The following interview took place on 20 March 2012, in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Glasgow.
Barbara: Yesterday you were the facilitator for our Teacher Development SIG Day at the Glasgow IATEFL conference, which was very successful. Can you tell us something about your learning biography?
Peter: I was a professional actor from 1983 until 1993 based in Melbourne, involved in a lot of theatre and TV. I appeared in television shows such as Sullivans, Flying Doctors, Cellblock H or Prisoner and Neighbours which was the last one. The first show was Sullivans where I had two famous first words to say: “Who’s paying?” as I was a taxi driver. The TV work led on to more substantial roles and was fascinating but my passion was definitely with theatre and working with young people. St Martin’s youth theatre which was a government subsidised theatre for young aspiring actors, was a marvellous experience, which I roughly did for four years. I also had a passion for mask making and we did a production of Twelfth Night where each actor played two roles, one masked. I helped the actors make their own masks. I was working with a truly innovative theatre company of regular actors called, “Fata Morgana” where we performed classics, contemporary theatre and even wrote our own productions. It was directed by an outstandingly innovative man called, Laszlo Szabo. It was a truly valuable and unforgettable experience for me which really influenced so much of what I do now. I also studied the theatre of the grotesque which was a huge inspiration for me and elements of which I still use in my work.
Barbara. What’s that?
Peter. It was born in Paris introduced to the world by Phillipe Gaulier. The actors, by using a dishevelled and grotesque appearance and working as a tight knit group, are able to tell the audience, who tend to represent mainstream society just what is wrong with that society and that not all that society believes in or puts their trust in, is so perfect and just. It is like giving the down trodden and the disenfranchised in society a voice. There are certain very strict rules attached to performing it. The performers are not allowed to touch the audience but they do attack in a verbal way manipulating the audience through one shocking reaction towards another. It teaches actors to react to the audience, to affect the audience and manipulate the audience’s emotions. It is a good training for stand up comedians and I might add, it would be great one day to hold a workshop for teachers on it.
Barbara Then you made the move from Australia to Europe. Why was that?
Peter : I was always struggling financially because of the nature of the acting profession but eventually, I went to London, Paris and then on to New York. I had a wonderful private two hour discussion with Sonia Moore (an acting trainer whose book I was using in Australia with my teaching) in New York and I thought she was a fascinating, enlightened acting teacher. She didn’t actually know where Australia was which was a little surprising but that didn’t matter. I was a member of the International Theatre Institute and was able to also attend the Actors workshop and Uta Hagen’s workshops in New York(Moore: Stanislavski Revealed: An Actors Guide to Spontaneity on Stage.).
Barbara: What type of learner are you?
Peter I am not an academic. I do read a lot about theatre, art and history and the last Drama book I read was Learning through Drama (2012) by David Farmer.
Barbara Why does that inspire you?
Peter We share the same philosophy. I try to adapt his ideas to use for teaching and he like so many others reinforce the value of the work I am doing and the exercises I have developed over the years. I look at activities and exercises and decide through variations how I can help teachers to use them for all sorts of reasons in the classroom including physicalizing English grammar and finding ways to vary the exercises to develop all the communication skills. I encourage teachers to email me if they are having some problems and also to tell me about their successes. I tell teachers that if they try something new and it doesn’t work, never throw those ideas away. The fact that an activity failed can depend on so many things, for example on how many coca colas the kids might have had at lunch time.
Barbara So when does teaching come in?
Peter I went to Melbourne State College because there was no Drama College in Melbourne at that time. I had some remarkable teachers there, one of whom was Lindy Davis. I did well, discovered so much about theatre and I became a qualified teacher. After I graduated, I went straight into professional acting. I had to support my acting career so I taught English and I found that many of the drama exercises and acting activities could actually be used effectively in the language classroom, to encourage people to talk, to express and enjoy the new language. Then I came back over to England in 1993. Pilgrims were my first employers. I had responded to a tiny advert in the paper and they have been truly supportive of me and my work. I worked with young adults’ courses first of all. They were, kids aged from 14 to 17. I then went on to business training and teacher training which I still do. I must also add that I have worked in Primary and Secondary schools in Australia and England, most recently in a private college in Canterbury for 6 years where I taught ESL, Drama and mask making.
Barbara Tell me about your first sessions at Pilgrims. Can you be specific?
Peter: Drama was offered as an extra activity in the young adults’ courses at Pilgrims. English levels were mixed and so you worked with youngsters of all levels. The first thing I did was to make people feel relaxed. Feeling good about being in the group with others. It is crucial. It doesn’t matter what type of classroom. Teachers need to spend time on that to encourage learning.
My last group one summer was just Japanese and Italian boys with mixed language abilities. My work was then inspired by Keith Johnstone’s Improv and his other book,Impro For Storytellers. Two Japanese boys came up to me and they had to do something on the master servant roles which I had been working on for some time. One of the boys asked if they could do the activity scene in Japanese as the other boy was a beginner in English and that was of course fine with me. It was hysterically funny done in Japanese and I shall never forget its power. If you look at status, it is the master who normally has the status but here we were trying to reverse the roles where the servant had the real power. So many great comedies come from this exchange of status roles. Charley Chaplin is just one example. After some time, Pilgrims started to use me for teacher training. The drama has taken over and I am constantly researching, developing and playing with this mostly untapped and valuable resource in teaching.
Barbara: You are a star at Pilgrims now?
Peter: Well, last summer, I felt there was an opening to try to do a drama workshop on how to help teachers to become better communicators. I reckoned we could do a two-week course and Jim Wright at Pilgrims was most encouraging. It was a remarkable success. The course is aimed at any teacher with a relatively good level of English and it’s all about making teachers feel more relaxed about the way they communicate, to be more responsible about how they fit in with the world both professionally and privately. As teachers we are actors. Even the first entrance to a classroom is terribly, terribly important. We need to be aware of our appearance, gestures but voice as well.
Barbara: So what would you do with someone who comes in all stooped and shy?
Peter: Well, usually it doesn’t happen quite that way but some teachers are perhaps in need of work on posture, breathing and perhaps a better sense of self esteem in the way they present themselves. People come up to me with their specific questions and I try to assist them. It’s not really up to me to criticize people but through drama find ways in which they can communicate more effectively.
Barbara: But they first need to become aware of their particular postures, don’t you think?
Peter: Well yes some people have a posture that doesn’t necessarily appeal. It isn’t very communicative. I cannot do a great deal about that. Some people’s posture is the result of so many influences going back to childhood and that is not something I need to deal with. I do not do psycho drama, that is definitely not my role.
What I can do is offer sessions on posture and sessions on breathing and the power of gesture and voice. That’s what I try to do.
Barbara: So do you do something with yoga?
Peter: Well actually I do believe in yoga although I don’t practice it myself. Breathing and relaxation are terribly important. Often teachers are very much stressed; I don’t offer any miracles for that. There is so much administrative work to do, welfare work, they are taking on so many roles, parental roles as well. All I can offer is assistance.
A lot of teachers read aloud in class and there is so much value in teachers taking on that role. If I can help teachers to become better readers and breathers, to help with their posture and voice, they will bring that confidence over to their pupils. If the teacher is more ware of these particular communication skills, why can’t they pass these skills on to their students as well as language acquisition? I use a lot of authentic materials. I love to use scripts for regular, contemporary radio and TV advertisements for voice work and students love these. I wouldn’t scare them with Shakespeare straight away but “All the world’s a stage” from “As you like it” is a wonderful sketch to work on. You don’t want to scare people off Shakespeare because so many native speakers have been put off Shakespeare for life because their teachers never knew how to do it. The speech by the character Jaques, is a description of the seven ages of man and remarkably there are only a few words in it which we do not use in contemporary English. It’s great for students to take on the different roles and I encourage them to exaggerate the characters as much as they want. Each character is just as relevant today as they were in the 16th century.
|As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII [All the world’s a stage|
|by William Shakespeare|
Jaques to Duke Senior
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Barbara : Talking about Shakespeare. What would you do?
Peter : Word stressing and intonation. The iambic pentameter and getting students to really acknowledge the punctuation in Shakespeare and indeed all writing. The language is so very exact. Its imagery takes you on a ride and Shakespeare isn’t the monster so many of us think when dealing with his work. With all texts, I look at the main questions, who?, what? and where? What is the person really saying? What is beyond words? What does the person want and is another character or element frustrating this want? There are many more circumstances which influence how a character gestures and speaks and why they react the way they do. Every action is a reaction to a stimulus and which further stimulates reaction.
I use all forms of literature but I do find voice-over scripts for radio, TV and documentaries extremely valuable. Some voice-over scripts I use are very funny, like the one on selling condoms. Some of them are solos and many people are thrilled that the scripts are authentic material. I also use simple poetry, for example Roald Dahl. Shel Silverstein (1930 – 1999) is adorable and although they are no longer with us, their legacy is sheer joy to read. You cannot help but laugh. My favourite one of Silverstein is “There is a bear in there” which is about a bear in the ‘Fridgitydaire’. I tend to use that kind of poetry and then slowly break away from the obvious four/four meter and then to something where there is rhythm but which is not that defined or has no noticeable rhythm at all. People have to find the way of reading to satisfy themselves and moreover their listeners and it’s so rewarding when they do. What person of any age can not enjoy the poems of these two men?
Messy Room by Shel Silverstein
Whosever room this is should be ashamed!
His underwear is hanging on the lamp.
His raincoat is there in the overstuffed chair,
And the chair is becoming quite mucky and damp.
His workbook is wedged in the window,
His sweater’s been thrown on the floor.
His scarf and one ski are beneath the TV,
And his pants have been carelessly hung on the door.
His books are all jammed in the closet,
His vest has been left in the hall.
A lizard named Ed is asleep in his bed,
And his smelly old sock has been stuck to the wall.
Whosever room this is should be ashamed!
Donald or Robert or Willie or–
Huh? You say it’s mine? Oh, dear,
I knew it looked familiar!
Bear In There by Shel Silverstein
There’s a Polar Bear
In our Frigidaire–
He likes it ’cause it’s cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish,
He’s nibbling the noodles,
He’s munching the rice,
He’s slurping the soda,
He’s licking the ice.
And he lets out a roar
If you open the door.
And it gives me a scare
To know he’s in there–
That Polary Bear
In our Fridgitydaire.
Barbara: So how large are your groups usually?
Peter: Well there could be 10 but also 25 people in a group. I find I am able to give each person more attention if the numbers are kept at this level. I also work with professionally with individuals, for example I have been working with the company Chanel recently. Waiting for the big boss to come in to a presentation meeting one day recently was a bit like a scene from the Devil wears Prada! Ha ha. The two women I worked with present Chanel products and programmes around the world. I helped them with how to sell their products by doing some of the work and using the materials I have described above. So it’s very much about body language, word stressing, intonation, breathing and voice work and how to really be influential in what you are saying whether you are a teacher or a presenter of Chanel products.
Barbara: What about yesterday’s session?
Peter: When I reread my programme description I thought, “Wow! that’s a bit ambitious”. I wanted to do a bit of methodology but also using acting techniques. I wanted the participants to share the joys of improvisation, with its spontaneity and release of imagination which we all have but which sadly has been generally crushed out of us at an early age. So many of the exercises were also about relaxing the teachers and showing them valuable activities to help create a co-operative and less competitive environment where everyone can experiment, take risks and share without fear of ridicule. The acting side of the workshop was really about why we act or respond to stimuli. As I mentioned before, every action causes a reaction, the gestures, the voice, the intonation. Looking in particular at the questions all teachers should look at, such as: Who am I? What am I? Where am I? These three questions are vital because they take care of the How. I demonstrated that with an empty chair exercise yesterday.
Barbara: So what were your instructions?
Peter: I put the chair in the middle of the room and I just asked one question: Where is the chair? We had a man come in who sat down and it was obvious he was late for the cinema. So we did that for a while, and then we looked at the chair again. But then with a different question. This time it was: Who was using the chair? The who was important. Then we talked about what the chair user was doing. They all interrelate you see. I was trying to demonstrate that. Students need to focus on these basic questions if role-play and reading is to have any real meaning.
I am cutting this rather short of course now, but then we had a look at neutral texts. These are texts that are very difficult to write because you immediately start to edit your own thoughts. One of them was from Robert Benedetti who wrote “The Actor in you” and “The actor at work”. These neutral texts are fascinating because the students look at these texts and there is no information whatsoever. So students have to try to find out where these people might be, their needs, their relationship, their environment and what they want, and their objectives. The speech or text the characters use are the results of all their questions and how an actor says something is the result of all these hues and colours.
Barbara: What was your follow-up activity?
Peter: Well, actually we didn’t have enough time but normally you put them in pairs and ask them to act it out. What I wanted to show them is that we can stimulate wordplay, which is not necessarily directed by the teacher but by the students. It can even come from a photograph. Photographs are a marvellous way to stimulate story and we can look at all the tenses here.
Barbara: So you mainly work with business people at the moment?
Peter: My real line of work at present is with business people, I still do teacher training and work for Pilgrims in the summer and other occasions throughout the year. I also love working with kids as you don’t have to encourage them so much to bring out their imagination. It hasn’t been crashed yet in young ones. It starts to happen when they turn 12 or 13.
Some teachers, like all adults need to know that they do have imaginations and that they can do remarkably surprising and satisfying things with it. If they discover this, they can encourage others. A teacher with no imagination will crush imagination in others.
Barbara: Is that what we as teachers do?
Peter: Oh yes, many teachers are guilty of this. It’s rather complex. Keith Johnstone, I mentioned him before, talks about this. I’ve had people who said: “Peter I have no imagination.” But you can find it! Even if I start with a very simple object like a scarf, I ask people to imagine it isn’t a scarf, it can be anything. It’s flexible, for instance you might use it as a religious book. I encourage people to take the scarf and play with it, use their voice. This releases energy for them. Once they have played with the object I ask them to focus on someone in the circle, making eye contact and passing the object on to that person and then that person has to say: “Thank you.” even if they don’t want to say anything. I instruct students not to plan what you want to use the scarf for or what to say but wait until it comes. This encourages spontaneity and people need to trust that imagination is there just waiting to come out and you don’t have to force it or extract it like extracting a tooth. You will be spontaneous, you will be creative. Encouraging people to play is all about taking risks and knowing no-one is going to condemn you and no-one is going to tell you what the right way or right answer is.
Barbara: What happens with people who don’t want to participate?
Peter: You tend not to focus on them too much because this might be how they function. You need to be judgmental of others. I find most people will find their way eventually and that they just need a little time. After all, I ask people to tread on unfamiliar ground. So, if they are holding back, I know they will find their way. I don’t push and isolate people who may be having reservations. You try to be aware of what students are getting from the work. They have to enjoy it. It’s terribly important that people laugh and enjoy it. It’s all about improvisation. It allows the unexpected to happen. It allows people to say yes, even if it is just a scarf. By saying thank you, you say yes to it. You have to create an atmosphere where people can say yes and consequently take risks and find they are rewarded for it.
Barbara: What’s next?
Peter: A follow-up to that is giving a present to someone. Sometimes it is better for me to demonstrate what to do at first as it tends to avoid over lengthy explanation. Children find it rewarding that they are able to instigate imagination in someone else and the next exercise does just that. In a gift giving situation, with few exceptions, the buyer knows exactly what the gift they buy is. In this activity however, the giver of the gift doesn’t know and must not try to influence their partner at all. The giver gives a gift to their partner but the giver has no idea what it is. By using their body gestures they simply indicate a particular size or weight. That’s it really. They say things like: “Oh Mary, I was walking past this shop yesterday and I saw something and I thought of you and I bought it.” The giver doesn’t know what it is and it is so very important that the giver does not indicate at all what the gift might be. It is the recipient who determines this only. The receiver takes the gift and then says thank you. Then they might take quite a lot of time unwrapping this gift, as this at first is a ploy in order to think of something. If they spend too much time unwrapping, I may step in and say, “That’s the last wrapper”. The recipient might say, “Oh, it’s a box”. In a way this is a kind of blocking or stopping the discovery of the actual object as they try to think of something. As their teacher I say: “Oh, but you can open it.” to speed up the action. And then they open it and then they discover the gift. I do stipulate that no matter what the gift is, they have to be delighted with it, even if it is petrifying horrible. In other words, the receiver must react to the first thing that comes in their mind. This takes some time as we are habitual planners but it is so refreshing, just like the scarf exercise, not to plan but rely on the moment. The receiver then has to say, “ I bought something for you too” and so on. What is beautiful about this is that it is a real feel-good exercise. It is making people realize they can use their imagination. There are no rules to imagination, it has no bounds, it gives you wings to fly. I like to follow this by asking the individuals about their most exciting or most valuable gift and to describe it. I do much work like this and it is too much to discuss with you today. All improvisation games have certain rules or boundaries in which to play but what happens within those boundaries is up to the individual and his/her imagination. It takes us out of the ordinary, calculating world we live in and sets us free to discover new and wonderful skills and ways of looking differently at ourselves and our environment.
Barbara: So what did you learn yesterday? It must have been a different audience to what you are normally used to?
Peter: No, not really. Some people would have liked to have more methodology although they were a truly delightful group and I think generally content. It was a bit of liquorice all sorts workshop really, a bit of methodology for the language classroom and a very brief bit of acting methodology. I wanted to go to the ‘who what where’ in the afternoon, and how we would incorporate that in doing a piece of text. What I finished up with was another way to stimulate play and text. After the neutral scene scripts where the students have to find the reasons for the speech through looking at the questions mentioned before we went to stage directions, where you have three people A,B and C and there is an object. A passes B an object, C looks at it, C takes it. A takes the object back and gives it to B. Little directions, no dialogue, two pauses are included in these directions as pauses are language and actions in themselves. I put people into groups of 4, one is the director, three are the actors and there is an object. They often start in a tight circle, and just practise the directions with the director’s help. I get them to work on verbs: to drop, to take, to offer. These are so terribly important. Every single verb, pause and direction is there for a reason just as is every word and punctuation in any text. Basically the people have to negotiate with their director and work on who these characters are in the directions text , what their relationship with each other is, where they are, and what the object might be and what their motivation for doing the actions is? Every action has a meaning. The domino effect. It was rather a demanding exercise. The end product isn’t the only importance, it’s also the negotiation between the director and the three actors which is just as important. One Russian teacher said to me yesterday:”Peter, what happens if my students can’t do all the negotiation in English?” I said that they could do it in their native tongue. The final product should be done in English if possible.
Barbara: So which sketch stood out yesterday?
Peter: They were all very different and remarkable to watch. There was a Mafioso scene with an unexpected gun and threats galore. Interpretations of these sets of instructions are so fascinating to witness. Not just for me but for the other groups to see how each group reacts to the stimulus. This can also of course lead to writing exercises as so many of the activities do.
Barbara: So to round off, how would you promote your work? Suppose you were invited at a college to work with students.
Peter: I would try exactly this. Laugh together, share together. My maximum audience is about 25 people. One-day workshop is fine and a two-day workshop would be better. All my workshops are in English. I would work on areas that would be of benefit to the specific group whether they be trainee teachers, business managers or school students. You know, I want people to love drama, that’s my mission in life I think.
Barbara: Well, thank you very much Peter. It was lovely talking to you and I hope to be able to invite you to Tilbury one day.
Peter: That would be great. It’s been an enormous pleasure for me too. I love talking about drama.
Some feedback comments of the workshop:
What was good about today?
How things were slowly introduced, step by step. It gave people a chance to feel comfortable first, especially for those of us (like me) who are not too keen on drama.
The diversity of activities, reflecting on possible variations, follow-ups.
Peter set a wonderful example as a drama teacher by being free and relaxed himself.
He took ‘breaking the ice’ to a completely different level and kept energy up all day.