Creative Speaking and Writing Activities Using A Simple Improvisation Idea
Peter Dyer has been involved with Pilgrims for over 20 years offering a variety of skills-based workshops and two-week courses in drama and improvisation. He is a qualified secondary teacher in drama and media arts and has many years' experience as a professional actor in Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I introduce these improvisation ideas to my students who are already experienced improvisation players as they will be more confident in trying them. The more improvisation activities we can weave into our classes, the more students will face more challenging activities.
This first activity is a little more difficult to play as a spontaneous conversation, but it is a lot of fun. It can be followed up if the teacher likes, as a writing activity.
I begin firstly giving the students a demonstration with a student I have asked to work with me before the class. I do not tell the class what the improvisation rule is but simply to listen to the dialogue and see if they can discover what the rule is. My collaborator in this demonstration has been given a role and a location to begin with. In this demonstration, I play a dentist and my friend plays a patient. Here it is.
- Ah! Ambrose welcome to my surgery. Please take a seat in my comfortable chair.
- Bit of a problem with my top molar I think Doctor.
- Can you open your mouth a little wider please Mr. Ambrose?
- Do you think it looks bad Doctor?
- Evidently, you have been eating too may lollies Mr. Ambrose.
- Fudge and chocolates. That’s all Doctor.
- Good heavens. That just won’t do Mr. Ambrose. A man your age should know better.
- Hope you can save the tooth Doctor.
- I think it is simply a matter of how much money you have Mr. Ambrose. If I save it, it will cost you a lot of money but if I take it out, it will cost much less.
- Just take the tooth out them Doctor.
- Keep all the other teeth then Mr. Ambrose or shall I take them all out too?
It will take the students some time before they realise what improvisation code we are using and if they are still stuck, I provide them with a different dialogue but this time written. This alphabet idea is just one way we can encourage our students to speak and write.
I then ask students to form pairs or a three if necessary. They need to think of two characters who might be in a situation for which to start the improvisation. A tourist and a police officer/woman or a car salesperson and a customer or we might have a patient and a doctor or closer to home, a teacher and student or parent and child. There are endless possibilities. All the students need is a character and a location for them to try out the dialogues. I do stress that the students need not talk for too long about the situation as they will tend to talk but not play. It only takes one person to start the dialogue and the other will follow by listening to the content and responding according to the alphabet rule.
The pairs can then show their work to the class. I remember one group of three did a marvellous scene with one student playing a real estate agent and the other two playing very fussy potential buyers. The scene location was in an apartment the clients were interested in.
Finally, students can stay with their partners or change and write a dialogue to be acted out later in front of the class.
Last letter first letter improvisation
This next improvisation idea is much more difficult especially as a speaking activity it is also an improvisation which I intend to spend most of my time on in this article and I am sure you will find it as impelling as I do.
As in the previous activity, I speak to a student who I think would be willing to help me demonstrate the improvisation with me in the classroom. The idea is that there are two people engaged in a conversation, roles and locations are important. The idea is that one person, let’s call him/her A. begins the conversation with just a simple sentence or question. B. listens to the content but also makes note of the last letter of the last word A. has spoken. B. must then respond using a word beginning with that last letter. A. then must in turn listen to the content and using the last letter B. has used, continue the conversation. Sounds a little complicated but written dialogue should demonstrate the improvisation better. This conversation I had with a colleague, and I am reproducing it here from memory. The two players are old colleagues meeting up accidently after some months.
- Oh! Hello George, I haven’t seen you for ages.
- Seven months in fact Mike. I’ve been away.
- Yes. I thought you had. Where have you been?
- Navigating my way by boat around Australia.
- Ah! That sounds so remarkable. What did you see?
- Everything of interest. We circumnavigated all of Australia and stopped off in ports we found interesting.
- Great. Did you go into the Great Australian Desert?
- Twice. The first time we visited Uluru
- Unbelievable George. That big rock is fascinating. Tell me. What are your plans now?
- Well, I intend to return to my job again.
- Now, I think I should tell you something. I’ve taken over your old job.
- But why?
- You were away so much that they offered me your position.
- No. It can’t be.
- Errr. May I suggest you call the office and see if you still have some kind of job?
Of course, students listening to a dialogue will find it difficult to decipher the improvisation code and if they do, I produce a written dialogue for them to study.
This dialogue is much more challenging than the alphabet one and it will certainly not be fluid, but it is incredibly entertaining particularly as players pause and think of a word starting with the last letter to add to the conversation. Students should be aware of the use of encouragers and exclamations in English, and they can be used most effectively as a response. Exclamations or encourages such as, er, uh huh, hmmm, oh, ah, right, yes, interesting, wow etc. Students are aware of the vast number of English words ending in the letter “e” and I tell them not to be worried if they repeat a word starting with “e.” The idea is to be as spontaneous as possible. I spoke earlier of pauses which occur as students think of a word in which to respond. These pauses are very funny because when the student does think of a word, it inevitably creates much laughter. Sometimes a player might be faced with the letter “k” to deal with. This should be of no barrier; all the players must do is think of a work beginning with “k.” I remember two students playing this game and they were pretending to be old university friends who are chatting and talking about old times in a restaurant. One of the players was given the word “work” and of course was obliged to think of a word beginning with, “k.” He turned to an imaginary waiter and said, “Ken, can we have the menu please?” In another incident, another student stuck with the letter, “k” suddenly looked to his right and yelled, “Kangaroo. Who brought that kangaroo into the restaurant?” WOW!.
Once students get the idea of the game, I set them up in pairs or threes to try the spoken activity first. All they need is a character to play and a location just as in the Alphabet Game. Again, teachers, don’t let the students talk about this for too long before commencing the activity. All it takes is one person to begin.
Students can then try to write down fresh dialogues using different roles and locations.
Writing using last letter, first word using a photo or a picture
I now give students a picture or photo of unknown characters as motivation to write a dialogue. I stress that the characters in the image should not be familiar as this will prejudice the writing. A picture immediately gives the viewer information such as who the characters are, what they look like, what their appearance or clothing suggests about their character, where they are, what their relationship is, how they feel, what they want etc. The questions the teacher can ask are endless; I start this with a picture in the classroom to encourage student input. I then ask the class which of the characters speak first and what it is they say. I write one of the contributions on the board and then I ask the class to think of the other character’s response using last letter first word idea. This is also written on the board and bit by bit, we build up a dialogue for members of the class to act out.
For a demonstration of this activity, I have chosen a picture painted by the American artist, Edward Hopper. For copyright reasons, I am unable to reproduce this painting and I ask the reader to download the painting before reading the dialogue I will reproduce here. The painting is called, “Hotel by a railroad.” I never give the students the name of the picture as it can colour what they write. I have chosen for this article reproductions of three Edward Hopper paintings because I find his work so very human, and they invoke story telling. If these pictures are not suitable for your age group, your will find something more appropriate but I do stress not to include pictures if characters known to the students at this stage. Here is the dialogue based on the couple in the room.
Simon: It’s so boring here and so hot.
Maggie: Too bad you can’t just sit down and read a little. Do you know how many
cigarettes you’ve smoked this afternoon?
Simon: No. And I don’t care.
Maggie: Every week end you’re the same. Why don’t you go to the club?
Simon: Boring. The same people, the same jokes, the same stories. I want a change.
Maggie: Darling, dearest. Have you ever tried reading?
Simon: Good gracious no darling, dearest. I couldn’t read that stuff your read.
Maggie: Don’t be silly Simon. Look, go to the library, and find something suitable for
you to read. The library is airconditioned and you can use my library card.
Simon: Can do no harm, I guess. At least I can’t smoke in the library.
Well, perhaps that is not the greatest literary achievement and certainly not suitable for younger students but dialogue writing using this improvisation technique is great fun. I find that when students read their dialogues out to the class later, they always sound more natural reading their own material. It doesn’t matter if the dialogues are not completed in the time allocated because pairs can exchange their dialogues with other pairs to complete. I also find that it is great fun for pairs to direct other pairs in the dialogue to perform for the class.
Monologue writing using last letter first word
Now let’s move onto something I find truly inspirational and rewarding. I often set monologue writing activities for homework assignments if there is little time to do this in class. I again use pictures to motivate students into writing. I have used again a picture from Edward Hopper’s remarkable paintings for this article, but the teacher can use any picture of a solo character.
I chose a picture to try to provoke interest as a joint classroom activity. Once I put the picture of a character on the screen, I ask the students to give input on what they see. I try to invoke interest by asking questions about the character e.g. Where is the character, what kind of person is he/she, what is he doing and thinking, what does he/she want? I once broke my rule of not using a picture of someone the class might know by using a ridiculously pompous painting by the French artis, David of Napoleon sitting on a rearing horse. The students had a fun time giving input and then we tried to imagine what the character was saying using the last letter first word idea. I wrote the contributions on the board, and we finally had a monologue.
Now, back to my Edward Hopper picture which is called, “Hotel Window.” I repeat that because of copyright, I am unable to reproduce this painting for this article and I ask readers to first download the picture before reading the dialogue I have written below.
Here is the monologue.
I just don’t know…. What am I doing here? Each time someone walks into the hotel foyer, I think it’s finally James coming back to take us home to San Francisco. Oh! I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing. “Going out for cigarettes,” he said before leaving me waiting. Guess I was blown away by James and the idea of the perfect romance to lift me out of my dull existence with Steven. No one has any idea where I am. Managed to sneak out of the house with James while Steven was on one of his many business trips. Stupid thing is, I should feel guilty, but I don’t. Too disillusioned with my marriage to feel at all guilty. Yes, I desperately want happiness and contentment in my life but is James the answer? Really, I’m beginning to think I’m going crazy, and all the problems are just mine. Each heart directed decision I make seems to leave me wondering, “Well so what?” Time I went home to Frisco by myself I guess…but wait, James has just walked into the foyer smiling and being his usual jovial self. For God’s sake help me to be more enthused and more trusting otherwise I’ll end up with nothing and no-one.
Well, a little dramatic I guess and not suitable for younger readers, but it was fun writing it.
Before I move onto another monologue I write again from a painting by Edward Hopper, let me relate a story about a class I was teaching some years ago. In this last, we had done a group monologue and the students had also done the dialogue work. This time, I asked students to choose a famous person from history and to write a monologue giving this person a voice and to complete it for homework. The class was none too pleased about having to write for homework but the next morning they came to class very enthused about what they had written and longing to share their monologues with the class. The students took it in turn to read their monologues and they were all quite remarkable, but one student placed a desk and chair in front of the class and when she sat down, she told us her monologue was in the form of a letter. She began reading the letter and it was incredibly moving and incredibly sad. When she finished, she paused for a while and looked up and told us that this was a letter written by Mary Queen of Scots to Elizabeth the First of England on the eve of Mary’s execution. This of course historically did not occur, but the piece was extraordinary, and the student said that the words just kept coming and that she didn’t have to think about what to add each time. She felt that she could have written more and more and that ideas just kept flowing out of her. Keith Johnstone in his book, “Impro” talks about this. Given an improvisation such as this with a few rules to follow, imagination and creativity just seem to burst out. It’s a bit like opening a bottle of champagne and all that energy is expelled. This idea of using the last letter first word for writing a monologue is solely mine and I am so pleased that I developed it beyond dialogue writing. I may not have convinced many readers yet, but I can only suggest they try this activity themselves and discover all the creativity and imagination waiting to be expressed.
I have used pictures of animals and buildings to entice students to write monologues. One student I remember wrote a charming monologue using a picture by Edward Hopper called, “Lighthouse hill.” Just for interest, the great director, Alfred Hitchcock used one of Hopper’s pictures of an old house called, “House by the railroad” to inspire him. He reproduced the house on the film lot for his very spooky film, “Psycho” made in 1960. The house is still on the lot for all inquisitive visitors to see.
I wish to add another monologue taken again from one of Hopper’s paintings which is called, “Sunday.” I am glad that I did not know the title of the picture before I began writing. If I had, the monologue may have been quite different. Again, I ask readers to download the picture before reading the monologue.
Here’s the monologue.
Well, it’s come to this. Sitting outside my shop wondering what I can do now. Why did the big supermarkets have to come and destroy my business? Six decades my family has run this shop serving people in this small community. Yes, I remember the day dear old Dad opened this shop. Parson’s hardware with everything you need. Dad died after having worked in this shop for thirty years. Sixteen I was when I first started working with Dad and I took over the business on Dad’s death. Hardware is all I sold but I had a thriving business in this little town, and I thought I was a big part of it. Then after all these years of hard work, the supermarkets moved in and offered hardware at cheaper prices. Soon customers started deserting my shop and although I tried to fool myself it wasn’t happening, I had to finally admit that I was the loser. Reality hit me like a bullet when the banks refused to finance me to stay open. Not that I can really blame them. Mary tried to keep me going but on Monday, even she had to admit it was hopeless. So today, I removed what stock was unsold, removed the signs, drew down the blinds and closed the shop and I’m just sitting here wondering if my life is worth anything before I go home to Mary.
This was the first time I wrote a monologue based on a Hopper painting and it was most rewarding if a little sad.
I am aware that we cannot use this method all the time to encourage out students to write but it is a way in and when they have tried this work, they will not be quite as reluctant to write later because they will discover that they can write and write creatively and imaginatively.
Writing a story based on last letter first word
Before I finish this article, I would like to show you another way we can inspire our students to write but this time, to draft a story. I ask students to think of famous children’s stories and the characters involved. I also ask them to think of children’s nursery rhymes and characters. I then pair the students or place them in small groups to see if they can produce a story using the improvisation method. I have here a piece written by an advanced student working alone and who used the names of two characters from a short nursery rhyme to draft a short story. I am delighted I still have it in my possession to share it with you. Here it is.
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pale of water.
Regarding them with interest was Nelly the dragon.
Nelly was always hungry, and she grabbed unsuspecting Jack and Jill.
Locking them in a cage, she said she would have them for dessert.
Terrified, Jack and Jill began to yell very loudly for help.
Percy, the guardian of the hill, heard their screams.
“So,” he said. “Nelly the dragon has been up to no good.”
Directly, he confronted Nelly in her cave and demanded that she show him the cage where Jack and Jill were being kept.
Too scared to resist Percy who was terrifying when he was angry, Nelly unlocked the cage and said, “I was only keeping Jack and Jill so they could show me how to cook dessert.”
Though Jack and Jill had been quite frightened, they forgave Nelly on the condition that she never locked up children again and never lied again.
Nelly agreed and said she was deeply sorry.
Yes, she really was sorry and the next day, Jack and Jill and Percy too went up the hill and gave Nelly a delicious dessert they had cooked, and they all sat down together in Nelly’s cave and ate the dessert all up.
I hope you enjoyed reading these activities which are included in my book soon to be published and I do hope you try these before using them in class.
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