Improv & ensemble storytelling activities

Last month, I attended a day long improv and ensemble storytelling workshop.  The goal of the program was ostensibly teamwork but there was lots of potential for application in the ELT classroom. Improv has the ability to help participants become less inhibited, test the boundaries of their comfort zones, create better connections with others, listen more actively and become more conscious about actions and speech. Ensemble storytelling helps participants build  stories collectively and create discussion-provoking tableaus. These are useful outcomes for any language classroom.

I’m going to describe the activities as I remember them. I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with ways of using them in your classroom. Most of these activities should be done without footwear to ensure that no one gets stomped on.

1. Foot 2 foot obstacle course 

Pair Ss and ask them to sit facing each other in two circles. So you have an inner circle and an outer circle. Ss in the inner circle sit facing their partner in the outer circle. Now, ask them to put their legs out such that their soles are touching their partners’ so they create a diamond shape between their legs. You’ll now have a foot to foot obstacle course. Give each pair a number. When a number is called out, the pair get up and start running through the obstacle course, ensuring that they are not stomping on anyone and only placing their feet in the space created between people’s legs.

  • Outcomes: Energize Ss and break the ice.

2. The “you” pattern game 

This one’s going to sound a little complicated but it was perhaps the most enjoyable activity of the day.  You shouldn’t have more than 12 people playing this game and if you fewer than 6, it might not be all that challenging.  If you have a large group, you can divide them into smaller circles – we had three circles of 11 or 12 people.

  • The basic pattern: In your circle, ask everyone to raise their hand and point their index fingers at the ceiling. T starts the game by lowering his/her hand and pointing to someone in the circle while saying “you”.  This person then points to someone else while saying “you”.  Play continues until everyone gets to lower their hand and say “you” to someone – no repeats allowed – the last person points to the T and passes the “you” back to him/her. Ask the Ss if they remember who they received the “you” from and who they passed it to because they are going to stick with these people. Play two more rounds so Ss become comfortable and encourage them to go faster.
  • The second pattern: Tell the Ss that they are now going to practice a different pattern. Point to someone (different than the first round) and say your favourite breakfast food/dish. Repeat procedure until everyone’s pointed to someone and said a favourite breakfast item (no repetition of people being pointed at or food). Start the “you” pattern and about 30 seconds in, begin the breakfast pattern so you have two patterns going at the same time. Ss will generally drop one. Encourage them to concentrate and keep the momentum with both.
  • The third pattern: Now introduce a third pattern – favourite animal or superhero. If Ss master this quickly, move on to the finale.
  • Finale: Tell the Ss they’ve had it easy till now because all they had to do was memorize where the “word” came from and where it was going so it didn’t really involve genuine concentration. In this round, when someone points to them and says “you” or a “breakfast item”, you need to swap places with them. Begin again with the “you” pattern and gradually introduce the second pattern before bringing in the third. At first, it will be completely chaotic but after some time, most Ss will be able to get into the kind of “flow” described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name. At that point, it might look like they are performing a contemporary dance.
  • Outcomes: Energy, focus, teamwork, concentration, flow, momentum, intonation, supporting each other, being fully engaged.

3. Yes and … 

Have all the Ss sit down and ask 3 or 4 to come and stand where everyone can see them. These Ss stand in a line facing the audience. The audience needs to give them a product to sell and those in the “yes and …” line say things that describe or promote the product. However, they cannot confer with each other and each person says their lines spontaneously. Here’s how it plays out:

  • The audience asks those in the “yes and …” line to sell a toothbrush.
  • All four Ss step up and pump the air with the fists while saying “Yes and” and then step back.
  • One of the Ss steps forward and says “Yes and … this is a magical toothbrush that grants you a wish every fortnight.”  While this Ss steps back, everyone in the line says “Yes and …” and another Ss steps forward and adds his/her line.
  • Ss will try to choreograph each other by conferring, guiding, forcing others to say something etc. Don’t let them to do this. Some of them will also contradict each other by saying “No and …”. Stop the activity, tell the Ss that the reaction should always be positive “Yes and …” and ask them to do it over.
  • Outcomes: Building on each other’s ideas, spontaneity, creativity, fluency, allowing autonomy of action, not stage-managing other people’s words or actions, not seeing the way in your head as the only  right way, going with the flow and lots of other things.

4. Affinity … to me 

You need a slightly larger space for this activity. It would work well outdoors. Demonstrate by calling out something you like a lot, for example, “dogs”. Everyone who likes dogs runs to you and forms a tight huddle and those who don’t like dogs need to get as far away as possible. The game is spontaneous. Anyone can call something out and if you have an affinity for that thing – you run over to them and if not, you run away.

  • Outcome: Getting to know each other, energy, taking initiative.

5. My enemy 

Ask everyone to silently and subtly choose someone in the room. They must not let this person know (in any way) that they have been chosen. This person is their enemy.  Ask them to now choose another person. This person is their guardian. At all points of time, they must keep their guardian between themselves and their enemy.  Play for a few minutes before asking Ss to switch perspectives – their enemy is now their guardian and vice versa.

  • Outcome: Dealing with change, thinking about how we view people

6.  Samurai

Ask Ss to hold their right (or left) hand out vertically so it’s folded up at their elbow. They need to form a fist but put their little finger out. Tell them that they are samurai warriors and this is their katana, their traditional sword. At all points of time, their hand must be held up and out as if it were a sword with their pinkie sticking out.  The objective of the game is to kill others in the room by using your sword. Samurais can only die if some part of their torso is touched by another warrior’s pinkie finger. Ss can only defend and block using their sword. Start the game by asking everyone to raise their swords and striking the floor while making the noise of steel against ground. Then, stand back and watch the battle. Those who are killed should fall to the floor and play dead.

  • Outcome: Getting into character, strategy, playing by the rules

7. Letter by letter

Divide the Ss into groups of three or four. Write seven letters on the whiteboard, avoid tougher ones like X, Y & Z. Call out a letter by crossing it out and announcing a time limit of one or two minutes depending on the level of the Ss. Ss need to write out a story within the time limit but there are some rules. Each group member can only contribute one word at a time and they must write this word on their piece of paper. Ss shouldn’t influence each other or compel their group members to write something they don’t want to. Each word that is contributed must begin with the letter called out for that round. For examples, all the words in the story begin with “t”, including function words. When the timer runs out, call out the next letter and so on. Finally, have groups pick a person to read out their story using their voice and eye contact to bring it to life.

  • Outcome: Building on each other ideas, collaboration, avoiding helpful sentence completion, letting others think for themselves, encouraging team members while letting them be themselves, creative writing, working under constraints, making the most of the voice.

8. Freeze frame

Divide the Ss into larger groups of between 5 and 7 people per group. Ask them to sit together and share experiences that were life-changing or life-affirming in some way.  They then need to construct seven tableaus that narrate the story. These are frames where there is no movement and no dialogue.  Give Ss ten minutes to design and practice their frames. Each frame must include everyone from the group. Point out that each person doesn’t need to be a character – they could also be objects or a part of the setting.

When everyone’s ready, get Ss to sit down on one side of the room. Get the first group to come up and ask Ss to put their heads down so they can no longer see the are the performance is taking place. The group quietly gets into position for their first frame. Say “freeze frame” and have everyone look at the frame. Then says “heads down” and the group gets into the next frame and so on.  At the end of the seven frames, ask observing groups to reconstruct the story, reflect on what they liked about the frames and which details they found most enjoyable or memorable.

  • Outcome: Teamwork, collaboration, being resourceful, using everyone in the group, storytelling, visualization, coordination.

9. My story for the future

In the workshop, the facilitators asked us to pretend that human civilization will have to undergo some world-changing tribulations in the near future. As a result of this, we will lose most of our repositories of knowledge, culture and stories. Ask Ss to think of a story that has significance for them and bequeath this to the people of the future by preserving it in an abstract sculpture we will launch into space. The facilitators got us to write (most people wrote names of books or movies) our story titles on thin pieces of wood which had grooves so they fit into each other. When we were done, they invited us to construct the sculpture so it became a piece of installation art.

I think the activity would have been more powerful if Ss had written their own stories on the piece of wood. It could be a story inspired by an existing narrative or one that is somehow significant to them – but something that people from our future would find moving, funny or interesting and would become a treasured addition to a culture that is bereft of stories. Instead of wooden squares, you could create the same effect with cardboard from old boxes. I tried, it works as long as the cardboard is a little thick – saw 4 grooves into it where it could be connected to other squares.

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I hope you have as much fun facilitating these activities as I did participating in them!

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7 thoughts on “Improv & ensemble storytelling activities

  1. So many cool and interesting ideas. Will definitely be trying some out in the new term. Thanks for sharing.
    The last idea made me think of a drama lesson i did on my Teacher Training. Teacher is in role as Alien (Leader) from another Galaxy. You begin by welcoming Earthlings (your students) and get them to help you to understand the strange customs that you have witnessed on the recording devices that you have sent down to planet Earth. In groups the students act out ‘typical human behaviour’ – watching TV, getting drunk etc and after each group the conference of Aliens analyses the behaviour. What have we learnt about humans etc…?
    A funny lesson with loads of opportunities for spontaneous in role speaking.
    Caroline

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  2. Dear Adi,
    I must say that as of today I”m pretty much hooked to your blog! You’ve got some amazing ideas here, and thanks much for sharing your experience from he improv workshop. I’d love to try some of the activities in my classroom, but need to be selective due to the cultural appropriateness of some of the activities above (I’ve got a group of mixed cultures – middle eastern learners might not be very comfortable with
    the close proximity of some games) . However, I’d surely make some variations and try them out in the classroom.
    I just had an idea for the game “Yes, and….”. I think for a group of 10 students, we could make them stand in the circle and step into the circle while saying ” Yes, and…” to continue the story. In this case, all learners would be involved at the same time and could be more fun!
    I’m looking forward to reading more from you, definitely, Adi! take care…

    Ratna

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    • Thanks Ratna 🙂 You’re right about the cultural appropriateness of some of the activities although I have already tried them out (I am such a sucker for engaging interactions) with several groups here in India who were quite different to the more shall we say liberal bunch in the original workshop and it seemed to be received quite well. I love the tweak you’ve suggested to “Yes and”. For some reason, drama facilitators seem to see a lot of value in watching the performances of others but this doesn’t always translate into an efficient use of time – a pet peeve for language teachers!

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  3. I suppose their (drama facilitators) aims are different to ours as ELT educators? 🙂

    I’ll be starting of with a new bunch soon, and might even be able to try these activities with them once I’ve got the classroom dynamics going! We’ll just have to wait and see, then.

    Meanwhile, do keep blogging!:))))

    Tc,
    Ratna

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  4. Pingback: A smorgasbord of drama inspired activities – Immersivities

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