Forum Theatre in ELT: The Story of Peter Black Role Play.

A Tragic Story of the Financial Crisis.

Introduction.

This is one of my favourite lessons. ‘The Tragic Story of Peter Black is about a middle-aged man who is made redundant during a financial recession and the tragic consequences that folllow. The lesson explores the themes of unemployment, depression and suicide and allows learners the opportunity to explore their reactions to these themes. Learners are invited to critically interact with the story by role playing the fateful meeting when Peter Black learns from the Personnel Manager of his redundancy. The lesson exploits Forum Theatre to explore alternative outcomes to the scenario based on Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (1979). Additionally, the learners discuss the story outcomes in an Oprah Wimfrey style Talk Show exploiting a ‘problem-posing education’ model as advocated by Paolo Freire (1972) in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Language and skills

The lesson is an integrated skills lesson that practices receptive reading and aims to develop speaking skills through role play, discussion and exploiting ideas adapted from Forum Theatre and the work of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

Lesson Stages.

The lesson consists of 5 main stages although as with any lesson these represent a flexible outline and need to be adapted to the level and needs of the group.

  • Setting the scene and arousing learners interest and personalising the topic. I use a video of images depicting the financial crisis to elicit relevant lexis, and questions students can discuss in pairs to generate interest such as: – ‘Does your city have a large unemployed population?’ A further task is a collaborative brainstorming activity in which learners create a spidergram with lexis related to the financial crisis.
  • Pre-Reading: I show a photo of the main protagonist, Peter Black, and elicit ideas by asking questions such as – How old is he? What is his job? And then I dramatically draw a large black cross next to the visual. This usually elicits an exclamation: ‘He is dead!’ After confirming that Peter Black is indeed dead I invite students to write questions they would like to know about him. In this way learners are in effect writing their own comprehension questions (an idea adapted from Mario Rinvolucri’s Revenge Questions). The first few questions are typically along the lines of: ‘How and why did he die?’ but quickly become more creative as the learners predict their own scenarios – ‘Who was the last person to see him alive? Did he have many enemies?
  • Reading: Firstly, I get the learners to skim the story to find whether the answers to their questions can be found in the text, then we do a scanning activity in which they find key lexis (this can be done as a race in pairs or teams to generate some kinesthetic energy as they run to the teacher with their answers).
  • Forum Theatre Role Play: The learners re-enact the meeting between Peter Black and the Personnel Manager with the aim of exploring alternative outcomes. Does the outcome inevitably lead to Peter Black’s suicide or are there alternative endings to the story? There needs to be sufficient preparation prior to the role play in terms or both generating ideas but also practicing relevant target language. There is controlled practice of expressions for ‘breaking bad news’ to develop learners’ pronunciation and the role plays and discussions provide opportunities to develop and practice oral fluency. A special feature of role plays is the opportunity to work on ‘pragmatics’, the skill of communicating messages through culturally appropriate language and gesture. In this role play the Personnel Manager’s task is to break the bad news to Peter Black that he has to be made redundant. Pragmatics allow us to reach our communicative goals without offending or hurting others’ feelings.

Methodology

The lesson methodology is strongly influenced by Boal’s concept of Forum Theatre. Boal’s vision of theatre is as a creative and reflexive process through which participants view themselves and their conditions. He was greatly influenced by the work of Paolo Freire and he modelled much of his theatre work on the ‘problem-posing education’ model outlined by Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972).  According to Feire, ‘problem-posing education’ should begin with the participants’ lived experiences and then after reflection, explore solutions and act to change. As such,

‘In problem-posing education, people come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.’ (Feire 1972:64).

Boal’s Forum Theatre similarly is one of theatre as transformation. Forum Theatre entails the spectators joining with the actors in the performance to explore alternative endings to the story.   The act of performing the story with different outcomes, allows people to move away from ‘mechanical’ reactions that recreate dominant, normative discourses, opening the way for transformation. Essentially in an ELT context, Forum Theatre involves using a story as a stimulus to allow learners to critically reflect on the scenario and together to co-construct through mutual agreement a series of alternative endings and re-create a fictitious transformative result. The principal features of this lesson are:

  • Learners focus on issues, characters, mood, conflict and dilemmas in the story as a stimulus for learning.
  • Learners respond personally drawing on their own experience, psychology and values.
  • Learning occurs as learners explore the issues and dilemmas symbolized in the story
  • Learners bring the story to life through improvisation and discussion

I was first introduced to ‘The Tragic Story of Peter Black’ by Jon Naunton at IH London in 1985 and I have since taught it countless times in different formats. As I live in Istanbul the effects of financial recession are all too common. There are many middle-aged Peter Blacks coping with redundancy and depressions here!

The power of Forum Theatre.

Psychologically stories can represent a part of human consciousness that exists in all cultures. They fulfill a human need to listen to and tell stories and invariably evoke a personal response. This story of Peter Black allows learners to confront issues related to telling people ‘bad news’ and the strategies they can use to negotiate awkward (but not uncommon) situations. Each learner will respond differently as their relationship with the story depends on their own interpretation of the world. Not only does the cultural, social, sexual and physiological make up of the classroom impact on learners’ responses, but also each individual learner’s struggle with contradictory viewpoints of the world. Paulo Freire (1970) claims that at the heart of education is an ability to help learners (and teachers) to reflect and act upon the world, and through that transform it into a better place.

LANGUAGE AIM(S):

Sts will have been introduced to and practiced the target lexis related to the financial crisis. Particularly they will be exposed to the following lexical set: To be made redundant, to be laid off, unemployed, to commit suicide, financial crisis, mortgage.

In addition they practice functional language exponents to beak bad news:

Preparing to give bad news Giving bad news Other expressions
 

 

 

 I’m afraid I have some bad news.

There’s no easy way to say what I have to say.

You might want to sit down before you hear what I have to say.

 

I’m very sorry to have to tell you that you are being made redundant

As you may have suspected, I have to tell you that…. you are being made redundant

It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that….. you are being made redundant

 

There is nothing I can do unfortunately.

I wish I could help you. I really do.

The decision is out of my hands.

I’m really sorry. I know this must be a bitter disappointment.

As in any activity developing oral fluency learners need to have the ability to effectively manage an interaction. There are many features of oral interaction that a teacher can focus on but one useful area is that of breaking bad news as highlighted in the table above.

The teacher can introduce these exponents in a previous lesson and monitor how effectively learners use them in this lesson. Alternatively at the end of this lesson (especially if the discussion can be video recorded) learners can reflect on their turn-taking strategies and self-evaluate.

Pedagogically, stories provide an opportunity to develop and practice receptive skills (reading in this lesson) as well as provide a rich context for language input. Once students are familiar with the story outline and content, the story provides a model to focus on structure, lexis and phonology and provides a ready context for follow-up writing and speaking activities. Most importantly for me, a story with an unresolved conflict can provide opportunities to explore alternative endings using Forum Theatre. Learners explore issues, events and relationships through improvised exploration and discussion. Typically, texts are presented in course materials in a static and lifeless manner, as content to be absorbed; however every effective teacher understands that real learning is not generated by the materials but is generated by co-construction and negotiation between teachers and learners in a lived experience which is why every lesson is unique and learning outcomes unpredictable.

The advantages of Forum Theatre.

  1. Driven by inquiry. The context presents a problem that is authentic and emotive. The problem can arouse genuine passion and strong and emotive learner responses.
  2. Meaning is ‘learner generated’ through their responses to the story and not transmitted from an external source.
  3. The lesson stages are logically sequenced and yet the structure is flexible as it depends on unpredictable learner responses. The method is powered by risk-taking as the process relies on challenging learners to respond and engage with the materials and issues raised.

Peter Black lesson plan

Peter Black Read the passage and answer these questions

Peter BlackPreparing to give bad news

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About Tom Godfrey

I am an ELT teacher and teacher trainer. I am Director of ITI, Istanbul a training institute in Istanbul. I am also founder of Speech Bubbles theatre which performs musicals to raise money for children and education.
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