Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

Last month, Paul Braddock wrote an interesting blog piece about teacher motivation. You can read it here: http://tinyurl.com/23z49rr

It got me thinking about the M word, definitely one of the buzzwords of twenty-first century education. And I decided to write a blog about student motivation, or motivating students. I haven’t decided on a title yet, but it will probably involve the number ten. 🙂

That will be my next post. First I want to talk about how the word ‘motivation’ affects me.

Whenever I see or hear the M word, whatever the context, my mind goes back to the time when I was artistic director of the English Teaching Theatre. I used to dread hearing actors talk about it.

More about my personal nightmare later…

But first – does anyone remember the 1982 movie Tootsie? Dustin Hoffman plays a talented but unsuccessful actor called Michael Dorsey who, after a long time out of work, decides to audition as a woman. He calls himself Dorothy Michaels and gets a part in a TV soap opera.

Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie


For the majority of the film, Hoffman is in drag. He’s quite amusing as the woman soap character, but there are also some funny parts of the movie early on while he’s still playing the male Dorsey character.

One of the reasons he’s so unsuccessful as a male actor is that directors think he’s really hard to work with. In desperation, his agent sends him to audition for a TV commercial. If I remember rightly, he gets the part of a blueberry in a breakfast cereal advertisement. All he has to do is wear a blueberry outfit and dive into a huge bowl of milk.

Dorsey still manages to cause problems. He calls a halt to the filming of the scene and stomps over to the director. Still dressed as a blueberry, he asks: “What exactly is my character’s motivation for diving into the bowl?”

I’d always thought that actors talking about motivation was some kind of joke, and Tootsie seemed to confirm this. But when I started directing actors, I found that some of them were deadly serious about it.

Tootsie was released at a very busy time for the English Teaching Theatre, and also when responsibility for directing the show had devolved onto the three directors, Hazel Imbert, Doug Case and myself, all of whom were trained as EFL teachers.

When the ETT had first started touring in the 1970s, most of the other performers were EFL teachers as well and we ‘directed’ each other. By the 1980s, the company had expanded and was touring almost constantly during the academic year, sometimes with three different groups on the road simultaneously. There was also a two-month summer season in the UK.

As a result, the company started to provide a lot of work for ‘real’ actors. In fact, in 1984, The Stage, the newspaper of the theatre industry, described the ETT as the most successful small theatre company in the country.

So Doug, Hazel and I had to tell actors with no ELT background why the material was written the way it was.

We occasionally struggled to make them understand what we wanted them to do. The actors were sometimes puzzled as to why the sketches were written in the way that they were, and thought there were more ‘obvious’ ways of making a gag. We explained that a line that was obvious to a native speaker might be incomprehensible to a learner of English. The sketches were written this way so that intermediate students of English could understand them, and hopefully also find them funny.

Occasionally, with a particularly silly sketch, there would be a discussion about the character’s motivation. Those moments always made me think about Dustin Hoffman’s blueberry.

An M-word moment that I particularly remember concerned a sketch called Ticket to Birmingham. It’s set in a train station, and a passenger is trying to buy a ticket.

It starts like this:

Railway employee: Can I help you?

Passenger: Yes. I want to a ticket.

Railway employee:  You want a ticket?

Passenger:   Yes. I want a ticket to Birmingham.

Railway employee:   You want a ticket to Birmingham?

Passenger: Yes.

Railway employee: Why?

I can clearly remember the day that Doug Case and I wrote the sketch. We were batting ideas back and forth to try to find a way to start it. When one of us said ‘Why?’ after the exchange above, we both dissolved with laughter.

Ah, happy days, such simple pleasures.

At the end of the sketch, we discover that the passenger isn’t actually in the station ticket office and the railway employee isn’t actually selling tickets. But that hardly matters, because by then the audience is usually very engaged with the whole nonsensical feel of the material.

In a nutshell, it was a very successful sketch. You can read and download it for free by going to my box.net site (see the blue widget in the right hand column).

We started to use Ticket to Birmingham in our auditions. When we advertised for new performers, we would get about a hundred people replying and we usually auditioned about half of them. The auditionees performed a two-hand ETT sketch with an existing member of the group, who would spend half an hour taking the actor through the script before the two of them performed it in front of other members of the group.

I was helping an auditioning actor with Ticket to Birmingham. At the first read-through, he looked puzzled.

“Is this supposed to be funny?” he asked.

This kind of question was like a red rag to me….

“It’s not just supposed to be funny, it actually is funny,” I replied, with just a hint of annoyance in my voice.

“But my character isn’t actually selling tickets,” he said. “What on earth is my motivation for carrying on like this?”

“Because it’s funny. What other motivation do you need?”

“Will I get a chance to talk to the director of the company about this?”

Cheeky devil!

Despite this bad start, the actor gave a good audition (helped by a sterling performance from yours truly as the passenger) and got through to a second audition. He was good, but his use of the M-word had unsettled me. I knew that I had to find a way to answer questions like this in a way that actors would understand. I was beginning to think that I would have to study directing, just so that I could answer M-word questions.

Then, as so often happens, fate took a hand…

Regular readers of this blog may remember that I come from a city in the north of England called Salford and that I went to Salford Grammar School. I have mentioned more than once that one of the most famous SGS old boys is actor Albert Finney. He was friends with my brother Geoff, and they played in the same very successful school rugby team.

In the 90s, Albert appeared at Wyndham’s Theatre in London in a production of a play called Art by the French writer Jasmina Reza. The play had been translated into English and was playing to full houses every night. The other members of the cast were Tom Courtenay, another acting legend of Finney’s generation, and a young actor called Kenny Stott, now a well-known face on TV (he plays the Scottish detective Rebus). At the time, he wasn’t that well known.

Art is about the aesthetic and financial value of works of art, snobbishness and all kinds of other things. The Tom Courtenay character has paid 200,000 French francs for a painting which is basically a white canvas. Most of the play is spent discussing whether it was money well spent.

Finney and Courtenay played professionals of some kind, architects, I think. Stott played Yvan, a very unsuccessful salesman, who was hoping to advance his career by marrying the daughter of his boss. The other two make fun of him mercilessly.

My other brother Graham, who lives in Yorkshire, suggested we go and see the play. Graham was at the time the chair of the SGS Old Boys Association, and I secretly arranged for us to go back-stage to meet Albert after the show.

We watched a note-perfect production with an enthusiastic audience. All the way through, however, I kept thinking – why do these two successful professionals spend any time with Yvan, a salesman they both clearly despise?

At the end of the play, I announced to Graham that we were going back-stage. He was suitably surprised and excited.

As we walked towards Albert’s dressing room, we saw him saying goodbye to someone. Graham, a very gregarious and chatty person, recognised this other person as someone he was at school with and had a loud and enthusiastic conversation with him.

I looked towards the dressing room. Albert was drumming his fingers on the door frame impatiently. I managed to pull Graham away from the conversation he was having and we went to meet the great man. There was a woman standing next to him.

“So you’re Geoff Wilson’s brothers, are you?” asked our Albert.

We confessed that we were.

“This is my sister,” he said.

“Ah!” said Graham to the sister. “You live in Urmston, don’t you? I think I know someone who lives in your street.”

And he and the sister went into an animated conversation about mutual friends in Urmston. Really, I can’t take Graham anywhere.

I therefore found myself in a one-to-one with one of the finest stage actors of his generation, and the question that had plagued me throughout the show came to mind.

“Can I ask you something?” I asked tentatively. “Where did you meet Yvan?”

“Who?” asked Albert.

“The Kenny Stott character. I mean, he’s a salesman. And you don’t like him very much.”

“That’s correct.”

“So I wondered where you met him.”

“No idea,” said Albert. “In a bar, perhaps?”

“You’ve never thought about where you met him?”


“So,” I ventured, “you didn’t think about it when you first read the script?”

“No,” he replied. “I just thought it was a wonderful script. And when we started rehearsing it, it just got better and better.”

“So not knowing where you met Yvan didn’t affect your character’s motivation?”

I can’t repeat what Albert said about motivation in case there are any children reading this … but suffice it to say, it didn’t occur to him to ask those kinds of questions.

“Being in this play is like being in a jazz band,” he said. “Every night it’s different. It’s what theatre is all about.”

You can’t imagine the confidence this conversation gave me in all my subsequent conversations with actors about the M-word!

PS My next blog will be about how to motivate students. It will probably be called ‘Ten sure-fire ways to get your students motivated’ (even though I can only think of four at the moment).

PPS If you don’t know anything about the English Teaching Theatre, you can find out about it in this earlier blog http://tinyurl.com/2vlj92e

PPPS One of the funniest books about acting is What’s My Motivation? by Michael Simkins, published in 2004.


Comments on: "Actors, motivation, and a conversation with Albert Finney…" (7)

  1. Have read the Michael Simkins book. You are right. It’s very entertaining and fun to read. Please forgive me. I don’t mean to trivialize your blog in anyway, but can you say anything more about your meeting with Albert Finney? I have idolized him for more than thirty years. Think he’s the most brilliant actor ever, and, possibly, the most elusive. First person encounters are fascinating. Anything else you would be comfortable sharing without compromising any sort of privacy?

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Mel!

      I completely agree with you about Albert – always idolised him, but thought it was just because he was from our school. Have felt the same about the other famous old boys – Mike Leigh, Graham Nash, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner ….

      I would love to share more of my conversation with Albert Finney, but as I remember, my brother then took over (I had to cede the stage to him as the younger Wilson) and I think he then tried to persuade Albert to give a talk at the Old Boys’ Dinner. Albert very politely declined, as he had done on several occasions before.

      A couple of years later, I bumped into Albert in the street in Victoria, and he recognised me from the night back-stage and asked me what I was doing (I was waiting for a co-author before a meeting at Macmillan’s London office). He asked what kind of writing and I explained about ELT coursebooks.

      Albert was with two other people and they were clearly late for an appointment of some kind, but we talked for about five minutes – about writing books for English learners!!! Albert seemed really interested, and reluctant to stop talking (which he did the third time one of his colleagues said they had to go).

      Maybe Albert is just polite (and a good actor) but what I like to think this conversation demonstrated is what many people have said before – Albert is a very down to earth, ordinary guy who isn’t the least bit theatrical and precious about acting. He works hard at his job, tries to improve with every stage performance and film, but doesn’t make a song and dance about it. Very Salford, in fact…

  2. I`m catching up on a backlog of blog posts today, so you may address this at some point… but this does give us a different take on authenticity in the classroom, doesn`t it? Sometimes we choose to ignore (or miss completely) plot holes or problems such as the one you mention…. just as long as the novel, play or film rewards us in other ways. Ultimately, of course, it is all fiction. Much like almost any use of English in a classroom context (any at all in a monolingual class). How far students are willing to forgive the inauthenticity depends on how rewarding (valuable, fun, relevant, exciting) we teachers can make it.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Darren – hope you’ve had a good summer.

      The plot hole thing isn’t something I’ve given much attention to, but it seems to me that any student who finds them is doing really well – dealing with the language, then going beyond…

  3. Great summer thanks Ken! Catching up with friends and family in the UK…

    I should clarify. I was trying to draw an analogy between works of fiction – on the one hand, we have plays, books, films… and on the other, language lessons. Most works of fiction have plot holes, inconsistencies, parts which don’t ring true… but readers or audiences allow them to pass if the whole is engaging enough. The same goes for a lesson – the situation is an artifice, a contrivance, but students will willingly suspend their disbelief if the lesson is interesting, relevant or rewarding in some other way.

    The fact that you didn’t really believe the relationship between the characters would point to a problem with the play as a whole (for you, at least, no?). And if a student doesn’t want to do a role play in class, it may be because the teacher hasn’t sold the fiction well enough.

  4. Matthew Spira said:

    Great post.

    I thoroughly enjoy walking into a EFL classroom exactly because I’m like the lead actor walking onto a stage. I’m experienced, I know what I’m doing, I demand attention and I make the audience, ie the students, pay attention.

    I literally spend hours of every work day laughing along with my students while getting them to communicate more in English than they do in their native language.

    When it comes to children, you cannot underestimate the value of rapport.

    And rapport takes investment. With older students, you’ve got to make yourself available outside of class. You have to be willing to sit in lunchrooms, you have to make the effort to initiate the connections, you have to have a sense of self-deprecating humor. You have to be approachable, but fair. You have to call a spade a spade. Above all, you have to be the adult in the room.

    With younger kids, you have to be energetic. You have to be scrupulously fair. You have to have a good sense of pacing. And it doesn’t hurt to be silly.


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