Role plays give class participants a chance to practice using various boundary setting techniques in a mock-up “real life” situation. Typically, we have found role plays to be most effective when done at the end of a longer series class after thoroughly teaching and practicing a full range of boundary setting techniques, with a supportive group of participants. There are many ways in which role plays can be set up. We have found that going into role plays with a solid plan, but also a willingness to be flexible and set them up a different way if necessary, is especially helpful. The facilitator can draw upon verbal/physical cues from the class participants as well as intuition and observations about where people are at mentally/emotionally to decide how, in that moment, will be best to set up the role play.

What are role plays?

Role plays are mini scenarios that reflect potential real life situations in which someone attempts to cross a boundary. They are basically short skits, in which volunteer participants get to try on different roles in a given situation and practice saying no, stating what they want or don’t want, or obtaining a particular goal in a given situation.

Role plays are not. . .

A chance for a particular class participant to work out an exact situation that happened in real life. If a participant suggests a scenario to practice via role play, and it becomes clear that it is a situation that happened in their life down to every detail, we recommend suggesting a made-up scenario that contains key elements of the suggested scenario, but with enough differences that it won’t become all about rehashing the event that actually happened. While examining events that happen in our lives is indeed very helpful and can be healing/therapeutic, it is unlikely to benefit the whole group if this exercise becomes all about one participant in particular.

Role plays are also not a time to practice physical skills. Role plays are designed to practice boundary setting skills, including confident stance, eye contact, voice, facial expressions, body language, and verbal techniques. Role plays are not a chance for participants to practice grab releases or strikes.

Setting Up Role Plays

We generally use one of two basic frameworks for setting up role plays:

1. Explain to participants what role plays are and what their purpose is. Ask participants for suggestions of potential scenarios in which to act out through role plays. Write down suggestions as they come up. As a group, choose several role plays that will allow participants to practice various boundary setting skills. Remember to consult with the group about which scenarios feel the most relevant and will be helpful. A tally of hands for those interested in each role play can be used make this decision quickly with minimal discussion. Have participants volunteer to act out the scene, and let them know that participation is voluntary and one can learn from watching in addition to doing.

The benefit of this method is that generally, it allows participants to have ownership over the scenarios they are acting out. The scenarios tend to feel meaningful and class “buy-in” tends to be high.

2. Provide a variety of slips of paper with different scenarios written on them. Have participants form groups of 2-4 people and practice the scenario. Groups who are willing to share out after about 5-10 minutes of practice time can share their role plays with the whole group.

The benefit of this method is that generally, it puts less pressure on participants to “act” as they are working primarily with their small group and have a chance to practice before sharing with the whole group.

Possible Role Play Scenarios

Some scenarios we have seen practiced during role plays include. . .

– A stranger at a bus stop tries to get your name and number, and you don’t want to share these

– While on a date with someone you have a crush on, they want to kiss you before you are ready

– Your boss wants you to work late, but you have a prior engagement and can’t do it

– A friend in crisis is calling you incessantly needing support. While you want to support your friend, you are not able to be available to them every moment of every day

– While dancing at a party, someone tries to dance with you super close, but you don’t want to dance with them

Tips for Facilitating Role Plays

Facilitating role plays can be tricky! Emotions can come up and needs of participants can vary dramatically. While one person may need heavy coaching through a role play, another may prefer to be allowed to sweat it out solo. When set up intentionally and facilitated heavily, role plays can be an effective learning opportunity for folks with greatly varying needs.

Use a variety of scenarios. Remember not to only use “stranger” situations. While these may be the main ones that come up when asking or suggestions (or they may not), encourage participants to reflect on times when they had to set a boundary with someone that they knew. Try to vary dynamics between the different role plays: stranger vs. someone you know, friend vs. boss or teacher, etc.

Be clear about guidelines. Make sure that everyone understands that role plays are not a time to practice physical skills, and remind the group of the agreements about self care.

Set the stage. Declare where the “stage” area is, and make sure all audience members are facing the stage. Grab chairs or other simple props if necessary for the role play. Make sure it is clear when the role play begins and when it ends. You might do a dramatic, “Lights! Camera! Action!” for effect.

Give everyone a role. Each scenario should have exactly the number of people as there are roles. For example, in the stranger at the bus stop scenario, you might have one participant play the part of the nagging stranger, one participant to practice setting the boundary, and possibly (this is optional) a third person who is a witness at the bus stop. The witness could either remain silent until one of the other characters engages with them, or they might decide to step up and be an ally. You can set guidelines about this so it is clear what everyone’s role is. When setting up each role play, explain that audience members are also participating. They are to observe carefully for powerful boundary setting moments, how body language and/or tone of voice affected the scenario, etc.

Pay close attention. Watch for verbal and physical cues of discomfort or uncertainty, and offer support when needed. Sometimes a simple, “you’re doing great” is enough to give someone a little confidence boost. At times you might say things like, “go ahead and set that boundary now!” or “your voice sounds confident! How can your body language match your voice more?” Don’t be afraid to do some serious coaching, but also give participants a chance to practice and draw on their own skills. It is a delicate dance!

Be vigilant about stereotypes. Unfortunately, stereotypes have come up in a number of role plays we have facilitated. For example, someone portraying a mentally ill person or a homeless person might rely on problematic stereotypes. This can make people extremely uncomfortable and must be addressed calmly and respectfully right away. We encourage you to be proactive and try to avoid scenarios that might invite common stereotypes, or to say something about stereotypes in the beginning when you set up the activity.

End it when it’s done. Given the opportunity, some people will go on and on! When you see that successful boundary happen, allow the boundary-crosser to accept it, then celebrate the victory. You might say something like, “Wow! That was so powerful!” and start a round of applause. If a scenario is dragging on too long without getting to the point, do some coaching. You might say something like, “Okay! You’ve given a lot of excuses and gone back and forth for a long time now. Go ahead and set that boundary now!”

Debrief. Debriefing after each role play is essential. Ask the boundary-crosser, “How did that feel when they said ______?” Ask the boundary-setter, “How did it feel to say ______?” Ask the audience members what they observed. When was the moment that the boundary sunk in? What worked? If someone feels strongly about a way it could have been done differently, invite them to try out the same scenario. It can be very helpful for folks to see a variety of ways a boundary can be set successfully.

Celebrate. Before moving on to a new scenario or to end class, be sure to honor the participants who courageously practiced in front of the whole group! Give them some good props and applause.

A fun variation

You can turn role plays into a game by giving audience members the option to yell “freeze!” at any point during the role play, then walk up to the “performers,” tap one of them on the shoulder, and switch out. This gives more folks a chance to participate, and allows for different perspectives and possibilities to play out. (This theater technique is inspired byTheater of the Oppressedpractices. Developing familiarity with these practices may help to improve your skill and confidence in facilitating role plays.)

How long do role plays take?

Ha! Who knows? Role plays could go on for hours, or could be a (relatively) short activity. It all depends on the group’s dynamic, needs, and mood that day. Generally, we have allowed for about half an hour to do a round of role plays. Be prepared with an extra activity in case interest is low. At the same time, be prepared to have to cut off the activity, even if engagement is high and people are totally into it, if you run out of time.