You’re a 13-year-old school student. You’re away from your home and your family. How do you tell your host family that you don’t like the food? Perhaps your teacher can help you work it out with this Forum Theatre style activity.
I had intended to have written about this and more by now, but I threw myself off a bike and broke my arm. It’s almost back to normal now, even if the young scallywag Guillermo did grab it and pull it towards himself for a closer look the day after the plaster came off.
Whilst working at a lovely summer school last month, I had the opportunity to attend a talk, or “playshop” for teachers organised by DDOSA, the Devon Directors of Studies Association. David Heathfield‘s Storytelling And Improvising: Creativity At Play was fun, made me think about how the brain takes in new information and new language, and provided some interesting ideas to use in class. One of the ideas was an activity based on Forum Theatre in which students negotiate how best to navigate difficult situations – perfect for summer school students! I read up a bit more on Forum Theatre* and tried it out with my class a couple of days later.
I chose to try this out on a Friday morning, after the 12 to 14-year-old students had had all week to get to know each other and feel hopefully comfortable as a class group. (It’s important that the participants feel safe in the group, as anyone who has tried improv comedy will know.) We pushed the tables back and set up the chairs in a circle, to highlight the democratic and spontaneous nature of the class. This is what followed:
- Warm up activity 1(to encourage collaboration and cooperation and lower inhibition): Columbian Hypnosis, an entertaining activity where students stand in pairs; one student tries to keep their face aligned with their partner’s hand as they move it around; then they swap; then they both do it at once. Try it and see if no-one laughs.
- Warm up activity 2: We also then played a version of grandmother’s footsteps where the players have to creep up on “grandmother” in the middle of the circle. When we did this, I asked the students to move slowly and precisely to try to focus their attention on the action rather than the result. I think I got this from Drama Techniques: A Resource Book of Communication Activities** by Alans Maley and Duff.
- Activate schemata/lead-in: As a language warmer to build the confidence of my low level class, I asked the students how they were feeling and we went around the circle naming other feelings and deciding whether they were positive or negative feelings.
- Group brainstorm: I then asked the students to brainstorm difficult situations that might make them or a summer school student like them feel any of those negative feelings. I asked them to do this in two groups and gave each group a large piece of paper and a pen to note them down on. After comparing each group’s notes, we chose one situation. My students must have been having a great time because the worst they could come up with was “arriving late for class”. At this point, it would be wise to flesh out the situation a bit – perhaps fix the age of the student and what the the teacher is like, and how many minutes late the student arrives.
- Improvisation: In groups of 2, the students then took on the role of student and teacher and improvised the situation to find out what happened – why the student was late, what they said to the teacher, how the teacher responded, etc., and whether there was a good or bad outcome. When they had finished I asked the students if it went well or badly and if one group would be happy to show theirs to the rest of the class.
- Performance and discussion: After watching, we discussed whether it went well or not as a class and whether what happened would be possible in real life. In our case, it definitely wasn’t, as the late student proposed marriage to the teacher to get out of trouble.
- Forum-style performance: I asked the pair to perform it again, explaining that this time anyone could stop the action by saying “Freeze!” at a point where they think the situation has become difficult and suggest a change. They then replace the character whose action they want to change. You can also ask actors to rewind (pretending to move and speak backwards works well here) to a pivotal moment in order to make a change. This went fairly well, but unfortunately not everyone was game for acting. Something else that the teacher (or joker, as they’re called in Forum Theatre) can do is to pause action to ask each character how they’re feeling. The idea is that the group negotiates to come to a good solution, or if they don’t find a solution, they have at least benefited from discussing unhelpful strategies.
- Summary: We didn’t have time for this, but it would be useful to finish by asking students to recall what had happened during the forum theatre activity to summarise successful strategies.
- Creating a record: During the workshop, we briefly talked about creating a record of good language from the class, and I didn’t ask my students to do it, but a couple of options I can think of are to get students to write up what they remember as the most successful dialogue or to record a performance of the successful dialogue if there are two willing volunteers and the means are available. The value of the latter is that intonation and body language are also recorded.
David suggested that Forum Theatre could be used in all contexts with all ages and levels. Through improvising relevant situations, students practise “authentic communication”, building fluency and confidence. They also get to play out a few ideas to find good strategies to cope with the situation well. The content comes straight from the students, so there’s a good chance that they’ll all be engaged. It could have been more successful with my class – I’m not sure there was a high enough level of trust in the group to allow everyone to feel comfortable performing in front of everyone, but I will definitely try it again, perhaps building up to it more gently next time.
Have you tried Forum Theatre in class? I’d love to know how it went with your age group, level or teaching context. Let me know in the comments below!
*Forum Theatre was created by Augusto Boal as part of the Theatre of the Oppressed. If you’re into Freire, you might be into this.
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