By Matt Noyes, from a workshop with Leon Rosenblatt

This is a spur of the moment role play where participants and educators act out the actions and problems they have been discussing, with no preparation or script.

Good for:
Making a discussion of proposed actions concrete, and showing how a given type or several types of action might look, sound and feel in practice. Helps participants visualize action, examine the obstacles they might face in reality, and how to deal with them. Helps move past passive complaints or unrealistic hopes -- everyone has to enact their ideas. Provides a safe space for rehearsing actions that may carry risks.

Set up:
Arrange the space to form a "stage" and an audience -- people need to be able to see the actors and their actions and expressions.

Number of people:
At least three?

None, whatever is at hand.

The role playing is probably fairly quick, though you repeat it, maybe 30 minutes, but the discussion can go longer. If the whole thing runs longer than an hour, you may want to use additional techniques for the discussion (e.g. a Mosh Pit)


  • This is a tool you use on the fly, so you don't have time to explain and motivate it the way you would normally motivate an activity. No need to even introduce it. You just grab someone, usually the person who is raising the question or idea, and say, "come up here and show us what you are talking about. How does it happen?" Draft other volunteers as needed, usually the participants will draft each other or volunteer.
  • Get the actors to show "how it happens," acting out whatever it is they are talking about. For example, if the discussion is about how to respond to an abusive manager, get people to act out a scene showing what the manager does and how people react. The idea is to show how it is in general, not to reproduce all the details of a particular case (though you could do that, too, if that was the purpose).
  • Help make clear who does what. Describe what is happening: "so he just gets right up in your face like that?" Encourage people to ham it up so that the actions are very clear. Playfully push people to get into it, "come on, you mean to tell me the supervisor just stands there all shy and quiet?! If he hollers, then you holler!" (Note: keep an eye out for unexpected information -- it just may be the supervisor is shy and quiet!)
  • Once you have the basic story line, do it again. Then ask the "audience" for comments and suggestions. (They may already be shouting them out.) Draft them to replace actors if they think it should be done differently. Do it again. It is always useful to ask people if what they are seeing acted out "is real" or "looks real." This helps keep even a wild, exaggerated performance on task.
  • Don't stop the action to analyze a particular point, just note it and keep moving. After the role play is over, you will want to analyze the meaning more carefully, but you don't want to kill the energy of the moment.
  • Always commend the actors and congratulate them for their performances -- people have put themselves out there in a way they may not normally do and it is important to show your appreciation, especially since others may have criticized their acting.

Watch for:
Use a little basic theater: make sure the people "on stage" can be seen and heard by the "audience." Be a ham and encourage others to do the same, people are often a little cold and need you to show that it's okay to ham it up, as long as the purpose is clear.

Keep things moving, help people simplify the story and focus on the main issues (though you should be careful not to miss important details or make assumptions).

You need to know your subject well -- and be able to handle questions on the fly -- to improvise like this. Use the punchlist for questions or issues that come up that you can't address at the moment.

Keep everyone safe: encourage criticism, but don't hesitate to intervene if people feel insulted. Your job is to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect and support.

There are many variations on role plays and many tools you can use. This is improvisation on every level, so you need to throw in (or invent) whatever tool or variation seems to fit at the moment. Augusto Boal's Games for Actors and Non-Actors is a great source for ideas and inspiration.

This can be used as a diagnostic tool, too, in the first part of the spiral. In that case, what you are looking for is the issues that the role play raises, rather than the translation of the role play directly into action.

Role plays help people see what action will look like (feel like, sound like, etc.). People may nod their heads at a presentation, but leave with no real picture of what the ideas mean in practice, when you are standing face to face with an angry supervisor. By stepping into a role play, they can safely try out the words, the body language, all the elements of action before they have to use it in reality.

Union democracy attorney Leon Rosenblatt and I were teaching a workshop for rank-and-file sanitation workers in Connecticut. At one point, we raised the idea of a group grievance as a possible tool. We said the workers could also demand that all of the grievants go to the grievance meeting (if necessary on their time-off), and suggested other similar tactics.

One participant objected forcefully, saying that there was no way this kind of thing could be done, so Leon and I decided to act it out. We then ran two role plays: the first one had the guy who objected and a few other participants try out coming to the grievance meeting.

I played the union president (who they had already described as close to management, always meeting with the boss behind closed doors and keeping workers out of the loop). Leon Rosenblatt played the aggressive and theretofore unchallenged boss.

In the first role play, Leon and I quickly managed to take over the meeting and get the grievants to sit outside while we "worked something out." We then asked the rest of the participants what they thought of that role play. They blew up! "You just let them jerk you around!" they told the actors. "Why didn't you say anything?!" and so on. We asked them what could be done differently and they threw out many good suggestions.

We then re-ran the role play with the same actors, only this time the workers silenced the union president and confronted the boss, making their case as a group. At the end of this mock meeting, the boss then chewed out the union president (participants in the workshop called it "tearing him a new asshole") for "letting those s.o.b.s into my office." "Can't you control those guys? What do you think you are doing? You are useless!" (Leon was so good at his role, I really felt humiliated!)

A week later, one of the participants called to tell me that when he was called into a disciplinary hearing, he brought along a few coworkers as his "chosen union representatives." The boss flipped out, raged and hollered, but they insisted on meeting with him as a group. In anger, the boss called off the meeting. The disciplinary hearing never happened and the worker was not disciplined.

But, as well as it worked out in this case, this action was really a one-off thing. The workers needed time to build a strong group, with clearly defined goals and an action plan that went beyond a "what if" scenario like the one we role-played.

This activity also fits under planning for action, but I put it here because it shows how planning for action -- when it is sufficiently concrete and true to life -- can carry over into action in the workplace, and how action feeds back into education. (See Reconstructing Work Done.) It is important to distinguish between the workshop and the workplace, to keep in mind the limitations of the former, and to allow the tension between the two to exist.

Two problems:

Teachers who are "political" (no offense intended, I'm "political" myself from time to time) often try to fudge this by "taking action" in the classroom, e.g. getting students to write letters to public officials. This not only distorts the meaning of "Action" in popular education, it also undervalues the part that reflection and planning can play in relation to action.

Organizers who want action often use educational events to mobilize workers for an event or action. This is a kind of transition from education to action -- but it is not the same as the move to action that results from an open-ended educational process where the participants develop the tactics and strategy. Instead of developing people's capacity for collective action (as Sam Gindin terms it), it exercises the organization's powers of mobilization, using the workshop or class participants as a captive audience. Nothing wrong with mobilization, but we are after a greater power: self-organization. This is a complex issue, with many shades and degrees, what do you think? What is your experience?

-- No shortcuts: if you want to get there fast, go the long way.