SMU Alumni Inspires Social Change

From the stage of St. Pat’s High School in Halifax at the tender age of nine to a Doctor of Philosophy in Drama Education, Joe Norris has come a long way. He likes to joke that despite his accomplishments, he still considers himself a failure. “My early aspiration in life was to teach drama at St. Pat’s and I never made it!”

Instead what he has done is teach and lecture on Drama Education and Applied Theatre literally around the world, in addition to producing numerous articles, chapters, videos, and books, all while earning myriad prestigious awards.

A deep care for people and the human condition has fuelled Norris’s energetic exuberance and his prolific output. His educational journey started in the late sixties with a one-semester stint at a pre-seminary. He quickly discovered that he wasn’t cut out for the priesthood, in part because of the vows. “Of the three vows—poverty, chastity and obedience—the latter was the hardest for me,” he laughs. “I’ve always questioned authority and continually encourage my students to question it as well, including my own.”

His next stop was Saint Mary’s University where Norris achieved a Bachelor of Arts and then a Bachelor of Education between 1970-1974. It was here that he established some of the strongest and most enduring friendships of his life with people who still get together multiple times a year. It was also here that he had what he calls “one of the best jobs of my life”—as a cafeteria dishwasher at the St. Mary’s student union building. “I would go around from table to table picking up trays and in the process say hi to all my friends. I made the most of that!”

After graduation, he began teaching, first in rural Nova Scotia and then within Halifax. Norris taught English and drama at the junior high level for over a decade, and during that time he helped establish the Educational Drama Association of Nova Scotia.

“I consider myself a drama educator who uses drama as a teaching tool, always with a huge emphasis on social justice.” For decades, in various locations across Canada and around the world, Norris has been working with groups of children, youth, and adults to shed light on social issues including bullying in schools, substance abuse, discrimination, and homophobia. “The thing is we don’t preach.” Norris explains that he and his students perform actual problem-plays that an audience will experience and then be asked to participate in. “We ask audience members to tell us what they see and then fix or adapt the play by coming up on stage and changing it or redirecting it from their seats!”

Norris is passionate about teaching people to think for themselves. “Everything I do is about voice and encouraging others to find their voice,” he says. “One of my biggest pieces of advice is to keep questioning. Question everything. Don’t let anyone else impose their voice or their morals on you.” His work in this area spawned an award-winning book entitled Playbuilding as qualitative research: A participatory arts-based approach.

Since 2009, Norris has been a professor in the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University in St. Catharine’s, Ontario. His hard work and enthusiasm have now spread into the area of arts-based education. His extensive research, work, and writing in this area have led him to become known as an international leader and expert in actively advocating and developing arts-based research methodologies. Just this year, in 2015, he was honoured with the Tom Barone Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts-Based Educational Research from the American Educational Research Association.

Along with co-inventor Richard Sawyer of Washington State University in Vancouver, Norris created a brand new collaborative research methodology called “Duoethnography” in which two or more researchers juxtapose their life histories to provide multiple understandings of the world. Duoethnography embraces the beliefs that a person’s life can be seen as a curriculum and that storytelling can be used as a transformative tool. Norris and Sawyer have since written two books on the topic and recently received The American Educational Research Association’s Significant Contribution to Educational Measurement and Research Methodology Award.

Although Norris confesses to being occasionally tired, especially with the long commute to Edmonton to visit Pauline (nee Thornhill, BA 1979), his wife of 35 years, his passion and deep interest in his work and the human condition keep pushing him forward. When asked about words of wisdom geared to today’s SMU grads, forty years on, Norris had this to say: “Dare to dream big but don't be limited by your ambitions—life has much more to offer than you can imagine.” Inspiring words, indeed!

You can visit him at