Exploring Language

In her July teaching artist column, Shelby-Allison Hibbs writes free summer programs that help children communicate, given by Junior Players and DISD/Dallas Children's Theater

published Monday, July 27, 2015
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Photo: DiAnn L\'Roy
A Midsummer Night's Dream is presented by Junior Players

Dallas — I’ve decided that summer for teaching artists is the craziest time of the year. Students are out of school, so you can have classes from morning to evening (if you really want to). There’s plenty of work around as kids are eager to do something with all their free time (or maybe their parents are more interested in that). I have been working with three companies over the summer in three widely different programs for children and teens, but two of them have a common thread of making language invigorating and accessible for youth.

On weekday mornings, I’m at a different DISD middle school campus working for the Reading and Writing Revolution program, a partnership with Dallas Children’s Theater. The aim of this program is to encourage English as a Second Language students to become more comfortable speaking in front of other people through creating their own plays.

I’ve seen the kind of student this program is targeting nearly everywhere in Dallas. You’ll have a child who is voluntarily mute, who won’t participate in discussions or exercises in English due to a lack of exposure to the language or simply confidence. It’s like English is a huge wall that can’t be crossed over at all, and so these children lose time interacting with others because they don’t believe they can. The other children, with good intentions, will say to me “Maria doesn’t speak English. She can’t talk.” They will say that. “She can’t talk.” In a way, they speak about the student like he or she is not there at all. I know these children mean well, but it doesn’t help the situation. The student’s mute behavior becomes reinforced and only leads to more silence. Before a class, I’ll observe the group dynamic, and these students are often alone or with their “translator buddy”, a classmate who speaks English and Spanish very well. The child clings to that person for support, to understand what is happening around them.

With some of these students, it can take weeks to get them to feel comfortable in class, through movement and speech games. One of my RAWR students understands no English whatsoever… as his teacher and classmates told me. So I was met with some backlash when we were going to play “Zip Zap Zop” on our first day. The children were very worried that this one student would not be able to follow along. I asked them, “Is ‘zop’ a word you use every day?” Of course they said “no.” I continued to exaggerate physically how the game would work and some students translated my words, encouraging some discussion before playing the game. Sure enough, he understood the rules. He got the game. He can talk. And that game was a significant step for this child to become verbally active in his peer group.

In the first week of the RAWR program, students read a few short graphic novels with stories based on fairy tales or legends. The graphic novels offer a strong, exciting visual connection between the word (symbol) and action (meaning).  Then, students are introduced to theatre practices, because they are going to use the stories as inspiration for their own new play (many of the groups I worked with created a mash-up of fairy tales or twisted them in some way). They also take a field trip to Dallas Children’s Theater to see a production with professional actors, allowing them to see what their final presentation could resemble. Over the course of five weeks, they work in small groups to create, rehearse, and perform a script; all the while students gain experience with new vocabulary and reinforcing speech.

I’m not with the students every day; their home teachers are the ones who guide them through the whole process. I’m only there to supplement for 90 minutes each week (at four different campuses). Most of my time has been devoted to thorough warm ups, speech exercises and helping the students block their plays. When they are not working on the play, the students also experience dance, music and poetry as different avenues to express themselves.

Since I only see each group once a week, I have noticed a distinct leap with many of the students each time I work with them. For example, one child who could not concentrate at all the first day or participate in our creative games actually became one of the most expressive and committed performers out of all the groups. And that’s the point of the program, to create a space where students build confidence with an unfamiliar, formerly intimidating language.

In the afternoons, I’m stage managing Junior Player’s summer production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Bollywood Spectacular. The blend of Shakespeare and Bollywood, co-directed by Valerie Hauss-Smith and Anastasia Munoz, begins performances Tuesday. The audition-based program produces a fun and family-friendly production and provides advanced training for these dedicated teens. With a rehearsal period of six weeks meeting four hours a day, I wondered what we would be doing that would necessitate that amount of time. I mean it can’t take that long, even for a Shakespearean play with Bollywood dance numbers dispersed throughout the performance.

Photo: DiAnn L\'Roy
A Midsummer Night's Dream is presented by Junior Players

By the end of the second week, I had my answer. For many years in this program, Valerie Hauss-Smith has utilized an active text analysis technique called “Dropping In.” She learned this approach by working with Shakespeare & Company, as the founding artistic director, Tina Packer created this exercise. Observing this part of the rehearsal process has been the most riveting because I have seen (and taught) a variety of text analysis techniques for Shakespeare. Most of the approaches I have witnessed are very academic or shallow in the exploration of the physical and vocal relationships with Shakespeare’s language. (Shallow in the sense that we you will freely explore the text for an hour or so, and then the actors are expected to do that kind of text work on their own time. Because we’ve got more important things to do, like block the play.) “Dropping In” falls into a “long form” kind of investigation of the text. I say that because we have spent roughly 20 hours of rehearsal working through the language of the play without regard to “cementing” anything for our final performance. The whole cast is soaking in the language and opening up new possibilities for meaning and characterization, and they do so by creating the questions they must answer through the rehearsal process.

 “Dropping In” relies on a partner work to open up the language of the play, through the continuous creation of questions that break apart the meaning of the words on the page. At first, the actor sits in a chair while their partner holds the text they are going to perform. The supporting partner starts to read the text phrase by phrase, sometimes word by word, and asks open ended questions about what those words could mean. After each question, the partner reads the phrase and the actor repeats it, absorbing the question and a new notion of that specific part of the text that they may have never considered previously. Asking multiple questions for each part of the text demonstrates how multifaceted language can be, there’s no such thing as one correct meaning when you deconstruct the language in this manner. Even though it is tempting to already have choices made for your character, “Dropping In” asks the actor to wait, to really consider all possibilities without making choices prematurely.

Next they move on to “Standing Up,” when all the actors in a scene begin reading their lines in a group. Each actor has a partner who still feeds the text along with questions, but now they can see their role in relationship to others. All the partners and actors are clumped in close proximity, as this part illuminates the give and take between characters. At this point, no strong physical choices are made at this time, only slight movements to and from each other.

For a traditional rehearsal, it is easy to get bogged down in your script. But that’s the challenge of it all, isn’t it? A script is a skeleton, an artifact of sorts. A play doesn’t live there, it lives in the playing of it and against obstacles (usually other characters). In these exercises where someone else verbally feeds the lines, the actor can simply focus on living the language, engaging their scene partners and making spontaneous decisions that would not be possible when magnetized to their physical script.

“Feeding In” is the last part of the weeklong exploration. The rehearsal space is transformed into a playground of sorts, with obstacles and objects scattered around the stage.  There’s no concern for the ground plan or pre-conceived ideas of blocking. The actors are free to move and play as they wish, still with someone following them around the stage feeding them the lines. Yes, if an actor runs across the stage, jumps on a couch and rolls to the floor, their partner has to keep up with them and feed them the text. Now that the company has broken down each small part of the language, the actors display a great amount of freedom to make unexpected choices.  During this run, directors Munoz and Hauss-Smith will often take movement or characterization that the actors explored in this run and make it a part of the final production.

In large-cast plays, it is so easy for an actor who has only a handful of lines to think they are not a significant part of the overall production. Through “Dropping In,” everyone has a chance to share their thoughts—in the form of asking questions. It is still the actor’s responsibility to come up with those answers for their own role, but everyone has the opportunity to be a part of the discussion. In this work, everyone becomes very much involved in the playing and intellectual exploration of the play as a whole.

Did I mention that both of these are free programs? 


» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director and performer. Each month in TheaterJones, she'll write about a different North Texas organization that teaches some aspect of theater and the craft to students of all ages. Below is a list of previous columns:

  • February 2015 "Teacher/Artist" (Capers for Kids)
  • March 2015 "Parental Guidance Suggested" (WaterTower Theatre)
  • April 2015 "DaVersify Your Life" (DaVerse Lounge)
  • May 2015 "The Work in Art" (Tax time for an independent artist)
  • June 2015 "Learning to Say YES" (Cara Mía Theatre)
 Thanks For Reading


Kateri Cale writes:
Tuesday, July 28 at 8:27PM

Love this series with Shelby! Thanks very much for giving it coverage.

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Exploring Language
In her July teaching artist column, Shelby-Allison Hibbs writes free summer programs that help children communicate, given by Junior Players and DISD/Dallas Children's Theater
by Shelby-Allison Hibbs

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