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How I got into ‘drama’ by Ken Wilson

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Tragedy and comedy drama masksKen Wilson is a full-time author of ELT materials. He wrote Drama and Improvisation for the Resource Books for Teachers series (OUP). For many years, he was artistic director of the English Teaching Theatre, a company which toured the world doing shows for learners of English.

I’ve been involved with ELT long enough for people to describe me as an ‘expert’. Of course, the word has to be modified by a reference to one’s area of expertise, so I’m a ‘drama expert’.

Despite the fact that my presentations at conferences etc are labelled ‘drama workshops‘, I’m not really sure about the use of the word ‘drama’ in an ELT context. It might add a level of complexity to the kind of things that I and other like-minded educators do, which is to suggest simple classroom ideas that can make learning more interesting and engaging.

I usually tell teachers that I’d prefer not to use the word and that the activities I’m going to talk about in my ‘drama’ workshop are simply designed to animate the language their students know. I actually prefer the word ‘animation’ to describe the activities, but of course in most people’s minds, that would sound as if I was talking about using cartoons.

Anyway, I promised to write about how I got involved in ‘drama in ELT’. So how did it happen?

When I was 21, I did what was then known simply as ‘the International House course’ with John and Brita Haycraft. They were still experimenting with the format, which was to become the blueprint for the CELTA course. I really enjoyed training with John and Brita, although I didn’t really excel on the course. However, despite my average performance, I was offered a job at the Instituto Británico in Seville, Spain.

By this stage in my life, I had spent eighteen years in Salford, near Manchester, and three years at university in Reading. I was now to spend a year in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. I was astonished by its beauty, the like of which I had never seen before.

I was also astonished by how charming and trusting the students at the Instituto Británico were. They really liked my lessons in spite of my lack of experience and my frankly dubious teaching method. I talked too much, I told jokes at every opportunity and I aimed my teaching at the best students in the class. The best students loved it and blossomed. Everyone else put up with it but improved only slowly. I have spent the subsequent years trying to teach in a way that reaches everyone in the class.

After a year in Seville, I returned to International House London. Like many English teaching establishments in the 1970s, IH was buzzing with great people and new ideas. Amongst my colleagues were Liz Soars, Jeremy Harmer, Doug Case, Judy Garton-Sprenger, Barry Tomalin, Gillie Cunningham and Roger Gower.

John Haycraft was always on the lookout for new ideas and tirelessly promoted the interests of teachers who showed the slightest talent in any particular direction. I had been working at International House for about five months when John changed my life forever.

By this time, I was in a band with another teacher at the school, Dede Brewer (now Dede Wilson), and two other people. We used to rehearse on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, so I brought my acoustic guitar to school on those days and left it under the table in the staff room. One day, someone said there had been a theft the night before, so I took the guitar with me to class for safe-keeping.

I had an intermediate class at the time. They were really great students. I was 22 years old, and most of the students were the same age as me. There were whoops of delight when I walked into the classroom with the guitar. I wondered later if this was a reflection on the dullness of our normal classes.

The students demanded that I play the guitar. The more I hesitated, the more insistent they became. I wasn’t sure whether the school would think this was the best use of their time. Eventually, I promised to bring the guitar the next day and that we would learn a song together. After all, we were together for ten hours a week – surely the school wouldn’t mind if I spent a little bit of time singing?

Although I was always a bit worried that we were having too much ‘fun’, the class clamoured for more, and we spent most of our two-hour class on Friday mornings singing and discussing songs. The Beatles were a particular favourite.

When this class finally disbanded, I was heart-broken. My next class were beginners so I couldn’t use the Friday morning songs. However, by this time I was convinced that using songs was useful as well as enjoyable. With no material available that was easy enough for my beginners’ class to sing, I started to write my own songs for them.

One day, John stopped me in the corridor. “I understand that you’ve been writing songs for your class,” he said.

I hesitated a moment before admitting it. Was he going to censure me for wasting the students’ time? Not at all!

“I’m going to see if I can get one of the publishers interested in them,” he said.

And he was as good as his word. I had an interview with a publisher a few weeks later. The result was that just after my 23rd birthday, I signed a contract to write, record and produce a collection of English teaching songs.

The album Mister Monday appeared the following year. At the time, I was the youngest-ever published ELT author. I don’t know if I still hold this record. Mister Monday was an international success and the start of my career as an ELT author.

John Haycraft was also responsible for devising and supporting the establishment of the English Teaching Theatre, something he hoped would provide an opportunity for teachers and students to put on shows together.

The teachers and students working together idea didn’t really work out but eventually, a group of teachers and actors started to put on shows during the summer which were written for English students. A couple of IH teachers (Jeremy Harrison and Doug Case) were responsible for devising the format, which showed early signs of success. Eventually, John persuaded the British Council to support a tour to Germany. At the time, that was the extent of the idea – a single tour to one European country.

A group of five people was put together to do the tour. Because of my alleged prowess as a guitarist, Doug Case invited me to join. I had no previous acting experience and I didn’t even have to audition. The new group consisted of Doug, me, another IH teacher, a musician and another woman who was an actor and an English teacher. We were directed by Piers Plowright, who at the time was working for BBC English, but went on to become Head of Radio Drama. He also wrote all the sketches, and we wrote songs based on his ideas. After stumbling through some rehearsals and performing a series of weekly half-hour shows for IH students, we finally set off on a tour of ten north-German cities.

It didn’t start terribly well. An ancient van with an equally ancient driver was hired to take us there. On a cloudy Saturday afternoon in May 1973, we set off in this boneshaker in the general direction of Germany. We broke down eight times before we got there!

However, once we were there, everything went like a dream.

The first two shows of the tour took place at the Stadttheater in Bremerhaven. Wow – what a venue! In those days, German cities put a lot of money into their theatres, and you could see it – good seating, good lighting and helpful, professional staff.

The woman in charge of the lights was disappointed to hear that we didn’t have any lighting requirements. “But I can do you follow spots, or blackouts any time you want,” she protested, showing a gleaming state-of-the-art lighting board.

When we said we didn’t need either, she asked for the script, so she could decide where she could provide at least the occasional black-out. She was astonished to hear that we hadn’t brought a script with us.

“You do comedy sketches, right?” she said. “You have to have black-outs, or no one will know that they should laugh when the sketch ends!”

We took our chances and people did laugh when the sketches ended. Out of politeness probably, but they laughed. “English Teaching Theatre – RIESENERFOLG!” said a headline in the local newspaper the next day. “Giant success!”

The last two shows of that first tour were at the wonderful Junges Theater in Göttingen. I must confess that I had never heard of Göttingen before we arrived there, but it is now one of my favourite cities in Germany. A bit like Cambridge, it’s a small city with a large university, and is situated near the beautiful Harz Mountains.

In Göttingen, the English Teaching Theatre finally got its act together. The two shows we did there were spectacularly brilliant – almost entirely because the mostly student audiences came to enjoy themselves, and their enthusiasm infected the five very tired performers on stage. They wouldn’t let us leave, and brought us back for about seven curtain calls.

We realised that we had something special on our hands, and this four-month stint as actor-teachers might continue a little longer. And it did. Doug and I worked together on English Teaching Theatre projects for 29 years. Altogether, the group did more than 250 tours to 55 different countries, employing more than 100 actors, teachers and musicians along the way.

These actors taught me all I know about theatre, acting, performance, and how to perform on stage. They also taught me lots of theatre games, which I have adapted for ELT. A lot of them appear in my book Drama and Improvisation.

So, that’s how I got into ‘drama’. But I still prefer to call it ‘animation’!

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4 thoughts on “How I got into ‘drama’ by Ken Wilson

  1. Wonderful account, Ken, and up to your usual high standards!

    I still think OUP (or any other publisher) should be approaching you to create some sort of coursework oriented around drama, plays, skits, whatever, as I know it would work (and sell!) well.

    Cheers,

    - Jason

    • Thanks, Jason!

      Actually, writing about John Haycraft reminded me of his main coursebook of the time, Getting On In English, which involved an inventor called Peter Sallis, who I think was supposed to be Australian but who had a middle class educated British accent.

      Sallis spent the whole book trying to get people interested in his invention of an inflatable umbrella.

      Years later, we all laughed at the idea of basing a book on a story like this, with no relevance to students’ own lives or possible future experience, but now I’m not so sure. I’m more and more certain that stories have a huge part to play in learning, and maybe should be much more central than they are.

      PS. Peter Sallis was an odd choice of name for the main character, given that there was an actor called Peter Sallis who was already quite famous at the time. In fact, I think at one point he was actually in a play at a theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, opposite International House. It must have been confusing for students to see his name in lights!

      Sallis went on to appear in about 1,000 episodes of the TV series Last Of The Summer Wine.

  2. Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the wonderful blog,it was a good read.Enjoyed reading it.

    Cheers,
    Sudha

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