I’m working on a new concept in theatre these days. Funded by New Horizons for Seniors, and organized by the Seniors Community Planning Table of Surrey, this troupe brings together people of all ages to create a variety show about seniors’ issues.
Putting Students Under Pressure to Perform
I was giving a workshop in an ESL class the other day, watching beginning speakers of English struggle to make a 30-second impromptu speech on a given topic with no prep time. This led me to speculate on what is actually going on in people’s minds when they are required to speak in a pressure situation.
As a drama/spoken language/ESL teacher, there is a factor I must consider every time I put a student into a challenging situation: that student is actually under two different types of pressure. Those of you who are into left-brain/right brain theory will probably relate to this.
The main pressure the student is under, of course, is creative pressure: to come up with the right words. Whether it is an experienced actor trying to impress his audience with his wit and creativity, or a beginning language student trying to remember the English word for “gato”, everyone who speaks is under this pressure. The teacher’s job is to manipulate the situation and the assignment so that the student is under exactly the right amount of pressure – in other words, that the challenge is at the right level – so that the student can achieve success, but has to work for it. Too much pressure leads to failure. Too little results in a lack of learning.
However, the other type of pressure that exists alongside the intellectual pressure is the social side of it: the student’s fear of failure, of looking bad in front of others, of being embarrassed. Once again, it is the teacher’s duty to manipulate this pressure, to control the situation so that the student can achieve success.
Control the Environment
At the beginning of a lesson, especially with a new class, my main objective is to remove as much of this social pressure as I can. I work to create a cooperative, non-threatening atmosphere in the classroom, so that everyone is given the opportunity to succeed. For some methods I use, check out my archived post on this blog, “The First Six Weeks of School”(August 4, 2006) especially the section on “The Shyest Student”. As the students grow in ability and confidence, I allow a certain amount of social pressure at times, because learning to deal with that pressure is part of the nature of learning to speak a language.
My objective is always to minimize the social risk, to give the student the confidence to take the creative risk, to challenge themselves, because that leads to faster learning. The nice part of it is that, if the student takes a risk and fails, I can always compliment him on the fact that he took the risk, and turn the experience into a positive one, no matter what the outcome.
My greatest achievement in this respect comes when the students will agree to play “Speakers’ Battle”. In this game, two students speak at the same time, for 30 seconds or a minute, on an impromptu topic, vying for the attention of the audience, who point at whoever they are listening to. If the class has been prepared properly, with the right non-competitive, cooperative, risk-taking attitude, they find this exercise hilarious, and are inordinately proud of themselves for having competed. If I can prepare the class to the point that the most shy students will participate in this exercise, I know I have been successful in removing the social pressure from the learning situation, and that the students’ progress in speaking English is at a maximum.
Being aware of both types of pressure, and keeping control of each of them, aids the teacher in creating the perfect learning situation in the classroom.
Do not try “Speaker’s Battle” unless you are supremely confident in your students’ cooperative attitudes. In a group with the wrong approach to competition, it could get very…shall we say…counterproductive.
TUESDAY, JULY 19, 2011
“Generations” Theatre Troupe
So we spent the spring term getting the show together, so to speak.We now have a name, Generations, and have had vests made with our logo on the breast. Very flashy.
Progress was much slower than anticipated, as is usual with startups, I suppose. Several problems held us back. First, the lack of acting experience of our younger members. This didn’t just show up in their performances. There was a notable lack of understanding among the teenagers about the importance of showing up for rehearsal.
We had been rehearsing once a week, but nearer to our first public performance, I boosted it to twice a week. Our first gig, a combined performance with the drama students, went very well. We had a 15-minute show, mostly songs with a few one-liners thrown in. However, the following week, when we had only two weeks to prepare for our first out-in-public show, none of the Queen Elizabeth students showed up for either rehearsal!
By the second rehearsal I was in panic mode, and contacted our sponsor teacher. She spoke with the actors, and reported that everything was fine, and that they would be at the next rehearsal. She also gave them a bit of advice about responsibility and that sort of thing, as teachers do, for which I was grateful. They showed up, all smiles, to the next rehearsal, full of legitimate excuses for missing one of last week’s rehearsals, but no real excuse at all for the other. Once again, they got a bit of a talking to, but not too heavy. It’s always a touchy balance between being too harsh and driving them away, and being too lenient, and not getting the message across. I’m probably on the lenient side. I just went on about how worried I had been when they didn’t show.
Anyway, we had our rehearsals, and did our two performances, still with the 15-minute show, as none of the other scenes had been rehearsed enough to perform. We did two shows back-to-back, one at a Senior’s Wellness Fair in Surrey, and one at an Intercultural Showcase at Queen Elizabeth School. Both times we performed well, and were very well received. My old (sorry, experienced) Vaudevillian ladies carry the show with aplomb, and I’m very grateful to them. The two 11-year-olds and their mothers are full of enthusiasm, which really comes through on stage. However, there is a little problem in the schedule with baseball games.
Another problem we have is with the ESL students. It is very difficult for them to speak out loudly in a language they don’t know well, plus some of them come from cultures where women are not expected to speak out. However, the drama work is very good for them, and they are all coming along wonderfully, both in their acting and in their spoken English.
We finished for the summer in mid-June, and will be starting up again in September. We’ve already been called about doing a show! We are coordinating more closely with Karin Kalyn, the drama teacher, and she is being very helpful.
So our hopes are high. 4 months to go. After that time, we find out if more funding is available.
I’ll keep you all posted.
BYE, BYE, REST HOME
Words by Gordon A. Long
Tune of “Bye, Bye, Blackbird”
Pack up all my pills and clothes,
Here I go, layin’ low,
Bye, bye, rest home.
Goin’ out where I’ll be free,
No more sche-du-els for me,
Bye, bye, rest home.
Everyone here only wants to mind me,
Let’s see how they do when they can’t find me.
I’ve had more than I can take,
Turn me loose for heaven’s sake,
Rest home, bye, bye.
Down the street, to the tram
Here I am, on the lam,
Bye, bye, rest home.
Check my room, I won’t be there,
That’ll give my kids a scare,
Bye, bye, rest home.
Manor, garden, lodge or senior’s day care,
Call it what you like, I will not stay there.
Before I’ll live here to be nursed,
I’ll go out with my feet first,
Rest home, bye, bye.
“Generations” Theatre Company wraps up the season
Please note a new link in the Sidebar to “Lillian Code,” the short film I worked on this summer
December 13 was the final videotaping session and cast party for the Generations show, “Slip Sliding Away,” a musical revue highlighting the challenges of life with multiple generations. The DVD should be ready before the end of the year.
September was a slow start, because over the summer we lost 6 of our members, including three youngsters and two of their parents. A newspaper ad brought us in 4 more, but we only kept 1. We pulled in 2 more from other sources. So the fall cast was twelve: 4 students, one 28-year-old, and 7 seniors.
We rehearsed from mid-September through November, and had our first big public performance of the 40-minute show on November 26 at the school. We spent quite a bit on newspaper ads, and pulled in an audience of about 50. The show went well, although, as expected, lines were blown with unhappy regularity, and I was required to prompt far too often.
In December we had 5 more shows booked, although we had to cancel two of them because of one actor’s illness, one away for a close family funeral, and one who tripped over a stage brace at our Nov 26 show and banged her forehead. She performed that show, but missed the next few because of serious bruising which appeared, giving her huge black eyes, which took over a week to clear up. She made the final video session, however. A real trouper.
So, once again, the performances are over, and now we’re taking a break until February. The students have semester turnaround and provincial exams in late January, and two of our seniors are going on holiday in early January, so what can you do? We are now assessing our successes and problems, and looking for new funding for the spring term.
The main difficulty this fall, once again, was that rehearsals were hampered by lack of student participation. Legitimate activities intruded, such as Work Experience placements. Semi-serious excuses (I had to babysit my little brother while my mother went shopping) added to the problems, and there seemed to be a great deal of illness among the students. Lack of communication made these problems even worse.
For example, one of the girls was on work experience, but was able to come to rehearsal late. Her stint was over just as we started our performance “season,” so we were able to cope. The next student, however, without telling me, went on work experience the week before our final taping session. When I discovered this, I instructed the videographer to come a bit later, and told everyone to be prepared to work later. The day of the taping, the girl showed up at the beginning, and told us that her work started later. At precisely the time the cameraman was showing up, she was leaving! So her scene never made it onto the videotape.
This was just as well, actually, because she never managed to get her release form signed by her parents, and I wonder if we would have been allowed to use her image in public showings (such as YouTube) anyway.
In all, this has been a positive experience for everyone. The new Canadian actors have improved their spoken language skills immensely. The seniors have all enjoyed themselves, and developed their acting skills. Members of the audience have enjoyed the shows and, we hope, been left with some ideas to mull over.
Whether this has all been worth the money the government put into it remains to be seen. The New Horizons for Seniors initiative provides startup funds to buy equipment and start the program up. It is the responsibility of those involved to keep the project going.
More news as funding allows.