Acting Like an English Speaker
It began as a way for me to blow off lesson plans. Distribute a script, assign roles and see what happens. I called it “Acting Like an English Speaker.”
I teach English as a Second Language. My students are adults from around the globe who have finished college. Some are hoping to get into graduate programs in the US; others are professionals whose employers are paying for their classes. Their fields of expertise range from hotel management to chemical engineering to law, and they all admitted on that first night that they chose my workshop, a supplemental requirement to their weekly lectures, because it fit their schedules.
I’d fluffed up the course description with promises of improved pronunciation and inflection and a focus on idiomatic speech, but that was really just to impress the administrative powers that be. In truth, I was afraid to death that I would be “observed” during one of these sessions. Was learning going to happen? I didn’t know.
It was slow going at first. The play was an adaptation of “Great Expectations.” The men only wanted to play the menacing Magwich. No one wanted to take on looney old Miss Havisham. A couple of the students had never seen a script before and so read the stage directions aloud with their lines. But, by week four, I discovered things had changed. The characters found their voices and their personalities. Magwich was terrifying, Estella was a snob and even the men wanted a chance to play Miss Havisham. Pronunciation and inflection did improve. Idioms were introduced. What’s more, the students’ confidence with the language soared.
I had to tell someone about this happy accident, and so I told Adam, a friend of mine and an actor with a background in writing. He’s an English language nerd; same as me. We decided that the students speak so well in reading a play because they’re hiding behind their characters. It’s the character who cannot blend speech or mispronounces L and R. The heightened emotions the students express are not their own. Everything that happens in a play is larger than life, but larger than life in an ESL classroom often translates into a native speaker’s reasonable volume and level of emotion. Taking an interest in the idea of learning a language through theatre, Adam offered up the Lincoln Loft, a small theatre space to which he has access. The students could have the stage on the final night of the workshop.
The first time the class took me up on Adam’s offer, they were doing an adaptation of “Antigone.” It was a disaster. The second time, they performed a story they made up and I had transposed. They read in monotone from a script too full of nuance and moved stiffly about the stage. The administrative powers that came to that performance, had echoed a suggestion Adam had already made. Why not let them write their own plays?
It’s a tall order for just one 21-hour workshop, and so, we created a second one to precede the first. In “Playwriting,” students work in pairs. On the first night, the pairs create six characters; three male and three female, each with a name, an age, a profession and one additional bit of background information. For example, “Bubba” is a 38-year-old pop star turned truck-driver who has ties to the mafia. All of the characters were tossed into a hat, and the students chose five at random. The assignment was to find a way to connect their five characters and get them to talk to each other. They could use language they heard on the street if they wanted. This was not an exercise in precise grammar.
They wrote 60 lines per night. Emotions and stage directions were slowly added. In week seven, the writers gave roles to their classmates and directed a read through. That night, we heard nine one-act plays. And they weren’t bad.
I took all nine into the next first session of “Acting Like an English Speaker,” and let the new class select which they thought were the most interesting based on the first few lines. Three plays were chosen, and the class was divided into three groups. Here’s where things went a little crazy. The scripts were rough. Lines had to be added to clarify what was happening. Stage directions were re-interpreted to fit the physical space available. When a new student joined in week four, an entire role had to be written. The students handled every challenge with grace and delegation. They discovered who among them were the writers, the actors and the directors. I just floated from group to group, observing, learning, keeping their conversations from getting too far off track.
The class met at the Lincoln Loft Theatre on the last night. The students had by then memorized most of their lines and collected props. Still a bit too shy to have invited along friends and family, they took the stage and got a chance to feel what it was like to work under the lights. From the booth and the back row, respectively, Adam and I watched engineers, lawyers and hotel managers perform their roles convincingly, making connections between the emotions they expressed, the movements of their bodies and the language they used. It was astonishing. I can hardly wait for Act 2.