Ethnodrama is an arts-based methodology for presenting participants’ personal stories which are often centered on social issues and traumatic, or significant, events. An ethnodrama is the performance ‘text’ and when it is performed the descriptive term shifts to ethnotheatre. Johnny Saldana from Arizona State University is a leading author and practitioner of the method and he has described ethnodrama as “dramatizing the data” (2005: 2). Ethnodrama can be known through various other terms including performance ethnography, social drama, and reality theatre. Some of the more famous examples of ethnodrama include The Laramie Project, which originally was a play but later became a film, and United 93 about the passengers on board the plane brought down on September 11, 2001, in Pennsylvania. To root both of these examples in a research methodology, The Laramie Project play script was based on extensive interviews with inhabitants from the town of Laramie, Wyoming and the source material for most of the action in United 93 was The 9/11 Commission Report.

Relevant Characteristics

In his book, Ethnotheatre Research From Page to Stage, Saldana offers four different forms of ethnodrama:
  • Dramatizing the interview scripts
    Ethnodrama 1.jpg
  • Adaptations of documents and published accounts
  • Performed autoethnographic work
  • Devised work led by a theatre company

The degree of adherence to interview transcripts is an aesthetic choice made by the playwright. Some play scripts retain verbatim transcripts whereas others take recorded conversations and adapt them for presentation purposes. The author may perform their own autoethnography work and research participants sometimes perform in ethnodrama scripts about them. This is the case in the ethnodrama about breast cancer, Standing Ovation, which was performed by the research participants and whose stori
es provided the data. Alternatively, trained actors may play the participants’ roles. Devised work led by a theatre company would be based around issues of interest to a particular community of participants.

“Method Made Easy”

  • Participants share memories with each other on a particular theme. These memories are then ‘performed’ with simple gestures added to the re-telling of the story to add emphasis to significant moments. These “re-tellings” can be shared with a larger group.
  • Participants can form ‘still images’ of moments of significance from an important memory or experience. These are analyzed as ‘data’ – what is the visual data telling us about this experience?
  • A re-telling of an experience can be written as a monologue, dialogue or script to be performed.


  • Inherent within the performance aspects of ethnodrama are its innovative appeal
    , the ability to make it aesthetically appealing, and the necessity to make it interesting to view and listen to. Performed experience that is well crafted and communicated will have an impact potential that is not afforded to a paper presentation of data. It is an affective medium that has the ability to reach more people than traditional means of research.


  • If the data are being adapted to fit a dramatic context, questions of reliability and validity arise. An ethnodrama playwright should therefore be transparent about their particular method of handling the data. Another limitation is that because it is a performance methodology, an ethnodrama practitioner needs to have a working knowledge of the art form of theatre. Finally, having trained actors portray participants, may detract from real lived experiences as data sources to be discussed and analyzed.


  • Individual and communal stories are selected as data sources for ethnodramas because it is believed they have something important to say about the human experience and society. However, analysis of ethnodrama as authentic research can be problematic because of the subjective component involved in an artistic rendering of data. The transparency of the playwright in disclosing how data was collected and processed before being presented is therefore crucial to the analysis of an ethnodrama script. Saldana acknowledges that social change is an ideal outcome of ethnodrama analysis and as the data sources are often based on profoundly affecting experiences, the analysis therefore lies in the extent of affect on a viewer/listener. Indeed play scripts such as The Laramie Project have led to wider discourses about sexuality and the experience of being ‘an outsider’.

Online Resources

Ethnodrama about the riots in LA in 1992:

Ethnodrama practitioner Anna Deavere Smith talks about her methodology:

Use of ethnodrama – ‘playback theatre’ - among Palestinian refugees:

Further Reading

Boal, A.
1979 Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press

Cahnmann-Taylor, M., Souto-Manning
2010 Teachers Act Up. New York: Teachers College Press

Freire, P.
2011. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum


Gray, R. E., & Sinding, C.
2002. Standing ovation: Performing social science research about cancer. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Saldaña, J., ed.
2005 Ethnodrama: An anthology of reality theatre. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Saldaña, J.
2011 Ethnotheatre: Research from page to stage. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.