I blogged earlier about my first visit to the Comedy Store in Central London in the early 1990s, which was also my first opportunity to see the Comedy Store Players in action.
Even though I was gob-smacked by the inventiveness of the CSP on stage, I thought it might be possible to adapt some of their activities to the ELT classroom, so I tentatively started using them in the drama workshops and classroom demonstrations that I did in the 1990s.
By using them so much, albeit in the slightly artificial conditions of a demonstration lesson, I managed to work out which elements of the activities worked and which needed adapting. Although I think almost all of their game formats can be used, the following are the ones that work best for me.
1 Superhero, household object and location
In the CSP version, five of the performers tell a story, directed by the sixth. The topic/plot of the story is provided by the audience. In this particular case, it involves the audience giving the names of a superhero, a household object and a location. The five actors tell the story at high speed, when one hesitates he/she is out, and the winner is the last one standing.
How to do it in class
Choose a team of five students, who sit in a line. Another student is the director. Ask the rest of the class for the three items you need for the story, and then tell the director to point at someone to start.
Don’t use the elimination process used by the Comedy Store Players. It adds drama and tension on stage, but is demotivating and can be upsetting in class. Let all the students stay in the team even if they hesitate or can’t think of anything to say.
And that’s it! The great thing about this activity is that if one of the team can’t think of anything to say, the director simply points at another team-member. There should be no pressure on any student to say more than they want to. If they run out of steam, the director moves on.
As I said in my earlier blog, at a CSP performance, the audience is encouraged to shout ‘DIE!’ if one of the performers hesitates. I thought this was a bad idea, but Karenne Sylvester (kalinagoenglish) seems to like it. It’s your choice – but I think the long-term effects might not be beneficial.
The CSP version of this game has three of the actors sitting in a line. They are the experts. The audience give the subject that they are experts about, and another actor then asks questions, which they answer. Each actor just says one word.
There is a much more difficult version of the activity, where the three have to say the same words. This is phenomenally difficult and hilarious to watch, but not manageable in the classroom.
How to do it in class
Three students sit in a line in front of the class. They are experts but they don’t know what they are experts about. The rest of the class have to choose their area of expertise.
Let’s say the class chooses ‘fish’. The class then ask question to the experts about fish. The experts answer, but only one word at a time.
Example: What is the best fish to eat?
Expert 1: I …
Expert 2: …think …
Expert 3: … that…
Expert 1: .. salmon … etc etc
Only three questions per group of experts, then choose a new group and a new area of expertise.
I think I’ve done Experts more times than any of the other activities. It works with all levels and all ages. I was particularly pleased when I did it with a group of 10-year-old Greek pupils at a frontisterion (Marisa – is my spelling right?)
3 Party guests
The idea is that three people turn up at a party and the party host has to try and find out what they do. In the CSP version, one of the actors leaves the room while the audience invent what seem to be fiendishly difficult characteristics for the three party guests – you are a ballet dancer who has a fetish about ironing boards, you are a brain surgeon whose hands shake all the time, etc etc.
The guests arrive one at a time. Through merely chatting with them, the host has to find out their peculiarities. The second and third guests can arrive after a short interval – they don’t have to wait until the host has guessed the first. In fact, it’s marvellous to watch the three guest (who all know each other’s peculiarities) interacting with each other.
How to do it in class
Simplify it so that the party host simply has to work out what the people do. But remind them, that they can’t ask ‘What do you do?’
And finally …
The following are three activities I devised myself which give students an improvisation challenge. I hoped in each case that the language requirement would make the activities achievable even by elementary students, and I have been proved right time and time again. Students will complete the activities within the language area that they can. In this sense, the activities are self-regulating.
1 Gifted athletes
Anyone who has been to one of my workshops in the last two years will know this activity, because I almost always start with it!
First of all, I ask the members of the group to choose a different name and nationality for themselves and – if they are adults – an age between 14 and 18. They also choose a sport at which they excel (just for the purposes of the activity- they don’t actually HAVE to excel at the sport).
Now tell them that they are the best in their country at their sport and they have been chosen to go to a Sporting Excellence conference in a hot and sunny place somewhere away from the country where you are (the location in another country is important – get them to think outside the box).
The group choose the location, the time of year, the duration and the start date. Don’t give them ANY of this information – let them decide for themselves. And don’t let the same two or three noisy students provide all the answers.
They imagine that they are at the conference and do the following:
– introduce themselves to five or six other people: I’m X from Y and I’m good at Z.
– arrange to meet in the evening;
– when they meet, one person in the group is late and has to apologize profusely
– they say goodbye at the airport (remember to tell them they may NEVER MEET AGAIN).
– there is another conference for gifted athletes in another hot and sunny place next year. Again, THEY choose the location etc, NOT you!!
– you tell them that they have all been given a grant to go to the second conference.
– they have a joyful reunion with their friends from the first conference.
The activity should therefore finish with a scream of delight as they meet their old friends. It usually looks like this:
2 Be someone else
The teacher brings a student to the front of the class and asks her 4 questions.
What’s your name?
Where do you come from?
Where do you live?
What do you do?
The teacher then asks the same questions again, but the second time, all the answers must be different. The student becomes someone else. She then answers questions from the rest of the class about her new identity. Then SHE chooses someone to come and join her at the front. She becomes the teacher – and this can continue for as long as you like. Teacher rest time!
This activity requires NO preparation time and in fact works best if the students have no time to think about what they are going to say. You will be amazed by the fully-formed other identity that comes out. And the students are much happier answering questions about the new person!
3 Where are you and what are you doing?
An activity with mobile phones.
Everyone writes an action (eg: I’m cooking supper) and a location (eg: on a mountain) on separate pieces of paper.
The actions are put in one box and the locations in another. Bring two students to the front of the class with the two boxes in front of them. They pick up mobile phones and begin a conversation: ‘Hi, how are you?’ etc.
Then Student A asks: ‘Where are you?’ Student B takes a piece of paper from the Locations box and reads the answer: ‘I’m on a mountain.’
Student A then asks: ‘What are you doing?’ Student B takes a piece of paper from the Actions box and says: ‘I’m cooking supper.’
Student B then asks Student A the same questions. It’s really funny and if you like, you can stop the activity here. However you can add an element of improvisation by telling the students to ask ‘Why?’ Then they must explain how they come to be doing such weird things in unusual locations! And they find the most amazing reasons.
Conversations go something like this:
A: Hi! Where are you?
B: I’m on a mountain.
A: What are you doing?
B: I’m cooking supper.
A: Why are you cooking supper on a mountain?
B: Because I’m climbing a mountain and I’m hungry!
The level of creativity in these activities seems immense, but it’s actually quite simple. Very often, you just have to say the first thing that comes into your mind. But the feeling of achievement IS immense!
There is another hidden advantage of this activity. When students embark on these flights of creativity, the rest of the class listen with enormous concentration, as people do when they are watching their favourite comedian, or a comic actor in a movie. Getting students to listen to each other is often hard, but not when you are playing games like these. And there is a LOT of laughter. And laughter is, as we say in English, a great aide memoire.😛