Using drama in the classroom

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As a professional actor and EFL teacher I really enjoy opportunities to bring my two worlds together. I thought I’d share a recent example of this with you.

In July, I was sharing the teaching of a general English Advanced group of adults from Brazil, Italy, Peru and Spain.

They had been working on unit 7 of English Unlimited Advanced about Health which touches on issues of medical ethics and this instantly brought to mind a play that I appeared in at Theatre 503 in London in February of this year, Still I See My Baby by D B Horrigan.

The play is a compelling examination of state eugenics, dealing with a variety of issues in a series of stand-alone scenes.

As the students had really enjoyed the debates that ensued in their class, I reached for the script.

Preparing the class

The students were divided into pairs and I gave each pair a different scene from the play – having selected scenes that only involve 2 characters.

Step 1 – reading for meaning

  • Read the scenes and discuss together what is happening. At this stage, figure out together the meaning of any challenging language by looking at the context.

Step 2 – critical thinking

  • In two groups with one student from each pair, describe the scenes and discuss with the group the issue that the scene was exploring.

Step 3 – text analysis (back in their original pairs)

  • What is actually happening in the scene: who, what, where, when, how?

Step 4 – students take one character each

  • What does the character want?
  • How are they going to get it?
  • What is at stake if they don’t get it?

Step 5 – conveying meaning through intonation

  • Practice reading the scene out loud together bearing in mind the preparation in step 4.

This stage can be expanded to include lots of fantastic work on pronunciation and intonation. How do we use the sound of our voice to convey meaning and emotion?

Step 6

  • Write the next scene together. What happens the next time these two characters meet? Where are they, how much time has passed and how have their objectives changed?

This stage worked particularly well with Still I See My Baby because each of the original scenes were complete mini plays in themselves and with all the detailed work that had gone before, the students were eager to get their creative juices flowing.

The students were encouraged to use the voices that D B Horrigan had given the characters originally. In terms of register, were the relationships personal or formal, for instance?

Step 7 – as step 5 with the new scene

  • Preparing for….

Step 8

  • A rehearsed reading in front of the rest of the class.

'First night' nerves

I had been very careful during the week not to be over exuberant about this stage of the process.

It is obviously my favourite bit of the creative process but I anticipated that reading in front of the whole class could be quite intimidating for some.

I assumed wrongly!

The atmosphere was akin to any opening night in the theatre and all had their cameras and smartphones at the ready to record this prestigious occasion.

At which point I panicked. Oh no! I had forgotten to ask D B Horrigan’s permission to use his script.

Thank you Dan Horrigan for your generosity in hindsight. I only wish that you had been there to see your characters come alive once more and your stories so imaginatively taken forward.

Still I See My Baby, By D B Horrigan, Sky or The Bird Productions

Ali Kemp has taught at International House London since 2008 alongside working as a professional actor.

She trained at The Academy of Live and Recording Arts and in Meisner Technique at The Actors Temple London.

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