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Vol 34 No 1, January - March 1996 Page 12 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT

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A Gujarati Juliet And Romeo
TEFL, Theatre, and Consciousness-Raising in India
by Elliott Swift

Large classes, shy students, and classrooms in which the students' desks fill the space are a few of the obstacles to teaching English in India using the communicative approach. While a great deal can be done to overcome these problems when the focus is on listening, reading, and writing, it is usually much more difficult to plan activities that focus on discourse fluency and the creative use of English.

This article describes an experiment in interactive language learning conducted at the H. M. Patel Institute of English Training and Research in Vallabh Vidyanagar, Gujarat, India. The institute, located in a rural area of northwest India, provides training in English teaching methodology to the states of Gujarat, Maharajastra, and Goa. The one hundred students who participated in the project had an undergraduate degree and were taking a one-year course in order to qualify to teach English in high schools.



As a way of improving the students' creative use of English, the director of the institute (see Footnote 1 ) asked me to stage and direct a play in English. Initially, we thought of producing Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The theme had particular appeal because it dealt with (among other things) how Juliet's arranged marriage to a man she didn't love led to tragedy, a scenario that is still played out in Gujarat (and throughout India). Later, we decided that a more relevant and interesting approach would be to use the issues of caste hatred and the mistreatment of Gujarati/Indian women as the basis for a collectively written and student-produced play about "star-crossed lovers" in present-day Vallabh Vidyanagar.

Organizing the production

We wanted to involve all the students in the experiment, so we compiled a list of twenty-one jobs that we felt would be necessary for the writing and producing of the play and the various tasks that each job required. Then twenty-one teams of students were formed, and each team was responsible for carrying out the necessary tasks. The jobs ranged from publicity to stage lighting; writing news releases to calling the university drama department to borrow lighting instruments.

Following the principle that people work harder and learn more effectively if they are interested in what they are doing, the students were encouraged to choose the jobs that they wanted to undertake. Naturally, some of the students wanted to join the teams their friends were on, and we tried to accommodate them. Nevertheless, some of the jobs (e.g., set design and costume design) required members who possessed certain talents, and students having those talents were encouraged to join teams requiring their services. Moreover, certain jobs were more complex than others, involving more tasks and a larger number of team members. Finally, however, all the teams had enough members to carry out the tasks.

Since one of the main goals of the project was to encourage the use of English creatively, and since the students could accomplish virtually all of the tasks using Gujarati, one way to ensure that English was used as much as possible was for the fourteen faculty members to serve as team consultants. In this capacity, the teachers could be certain that, at least during the team meetings, which were scheduled to be held once a week, only English would be used. It was also felt that through these meetings, the progress of each team in fulfilling its tasks could be monitored.

To encourage maximum use of spoken English by the actors, the stage management team, and the playwriting team (those groups who were required to be at the rehearsals and had the best opportunity to use their English creatively), it was decided that only English would be spoken during rehearsals, except in rare instances when it was deemed absolutely necessary to use Gujarati.

In addition to encouraging the learners to use English creatively in a theme/task-based approach, the project was to have a consciousness-raising effect on the participants as well as on the audience. (We planned to present the play to our university students and to the public.) One aspect of this consciousness- raising was implicit in the content of the play; the other aspect involved assigning the women students the team leadership roles. It was felt that if the men had the experience of working with women in leadership positions, the men might learn to appreciate a different leadership style.

From a pedagogical perspective, the most experimental aspect of the project involved not correcting the students' use of spoken English. The idea for this experiment was based on the "natural learning" model.

Although we couldn't conduct a controlled experiment to evaluate the students' improvement in discourse fluency, we did plan to gauge the relative improvement of those students who were most intimately involved in the project by video-taping a group of stage managers before and after their participation and asking their teachers to compare the students' discourse fluency.

After we had developed a general plan and had discussed it with the faculty, we met with the students and explained the nature of the project. The anticipated benefits to the students included the opportunity to do the following:

  1. practice the four English language skills in a "real-life" theme-and task-based context;
  2. work closely with a native English speaker;
  3. practice spoken English with a faculty member in a more intimate situation than is generally the case;
  4. learn how to produce a play (which we felt would be a valuable skill for secondary-school English teachers).

Since all the students would be involved in the initial stages of the playwriting process (i.e., the development of the plot), we thought that it would be a good idea to provide the students with a review of the basics of writing a play. After the review, as their first task, the students were asked to skim Shakespeare's Romeoand Juliet as quickly as possible, (without any attempt to deal with the intricacies of Elizabethan English), list the main events in the plot, and then write a "parallel plot" showing ways in which Juliet's plight was similar to that of Gujarati/lndian women.

After the students returned from their month-long Diwali vacation, we began work on writing the script. The first step was dividing the students into teams of writers who, through discussion, developed collectively-created "team plots," based on their individual "parallel plots." The most interesting aspects of each team-plot were identified and fashioned into a rough draft of a master plot. We then used the plot situations as the basis for scenes, which were discussed in terms of interpersonal dynamics, after which the actors (various members of the class) improvised tentative dialogue. This was the phase of the project during which spoken English was used the most by most of the students.

After the roles had been cast, a final script was written which had a Brechtian thrust and incorporated Gujarati dancing, singing, and comic sketches. The following is a synopsis of the final version of the script.

The plot

The play opens with Ravi (Romeo) and Seema (Juliet) meeting during a Navarathri festival garba (dance) and falling in love. Their relationship is opposed by Seema's father, Arvind, because Ravi is from a lower caste. In response to Arvind's decision to arrange Seema's marriage to a man she does not love, Ravi and Seema elope and get married. Arvind and his son Dilip follow the pair and forcibly attempt to take Seema back home. Ravi intervenes, a fight ensues, and Dilip stabs Ravi to death. A trial is held. Arvind is sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, and Dilip is sentenced to death by hanging. At the point when Dilip is about to be hanged, the stage lights go out, the set is removed, and Daglo (our spokesman) comes out and asks the audience if anyone knows how this sort of tragedy could have been avoided. A member of the cast seated in the audience comes up on stage and says that she thought if Seema's mother, Nalini, had supported Seema when she said that she was in love with Ravi, the ending would have been much different. Daglo then says, "why don't we see what would happen if your suggestion were followed;" and the scene in which Arvind tells Seema that he's arranged her marriage is replayed. But this time Nalini supports Seema and threatens to divorce Arvind if he doesn't go along with Seema's desire to marry Ravi. Arvind capitulates and the last scene is a wedding reception for the newlyweds where everyone is reconciled, and all join in a lively dance.

Evaluating the project

One of the first noticeable difficulties in our consciousness-raising goal was encountered in the writing team interaction. In spite of the fact that most of the teams were headed by women, it was the men who did most of the talking/controlling. Nevertheless, according to the teachers, this role reversal did generate more involvement on the part of the women.

In terms of the process, the biggest problem was trying to fulfill the unrealistic scope and expectations of the project. For example, although initially all the students had some sort of job which was supposed to enable them to use English creatively, some jobs had to be eliminated because there was no need for them. The box office management team was no longer required when it was decided to offer the performances for free. Unfortunately, in most cases when jobs were eliminated, the students could not be re-assigned to other teams. As a result, those students lost out on the anticipated benefits. In addition, many of the students who were members of functioning teams simply did not show up for conferences with their faculty advisors, and they too lost out. This lack of commitment resulted from attempting to initiate the project after the curriculum had been set. This meant that the students and faculty had to undertake additional work which, even though the students received a grade for their work, didn't motivate some of them.

The work with the actors, stage managers, and playwrights (those teams who were required to be at the rehearsals) went well enough when the students showed up on time, but too often they either came late to the rehearsals or didn't come at all. In spite of efforts to integrate the rehearsal periods into the regular curriculum, it was difficult for the students to change their routine; it was particularly difficult for them to eat their breakfast and get to the morning rehearsals on time. While the director and the other faculty members were vigorous in their support of the importance of punctuality and attendance at rehearsals, the lack of theatre experience and the importance of other commitments (e.g., weddings) made the rehearsal process unusually difficult.

The no-correction experiment and the plan of using only English during rehearsals was abandoned almost immediately because of the mixed ability level of the actors, stage managers, and playwrights. When one member of the rehearsal contingent had difficulty understanding the instructions that were given in English, those participants who could understand tended to translate instructions into Gujarati. It soon became apparent that in spite of the "English only, please" admonition, if the play was going to be ready for presentation on opening night, we would have to forego the English only aspect of the rehearsal plan.

Aside from a few technical glitches (missed lighting cues and a noose that didn't drop from the ceiling as planned), the two performances went quite smoothly. And except for one incident of stage fright, which didn't appreciably affect the performance, the actors did a good job. The reaction of the audience was generally positive, although a few members of the audience found the play "strange."

Looking back on the project, it is clear that better planning would have prevented a lot of the problems. A better appreciation of the faculty and students' interest, motivation, level of English proficiency, and willingness to devote time and energy to the project would have made life a lot easier for everyone. This underscores the need for greater cross-cultural sensitivity and greater awareness of the parameters within which one must work. If the project had been discussed with the entire faculty from the beginning instead of after the general plan had been worked out, the project's goals would no doubt have been more realistic.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that the project was of value. As planned, the before and after discussions by the stage managers were videotaped and shown to two of the students' classroom teachers. The teachers stated that there was "marked improvement in terms of ease of expression (fluency), pronunciation, and clarity of expression." The teachers also indicated that there was a noticeable improvement in listening comprehension and the students' willingness to express themselves in English.


If this type of experiment is carried out in the future, the following are changes that would help to make a production of this type proceed more smoothly:

  • include the project as part of the curriculum;
  • ask for input from the faculty regarding what they anticipate as problem areas;
  • involve only those students and faculty who want to participate in the production;
  • instead of double-casting the leads and rotating the stage managers and playwrights in order to involve more students, select only one cast and one set of stage managers and playwrights (whose responsibility it was to write down the improvised dialogue and whatever changes in action occurred during the rehearsals);
  • jettison the no-correction/English only approach rehearsal plan;
  • figure out--in advance--some rehearsal schedule that would ensure that the actors, stage managers, and playwrights would be able to attend all or most of the rehearsals on time;
  • only designate teams that would actually be carrying out some specific tasks.

Perhaps the most important idea that emerges from this experiment is that from a pedagogical point-of-view, it might make more sense not to produce a play of this type for public consumption. Instead, the same process could be followed using smaller groups of students, who could then perform their plays for each other. In the case of the institute's one-hundred students, for example, twenty casts of five performers each could be formed, each of which could be assigned a faculty advisor. Without the need to spend time on the technical and business aspects of production, the faculty advisors could devote more time to working with the students on the creation of scripts based on student improvisations. Furthermore, if there was no need to "provide an evening's worth of entertainment," the collectively- written "playlets" could be much shorter and more functionally oriented. If, for example, each play were limited to five, double-spaced pages of dialogue (which would last approximately five minutes), this would give the students a greater opportunity to improvise different "real life" scenarios, and each student would have more opportunity to verbally communicate creatively. Special projects dealing with production-related tasks that everyone could do (e.g., writing press releases and advertising copy) could also be part of the project. Even if only one hour per day was devoted to this project, it would fill a void in the area of creative discourse that currently exists in many English-teaching programs.

The H. M. Patel Institute of English Training and Research carried out a high-risk research project and achieved a high degree of success. As an English language learning activity, the text of A Gujarati Juliet and Romeo and the videotape of a performance of the play are testimony to the amount of time and energy that was spent on this project; and the reactions of the audience, administration faculty, and students were overwhelmingly positive. But, perhaps most importantly, the experiment generated some ideas that may prove to be extremely valuable in the future.

Elliott Swift is currently an EFL Fellow in Bucharest, Romania. He teaches how to use theatre to increase teaching effectiveness.


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Footnote 1

I am indebted to Dr. Subhash Jain, Director of the H.M. Patel Institute of English Training and Research for his support in this project.

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