The People Using Role-Play to Prepare for the Future

In theater groups around the country, physical performance is revealing better ways to handle life’s unknowns.

Two people stand on stage acting with script text superimposed over the scene.
Lessons learned during role play are rich with sensory details, which make the solutions that emerge more intuitive when the actual scenario occurs. (Express / Stringer / Getty; The Atlantic)

The spotlight falls on the stage, where two women are in the middle of a confrontation. On one side is Yolanda, an assembly-line worker at a houseware factory. She is speaking with her boss, first nervously and then with growing conviction, about a co-worker who has been flouting mask mandates. Yolanda lives with older family members in fragile health and she wants to feel safe on the job. After a few false starts, she finally asks her boss whether she’d intervene on her behalf.

This performance has an important twist: Yolanda is playing herself in a scene taken directly from her life. When she’s finished, she will start over from the beginning, changing what she says to see if her boss responds differently. Why perform this stressful loop? Jasmin Cardenas, the artistic director of WorkersTEATRO, the Chicago-based troupe that put on the improvisation, told me over Zoom: “When you put [people] into the scenario and you stop the action and allow them an opportunity to speak up, then they find courageous words for real life in the safety of a rehearsal.”

In theater groups around the United States, people are using the principles of role-playing to better handle the unknowns of pandemic life. Many Americans have experienced the whiplash of feeling variously hopeful (vaccine development) and distressed (the Delta and Omicron variants); some have called this ever-present unease pandemic flux syndrome. And experts have warned that anxiety and depression rates could surge as variant cases rise again. Some troupes have tried to explore the worry that comes with this uncertainty, staging scenes that deal with navigating public spaces when everyone’s vaccination status is unclear, how a community can grieve together, and handling perennial, now amplified, stressors, such as a job interview after being out of work.

Lessons from physical performance are rich with sensory details, which make the solutions that emerge more intuitive when the actual scenario occurs. “Acting [difficult situations] out is about motivating people to intervene in their own life,” Spark LeoNimm, a founding member of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC), an organization that runs interactive workshops, told me recently on Zoom. Role-play groups share a goal of helping adults relearn what children do effortlessly: use make-believe to mess up, try things again, and ultimately prepare for the future. By standing straighter, for instance, a person may feel more in control and project greater confidence; by gesturing with their hands, they may elicit a more open or more defensive response in others. Just as a daily stroll can improve a person’s problem-solving skills, role-playing allows the brain to absorb information differently than if the body were stationary.

These theater-troupe participants tend not to be professional actors, and they don’t perform to entertain an audience. Rather, they practice “embodied play,” whereby acting out a role can provoke the feelings that might arise during tough moments. In life, people are constantly called to perform themselves, and to take on particular roles: At work you may be a manager or a subordinate, at home a parent or a child, in public a law-abider or a rule-breaker, and so on. Some of these roles are voluntary, others are imposed, but all of them carry expectations for how to behave—and consequences for failure. “Role-playing can allow you to think about your own identity and alter things that you may want to change about yourself,” Jonaya Kemper, a live-action role-play scholar at Carnegie Mellon University, told me over Zoom. Through simulation, people can make more daring choices, using insights from fake failure for real-world preparation. Firefighters and astronauts, perhaps unsurprisingly, use this style of rehearsal to train for enormously stressful situations, such as rushing into a burning building, or handling the vicissitudes of life on Mars.

Most troupes are enacting more mundane scenarios, but the reactions they trigger can feel overwhelming nonetheless. One troupe composed mostly of seniors has gathered online weekly for the past year to confront the pandemic-specific challenges they’ve been facing. The group, which is run by TONYC and the affordable-housing nonprofit Breaking Ground, has tackled intermittent homelessness, disability, and insufficient health-care access made worse because of COVID-19. In a recent workshop I attended, one member brought up the high cost of prescription drugs, which turned into a conversation about the powerlessness many participants feel when they speak with doctors. Four of us then improvised a scene between a patient and a doctor that was meant to replicate the frustration of feeling unheard.

My role as the doctor was to introduce roadblocks, such as suggesting that a patient call their insurance agency with medication questions rather than offering help. Emotions quickly bubbled up between the person playing the patient and me: feelings of uncertainty and irritation, exhaustion and license. Performers say these scenarios have helped them maneuver real-life situations. “It’s not just role-playing for fun—we have fun, too, but there’s a direction in it,” Sandra-May Flowers, one of the participants, told me over the phone. Flowers said the improvisations helped her think critically about how to communicate with people in positions of authority. “They empowered us to speak up. And then they gave us a platform so that we could express solutions.”

The Omicron variant reminds us that the pandemic is still evolving, and that the future will likely bring with it a fresh slate of risks and negotiations. On the horizon are holiday gatherings with mixed-vaccine-status families and shifting workplace norms as people leave their jobs en masse. Conventional wisdom doesn’t always offer a script to tackle hard questions, and many Americans are looking to role-play for insight, hoping to be able to face incoming challenges with well-rehearsed responses.