Multimodality and Drama: Performance in Education

Multimodality and Drama: Performance in Education

By: David Kluge

Silence and darkness. Orchestral music fills the space. Suddenly lights reveal a large area with structures and huge images. Spoken words, a person singing, people singing. Bodies in action, in dance. Then all these elements come together in a grand crescendo.

What has just happened? An opera? A Broadway musical? A Johann Straus, Offenbach, or Gilbert and Sullivan operetta? Or a multimodal lesson? It could be any one of these—even a Performance in Education (PIE) drama activity. All of these are examples of multimodal activities. Multimodality in education means “an embodied learning situation which engages multiple sensory systems and action systems of the learner” (Massaro, 2021). Masaro goes on to give visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic examples of each mode. What is the value of this multimodality?

Research on Multimodality and the Brain

John Medina, in his popular book Brain Rules (2008), outlined twelve principles derived from brain research that could help people “survive and thrive” in their daily lives. Principles that resonate with many Performance in Education teachers are “Exercise boosts brain power,” “We don’t pay attention to boring things—emotion matters,” “Remember to repeat,” and “Stimulate more of the senses . . . Multisensory learning means better remembering” (table of contents). Kinsbourne (2003, p. 1) states that the brain learns more and better in a multimodal way—that using more of the channels that feed data to the brain (visual, audio, tactile, kinesthetic, etc.) leads to better learning. Since brain research shows that multimodality is a superior way for people to learn, then it makes sense to use activities such as the aforementioned multimodal theatre types of activities to teach. Michael Gazzaniga (2008), Director of the Sage Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara thinks so, as witnessed by the nine research articles in the book he organized titled Learning, Arts, and the Brain. Keeping this in mind, for my classes, I created a new multimodal activity called Living Newspaper Readers Theatre (LNRT) to teach important lessons in a memorable way. When I say I created the activity, I mean that I created the concept and also many examples of this new activity described below.

About Living Newspaper Readers Theatre

A multimodal PIE activity called Living Newspaper Readers Theatre (LNRT) is a performance of a script stitched together by selecting topically-related news articles. The roots of LNRT were found in Russia in the early 20th century as Living Newspaper Theatre (Parham, 2018). When merged with Readers Theatre (“a style of theatrical performance in which actors may read from the script or text, and which places less emphasis on props, costumes, physical interaction, etc., than traditional theatre,” Oxford dictionary), it takes contemporary news and information, mashes it together into a cohesive script that students perform for an audience It is usually performed on a bare stage (no set) with the performers holding the script in hand, typical of Readers Theatre. Multimedia (music, photos, video, props) is added to create mood. The scripts can be written by the teacher or by students (Kluge, 2019).

This is the typical procedure for doing Living Newspaper Readers Theatre:

    1. Read several articles on a topic that is dramatic
    2. Put together a script that follows narrative arc (exposition, rising action, crisis, climax, denouement, falling action/conclusion) This script could be created by the teacher, by students, or as a hybrid, collaborative project by both teacher and students.
    3. Read through script with each person reading a line in turn
    4. Assign parts to students or have students volunteer for parts (could be assigned to an individual, a pair, small group, half the group, or the whole group.)
    5. Read through script
    6. Read through script while going through blocking (directions on where performers stand or where they move to)
    7. Add multimedia (music, photos, movies, hand props)
    8. Practice piece several times until smooth
    9. Perform piece
Teachers performing their Living Newspaper Readers Theatre after a workshop

Complexities can be added to the script by adding any one or a combination of the dramatic devices described by Kluge (in press).

The modalities that are used in this activity are written words, spoken words, lights, movement, multimedia (sounds, background music, background images), and movies.

These are the bare facts about the activity. LNRT has been presented to you in a logical manner. But there is a backstory to the start of LNRT that has more to do with deep emotions and an attempt to understand something that was incomprehensible.

The Backstory

I first started creating LNRT for an event called the English Performance Festival (EPF) at my college, in which all 14 sections of the Presentation in English class at the women’s junior college would have to do a 5-10-minute performance in front of the entire student body. The year was 2011 and the multiple horrors of the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami/nuclear powerplant disaster deeply affected me, as they did all of Japan and the world. News bombarded us about the facts, photos, and faces of the cataclysmic events and were accompanied by the heartbreaking personal stories of people who were looking for friends and family members. People from all over the world wrote messages of support for the people of Japan. Soccer games in Japan started with players and fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the Broadway musical Carousel.

There was so much information that it was difficult to process it. I decided to put together a Readers Theatre script from the various news and SNS sources to make sense of the horrific events for students and for myself. At one point in the performance each student had an A4-size color photo of a missing person that she would hold in front of her, similar to the way a photo of the deceased is carried by a family member who leads the procession at Japanese funerals, and the photo would be projected on a giant screen. The performer would say the name of the person and the story of how they became lost. The performance ended with one of the students playing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” on a keyboard while performers sang the song, amplified by the audience’s voices as they read the lyrics projected on the giant screen. Throughout the performance, sobs could be heard from the audience, even though this was July and the disaster had happened long before in March.

Students in the class wrote that they relived the events but understood the event and themselves better now than before. They were able to make sense of the event, they learned new things, and felt both sad and better. In addition, they reported a new closeness with classmates because of the shared experience of making the drama and performing in front of schoolmates.

2012 brought the Sandy Hook mass murder, where I used the same technique of using photographs of each person murdered with their story printed on the back of the photo for the performer to read. This LNRT was created and performed by teachers in 2019 as I couldn’t bring myself to put the tragic happening down on paper until long after it happened. One interesting point was that I had written a set beginning and end, but the middle was created by the performers as they chose which photo to present and the order they would present it in.

In 2014, I created a script titled “One Beautiful Saturday” about the deadly volcano eruption of Mt. Ontake in Central Japan. One interesting fact was that many of the photos that were projected on the screen behind the student performers came from cameras of the victims that were recovered after the event, making them so much more poignant and powerful.

There seems to be a pattern here: a tragedy happens and I write an LNRT script. But the motives were not maudlin or macabre. The performances served a purpose of letting students learn about the events in a multimodal way that included emotion. This changed in 2019 when I wrote a textbook (printed but not published) for my reading classes. The textbook was titled Life Lessons and was composed of eight chapters:

Chapter 1 Who Am I?

Chapter 2 Friends Forever

Chapter 3 Beliefs

Chapter 4 Goals and Planning

Chapter 5 Love

Chapter 6 Dealing with Disappointment

Chapter 7 Heroes

Chapter 8 Altruism, NPOs, & NGOs: Helping the World

Each chapter is composed of four units with readings on different facets of the topic. Unit 4 of each chapter consists of an LNRT that contains parts of each reading, the lyrics of appropriate songs the students performed as Live Music Videos, speaking the words rather than singing them. These LNRT serve as culminating projects for the chapter and include original creative writing tasks from each student. The creation of the book was the real birth of LNRT. Before this, the LNRT described previously were just scripts of a no-name drama genre. Now the genre has a name and an integrated position in the curriculum of the course.


"students are making a memory"
David Kluge
TT Author

Now you have learned a simple way to add the multimodality of opera to a classroom activity. What is the difference between this multimodal activity and typical classroom activities, even when they are somewhat multimodal? Answer: The addition of multimedia, the necessity of movement, the joy of students while they are creating and repeating (called rehearsal), and the joy of teachers when they see their students totally immersed in the activity—intent, engaged, and yet happy. Why? Because students are creating strong connections in their brains from data received from multimodal channels. In short, they are making a memory.

Students finishing their performance of Live Music Video in front of the whole student body


  • Gazzaniga, M. (2008). Learning, arts, and the brain. Dana Press.

  • Kinsbourne. M. (2003). The multimodal mind: How the senses combine in the brain. Semoticon: Virtual Seminar.

  • Kluge, D. (2019, February 4-6). An introduction to Living Newspaper Readers Theatre [Paper presentation]. Speech, Drama, & Debate SIG Early Spring Conference, Sapporo, Japan.

  • Kluge, D. (in press). A multi-skills performance activity: Living Newspaper Readers Theatre. In D. Kluge (ed.), Classroom resources, pp. 13-20. PIE SIG.

  • Massaro D. W. (2012). Multimodal learning. In N. M. Seel (eds.) Encyclopedia of the sciences of learning. Springer

  • Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules. Pear Press.

  • Parham, C. (2018) Living Newspaper in the English discussion classroom. Mask & Gavel: Publication of Speech, Drama, & Debate SIG, 7, 27-37.

  • Reader’s Theater. (n.d.). Oxford dictionary.’s_theatre


David Kluge is a professor of English at Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan. His research interests are performance in education, oral communication, cooperative learning, and composition. He has published books in these areas. He is also the founder and coordinator of the JALT Performance in Education SIG.

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