Volume III - 1995-1996

Creating Theater in the ESL Classroom
by Maria Guida

       Maria Guida is an adjunct assistant professor of ESL at the American Language Institute at New York University and has presented teacher-training workshops on the subject of theater for many conferences and graduate programs. For fifteen years, she worked as a professional actress and singer on Broadway and television and in regional theater and jazz clubs.

      From the moment I began teaching ESL, I was convinced that using theater in the classroom would be a powerful way to help non-native speakers improve their English proficiency and deepen their understanding of American culture. I began to adapt exercises and games that have traditionally been used to train actors--techniques which are designed to free the body, develop imagination and emotional expression, and strengthen the ability to improvise with language. I continued this work with my classes at the American Language Institute at New York University, and it was there that I was given the opportunity to create a comprehensive theater course as one of our content-based electives in the Intensive ESL Program. Each semester, theater games, acting improvisation, and rehearsal culminate in student performances of a play, and we videotape the final performance in front of a live audience.

The Design

      Before each semester begins, I decide upon one play which will be our focus for the whole semester. For ESL classes, I look for a number of things in a play:

1. subject matter and its potential relevance to the students' lives and interests,
2. ample supply of two-character scenes (scenes with three or more characters are particularly challenging to rehearse and perform),
3. a dialogue style which will be manageable to read, and
4. vocabulary. The playscript and the vocabulary list I create become the "textbooks" for the whole course.

      Each class session includes all of the following:

1. theater games for verbal and physical warm-up to free the body and imagination,
2. short improvisations,
3. reading of the script aloud as a group, and
4. class discussion of the play's plot, characters, and important themes.

      In addition, students write about these same elements of drama in class and for homework. An entire class session is set aside each week for the sole purpose of improvisation, so that students get early and continuous experience improvising for a full ten minutes in front of the class. It is only after six weeks of theater games, improvisations and reading, writing, and discussion of the play that I assign each student a scene and a scene partner; then rehearsal for performance begins.

Theater Games and Improvisation

      Theater games and improvisations are integral to the course; they stimulate natural creativity, decrease anxiety, help develop fluency, and discourage the mechanical use of language. I have found that even students who have been hesitant to speak up in a group join in the spirit of fun and creativity, and often become real "talkers." There are many books which can guide you to theater games, most of which are highly adaptable. I like activities which develop sensory awareness and powers of observation, provide tasks for problem solving and conflict resolution, develop emotional expression, enhance storytelling skills, and help students to explore body language and build a character physically.

      In improvisation, students speak and interact in the persona of a given character--they "become" a doctor who cares deeply about her patients, a teenager who is angry with the world, a soldier who is tired of fighting. Improvisation is a natural outgrowth of theater games. I discourage students from planning dialogue: when I give them planning time, they decide only who their characters are, where they are, and the situation/conflict (very simply stated). Students are allowed to plan only the beginning of an improvisation, and it ends only when I say "Relax." The development evolves in front of the audience and should surprise the actors themselves; improvisation is a journey into the unknown. I find that it really helps students gain the courage to take greater risks with language. Most students are amazed by how well they are able to express themselves with little preparation and to create interesting and exciting theater. Here are two fun ways to stimulate improvisation which have worked well in my classes:

Stimulating Improvisation

1. I ask students to bring to class a small assortment of photographs and pictures from newspapers, magazines, or any other source. There should be two people together in the picture (age and gender can vary). After students choose a partner, we place all the pictures in the center of the room, and each pair of students chooses a picture. (Two female partners should choose a picture with two females in it; a male/female partnership should choose one with a male and female in it, etc.) The picture now suggests to the students their characters and the setting for the improvisation; it becomes the springboard for imagination and creation of situation/conflict. After each improvisation, the whole class sees the original picture, and we are all consistently delighted by the students' inventiveness!

2. Students brainstorm other possible settings for the characters in the play we are currently reading. I ask them to think about where else the playwright could have placed these characters, and in what other pairings. Students then write down only the names of two of the play's characters and a brand new setting. I collect these papers and shuffle them. Students choose partners, and I let one student from each pair choose a paper. This is all the information they get, and they have no more than three minutes to come up with a situation/conflict for improvisation. Their understanding of the play's characters and their imaginations give the students all they need in order to improvise brand new (and very plausible) scenes that the playwright never wrote.

      Time and again, rich language emerges. Students love bringing to life the characters they have been studying, and those who are watching are usually very excited by their classmates' acting. A beautiful spirit develops in the classroom. After one semester in the Theater Workshop, a student from Japan wrote about her experience: "In the Theater Workshop, all the students' relationship is very tight. I really appreciate doing improvisations because they teach me how to trust other people. I've never trusted people in such a short period of time before."

The Rehearsal Process

      All great acting, no matter who is doing it, creates the feeling of improvisation--the feeling that everything the audience is seeing is happening right now, for the very first time ever. This is why many actors improvise frequently when rehearsing a script, even when doing films. The rehearsal process for my ESL students is daily improvisation on an assigned scene from our play. The process I have devised is designed to discourage rote memorization of dialogue. Students are required to improvise and paraphrase daily, so that their imaginations and creativity as characters in a specific situation can flourish . At the same time, they are exploring and practicing language functions, speech levels, body language, and everything else we do in conversation. Whether or not the students actually say the playwright' s exact words in the final performance is of little importance.

      In pairs, students read their scene aloud and then divide it into "beats" (topics of conversation), identifying in only a few words what each beat is about. Students then write a Beat List; under the identification of each beat, the student writes four or five key words or phrases (not dialogue from the script! ) which will "trigger" her own actions inside that beat. I circulate to assist each pair. This work gives students continued practice of negotiating and interpreting meanings, summarizing, paraphrasing, sequencing, and prioritizing. Students now see the framework of the scene, and it is this framework which allows them to improvise in a way which is faithful to the play. The brief Beat Notes that evolve from this process are now the working script. Whenever students get "stuck" improvising, they consult only their Beat Notes for guidance.

      I begin to work privately with each individual scene, while the rest of the class rehearses in pairs. I try to "direct" the students as little as possible; my main function is to point out things which move the scene along truthfully and those things which steer the action too far from the playwright's original intention. Students are making choices about the ways that character, situation, and motivation affect their body language and speech level. In the final stages of rehearsal, I give notes on grammar and pronunciation.

Performance and Beyond

      Usually, by the time performance week arrives, the feeling in the class is similar to that of a little acting company. I am always moved by the students' generosity toward each other. If a costume, prop, or set piece is important to one scene, but those actors cannot supply it, another student invariably offers help. It becomes a group effort, and everyone works for the good of the presentation as a whole.

      Each semester, I schedule two performances which are attended by other ESL classes and their professors at the Institute and by students' friends and families. The second performance is videotaped, and the class then views the tape and discusses the work. These performances have been consistently outstanding, and the students usually marvel at their progress.

      I love teaching the Theater Workshop, and students seem to gain so much from it. Many have contacted me when the semester was over, telling me how much they miss the class. I was particularly gratified by one letter from a former student, who wrote me the following: "I thought that acting was a kind of lie, but now I think it's the best way of understanding other people."

Suggested Plays

The Glass Menagerie and Summer and Smoke, by Tennessee Williams
A View From the Bridge by Arthur Miller
LUV by Murray Schisgal
Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odets
A Loss of Roses by William Inge

Suggested Readings

Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. London, England: Routledge, 1992.

Chaikin, Joseph. The Presence of the Actor. New York, N.Y.: Theater Communications Group, 1972.

Hodgson, J. and Richards, E. Improvisation. London, England: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1966.

Jetsmark, Torben. The Dramatic Body. Winnipeg, Canada: Blizzard Publishing, Inc., 1982.

Spolin, Viola. Improvisation For the Theater. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1963.

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