Volume III - 1995-1996

On Creating Theatrical Collages with ESL Students
by Rhonda Naidich

       Rhonda Naidich teaches ESL at LaGuardia and Bronx Community Colleges (City University of New York) as well as staff development courses in The English Language Teaching Program at The New School for Social Research. She has presented numerous teacher-training workshops on the use of theater techniques in the language classroom.   

       Theater arts in the context of language learning is often boxed into the category of studying and performing published plays. Certainly there is validity in the study of the texts of great playwrights in terms of enhancing reading, vocabulary, and pronunciation skills. There is, however, a whole other realm to the application of theater arts in the language classroom that needs to be explored and experimented with: original play development. In my case, a dramatic art form that I have dubbed "theatrical collage" has evolved from working with ESL students.

       I was first introduced to play development techniques as a student of Shirley Kaplan's acting/writing/directing workshop at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York City. Kaplan, a founding member of the Paper Bag Players (a New York based children's theater company) and currently head of the theater department at Sarah Lawrence College, suggested that original material produced by and for a multicultural group of foreign students could be quite invigorating. My participation in Kaplan's workshop and her influence on my theatrical work with ESL students couldn't have been more timely. After my fourth rendition of Jean-Claude van Itallie's Interview, I was ready to change. I was ready to allow students to explore their imaginations by spontaneously creating scenes through constant improvisational work that tapped into their unique forms of movement and drama. I no longer needed "the Script."Free of the burden of finding suitable one-act plays, I could spend more time researching exercises that would enable students to create their own plays and journey into the unknown. I will attempt to put into words a process that has evolved over the past six years teaching a ten-week acting workshop elective (four hours weekly) to intermediate ESL students enrolled in an intensive language program at LaGuardia Community College's English Language Center.

Exploration, Discovery and Trust

       Because of their underlying desire to perform, approximately 15 students of multicultural backgrounds enter the classroom every semester. Each student has his/her particular inhibitions and preconceived notions of what theater and acting are all about. More importantly, all of the students have performance skills that are often hidden but nevertheless incorporated into the body language from an early age because of exposure to art forms such as dance, mime, opera, martial arts, and music. During the initial weeks, I create an environment of exploration, discovery, and trust. Who are we as a group? What talents can be tapped into? If Miyako is a jazz dancer, and Edgar, a classical guitarist, why not incorporate those talents into the show?

       At the beginning stages, I emphasize group physical improvisations which quickly help to set up dynamic group relationships. Language is utilized in the conceptualization and the decision-making processes rather than in the enactment of the scene. Viola Spolin addresses the importance of group playing in Improvisation for the Theater: "Improvisational theater requires very close group relationships because it is from group agreement and group playing that material evolves for scenes and plays" (p.____).

       In Impro under the heading "Getting the Right Relationship," Keith Johnstone talks about teacher responsibility to the group: "There seems no doubt that a group can make or break its members, and that it's more powerful than the individuals in it. A great group can propel its members forward so that they do amazing things. Many teachers don't seem to think that manipulating a group is their responsibility at all. If they're working with a destructive bored group, they just blame the students for being dull, or uninterested. It's essential for the teacher to blame himself if the group aren't in a good state." (p.____)

       Beginning each class session with a group physical warm-up encourages students to let go of their inhibitions and creates an environment where risk-taking is the norm. Students stand in a circle. One student initiates a rhythmic sound and movement which is mirrored by the rest. Then, the next student transforms the sound and movement into a new combination, again mirrored by the whole group. Every student gets a turn. This particular exercise actually led to a scene in an original play I developed with ESL students entitled, Pepe's American Dream. Pepe, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, dreams he is captured by a religious cult leader while visiting the Statue of Liberty. Pepe partakes in the group's ritualistic circle in which each member acts out a past life (sound and movement of a grotesque animal) and a future life (sound and movement abstraction of the American dream character-- a rich golfer, for example).

       Collaborative sensory exercises are invaluable in training students to use their imaginations. (Spolin is the best resource on these). Silently, students act together in small groups looking for a lost object, watching a sport, moving something, feeling something move them, getting out of a trap, listening to live concert. With one of my acting groups, getting out of a trap evolved into the opening of a science-fiction scene in which student/actors portrayed aliens from another planet struggling to get out of a spaceship that had crashed in the middle of Times Square.

Golden Silence

       Once students are warmed up and there is a feeling of vitality in the room, I move on to exercises that add elements of storytelling. The "silent movie sequence" is a good starter. Students pair up. One student acts, the other directs. Together they conceptualize a one-minute silent scene to be performed by the actor with a clear beginning, middle, and surprise ending. This exercise has produced a wide range of material: from the absurd, such as a male student-actor portraying a pregnant woman about to give birth on a crowded subway train, to the serious drama of a drug addict searching for a needle and finally shooting up. Although the product is silent, language is used in the communication between director and actor in conceptualizing and deciding the details of a sequence of ations. Sound stories are another example of collaborative storytelling in which language is shared in development rather than in the enactment. As a warm-up, students stand in a circle and produce layered rhythmic sounds, followed by sustained, and finally lyrical sounds. Students divide into small groups and create a story with a surprise ending by huddling together and producing a "sound collage." Lights off add to the drama. This exercise is useful in play development since sound can by used as either a backdrop to scenes or as a transition from one scene to another. In a production with ESL students entitled, A Nightmare in a New York Hotel,student-actors vocalized sounds of New York City tough streets (police sirens, ambulance, a homeless person begging, fighting) to signal to the audience a transition from an upbeat opening scene of arriving in New York City to an imminently dangerous scene about to be played out.

Improvisation Using Speech

       When the group members begin to trust each other, I introduce students to a classic Chicago City Limits-style improvisational exercise: "freeze tag improvs." About six students line up at the back of the playing area. Two students come forward and begin a scene. Whoever begins the dialogue establishes the relationship between the pair, and the second actor must accept his role. Actor 1: "You didn't call me last night. I know you are seeing someone else. Actor 2 must accept that he is actor 1's boyfriend and is being accused of infidelity. The actor must also say "yes" to enable the scene to develop. Saying "no" deadens the scene, while saying "yes" allows for anything to happen. A scene emerges. Any actor from the back calls out, "freeze," and the players physically freeze in mid-action. The third actor taps one of the actors on the shoulders, takes on her posture and initiates a new scene by creating a different character and relationship, suggested by the physicalization. Actor 3: "I need to operate on your hand." Actor 1 or 2 accepts that he is a patient and is in the hospital with a doctor (actor 3). The scene plays out, and the other students join in the exercise. If they get stuck on language, I coach them to repeat words until a new word pops out (a Sanford Meisneer technique which works well with language learners). Physical actions also add to the liveliness of these quick sketches:

Actor 1: "Operate, operate on my hand?"
Actor 3: "Yes, now, operate, operate on your hand!"
Actor 1: "Now operate?.....I think tomorrow better to operate."
Actor 3: "Lie down!" (forces actor 1 down)

       I find this exercise analogous to free-writing in that students have the chance to speak spontaneously, not worry about errors, and allow their subconscious minds to create language. It also provides a wealth of material for character and scene development. Students have told me that this particular acting exercise has enhanced their fluency more than any other.

Developing Characters

       By the third or fourth week of class, students are ready to journey into creating longer scenes involving more dialogue and character development. At this stage, I have a tape recorder on at all times documenting improvisational material. A collection of index cards: WHO (relationship) , WHAT (conflict/situation), and WHERE (place) are useful in providing skeleton outlines of scenes to be improvised. Students can also come up with their own outlines. In improvisational work, it is important to avoid planning the dialogue or outcome of a scene; otherwise, spontaneity and originality are lost. If the scenes seem stilted, I may ask students to stand in the back of the playing area and add sound effects every now and then during an improvisation to shake up the performers. I sometimes ask students to switch to their first language or speak in gibberish as a way of breaking down barriers to original thoughts. Often, groups choose to develop scenes for production that incorporate languages other than English. By using the audience's languages, the players are letting audience members in on secret information; thereby, intensifying their interest in the work itself.

       As the training progresses, the group focuses on ideas for a production,a theatrical collage." This technique was introduced to me by Shirley Kaplan, who not surprisingly started out in the arts as a painter. The collage enables the group to string together monologues, scenes, scripted work, unscripted work, dance, or mime pieces into one production. It builds on the strengths of the group as a whole as well as its individual members. It also allows students to participate in as little or as much as they want to in the final performance.

Brainstorming Ideas

       The group brainstorms ideas on themes, genres, characters, stories, messages--anything goes. We also take note of what scenes produced through improvisations were evocative and worthy of further exploration. In developing A Nightmare in a New York Hotel, students settled on the ideas: the breakdown o the family, the destruction of the environment, and a hotel in New York. We then began to improvise scenes around those three ideas until we came up with material we liked. The hotel became a framing device for two-character scenes portraying family tensions. At one point in the production, all the characters in the hotel gather in one room, look out an imaginary window, and see trees being cut down in Central Park to make room for prisons. The transition is to an abstract environmental scene in which actors portray abused trees, choppers who are following orders, the last picnicking happy family, and an opportunistic reporter.

       In Pepe's American Dream, students agreed on the continuity of one character (the undocumented immigrant) in a collage of surrealistic nightmarish experiences. Imaginations flew in brainstorming sessions: a "coyote"-led escape from Mexico, a trip on a hijacked airplane, a crash into the Statue of Liberty, a flight to a secret religious cult gathering, a drug deal in a Karaoke bar, a chance meeting with an ex-girlfriend in the "Lemonlight Club." This particular group was interested in a physically-charged performance incorporating dance and mime. Therefore, brainstorming sessions generated ideas for scenes calling for a lot of movement.

The Final Production

       As a language/drama teacher, I have replaced the notion of "the script" with that of an "emerging script." Once the ideas are agreed upon, a script is a necessary tangible product of weeks of improvisational work leading to material for a final production. The last stages of the play development process involve transcribing dialogue from taped improvisations and shaping the material into a dramatic form. My role becomes that of a dramaturge (in a longer semester students can take on more of that function). In the abstract scenes, I may write down just a list of actions that were improvised. Orchestrating student writings is a technique that creates dramatic beginnings and endings to theatrical collages. In the original play, Fragments of Immigrant Life, I asked students to write letters to themselves in the voice of a relative, friend, or lover. Then we chose the most powerful lines from each letter and juxtaposed them to come up with an opening piece entitled, "Letters from Home." Here's an excerpt:

Actor 1: Dear Kazumi...It's warm in Japan...looks like Spring.
Actor 2: My dear son...I hope everything is okay with you...As you know after you went to New York, the war began.
Actor 3: Ikoo, what are you doing now? I always think about marrying you.
Actor 4: Rocio, do you remember I told you my father wants to get a divorce?
Actor 5: Yesterday I bought a Nikon F3 because Nikon is my favorite camera.
Actor 2: We are going crazy from the sounds of aircraft every day at midnight.

       To create mood, live music can be added-- a harmonica, or a percussion instrument, depending on the group's talents.

       With script in hand and access to a real theater space, students take the idea of a performance more seriously, and are able to visualize a production in the making. Script memorization is achievable in a short period of time (unlike the experience of working with published plays) because the words are the students own words, words that have meaning to them. As dramaturge, I may delete redundant dialogue or move some dialogue around, but essentially the voices are their own.

Technical Aspects

       Technical aspects of production such as choreography, music/sound design, props, flyers, and costumes can be assigned according to individual interests. With limited time, a bare stage can be transformed by unusual prop pieces, simple movement of boxes and folding chairs, and basic lighting. For A Nightmare in a New York Hotel, two students made huge cartoon-like hotel keys out of cardboard which doubled as saws in the tree-chopping scene, giving the play a visual style. A Japanese student who had worked as a professional dancer, choreographed a dance piece symbolizing a Utopian world and serving as an abstract collage-finale. Clothing accessories can be added to a basic black costume to help student/actors transform quickly into multiple characters.

An Everlasting Impact

       Creating and performing original theatrical collages with ESL students for a multi-cultural audience on stage with lights, music, and sound is the ultimate end product of a total language learning experience. By focusing on performance and project-development skills, real language and meaningful communication are the natural by-products. Tears, laughter, applause are the concrete rewards of a genuine exchange of communication in all of its forms between performers and audience. Language departments in schools and colleges need to look closely at how their auditorium/theater spaces are currently being used. Implementing original theatrical projects produced by and for language learners would have an everlasting impact on those who partake in the journey.


Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. London/New York: Routledge, 1992.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro. London/New York: A Theatre Arts Books, Routledge, 1991.

Maley, Alan and Alan Duff. Drama Techniques in Language Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Meisner, Sanford and Dennis Longwell. Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: Vintage, 1987.

Rittenberg, Mark and Penelope Kreitzer. English Through Drama. California: Alemany Press, 1981.

Spolin, Viola. Improvisation for the Theater. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1963.

van Itallie, Jean-Claude. America Hurrah and Other Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1978.

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