Theatre in the English Lesson

Petr Griffith, fondateur du White Horse Theatre et auteur de nombreuses pièces.

Theatre in the English-lesson

Theatre and Drama as aids in the teaching of English

by Peter Griffith

The Chinese philosopher Confucius had many wise things to say. As a teacher, I have always particularly enjoyed Confucius’s analysis of education – what actually goes on in a school classroom. Confucius sums it up as follows:

I hear – and I forget, I see – and I remember, I do – and I understand.

When I was a school pupil, fifty years ago, the British education system was based purely on the first of Confucius’s phrases – I hear, and I forget I and my classmates would all sit at our desks in complete silence – with all the desks in straight rows. The teacher would stand at the front of the classroom, and he would talk. We children would listen, and try to understand. Sometimes the teacher would look at us while he talked. Sometimes he would stand with his back to us, writing on the blackboard.

Sometimes a fly would buzz around the room. I would watch the fly – and after a few minutes I would have completely forgotten about the teacher. I wouldn’t even know whether he was teaching us Latin or Mathematics. He was simply demonstrating Confucius –

I hear, and I forget.

For twelve years teachers talked to me – and I cannot now remember a single thing that those teachers said. Later on in my school career, we had the nineteen-sixties – we had the Beatles, and mini-skirts, and Woodstock. Everything was brightly coloured – and a very tiny piece of this revolution found its way into our school classrooms. Teachers found that we, their pupils, might remember something if they made use of “visual aids” in their lessons. The teachers would bring something into the classroom which we could look at while the teacher talked. Even now, fifty years later, I can remember some things that I saw in school. I can’t remember anything that the teacher said… but I can remember things that he showed us -I see, and I remember

I can remember how one day an English-teacher brought a big piece of twisted metal into the classroom, and asked us to imagine what it might be, and write poems about it. I can remember how the chemistry teacher mixed various liquids together, and heated them up on a bunsen burner so that they suddenly changed colour and exploded. I loved it – so exciting and dramatic – and I can still remember it. I can remember how the French teacher brought some French newspapers into the classroom, and helped us to read the news in French – and how we looked at the photos in the Paris Match and enjoyed gazing at the super-slim models in their elegant clothing – and how we read the captions about those women – in French! I have forgotten ten years of boring French lessons: but I can remember those women in the Paris Match. Even after fifty years:

I see, and I remember.

And then in the early 1970s, I trained to become a teacher myself. I learned new ways of interesting children in the subjects that they had to learn. I learned to try to get the pupils not only to hear and to see, but also to do. One day I waited until the headmaster wasn’t looking, and I took my class for a walk in the woods. While roaming between the trees and jumping over the stream, I got the children to gather flowers and leaves, and to make sketches and take notes on what they could hear and see and touch. Then, back in the classroom, I got them to unpack all the things they had found in the woods, and to write poems and paint pictures of the woods, and we put the results onto a big display-board, where all the pupils from other classes could enjoy them. Another day I brought lots of musical instruments into the classroom, and I got each child to take an instrument and try to make a noise with it – and then we looked at how the instruments worked, and we discovered the harmonic series by trying it out – and we took pieces of rope and discovered how waves travel, and how sound-waves convey musical tone – and then we improvised music using all the instruments. Was this education? I like to think so. I like to think that my pupils were not only hearing and seeing, but doing – and thereby understanding things about the world that they lived in – I do, and I understand.

But I still wasn’t satisfied. I still felt that a lot of what went on in schools was boring, and I felt that I wasn’t really reaching my pupils. There was something missing. Yes – something that even Confucius had missed. School could teach pupils to forget, and to remember, and to understand. But school wasn’t really reaching the children, on a personal level. My pupils would come home each day, remembering what they had done at school, and understanding it; but they weren’t really involved with what they were doing. Emotionally, they were completely detached from the education process. They could learn and understand, but they were not personally interested in what they were learning. They were not motivated to learn in order to know more about the world; they were motivated to learn only so as to pass exams. The big element that was missing from the whole process was… emotion. How could I get my pupils to involve their emotions in the process of learning? I needed to add a fourth line to Confucius’s epigram: I hear – and I forget, I see – and I remember, I do – and I understand, I feel – and I am involved in what I am learning, and I am personally motivated to learn

How is this to be achieved? How can we teachers communicate with our pupils on an emotional level, to involve and motivate them? Those of you who know my work will already have guessed the answer: but first, let me add a little applied psychology to the mixture. (I happen to be married to a psychologist, so I can speak with authority here.) Psychologists tell us that the brain has two halves. The left side of the brain controls all that is rational, analytical, logical, verbal, reasoning, factual and cognitive. The right side of the brain controls all that is emotional, instinctive, non-verbal, animal, passionate, sensory, visual and creative.

Traditionally education has involved only the left aside of the brain. In school children are taught to learn, to reason, to speak, to read, and to analyse – all functions of the left side of the brain. We assume that the functions of the right side of the brain will also be taught to our children – but we don’t include these functions in our education system. Instead, we assume that our children will develop their emotional and creative sides instinctively – inadvertently, as it were – as a result of contact with their mothers.

However, psychologists also tell us (this part is less well known) that there is a vital connection between the left and right sides of the brain – it is called the corpus callous. Through this organ the two brain-halves are able to operate in collaboration with each other. Well-balanced humans develop their two brain-halves equally. This gives them the ability to develop the growth of both brain-sides to their full capacity; and it also enables them to mix the effects of the two sides, so that their analytical thinking is tempered by creativity, and their emotions are regulated by their logicality. If we want our pupils to really learn something, and understand it, and remember it, and be inspired by it, then we need to involve both sides of their brains simultaneously.

Modern educational psychologists and educational theorists are well aware of all this, and they are recommending new young budding teachers to involve both brain-halves in their teaching. However, the people who are running our schools now – the headteachers and heads of year or subject – were trained as teachers between forty and fifty years ago, and so the most recent educational and psychological discoveries may not feature in the curriculum of many schools. And those who set the exams which so dominate the content and style of the curriculum are probably either former teachers or senior university academics – and they appear to be far more interested in categorising pupils than on educating them. The result is that schools are forced by the system to place the emphasis of their work on pushing pupils to pass exams – which takes us right back to the most primitive style of education in the time of Confucius – I hear, and I forget.

Pupils begin by analysing the exam papers from the past few years – then they learn, by rote, what they need to know in order to pass the exams – and then as soon as they have acquired the exam qualification, they forget all that they have learnt.

So how can we, as teachers, do it better? How can we help our pupils to learn using both sides of their brains? (Another couple of pages, and I shall tell you!)

So far I have looked at the whole breadth of educational theory. But first, I think I’m right in my assumption that all those who are reading or listening to this paper are teachers of languages. So I can now concentrate more specifically on language-teaching, as a particular example of educational practice. And since my own personal work involves the teaching of English, we can further concentrate on Englishteaching.

We all know what our pupils need to learn in order to be able to understand English. They need to become masters of English grammar and syntax; and they need to have a wide English vocabulary. Once they have achieved these two things, they should be able to communicate in English. However, we also all know (although as professional teachers we don’t like to admit it) that analysing grammar and learning lists of vocabulary are pretty boring activities. If our pupils are well disciplined, they will eventually be able to speak and understand English up to a certain level. If they can gain sufficient motivation from the importance of getting good grades in their exams, then they should eventually become reasonably competent speakers and readers of English. But the whole process of learning English, spread over about ten years of our children’s lives, is at the moment an uninspiring duty rather than an exciting pleasure. We can perhaps try to liven things up by bringing “visual aids” into the classroom – perhaps a photo of Big Ben or a picture of the Queen. But our pupils are still learning English with only one side of their brains – the left side. They are learning the language with their brains, but not with their hearts. They are doing their best to fulfil the academic expectations set by their parents and their teachers: but basically they are bored. The whole of the emotional, instinctive, passionate, sensory, creative areas of their personality are not involved in their learning experience. And yet English, like any language, is actually not a science: far more it is a means of communication – not something to be analysed logically, but an art aiming to create active personal relationships between people. So how can we teach our pupils to learn English emotionally and creatively – I feel – and I am involved in what I am learning, and I am personally motivated to learn – how can we teach English as a means of communication, rather than as a dry list of grammar exercises and vocabulary?

The most effective way is, naturally, to send all our pupils to England or to the USA for a year, placing them with families in which English is the only language spoken. Ideally our pupils will there meet people with whom they will fall in love, and so they will be motivated to communicate in English without even thinking about it. Actually this programme would be the best possible way of saving the world in the 21st century… But for a number of reasons, both political and financial, I fear that it is unlikely to happen for the majority of our pupils.

The next best thing is… to simulate the effects of the above scheme, by the use of… Theatre!

Yes, theatre. We have finally reached the central theme of this paper. I have devoted most of my professional life to helping teachers to use theatre and drama as aids in the teaching of English.

I mention theatre and drama as two separate activities. Let me briefly define those two terms – at least for the purpose of this paper.

Theatre is performance directed at an audience. The aim of the actors is to communicate with the audience – perhaps to make them laugh, or perhaps to move them emotionally, or perhaps simply to entertain them by telling them a story. The criterion for judging the effectiveness of a piece of theatre lies in the quality of the audience’s experience. It is the function of the performers to project the story – and their emotions – to the audience as clearly and effectively as possible.

Drama is performance done for the benefit of the participants. Normally there is no audience (having an audience for drama is likely to make the participants self-conscious, and spoil the work.) The criterion for judging a piece of drama lies in the quality of the actors’ experience. Using drama games and exercises may well help actors to develop skills that will assist them when they are performing in theatre; but the primary aim of drama is to allow the performers to discover something about themselves, and to allow them to explore a story, a theme, or an emotion while giving them the freedom to know that they are taking part in a drama workshop, and no-one is watching them or judging them.

Let us begin with theatre – the classic theatrical event in which a group of professional actors perform a play for the benefit of an audience. What are the benefits that a group of non-English pupils might reap from watching a play in English?

1 – first, the pupils are spending an hour hearing English spoken by native speakers of the language. Not only are the actors native speakers, but they are also professional actors, trained to speak English clearly and correctly. The majority of English-teachers are not native speakers, and they speak English with a foreign accent. Normally the pupils copy the way their teachers talk English: and this means that they develop a double-English accent. The teacher pronounces the language with his or her own Chinese or French or Japanese or German accent – and then the pupil adds his or her own accent to the way the teacher spoke, so that the pupil’s accent is even more pronounced than the teacher’s. Watching a piece of theatre performed by native speakers shows the pupils how English is really spoken in England.

2 – the experience of hearing native speakers doesn’t only show pupils how words are pronounced in England; but it also demonstrates the intonation and speech-rhythms of correct English. This is something that most English people are themselves not aware of – they use intonation and speech rhythms automatically. But however correctly your pupils may pronounce individual English words, they can only learn to sound like an English person if they are given the chance to hear native speakers.

3 – a piece of theatre, written directed and acted by British artists, inevitably brings to its audience a “feel” for British culture. There are hundreds of tiny subtle differences between the way British people treat each other and the way people from other lands treat each other. This can apply to the simplest of relationships – the way in which Chinese parents behave to their children… or the way in which a Japanese teacher treats his pupils… or the way in which a French or German person eats and talks about food… all these are very slightly different from the way English people relate to each other, and your pupils can often pick up such tiny details while watching a play.

4 – while watching a play, pupils will often recognise a word, or a grammatical construction, which they have learnt in class. This is a valuable moment for the pupil. In a flash, the pupil may say to himself something like: “Aha! That word was part of the list of vocabulary that we had to learn as part of last week’s appallingly boring homework. Now I understand why we had to learn that word – in the play, it makes sense!”

5 – your pupils may also learn a few new words while watching a play. If the play is well written and aimed at audiences for whom English is a second language, then any new words that the pupils may not know will be carefully introduced – then repeated – then explained using other words – and then repeated again. The new word has now been used four times – and there is a reasonable chance that the pupils will have learnt it, and that they will recognise it next time they hear it, even if it is in a completely different context.

6 – plays often contain “catch-phrases” – words or word combinations which are regularly repeated for comic effect. The pupils in the audience will almost certainly learn these: and especially younger pupils may make use of these catchphrases in order to create their own versions of the play after having seen the performance.

7 – most pupils have little opportunity to experience live theatre: their only experience of any sort of performance comes from film, TV and video. Seeing live theatre introduces pupils to a completely new art-form. They discover that in live theatre, the actors can react to the audience. And they discover that having live actors in the room with the audience creates a completely new situation – quite different from watching a DVD, during which the ”audience” can talk, eat or even stop the film and return to it half an hour later. Live theatre creates a direct relationship between actors and audience, and requires total concentration from the audience, which represents a whole new artistic experience for the pupils.

8 – if a play is well-directed, specifically aimed at an audience for whom English is their second language, then the story will be presented in a visual manner. That is to say, that the audience can follow most of the story even without understanding all of the words. Teachers often make the mistake of underestimating the ability of their pupils to follow a play’s plot simply by watching what the actors do. I have often spoken to teachers who look at the text of a play and say “Here are ten words which my pupils will not understand.”

However, if the play is properly directed, with all the main action shown visually on the stage, then the pupils will usually understand those words – and the whole story – simply by watching what happens on stage.

Whenever I travel, I try to see what is happening theatrically in the lands that I visit. I have very frequently seen plays performed in a language that I did not understand. Some of the most memorable theatrical experiences of my life involved seeing a play of which I didn’t understand a word. The plays were presented visually – and that was all that was needed. In the year 2012 Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, in London, presented all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, each play performed in a different language. The presentations were visual – and the audiences were delighted. Hardly anyone understood the words – but everyone understood the stories.

9 – many young people will go to see an English-language play thinking “I’m not going to understand any of this – it’s going to be boring.” And then an hour later they emerge from the performance and discover that they have understood a whole story in English, because of the visual presentation. This can gave an enormous boost to the confidence of your pupils – they suddenly and unexpectedly realise that they have understood the play.

10 – after a theatrical performance in a school or university, the actors usually come onto the stage for a “Question and Answer” session. This gives the pupils the opportunity to talk directly to the actors, and to discover that they are capable of entering into a dialogue with English people. The questions can be at any level, from profound queries about the interpretation of a Shakespeare play, right down to questions like “What is your favourite colour?” from an audience of six-year-olds. At all levels of age and ability this Question-and-Answer session adds a further dimension to the theatrical experience – most audience members are experiencing for the first time what it feels like to communicate with English people in English.

11 – in many parts of Asia a lot of audience members will seldom – if ever – have got to know a foreigner before. For young people to see English actors, and communicate with them, is a very special experience. It helps young people to see that Europeans and Asians (or English and French) are not very different from each other. And thereby it enables young people to see the world as a whole, and to understand that on the basic human level we are all the same. The theatrical experience for the audience involves the removal of barriers between countries and races.

12 – and still I haven’t reached the most important point – the point to which I was building up all through the early part of this paper. Theatre involves the emotions of your pupils.

Unlike just about all other activities that take place in schools, theatre involves both sides of the brain. As the educational psychologists tell us, the most effective learning is a form of learning that links the left and right sides of the brain. A theatrical performance does exactly that. Watching a play, the audience uses the left (logical-analytical) side of the brain in order to follow the story and try to understand the words. But at the same time seeing a play is an emotional experience, which uses the brain’s (emotional-instinctive) right side. Some plays may simply make the audience laugh – after all, laughter is an emotion. Other plays will cause the audience to feel anger (when, for instance, Macbeth orders the wanton killing of MacDuff’s wife and children). Or the play may induce feelings of pity – when we see Romeo and Juliet making mistake after mistake, and we realise that the play is leading to their unnecessary and undeserved deaths. Young audiences – up to the age of about ten – can often not stop themselves from calling out in order to try to influence the play’s outcome. If the heroine is on the stage, and a monster is creeping up behind her, the audience will shout out “Look out – it’s behind you!” The children are completely immersed in the play, and have long since forgotten that they are watching a story in the English language. All that concerns them is their emotional desire to rescue the heroine. At every level, the audience can – and should – be emotionally involved in the play. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle tried to define the effect of a tragedy. He described the audience’s reaction as “Purging of the emotions by pity and fear”. From an ancient tragedy to a modern children’s play, the emotions are being stimulated and “purged” – and this is the principal prerequisite of effective learning.

13 – and this leads us to the extra line that I have added to Confucius’s epigram – I feel – and I am involved in what I am learning, and I am personally motivated to learn;

Performing a play awakens the emotions of the audience – andCthereby it involves the audience in the action – and there by your pupils are personally motivated to learn, and both sides of their brains are stimulated. What more could you, as a teacher, want?

So much for theatre – a vital element of modern teaching. Now let us examine drama, and see what alternative or additional benefits drama workshops can bring to your pupils.

Drama workshops can involve a wide range of exercises and


1 – physical warm-up exercises

2 – taboo-breaking exercises

3 – focus and concentration exercises

4 – voice and pronunciation exercises

5 – role-play and dialogue

6 – improvisation

7 – mime

8 – physical movement activities

9 – devising plays as a group and writing plays

10- analysing scenes from existing plays, so as to discover the subtext

11 – exploring characters from existing plays

12 – exploring the atmosphere of a play

The concept of theatre is familiar to all of us; but many people don’t have any clear idea of what goes on in a drama workshop. So let me go through all the examples of workshop activities I have just listed, so that you all have some idea of what we are talking about.

1 – Physical warm-up exercises: Pupils are accustomed to sitting at desks when they are at school. It comes as a shock to them, when they find that they are expected to move about during a drama workshop. I always begin my workshops by going through a series of physical exercises. The exercises are very simple, so that the participants feel that they are on “safe ground” – these are the same familiar stretching and energising exercises that boys regularly do when preparing to go onto the football field, or girls might know from ballet classes or sport lessons.

2 – Taboo-breaking exercises: I generally then go on to break some of the”taboos” by which pupils may feel constrained. First, I introduce exercises that allow them to “take possession” of the whole room – to discover where the walls are, and where there may be different levels on which they can walk or climb. Then I introduce games which involve the participants touching each other – this is a big taboo, especially among adolescents. I make use of simple games that involve touch – for example, the pupils walk around the room, and you call out two body-parts (for example, shoulder to knee) and then all pupils must find a partner, and one touches his shoulder with the other one’s knee.

3 – Focus and concentration exercises: throughout a workshop, the teacher or workshop leader must be fully aware of the atmosphere in the group. If the pupils are tired and sluggish, they will need additional warm-up games. And if they are over-excited and noisy, they will need exercises that calm them down and focus them. The workshop leader needs to have a wide repertoire of games and exercises available to bring into the workshop as and when they are necessary.

A special favourite among school-pupils is stage combat. This requires considerable discipline, for safety reasons; and some combat activities are hard to learn. But there are a number of exercises – punches, slaps, and hair-pulling, for example – that are very easy, and remarkably effective.

All the above-mentioned exercises are not directly concerned with the learning of the English language – they are basic activities intended to prepare the pupils for drama work.

However, if the workshop leader is English, then naturally the workshop participants are learning English from the start. The physical exercises are introduced in English, and so the pupils are introduced to English words. If the leader says “raise your right foot”, and at the same time demonstrates the activity, then the pupils have learnt the English words “right” and “foot” without even noticing it.

Drama exercises can have multiple beneficial effects on pupils at any age – drama fosters confidence, teamwork, sensitivity, communication, self-discipline, tolerance, and numerous other desirable qualities. However, this paper is concerned with drama workshops as a tool in the teaching of English: so in order to save space, I leave it to teachers to work out for themselves the numerous non-linguistic benefits that pupils can gain from drama experience.

4 – Voice and pronunciation exercises: I know that this is a generalisation: but I have often observed that Asian students seem to me to be less confident than European or American students when it comes to public speaking. And this goes right back to the physical techniques of vocal production. An actor’s training involves learning how to use the voice. This begins with breathing exercises, and goes on to teach pupils to use their diaphragm, their throats, their soft and hard palates, their lips and tongues. Then we progress to humming exercises, and the discovery of the resonances in the face and chest. Naturally it is not possible to teach participants a whole new way of producing their voices in the space of a single workshop: but it may open their eyes to new techniques of voice production, and it may lead to some students taking private lessons to improve their vocal resonance. Especially when working in Asia, I introduce exercises to help the pupils to practise these techniques. I also look at the use of lips, teeth and tongue in pronouncing words. Everyone knows that many Asians confuse the “L” and “R” consonants: so I like to bring in “tongue twister” exercises like

– “round the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran”

– “Clean clams crammed in clean cans”

– “Luke Luck likes lakes. Luck’s duck licks lakes”

– “Rory the warrior and Roger the worrier were reared wrongly in a rural brewery”

– “Eleven benevolent elephants”.

These amusing exercises can build up to the most difficult of all (for Asian pupils!):

– “Red lorry yellow lorry red lorry yellow lorry.”

This looks very easy on paper; but any Asian student who can master it is well on the way to pronouncing English like a native!

5 – Role-play and dialogue: for this, the pupils will create their own scenes, speaking spontaneously. There are various ways of introducing the activity. A simple way is to divide the participants into pairs, and give each pair a situation – for example: “You are sisters… let’s call you Sharon and Tracey… Sharon has borrowed Tracey’s favourite dress without asking permission… the next day Tracey goes to the cupboard to put on the dress, and she finds that the dress has a big red stain on it… run the scene from the moment when Tracey finds the stained dress.” Or another example: “You are mother and daughter… the daughter wants to go out to a night-club with her friends… the mother won’t let her go out unless she promises to be home by 11:00 o’clock… start the argument, and see who is going to win.” Pupils who are new to theatre workshops will feel safer if all the pairs work on their role-play dialogue simultaneously – then no-one can see or hear what the others in the class are doing. More experienced pupils may after a time be happy to show their scenes to the rest of the class. If the situations are well chosen, then the pupils will feel the emotion of the scene (for both the examples I have quoted, the principal emotion is likely to be anger). They will then be fully involved in the scene, and will (hopefully) find that they are talking in English. Naturally dialogue scenes require pupils who are sufficiently confident in spoken English to be able to express their thoughts. The teacher may find it useful to prepare the pupils by looking at useful vocabulary before they start working on the scenes.

6 – Improvisation: an improvisation may be done in pairs, or else it might involve the whole group. For example, one might introduce a scene like this: “George and Lucy, you have invited some friends to a cocktail party… Unfortunately someone has posted the party invitation, and your address, on Facebook: so that half your guests are your friends and the other half are complete strangers… I shall tell each of you when to go and ring the bell and join the party… each of you needs to think in advance who you are – find yourself a voice and a walk. And then, once all the characters are on the stage, you will need, as a group, to find a way of ending the scene.” For less experienced pupils, the workshop leader may need to give more detailed guidance. For example: “John and Mary, you are a married couple, and white… you are having your supper…

Liz, you are their sixteen-year-old daughter… go and join the scene… after a while the doorbell rings – Liz goes goes to the door, and comes back with a strange boy – he is your new boyfriend, and he is black – Jimmy, you be the boyfriend… after a time, Liz’s sister joins the group… she recognises her sister’s boyfriend because she had been going out with him, and he dumped her last week… Samantha, you be the sister… go and join the scene… then the grandfather joins the group… he is very deaf… Billy, you be the grandfather… etc.”

Scenes of this sort once again give the pupils the opportunity – together with the emotional motivation – to speak English. Improvised dramatic scenes can be simply fun – like the cocktail party sketch I have just described; or else they can lead to serious arguments in dialogue form, as might well happen with the two sisters who have the same boyfriend.

7 – Mime: for a group of drama workshop participants who speak English only as a second language, inventing dialogue can be hard work. For this reason, especially with younger pupils, I vary the work with wordless mime scenes. Mime is fun, and children enjoy it. It is particularly useful for children who have specific problems with speaking English – children who stutter, or who are less well-versed in English than their classroom companions. A typical mime activity might be to ask each child to mime a household action, and get the rest of the group to guess what is the action that is being mimed. The less confident pupils will probably choose something simple like brushing their teeth, or eating an apple. The more confident pupils might try making a pancake, or being goalkeeper for a football team. If the workshop leader finds it appropriate, he might introduce the concept of mime by giving a little technical advice: the vital thing with mime is to avoid all unnecessary fidgeting, so that only the relevant actions can be seen. And the second thing to learn is to treat inanimate objects so that they retain their size and shape – for instance, in a mime of driving a car it is vital that the steering-wheel doesn’t grow!

8 – Physical movement activities: drama workshops can also contain movement scenes for the whole group. For example, one might create a giant machine involving the whole class – one person starts a repetitive action, and gradually the rest of the pupils are added – and then sound effects might be added to the machine.

Or else another favourite action activity: the pupils are divided into groups of four or five, and each group is given a title (for example “fear” – “jealousy” – “love”). Then the groups have to create statues that fit the titles – each group creates a statue involving four or five bodies. The workshop leader might then become an art critic, visiting the exhibition and photographing the sculptures. This is a relaxing and entertaining game – and naturally an opportunity for the pupils to learn the English words “sculpture”,“fear” “jealousy” and “love.” With more mature participants, each group can have an artist, who actually moulds the bodies of the rest of the group – the other group members behave like lumps of clay, and have to be physically moved by the “artist”.

9 – Devising and writing plays as a group: Pupils who are at a more advanced stage of English will be able to actually devise a whole play (well, a short play – say, not longer than three minutes). This is an extension of the role-play and dialogue activities described above. The work begins as a piece of improvised dialogue… then the group edits and polishes and rehearses the scene… and then, if desired, the groups can write down their “plays”. Pupils enjoy this sort of activity – and they usually get so involved in the work that they scarcely notice that they are practising their English at a high level. The workshop leader needs to have a repertoire of stimuli, in order to spark off the pupils’ imagination and help them to start devising a scene. A method I often use is to give each group a sentence, and tell them that their play has to end with that sentence. Typical sentences might be “That’s not what I meant at all”, or “I must have lost it”, or “I don’t ever want to see you again”, or “Why didn’t you say so before?” Once the group are accustomed to devising play scenes like this, it will become less necessary to stimulate their imaginations: they will probably be able to think of ideas by themselves.

All the activities listed above are suitable for younger pupils – although of course they are fun for older pupils too. Now we come to the sort of activities that you might wish to use with senior pupils, university students, or teachers. For these more experienced workshop participants, the drama activities can be used to analyse existing plays, and explore the subtext of a play.Subtext is the hidden motivation beneath the words of a play. The British playwright Charlotte Keating once said to me: “We don’t use words to express our emotions: we use words to hide our emotions.” The subtext of a play is what the character is thinking in a particular scene – which may well have nothing to do with the words that are being spoken. Any analysis of a scene from a play involves discovering the subtext that lies hidden behind the words of the text.

10 – Analysing scenes from existing plays, so as to discover the subtext: I can only explain this by means of examples: so I will try to make use of plays that are so well known that just about everyone knows what I am talking about. Let’s take Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1. Hamlet has told the audience that he is going to pretend to be mad. He then rants and shouts at his girlfriend Ophelia, and delivers a deeply profound speech in which he contemplates suicide – and he is observed throughout by the King and Queen. What is happening here? Is Hamlet really losing his sanity, or is he just pretending? Does Hamlet know that he is being spied upon? To what extent are his thoughts with his dead father? – to what extent is he thinking about his mother? Why is he so aggressive towards Ophelia? What is Hamlet thinking? – and to what extent are his thoughts true to his words? – or are his words really hiding his thoughts?

Here are some typical workshop activities that might be used to explore these questions:

– A – choose one workshop participant to be Hamlet (it doesn’t have to be a man). Place Hamlet in the middle of the room, and get the other group members to mould his body into a statue that expresses his state of mind. This can be done in silence, with perhaps some music or sound to help the group to focus. The process can go on until the group is satisfied that the statue’s pose sums up the way Hamlet is feeling in this scene. The group can at any time stop and discuss what they are doing. Once the “statue” is complete, each group member speaks one sentence to Hamlet, each one giving us one aspect of Hamlet’s thoughts and feelings. These sentences may be written down on little squares of paper, and laid in a circle round the “statue”.

– B – Give everyone in the group the name of a character in the play (if there are more participants than characters, you can invent some additional characters – servants, guards, journalists, etc). Now get the group as a whole to place themselves in the room so that their relative positions demonstrate their nearness or distance from the other characters (this is called a “sociogram”). For example, Ophelia wants to be near to Hamlet, but Hamlet rejects her… Hamlet feels drawn to Gertrude, but Gertrude feels more loyalty towards her husband… Polonius wants to be praised by the King and Queen… Claudius would secretly like to kill Hamlet… Laertes wants to protect his sister from Hamlet… the ghost of Hamlet’s father is still in love with Gertrude… Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t understand what is happening… etc etc.

This exercise can take some time: the group continues until everyone is happy with his/her position relative to all the others. Every time one group member rethinks and changes his position, it affects everyone else. The workshop leader then invites group members to talk about where they are in the room, and what their character is feeling – this can lead to a group discussion.

– C – Take the end of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, and the first lines of his subsequent dialogue with Ophelia. Have five Hamlets and five Ophelias. Hamlet 1 and Ophelia 1 speak the lines from the play. The other Hamlets and Ophelias invent lines to show the innermost thoughts of Hamlet and Ophelia.

For example:

Hamlet 1: Soft you now, the fair Ophelia

Hamlet 2: She’s gorgeous – I just want to touch her

Hamlet 3: What is she doing here? Is she spying on me?

Hamlet 4: Why can’t I forget my mother and commit myself to Ophelia?

Hamlet 5: I hate her – she is false

Ophelia 1: How does your honour for this many a day?

Ophelia 2: I love him – he’s the only man who can make me happy

Ophelia 3: I’m scared – he has a strange look in his eyes

Ophelia 4: My father had no right to make me betray Hamlet

Ophelia 5: He looks so troubled – I want to kiss him.

You can continue this exercise, bringing in multiple versions of Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius (who are hidden watching the scene) and other characters who might also be present (such as the ghost of Hamlet’s father).

11 – Exploring characters from existing plays: A particularly useful workshop tool is the so-called “hot seat”.

Let’s take Lady Macbeth as our example. One group member becomes Lady Macbeth, and goes to sit on the “hot seat”. The rest of the group sit round in a circle, and ask Lady Macbeth questions, which she answers “in character”. Suitable questions might be:

How long have you been married?

Do you love your husband?

Have you always been faithful to your husband?

Do you think he has always been faithful to you?

Do you have any children?

Do you have any close friends?

What is your ambition?

What would you like to be doing in ten years’ time?

This exercise can continue as long as questions keep coming – it frequently leads to heated discussions. It can be repeated with another character from the play.

12 – Exploring the atmosphere of a play: I always make sure that I have some simple musical instruments available when I am leading a workshop – hand-drums, bells, Glockenspiel, tambourines, shakers, etc. They can be very useful in exercises designed to explore a play’s atmosphere.

Let’s take, for example, Romeo and Juliet. The group are invited to think about the play, and quote their favourite words or lines from the play. All the words and lines are written on a whiteboard or flip-chart – in any order. The group then creates a “soundscape”: some create a “musical” backing using what instruments you have, together with humming, and simple percussion using the fingers. Others add to this by speaking individual words taken from the whiteboard, spoken in any order. The result is a piece of “mood music” based on the atmosphere of the play. Since the play contains moments of vicious hate and aggression, as well as sensitive scenes of love and death, the “soundscape” should include all of these elements: so it will hopefully progress from one mood to another, as the group makes use of the available material in order to try to summarise the feel of the play.

Pupils often have difficulties with verse-speaking. To help them with this, I use a similar soundscape technique. The group creates a rhythm, similar to the backing rhythm of hip-hop music. Individual group members then “rap” verse extracts from the play, fitting the words to the background rhythm, and observing how thereby the verse comes to life – this exercise is particularly popular among teenage boys (who are not always the easiest to enthuse).

I have the space for only a tiniest selection of examples of the many hundreds of drama workshop exercises that are available for teachers to use. There are numerous books on the subject, from which teachers can collect ideas; and any teacher who starts to use drama workshops in school or university will soon start to invent his/her own exercises.

Unfortunately there is a financial aspect involved in making use of professional actors, theatre directors, and drama workshop leaders – they need to be paid for their work! It is fairly easy to finance a theatre performance: if you can fill a hall with 200 pupils, then each pupil needs to pay only about €10 (more if the actors have had to fly from Europe to Asia) in order to cover the theatre’s professional costs. However, a drama workshop is only effective if there are not too many participants involved. I usually reckon on not more that 15 pupils for each adult workshop leader. If you have a group of four actors who are trained to run workshops, then you cannot give a meaningful educational experience to more than 60 pupils. It is not reasonable or possible to spread the cost of four professional actors between only 60 pupils. So if you are planning to arrange drama workshops in your school or university, you will need to find some sort of sponsorship or subsidy in order to cover the actor’s costs and wages.

It is possible to lead from drama to theatre: a group of pupils can devise a play during a sequence of workshops, and then turn it into a piece of theatre by rehearsing it, teaching the participants about performance techniques (voice production, projection, blocking, focus, etc) and eventually performing the piece to an audience of other pupils, or of their parents. The workshops can also include work on scenery, costumes, props, sound, lighting, and publicity. I would recommend that teachers wishing to attempt this step make use of the services of an experienced theatre director: there is a danger that performing in front of an audience may become a negative experience if there is no-one to teach the pupils about performance techniques.


Much language-teaching is dry and unexciting – it only involves the left half of the brain. (We learn from psychology that the best form of learning involves both sides of the brain operating in tandem.) Learning English is often an uninspiring duty rather than an exciting pleasure. Using theatre performances and drama workshop techniques enables us to stimulate our pupils’ emotions as well as their intellect, involving both sides of the brain in the learning process, and thereby making for more effective language-learning, increased motivation, and a more rounded educational experience. Pupils “learn with their hearts, not just their heads.”

Theatre involves a group of actors performing for the benefit of an audience. Seeing a professional theatre performance in English gives pupils the opportunity to learn by hearing English spoken by native speakers; to enable pupils to recognise linguistic structures and vocabulary that they may have encountered in their lessons; to expose pupils to British culture; to boost their confidence by enabling them to see a visual performance and understand the story on a visual level; and most of all to improve pupils’ involvement and motivation.

Drama involves using exercises and games to give pupils the experience of acting or “make-believe”. The essence of drama workshops is that there is no audience: the effectiveness of the work is judged by the quality of the participants’ educational experience. Drama workshop exercises can be adapted for work with pupils at all ages, from primary school to university level. Drama workshops are an extremely potent tool in language teaching: but if they are professionally run, they need to be paid for! Drama workshop activities can be tailored to any age-group – simple games for young children; improvisation for teenagers; and exploration and analysis of

Shakespearean texts for university students. Both theatre and drama work on the emotions and enthusiasm of pupils who are learning English. This results in a higher quality of learning, which is not possible in a traditional classroom environment.

This paper was prepared and written by Peter Griffith, founder and artistic director of White Horse Theatre.

White Horse Theatre is the world’s leading professional theatre specialising in the use of theatre and drama as aids in the teaching of English. The company is principally active in Germany, France, Japan and China, with visits to other countries. The actors are all professionally trained, and are all native speakers of English. White Horse Theatre offers professional performances of plays at five levels, ranging from primary school to university level. They also offer drama workshop courses and drama summer-schools both in China and in England; and courses for executives. The company has been operating since 1978. –

White Horse Theatre, Boerdenstrasse 17, 59494 Soest, Germany

Telephone +49 2921 339339 Fax +49 2921 339336

Contact in France: Dominique Casoni


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