Second Language Learning with Virtual Theater

posted on Jun 15 2020

by Robert "Bob" Tarushka, Director of Performances

We are excited to announce a new partnership with the U.S. Department of State!

We began this new partnership with the US Consulate in Krakow , Poland. This experience revealed the potential for international connection in our new virtual environment. If you just happen to represent an international agency that is interested in quality hybrid ESL/theater programming, keep reading!

A Little Back Story...

At the beginning of each mainstages performance, we say something like, “we bring programming and performances to people just like you nationwide.” It’s at that point that I brag that our relatively small arts organization based out of NYC has performed shows for audiences in over 13 states, but last Thursday it rang a little hollow… probably because the people on the other side of the screen were over 4,000 miles away on a different continent!

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been foregoing our usual in-person performances for virtual ones done via Zoom. We have become accustomed to this format over the past couple of months, but performing for an international audience presented new challenges. The combination of less familiar subject matter in a virtual environment was daunting. However, we thought that this program could be a great foray into bringing our signature theater education and entertainment to people all over the world.

What We Did

The goal of the program was to engage teenage students from Krakow, Poland with an interest in theater over the course of three sessions. Since I have experience working with second language learners, I took the lead on the program. We also reached out to one of our long-time performers, Sarah Spangenberg (who is a highly talented virtual facilitator as well as second-language educator), to join me.

In our three sessions with the students from Krakow, Poland we wanted to accomplish the following:

  • Conversation Partnering
  • Modeling as Native English Speakers
  • Theater workshops
  • English Enrichment
  • Modeling an American Educational Environment
  • Cross-Cultural Sharing

With our limited time frame, we were able to draw connections between their skills in theater and English as a second language. We wanted to help them understand that they could use both as tools of expression and analysis while showcasing our own sense of fun and enthusiasm for the subject matter.

With those factors in mind, Sarah and I created a static lesson plan that would be similar at each session:

  1. Welcome and Outline: We welcomed everyone at the start of the session and discussed what we were hoping to accomplish that day. During the first session, we also added in expectations for the series as a whole (things like participation, improvisation, and asking questions).
  2. Warm Up: Some kind of physical warm up, like a theater game.
  3. English Activity of the Day: During this section we would play a game that had a theatrical bent, but was focused on participants expressing themselves verbally in English.
  4. Theater Activity of the Day: This activity was usually something to do with building a character, and would be similar to what an American teen would be doing in a theater class.
  5. Teach us About Poland!: During this section, the participants would teach us (the American facilitators) things about their home country such as greetings, social norms, and places to visit.
  6. AAA (Ask Americans Anything!): In AAA, the participants were given free rein to ask native English speakers any (reasonable) question and get an authentic answer. We ended up touching on subjects ranging from attitudes towards the UK post-Revolutionary War, to Broadway shows we have seen, to the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.
  7. Next Step Challenge & Review: During this last section, we would provide a brief homework assignment for the next class and review all the things that we did that day.

The Outcome

Over the three sessions, our connection with the students was easier than we had initially thought it might be. We played fun theater games like “Slideshow” and “30 Second Facts,” we got into lovely conversations about our respective cultures, and we introduced relevant theater education tools from our arsenal. One being a relatively common tool for character building in American high schools - the GOTE Sheet. Standing for “goals, obstacles, tactics, and expectations,” a GOTE sheet allows actors to write out clear statements about a character they are playing to give them some global directions.

In another activity, students wrote a brief monologue that used two American English idioms (from a large document with 100 pages worth of them), but one of the idioms would be used purposefully incorrectly, and everyone had to guess which one was which. I think hearing the explanations of their GOTE sheets (which most participants wanted to explain AS the character themselves) and seeing everyone trying to figure out the difference between two unfamiliar idioms (which are phrases that have a different meaning than what they literally say) were two highlights of the program.

The Polish teens did amazing work with the homework assignments, and really got a chance to flex their creative muscles. Unprompted, they worked together, added creative design elements, and used complex language skills to create scenes, monologues, and presentations that were undeniably cool. One teen was able to make himself appear in a bedroom mirror and move around independently while delivering a monologue, and I STILL have no idea how he did it. Their genuine creativity and enthusiasm was infectious.

People waving and giving the thumbs up in windows on Zoom
Our wonderful Polish teen participants!

We had stated that we wanted the participants to understand that they could use theater and English skills to inform each other, and I can confirm that they not only understood that but took off running with it. Our goal to model an enthusiastic American teaching presence was also accomplished. At the beginning of the final session, I noticed that nearly all the participants were wearing sweatbands to match my own as an homage (I wear sweatbands when teaching or performing- it is one of my many “charming” eccentricities). I had no idea it was coming, and it was one of the more inventive and lovely displays I have received in my last decade of teaching.

We hope that we will be able to continue this work in other countries. One of the perks of virtual programming is that it can be done anywhere! We look forward to reaching other parts of the world and getting the chance to hear about the things they love to do and discover our similarities, differences, and a common love of sweatbands.

Want to see what mainstages could do for your virtually?

See our virtual programming and performances in action!

mainstages delivered American culture, English language instruction, and theater techniques right to the homes of Polish students, through creative and dynamic workshops. Participants embraced the chance for cultural exchange with mainstages' charismatic team of trainers and the connections made helped to strengthen people-to-people ties between the two countries. We can't wait to partner with them again!

- Amy Steinmann , Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Consulate Krakow

Robert "Bob" Tarushka

posted on Jun 15 2020

by Robert "Bob" Tarushka

As Director of Performances, Bob has personally visited hundreds of camps where he writes, produces, and performs original shows and workshops. Bob received a double major in English Literature and Theater at The University of New Hampshire and has previous experience on staff at Second Stage Theatre, Dixon Place, Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, Shrunken Shakespeare Company, Underling Productions, and more.