Alice Savage

Theater as the ultimate group work: producing a play with English learners


Thunder claps, lightning strikes, and rain begins to fall as Jane and Margaret approach the bus stop. They are two students, one a model child with good grades, the other a bit of a misfit who doesn’t clean her room or get her homework done on time. But as an ordinary autumn rain turns into a natural disaster, the question of what kind of people we’ll really need in the future is called into question in a new way.

This is the setting for Rising Water, a play written for the ESOL classroom that uses the story of flooding in coastal cities as a backdrop to explore family dynamics in a crisis. As the story unfolds, the audience laughs at the familiarity of parent/child bickering and gasps at the increasing danger of a woman and her sick daughter trapped in the upstairs of a flooded house.

In this production, the visceral audience response is revealing. Something rather stunning has happened. The actors’ classmates, teachers and friends are following the plot. They understand the pronunciation, and they empathize with the characters. These ESL actors have brought a story to life, and they have done it in English.

To get there, however, they had to do some work. In this elective, an integrated skills through theater class, students took on the ultimate group project. In this post, we will share Alice’s story in producing a full-on play with English learners.

I felt incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity to teach a course titled, English through Theater because it meant that students knew they were going to experience drama–pun intended! The course was open to students in levels 3 – 5 which comprised intermediate and above, and it quickly filled despite the fact that it was scheduled for Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The 20 students enrolled were from various countries including Vietnam, El Salvador, Haiti, Japan, Congo, Kazakhstan Pakistan, Mexico, India, and Thailand.

Although I was happy that the course was popular, I immediately faced my first challenge. Rising Water is a 7-character play. What was I going to do with the extra students? I considered having a different cast do another play in the Integrated Skills through Drama series, but eventually I decided that it would be more practical to create three casts for one play. That meant that three groups of students would be working simultaneously on the same script with a couple of actors performing in both. This ability to work with the whole group on one play turned out to be a good decision for the following reasons:

  • We used a podcast of the play to do listening activities.
  • We had discussions based on articles related to the themes of the play.
  • Focused pragmatics instruction emerged from scenes and relationships in the play.
  • Pronunciation points came from the dialog – and believe me, reading a scene in a play is very different from reading a paragraph!
  • Students could fill in for each other when someone did not attend.

My next challenge was to create community. In theater, it is essential to create a safe space for practicing different voices, gestures and emotions, so we spent the first part of each class playing theater games. These role-playing, improvisation and guessing games helped students find different registers in English and physically locate the voice of someone who is worried, distracted, upset, happy, or sarcastic. Students practiced and performed these emotional messages in pragmatics-based role plays. (E.g., you are trying to arrange a date with two of your friends but there is a problem. They don’t like each other.)


To check in with students’ feelings and perceptions, I used one-minute papers at the end of each class to learn what they liked and didn’t like. The feedback was largely positive as students reported that they felt they were developing useful interpersonal skills as well as getting to know their classmates and having fun.

Another community builder was a rotating snacks list in which two students were responsible for bring treats each week. I’ve always found that there’s nothing like food for creating friendships. Small details like this helped them bond, and because often the food was from different countries, students could start discussions and try something new.

My next task was to cast the play, and here is where pronunciation took precedence. I needed to give the lead roles to more comprehensible speakers and leave the minor roles for those who needed more work. To identify and sort them, it was necessary to take pronunciation more seriously than I had in previous oral communication classes. This is also why I decided not to let them choose their own roles.

I took notes during activities and roleplays, and then settled on the idea of doing audition monologues. I wrote a set of ten short monologues of about a paragraph each to reflect the voices of different peoples’ experiences during Hurricane Harvey. Then I assigned the monologues to students and put them in practice groups to prepare as a team.

To support them, I added pronunciation lessons. Students identified the focus words that needed to be stressed, and they marked thought groups. The instruction was for them to practice saying the nouns, verbs, adjectives and emphasizers (really, so, not) more slowly and carefully than the grammar words, and to allow for pauses between the thought groups. They were also directed to think about how they felt and to communicate the emotion of the speaker.

Students performed in a team line up with each speaker stepping forward, speaking, and then stepping back into the line. Performing different voices related to theme created a theatrical effect and seemed to reduce anxiety.  The monologues also allowed me to focus on individuals’ strengths and weaknesses and assign roles. Because we had more females than males, I changed the genders of the leads for two casts, and those students chose new names for their characters.

While the students were preparing for their monologues, they also began work on the play. During the first few sessions, we read background articles and discussed the themes. Climate change and its effect on oceans was one conversation. Another was the teenage brain and the potential value as well as danger of impulsive risk-taking. Students shared stories and worked on the message. Eventually they decided they could use the story to get people thinking about how society needs to prepare for an uncertain future and that courage and empathy are at least as valuable as intelligence.

Because we had a four-hour block, I organized the class into a rhythm in which we warmed up with theater games and then moved on to language skills. We variously worked on pragmatics in role-plays, pronunciation drills and activities, languge lessons, and reading and group tasks. During the second half of the class, we had rehearsals. Students broke into groups and read through the play, making notes about their character’s feelings and objectives. As actors they had to look for clues about their characters and reflect on how these clues set up later behavior, e.g., Ajax’s father is just like Ajax, but he doesn’t see it and he gets himself into trouble.

I rotated among the groups, listening and taking notes. At the end of the day, we gathered together, and I invited them to write and then share feedback on the experience. Then I gave notes on pronunciation and other elements that emerged from the rehearsal.

I have to admit that at first, some students read through their scripts and then drifted onto their phones if I wasn’t with them. However, this did not last once I set a date for the performance because they realized they’d be acting for an audience. I also gave them additional assignments such as creating a backstory for their character, designing a program and a poster, and planning costumes. Around this time, leaders began to emerge who were able to play a vital role in keeping people on task and even generating new ideas and suggestions.

The dramastudsposter advertised three showings, each with a different cast, one at 10 a.m., one at 11 a.m., and one at noon. Planning and designing this poster and the program made the production real as they had to work out the timing of each 30-minute performance with planning for the curtain call and then a break for the next group to set up.

During rehearsals, I experimented with different approaches. On some days, I had people playing the same character get together and talk. Or I had actors with the same scene watch each other. Most days they did a run through within their group. This variety helped keep the rehearsals dynamic, but it was a bit of an uphill climb getting them to memorize their lines. They also did not like critiquing each other, so I made a mental note to do more training for peer feedback next time.

Some students also expressed performance anxiety and suggested we make a film rather than do a live show, but that was one suggestion I did not accept. I believe there is a magic between actors and a real audience, and I had faith that they would achieve it.

As we got closer to showtime, students became more invested. Rehearsal started taking up more class time, and we still needed to do blocking (figuring out where students would make their entrances, stand, sit, and move so that they would not turn their back on the audience). We continued to work on pronunciation but also on projecting to the back of the room and working out how body language and movements provided a layer to the story that could support the words.

One especially useful activity was having each cast move through the scenes without speaking. The actors made their entrances, gestured, and moved around as if they were speaking but they did it silently. Those watching could see the story unfold without hearing the words, and I believe this gave them confidence that the story would have emotional resonance. I also invited a few colleagues to watch now and then, and this also gave the actors a preview of performing.

Finally we combined the words with the blocking and talked about how they could use the stage to emphasize and communicate important emotional messages. When the father asks his wife, “Are you and Ivy going to be alright?” it’s an important line because they won’t be. He has to say it clearly and with feeling. He has to make eye contact, and she has to decide whether she wants to reassure him or show she’s worried. By stopping for a beat to look at each other before he leaves, the actors set up tension.


Then, as in all good theater stories, disaster struck. One student had a work conflict and had to drop out. Someone’s car broke down. Another had a visa problem and disappeared. The week before the performance, one of our most dynamic actors told me that he had to be at family wedding. “I wish I had known that when I was scheduling the performance!” I said, but there was nothing I could do. The dates were set and the audience had been invited. Because we had three casts, however, other actors were there to play a part twice. One student ended up playing the role of the father in all three performances. Fortunately, he was excellent in the role and had learned all his lines.

As we moved into the final day of preparation, I organized a schedule with supporting tasks for people who were not in a particular performance. One student was stationed at the lights. This person turned off the lights between each scene so actors could switch out and arrange the set. Another student did the sound effects, playing a track of thunder and lightning between scenes. A third was a stage manager who sat next to the stage with the script and gave lines when an actor forgot. With these elements in place, students were supported in presenting a 30-minute play with scene changes, props and sound effects.

Hiromi studying 11_9

My next-to-last instruction was, “When you finish, you need to come onstage and do a curtain call. The audience will clap, and you should bow.” Some students had never been to the theater before, so they simply didn’t know.

My last instruction was, “Break a leg!” When some students looked at me quizzically, I had to explain that this is what well-wishers have been saying to actors for hundreds of years. As with athletes, stage performers are comforted by ritual, and it they were now stage performers.

It rained on the day of the show, which was perfect for the play. Students came in wearing raincoats and carrying costumes in plastic bags. I traveled the hallways watching them sitting with their scripts, running lines, walking up and down and gesturing to the air. It was like being backstage in a real production. They didn’t want my help because they were preparing themselves mentally, so I left them to it.

At 10 a.m. the first audience arrived and took their seats in the building’s most spacious classroom. There were about 20 friends, classmates, family members and teachers for each show, and despite the fact that there was a white board in the background and a minimal set, the student actors performed their play with passion. Perhaps there was an scene where the pronunciation was incomprehensible, or an actor forgot his lines, or the characters looped around with the dialog before finding their place and moving on, but each time, the show as a whole worked. Audience members murmured worriedly when the mother/daughter got trapped, and they laughed at the smug pride of the science nerd.  When it was over, and the students bowed, people clapped enthusiastically and swarmed the cast for selfies.

All in all, it was a lot of fun, and I felt that students benefitted not only from the opportunity to work closely with a play as a text for oral communication skills, but also from the soft skills they developed collaborating with each other on the production. I will definitely teach it another time, maybe with a different play—and with a few tweaks of course. And I think the course will make again. In fact, one of my cast members came up to me afterwards and said, “This class really helped me. I want to take it again.”

NOTE: If you are interested in producing a play or just working with one as a text in your classroom, please check out the series of short plays here: Alphabet Publishing Books The scripts work well as language models and provide context for the practice of Spoken English.

Alphabet Publishing is also bringing out The Drama Book: Lesson plans, Activitie, and scripts for the classroom. It has everything you need to build a curriculum or a module that engages students in a multimodal embodied learning experience.

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