narrative of the drama, the narrative of the classroom/ group, the narrative of each student and the narrative of the teacher. When the rhythm of these narratives converges, especially when there is tension, powerful learning experiences and the Eureka Effect occur.

Widening the analysis to the video recall data sources and reflective journals, the categories were deepened and interpretation of the student’s responses to the drama and their self-analysis of their own engagement was made. The focus question here was “How do you know when aesthetic engagement has been effective?” Output categories were determined for aesthetic engagement. This moment was analysed from the perspective of each participant twice, looking at two aspects: the perspective of quantity and quality of verbal interaction and also from proxemics and kinesics as a way to get into the minds of the students.

After analysis of all voices in one chosen moment, the following pictures are the two moments of heightened aesthetic engagement that were of most interest. In the first picture (Figure 2) are two male students roleplaying finding gold in the gold fields and acting as gay characters who, after finding gold, propose marriage to each other. The second picture (Figure 3) is a physical fight between a husband and wife after the wife secretly finds gold, hides it from her husband, who later finds out but is killed by her. He comes back after his death as a ghost to haunt her.


Figure 2


Figure 3

These two narratives emerged from improvisation and play-building between the participants with minimal interaction with the facilitator and is a fascinating outcome of aesthetic engagement. What would lead these students to choose such involved and sophisticated narratives and characters? What would stimulate them to tackle issues such as gay marriage and murder? What would move these two (heterosexual) Asian men to play gay lovers and hug in public, and two other students – one Spanish and one Korean – to physically struggle as husband and wife and then dramatically represent a ghost haunting a guilty and greedy women who murdered her husband for gold?

Tension and Role Interaction

These questions raised about aesthetic engagement can be answered by exploration of the synergy between tension and role. Eights types of tension in process drama in TESOL were identified in this study. These were tension of conflict, surprise, task, relationship, dilemma, mystery, culture and intimacy. This builds on the dramatic tensions described by Haseman and O’Toole (Haseman and O’Toole, 1987) and confirms Bundy’s identification of the tension of intimacy in drama (Bundy, 1999). An additional tension identified was the tension inherent in culture. This was noted during aesthetic engagement in the workshops, whereby students responded to cultural norms in role and is likened to Piazzoli’s intercultural tension (Piazzoli, 2011).

At the initial stages of this research in searching for the student epiphany, aesthetic engagement was thought to be a discrete and linear process. When percipients experience a sense of animation, they experience connection and become open to heightened awareness (Bundy, 2003). However, it is hypothesised that aesthetic engagement is more an initial precursor or doorway to a dual state awareness. This is one of – metaxis, metacognition and meta-emotion. It is believed that these states combine with aesthetic engagement and create transformation.

The three core tenants / key ingredients that ignite aesthetic engagement are narrative, role and tension. Sophistication in manipulation of role and tension, leads to metaxis, metacognition and meta-emotion, which are in turn keys to the next step of transformation through process drama. If any of these three dual states are experienced while students are aesthetically engaged, the participant has a transformative moment in the classroom. The participant can experience one or a multiple number of eight tensions (Figure 4) simultaneously in five roles in context with themselves, group members or the facilitator.



Figure 4

External tension creates internal tension, therefore analysis of external tension reveals occurrence of internal tension. Internal tension is required for metaxis, meta-emotion, and metacognition. The result of internal tension between role and actor is metaxis (O’Toole, 1992, Boal, 2000). The result of internal tension and struggle in learning is metacognition. Metacognition in language learning occurs when the student uses the language and simultaneously prepares, selects, monitors, orchestrates and evaluates their use and learning (Anderson, 2002, Flavell et al., 2000). These authors do not describe the struggle involved with this dual state awareness, an important ingredient for the epiphany. This is thought to be the struggle between self and language in multimodal forms. Finally, the result of internal tension between emotions is meta-emotion; the tension in emotions between self and the components of the classroom ecosystem. Meta-emotion has been previously explored in research on film (Bartsch and Oliver, 2011, Bartsch, 2012) and music (Noy and Sharav Noy, 2013) but not in process drama.

When there is a tension between the character the student is playing and their own self, this creates the dual state awareness of metaxis. The struggle between the real self and the character produces an energy which the participant strives to resolve. The energy can produce a dramatic change.

The students realise it themselves as well and can also see it occur in other students. One of the students – Student 1 – when asked to describe another students’ feelings, says about Student 4 that,

“It was really good acting. I think they laughing in their eyes” (Student 1)

Student 2, a Korean student, during her roleplay finding gold, verbalises her struggle in yielding to the surprise narrative of killing her lover against her own belief about murder in saying,

“Ah injure you? Kill? No (Laughs). I won’t kill… OK. I kill.” (Student 2)

These are examples of the tension and roles that have forced the students into the state of metaxis. Their struggle to resolve this tension has produced a state of euphoria believed to be the eureka effect and the aha! moment.

In reflecting on what the students said in the video recall about their understanding of their own learning, it is apparent their experiences of metacognition are also both similar and unique. They are aware of their own errors and the need to self-correct these, although they do want the teacher to do more of it. Student 2 talks about being able to speak out what is in her mind, an improvement in her confidence and she also knows what she needs to make things more effective – adding more vocabulary and more language input through reading.

I have to act, yes, I have to speak with my mind to decide something, and in that moment, I don’t – I wasn’t thinking about what is happening. Yes, I have to do something, and I did. (Student 2)

Students talk about their concept of time and how this either speeded up or slowed down in drama. They talk about using their imagination. The impression is that students have a good understanding of their own learning and what they need in the classroom to be engaged.

Student 1 talks about shyness and how this was broken. He said he didn’t realise this at the moment but only in reflection at a later stage. He notes that in the moment he was just acting, he had to do something so he just did it. This student also talks about his recall or memory skills – he says he is bad at learning a language – he can only remember narrative, story but forgets details like dates, words. It’s difficult for him to remember.

Learning, for example, I think I’m really bad at learning languages. But I remember all the story of that thing, or if I read that book, I remember all the story.” (Student 1)

Student 3 corrects himself during an improvisation referring to sterlings, then dollars when talking about his wedding gift to his gay lover after they find gold. This dual state awareness of acting and correcting himself on the currency is enhancing his tension, his struggle and therefore his metacognition.

“This is our wedding gift. It’s maybe worth ten million sterling, or dollar. We can start again.” (Student 3)

Analysing the relationships here between external tension and participant roles then begins to form a matrix answering our questions about aesthetic engagement. For example, the student in the role of actor may experience the tension of surprise. Simultaneously, the same student may be experiencing the tension of relationship with another student in the role of teacher and learner as they learn something new about themselves or their relationship in the drama. This in turn creates more tension, in an exponential manner.

Thus, students are aesthetically engaged when they have an understanding of dramatic form and appreciation of its pedagogy. Through effective and multilayered manipulation of tension and role, they exhibit animation and connection to the narrative. Heightened awareness is achieved, leading to dual states of awareness such as metaxis, metacognition and meta-emotion. This is represented in Figure 5, a Framework for Aesthetic Engagement in TESOL.



Figure 5


In summary, this research suggests aesthetic engagement is not the only thing that needs to be present for profound change and the aha! moment. In this search for the epiphany in process drama and TESOL it was discovered that students need a foundation of understanding the artform and understanding learning. They need to have accepted the core tenants of the art form of process drama and be able to make use of learning strategies and techniques that the form allows them.

There is more to aesthetic engagement than animation, connection and heightened awareness. There are inputs to the engagement that include narrative, role and most importantly tension. These elements affect the output and the quantity and quality of interaction.

External tension viewed in this research allows us an insight to the internal tensions of the participant. The roles students play within the microcosm of the classroom effect tension as well. They can play roles such as actor, teacher, director, learner and audience and experience tensions within these roles such as surprise, task, intimacy and culture, to name just a few, and multiple combinations thereof.

However, this still doesn’t necessarily produce profound change. The final ingredient that is needed is a dual state awareness. This is either metaxis, from the tension inherent in role; metacognition, from the tension inherent in learning and specifically in learning languages; and meta-emotion, the tension inherent in managing emotions in the way we interact with ourselves and others around us, including our environment. This is the subject of future papers.

The dynamism between art form, pedagogy, aesthetic engagement, and dual state awareness lead to the aha! moment and the epiphany. This is the wondrous moment of the penny dropping for the student. This is something that we intuitively feel and have come to value in our drama and ESL classrooms, but are often unable to fully describe. It is envisaged this research will encourage more drama practitioners to develop aesthetic frameworks to help us understand our practice and art form.


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