Webpage Supplement to

Chapter 11: Playbuilding with Pacific Island Students

Daniel A. Kelin, II

September 27, 2006

Good examples of Prof. Kelin’s work may be found on his website! Highly recommended, dynamic, touching:
www.geocities.com/scbwihawaii/members/kelin-d.html  or
some of my work at   www.prel.org/eslstrategies/drama.html ---

1. More about Playbuilding: This method involves a process of evoking from the participants some vignettes from their own lives. This is a partly improvised process. These are then put together and crafted into a production (Weigler, 2001; Sklar, 1991). It is related in a way to the chapter in the book on Self-Revelatory Performance, only this is more of a group endeavor.
The groups involved often deal with cultural transitions, teenagers coping with stresses, minorities struggling for rights and recognition, immigrants, and so forth. This activity results in a community-building process, among the players, and among the different subgroups in the audiences. (It is thus related in function to such approaches as Playback Theatre.) As a group experience, the project builds a sense of connectedness among the actors and reduces alienation. The words and performances that are produced in the course of playbuilding also often carry political and economic messages, addressing hardships of certain roles and classes in our culture, thus relating the method to the Theatre of the Oppressed.

2. The Background for This Chapter: The effectiveness of playbuilding with Pacific Island youth first struck me (Kelin) in 1992 through my outreach work with the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, servicing a Marshall Islands social service agency for youth. The work builds naturally on the oral and dance traditions used for cultural storytelling, which offers the students a rewarding process and significant and personal ways to achieve success.

Many schools in Hawaii have an ever-increasing concentration of Filipino, Samoan and Micronesian students, many of whom are placed in ESL (English as Second Language) programs. When asked to implement drama programming with these students, it seemed fundamentally appropriate to apply the same process to these classes. Involving these students in a play-building drama residency exercises their oral communication and language skills, which is a significant step toward expanding reading and writing skills as well

3. Further Notes on Method:

To begin a playbuilding residency with such students, the participants first experiment with various drama techniques to build knowledge of and comfort with the techniques to later apply them to building brief plays from a story. The classes I work with generally include between 8 and 25 students, with each session lasting between 45 and 90 minutes, the longer time periods, the older the students.

In early ensemble exercises, we use activities that utilize the whole body, because I have found that students are most uncomfortable expressing with their bodies, and this helps to make them more comfortable. Our experiments creating frozen images first involve working alone, then in pairs and groups. Too often, some teachers suggest removing this warm-up, because it takes time and is not directly task related. However, they miss the point.
In one class of high school students of Mexican and Micronesian ethnicity, there was a bit of tension as the students stood up to try the drama activities for the first time. With just a couple of exceptions, the students eyed each other, afraid of embarrassing themselves in front of each other. We worked through the activities, even though the commitment was not that high.  However, once we got into the story, they began to loosen up as their focus switched to the story’s content. They already understood the techniques, so felt more comfortable about using them. By the time we shared the playbuilt story with each other, the students not only were having fun, but some had “mixed it up,” joined in with students with whom they normally did not work..
... Another refinement is that it often helps if the introduced story comes from a less well-known culture, as this will open a door into that culture, inviting the rest of the students a chance to learn more about that particular culture. Through the process of hearing the story and then playbuilding from it, the students will discover aspects of the culture that they will want to know more about. The student(s) who are of that culture will then become the experts of the class, sharing more in-depth information about their culture and concurrently gain a stronger sense of self. In addition, establishing the students as the experts early on is a useful tool. When any of the other students are unsure about a particular part of the story or culture, then the instructor can seek consul from the student(s) of that culture.

For example, I worked in one classroom that included a girl from Kiribati, a Pacific nation no one, not even the teacher, knew anything about. Since her language skills were limited, she had a difficult time explaining anything. I introduced the story “Tebwere, Tebarere, Tetintiri and the Giant” from her culture and it not only made her sit up and take notice, the other students immediately saw her in a new light. The same happened with a boy in another class who quickly became the point of focus for his classmates. For days afterwards they kept asking him about particulars of the story; “Are the chiefs really like that?” “Are your islands that small?” “Have you ever crawled inside one of those clams yourself?”

Ideally, someone tells the story to the class. It should definitely not be read, as the students come to rely on the words in the book, looking for the "correct" version of the story or the "correct" words a character says. The process then becomes too pre-determined and too controlled. In addition, this is a wonderful chance for the instructor to model for the students the free-flowing and improvisational nature of the playbuilding process.

For instructors who may be concerned about telling the story instead of a student, I note I only do this when working for the first time with a group of students. I do not like to put that much pressure on any one student this early in the process. However, once a group becomes comfortable with the playbuilding process, then the students themselves should become the story collectors and tellers.  Several times, just a day after I shared a story, students returned with stories of their own that they had asked for from their parents or other relatives. In some cultures, stories are the property of family or community. For this reason, instructors should proceed with caution when it comes to sharing stories not from their own culture. There are unwritten rules and guidelines about particular stories and ways of telling. Instructors are encouraged to seek counsel before taking on a story unfamiliar to them.

When the class experiences the story in this manner, the class then has a common experience and sense of the story that will guide the next few steps in the process. This common experience is akin to one that brings cultures together in unique ways, as many cultures have particular ways and times to share stories.
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I have always found that giving students a menu of choices gives them a good place to start when asked to create.

The initial warm-up to drama is a good example. As the students become comfortable with drama, they build a menu of exploratory techniques. They come to see the different ways the body, the voice and imagination can work together and help them communicate their ideas and creations. ..

 If a scene takes place on a street, a group of students can be other people on the street, another group can provide vocal sound effects of a street and others might be fire hydrants and lampposts.

Tableaux notes:

 The tableau step solidified for me when I worked with a group that had a hard time focusing on tasks. I chose to spend a good amount of time on creating, assessing and redoing the tableau in the hopes that they would come to focus on details of the story. One group got nowhere. They stood around pretending to be the people “talking,” but had no action suggested in their creation. Instead of focusing on what they did not have, I asked them about each of their characters and what those characters individually wanted and was doing. After each had thought about that, offering a variety of answers, I then asked them to show me what the characters look like when they are doing what they want.  After each had an individual frozen image, we put them back together, focusing on the most aligned characters. This kind of detailed evaluation helped focus the students on active choices for their characters and scenes, and gave them a very specific place from which to continue the playbuilding.

Building Scenes

When the students share their developing playbuilt scenes with each other, I refer to the sharing as "rehearsals" to clarify that the work is not final and the pressure is not on for them to get it "right" or "perfect." In fact, I find it essential to allow them to stop as they need to and restart as many times as they need. This keeps an air of informality to the sharing of their developing scenes, letting them know there is plenty of time for them to get their scene into a shape they like. I tell the students that the final "performance" will be when we present the whole story without stopping.

One class actually built on this experience. As the groups had the chance to watch each other developing and rehearsing their part of the story, a couple of the groups actually built on ideas from the others. Instead of running all around the room during a chase scene, one group stood in place and played the chase out in slow motion. Another group thought it was such a good idea, they borrowed it for their own scene.

At the end of the process, the groups share their final "performance."

Thus, the students play-build from a whole story of their own choice. They, rather than the teachers, become the experts, culturally, as storytellers and as the dramatizers of the stories.

Further References:

Bray, Errol. (1994). Playbuilding: a guide for group creation of plays with young people. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Oddey, Alison. (1994). Devising theatre: a practical and theoretical handbook. London: Routledge.

Sklar, Daniel J. (1991). Playmaking: Children writing and performing their own plays. New York: Teachers & Writers’ Collaborative.

Weigler, Will. (2001). Strategies for Playbuilding: Helping groups to translate issues into theatre. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.A systematic approach to creating script, song, choreography..mainly with young people.

A related activity is the making of a movie together, as described by Dan Wiener in his chapter in the book titled “The Movie-experience.”

Phillips. Techniques described on:   http://phillips.personal.nccu.edu.tw/improvlang/games-nccu.html ]: This teacher uses various games to help his Taiwanese-Chinese students learn English as a Second Language

Whiteson, Valerie. New ways of using drama and literature in language teaching. Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 1996.