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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 2; March 04

Short Article

Theater Games

primary, secondary adult

Entering the Creative Space in Language Instruction
Jane Pahr, British School, Trieste, Italy

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We all know the excitement of learning something new, so why is it that language learning can seem so devoid of that spark? We think of acquiring rather than creating, and evolving language. I decided to begin to experiment with playing when I felt myself weighted down with the responsibility of it all.

I love theater games and have lots of experience teaching and doing them in workshops and theater where that is the point. However, when I presented some to a group of EFL teachers their questions about the relevance of the games brought home to me how focused we tend to be on language acquisition as 'work' rather than 'play'. Reflecting on the questions which arose after this presentation to teachers reaffirmed the need for this process to be just that, given its own time frame to develop rather than concepts presented. It's a felt rather than intellectual process. However, I want to stop right here to say that I noticed that there was laughter in the room during an exercise where we tried to pass an imaginary ball; a noticeable relaxation when focused on an activity. This laughter for me is the key that there's something important here.

The games found in teacher's manuals or suggested in most workshops are language based. Theater Games, as presented by Viola Spolin, are based in the intangible zone of creative space. Therefore, an activity which simply "opens the space" may not be seen as being as relevant to language teaching as activities based on the skills. Stephen Krashen, Chairmen of the Graduate TEFL Program at University of Southern California, suggests that we filter all input, rejecting that which challenges in some way our frame of reference. This Language Acquisition Filter is lowered when we are relaxed. Even actors can become stilted when the concentration is on the words, trying to be clever or funny, rather than letting the words arise from what is often called, "the space" , that creative place where imagination and inspiration meet with what is known to create something new. This may also be the place where language is learned. It certainly has an element of alchemy when it goes from blank stares to the light in the eyes of comprehension, when carefully rehearsed phrases give way to real use and understanding.

I've recently been reading a book by Bernard Dufeu called Teaching Myself (Oxford, 1994). At first I was interested in it from the perspective of his observations about the internal changes necessary. I've felt the attachment of identity and the comfort language and place can provide. There are internal shifts necessary to expand one's very identity learning another language, particularly while living in a country other than your own which provide more stimulus but also challenges other than simply studying a language. As I began to read Dufeu's techniques realizing my own background both in Theatre and Yoga, it occurred to me that I might be leaving some of the best parts of myself out in trying to fit in with the EFL consensus. It was this that stimulated me to begin playing with Theatre Games. I was reminded that the origin of this work was a project by Neva Boyd teaching Immigrant Children, which was then developed by Spolin and others into Improvisational Theater Games .

Space is a word used to define more than the physical context of where, however, the question of physical space may present challenges. Generally theater games are done in a more open space than is generally available at many language schools. Some games simply require a bit more space, so would have to be done only where that's available. Still, the key is experiencing and having fun, so take what you like and leave the rest: adaptability may be the true mother of invention so that rather than being limited by boundaries of space and time, they become parameters within which to discover new ways to play and learn. We're all players, this adjustment stimulates growth by all concerned.

Play has great relevance in learning anything. We can become overly focused on achieving and forget that language, particularly early acquisition, is done best by children. Avery Schreiber, a wonderful teacher and an award winning actor inducted into the improvisational Hall of Fame, was my friend and mentor . He used to say:

"Don't pretend. Children don't say okay, you pretend to be the cop and I'll pretend to be… They say, you're the cop, I'm the robber. GO!" Play the game, don't pretend to play. It separates you from the experience." That's for adults. As for children, I'm certainly no expert in this area. Before this term I'd only taught young people once. They were labeled 'emotionally disturbed adolescents' which is perhaps an oxymoron, they seemed normal to me. It was exhausting but wonderful to see them begin to focus, enter the creative space and play rather than defend. I'm surprised at how quickly children learn to ask what's correct, fearing to speak for fear of making a mistake. They need activity as well as words, physical involvement and play to enjoy learning a language.

Perhaps drama in and of itself can be used as a warm up, opening the mind and relaxing the body. It also provides an expansion of opportunities to use and experience language. I felt nervous when first presenting this because it's something important, even sacred, to me. I saw people's faces change from serious teacher mode to experimenting and laughing. Think how welcome that might be for adults coming after a day's work or for children, who'd rather be outside than spending yet more time seated in a classroom. I also saw that just getting up during a two hour span is absolutely essential at least for me, so why not have a play-break ?

I didn't set out to be an EFL/ESL teacher so my background isn't in linguistics. I began in Adult Education, part time. Later had the privilege of doing a seminar with John Rassias, Chairmen of the Foreign Language Department at Princeton, who started a program teaching actors, forever in need of a second job to support themselves, a program on how to teach ESL. Teaching is in itself an art; we set the stage for our students to learn. Having learned grammar on my feet while teaching it, or just before, only later returning to school for my TEFL Teaching Certificate, I'm sure that it's best learned in process..

Searching to find my own ground on which to stand, many questions remain to be answered. Teaching language, the deeper level of understanding and sharing is serious business. However while we're doing it, we can also have a lot of fun. Here's a game to try out.  

PLAY BALL: (Adapted from Viola Spolin's Theater Game File)

Before the actual game, a focus exercise. Close your yes. Where are your feet? Feel your feet on the floor. Where are your hands? Feel your hands. Feel the air around your hands. Rub your hands together, feel the warmth. Place them over your eyes, feel the warmth. Feel your hands over your eyes, feel your feet on the floor. Let your hands down, let your arms hang. Feel your arms, shoulders, neck. Open your eyes.  

It's not absolutely necessary but for the first time, it's a good idea, especially for lower level classes to have two or three balls, different shapes and textures. ( If you don't have them, you can go directly to the 'space ball'.)

I use a soccer ball, a beach ball and a golf ball. (I wish I had a heavy American style bowling ball!) Start with a golf ball. Put it into someone's hand. What is it? How big is it? What does it feel like? Depending upon the level, the details may be elicited or supplied by the teacher.

Repeat the same exercise with other balls. First have students pass the golf ball around. If it's a large group, you can separate into groups each with a ball. Pass with eyes open. Continue, eyes closed. (An interesting side note here, you can do the first exercise feeling the ball with eyes closed or behind the back identifying qualities, even ask the colour!) Replace with a larger ball, then again with another.

Have students play , throwing and catching the ball. Once you've established the ball as a real object, remove the ball. With your hands, create a ball. This can take some practice, I recommend a bit of playing on your own first until you really have a sense of the ball.

Can you see the ball? What colour is it? How big is it? Watch the ball. Throw the ball in slow motion. Demonstrate, slow motion with the words and action. Watch the ball. Catch the ball. Keep the focus on the ball. Once the students have a real sense of the ball, return to normal time. Throw, catch…

The ball is becoming lighter. Even lighter, 100 times lighter. Now normal again, Keep the ball in the space, not in your head. It's getting heavier. Heavier still. Use your whole body to throw the ball. It's too heavy, you need help. Keep moving the ball, how can you move it. Now it's large. Very large. Huge. Keep going until the whole group has the ball. It's huge and it's, yes, it's getting lighter, and lighter …. TPR in action!

As the ball becomes light, you may notice bodies seem to become lighter. At the very least, the physical activity will relax people. Spolin says in the handbook for Theater Game File, "The use of space objects is not pantomime. The purpose of space substance objects…. is to awaken that intuitive area which understands and sees physical evidence of the heretofore hidden. Recognition of this added dimension brings excitement and refreshment to all. This is the fertile ground of the poet, the artist, the seeker."

And as teachers and learners we are ever seeking to expand our horizons, make visible the invisible, give words expression and touch other human beings with compassion and understanding. We do not act as authorities but rather as fellow players who have a bit more experience to share in the target language, but we too are here to learn.
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