IATEFL 2015 | Robert Zammit: Structured spontaneity. Unleashing participants’ spontaneity and creativity for role playing | Workshop summary

Posted: April 14, 2015 in Conferences
Tags: ,

Abstract: “I’m not creative”, “I hate role-plays”, “I’m not spontaneous”; a common reaction to the roleplaying activities offered in many a classroom. Using techniques and methods from PDL (psychodramaturgy for language acquisition), we’ll see how easy and fun it can be to set up role plays that feel authentic, using nothing but the resources every teacher has – the participants.

Bernard & Maria Dufen

This was a great (and very unusual) workshop in which we created human statues and shaped invisible people with their lives and histories and emotions, and then became those people and talked through them. I’m not really sure whether it’s possible to make a write-up of this workshop. Can one write up a theatre performance? A game? Written down, will the questions that Robert asked us sound right? But it was a very different experience, so I will try to share some impressions. 

Premise: Being spontaneous – is being here and now. And being relaxed about it

Part one 

Relax, close your eyes and imagine that you’re another person. Are you a man? or a woman? what is your hair like? where do you live? what do you do? What is your name? …
Follow-up: Now open your eyes, say hello to the person next to you and talk (being that person you’ve imagined).
Comments: For me, it’s always difficult to find a voice to ask these questions in. I really like the way Robert talked – softly, going up – and down.. His voice and particularly intonations reminded me a bit of Neil Gaiman – I’ll take the liberty to insert a clip. It seems to be very fitting anyway. 🙂

Regarding the second part – the conversation – we got stuck a bit, mainly because we didn’t know where we were supposed to have that conversation. I think setting up the scene would’ve helped.

Part two

Next, we started playing ‘human statues’: participants get into groups and one volunteers to be a ‘marionette’. The others pull them by invisible strings – changing the gestures, creating a smile – or a grimace, moving them, etc. There’s only one rule: if someone did something, you can’t just undo it, e.g. put the marionette’s hand back, etc. But you can develop other people’s actions.

Follow-up: Two participants who were statues from different groups face each other, get into the position they were in at the end, say something and see what happens. Sometimes they have a whole conversation, sometimes it’s just a two lines – that’s fine.

Part three 

Participants sit in circles in groups. There’s one empty chair. There’s an (invisible) person sitting in it. Your group decides – who is this person? Again, you can’t undo what someone has said! Be careful, if you say ‘It’s a hundred year old blond prostitute’, you’re stuck with it! Start with simple things: is it a man of a woman? What do they look like?

Comment: I wrote up the first half of our group’s conversation, because I wanted to see what language and interaction would come up. Here it is (new lines represent a new person speaking).

It’s a she? She looks a bit old. Like, grey short hair? Glasses?
Glasses. She’s wearing read.
Yeah, I was thinking.
Actually, me too!
I think she’s got beads. 
IT’s made of something like… pearls but very big. I think they’re made of wood.
She looks a bit nervous, I don’t know why.
She’s holding a book.
And fiddling with it.
What book is it?
The Bible. Or Quran? 
She crosses her legs.
She checks her watch. Maybe she’s waiting for someone.
She wears lipstick.
Very red.

[At this point Robert came up to our group and suggested we can go into the history of the person: problems, secrets, dreams]
Maybe she’s waiting for her lover or something.
I think though that she’s going to tell him that being a religious woman she can no longer cheat on her husband.

… and so on.

Follow-up: One of you is going to sit in that chair and become that person.

Do we have a volunteer?

Have this person take that role by asking questions. Start by asking the questions that you know answers for to help them to get into the role – but then new questions will come up. In this position you’re always entitled to say ‘no comment’ or ‘I’d rather not say’.

When volunteers were in their chairs, Robert first asked them to say their new names. ‘Rachel, you’re going to meet Alice. And the rest of you sit behind. You’re assistance – they can support you with ideas, but they’re also linguistic supporters. At any time you can turn back to them and ask: what the hell am I supposed to say?

Next Robert elicited

  • where they’re going to meet
  • what time? …

(Have a look at the photo on this page to get a feel of what this looked like).

Where does linguistic input comes in? 

The technique that Robert demonstrated next, reminded me of Community Language Learning. To make the experience more vivid, he demonstrated the technique as if we were learning Italian and Maltese (it’s difficult for English speakers to experience an English lesson).

Robert asked Alice, ‘Can you think of one thing that you wanted to say to this person’ (in her L1)?
A: I’m very happy to meet you here cause I was feeling a bit lonely.
R: I’m going to sit behind you and I’m going to say what you said in Italian, and I’m going to say more. And you repeat what I say.
2015-04-14 12.51.14
R: Grazia A: Grazia.
R: Que bello. //Quite long monologue followed, with Alice repeating utterance by utterance. 

Questions from the audience:
1. If it was an English language classroom, would the participants be proficient enough to build a personality?
Robert has tried this with beginners – they cope, they can always code switch (ask for vocabulary). In the last activity, he adjusts what he says depending on what she can repeat – following the learner! The principle is: create the desire to say something; then say it; and after, they repeat.

2. A question to the person who was repeating utterances in Maltese:  how did it feel repeating things you didn’t understand?
Comment: it’s stressful. The trainer might have to say the utterance 2-3 times before they can repeat. Tip: get them to look at your lips.

3. It’s almost impossible to speak Maltese without gesticulating. So, you (the trainer) were speaking with your hands but she couldn’t see your hands.
Comment: There are a range of different activities. They also worked a lot with hands – lots of exercises where you have to mirror what T does. The whole point is going from the physical aspect to linguistic.

Final notes:  Robert tried this with most of his groups, in different contexts, including Business English. One great experience was when they did an intensive weekend of this work with beginners. By the end they all could understand: had basic vocabulary and understood words. When Robert wrote them a follow-up email, he realized that he didn’t even have to translate it.

Often in coursebook you get the task, ‘Speak about your hobbies,’ but it’s impossible to start speaking. Using the techniques Robert showed, because you help the person say what they want to say, they’ll remember it.

Comment from Paul Davis: he has been using similar techniques too. In multilingual groups where you can’t use translation, participants try to say something and he elaborates it. Also, Paul Davis thinks that it’s ideal for ESP. He did this with medical groups. Half of them were bacteria and half of them were viruses and they argued. Or half of them were scalpel and the other half cancer.

One sentence summary. This is pedagogy of being: your participant is an individual human being, and if you respect that, they will want to say something.

A very interesting session.I don’t think I’ll have the courage to bring this to my Business English class, but I might try it as a fun evening event in my school.

Also, I think when we left that room we were a group of smiley people who all liked each other. And Evan Frendo also had lived the unique experience of being ‘the man in a hole on a hill’. 🙂

P.S. While I was googling pictures and videos for this write-up, I found another great workshop on integrating improvisational theatre activities in the business classroom by Christina Rebuffet-Broadus at IATEFL Hungary. And this one actually was videotaped! Really enjoyed watching it.

(Link: https://youtu.be/lLNAZ-uxiZM)


Click here for an overview of all my write-ups from IATEFL 2015.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s