Hildegard Elisabeth Keller: Listen & Watch: An Audio-Play Project
ETAS Journal, Volume 35, Number 2, (Spring 2018), p. xx-xx
Let’s face it: Teachers are often pressed for time with a syllabus to follow, exams to prepare their students for, and more often than not piles of marking to do. In addition, language teaching should ideally involve elements of performance and play: where can teachers find the time to generate and integrate creativity into their teaching?
Luckily we don’t need to reinvent the wheel; we can borrow and adapt the ideas of fellow teachers. In the upcoming ETAS Journal Spring 2018 Special Supplement on Drama and Theatre in Education, Hildegard Keller shares her recipe for promoting creativity in the university language classroom. As a teacher of Spanish and German, her ideas, which promote students as “doers” – active participants in their own learning – can easily be transferred to the English teaching context.
In her best practice example, Keller shares the steps she took to guide a group of undergraduate students at an American university to write, produce, and perform audio-plays in a foreign language (German), based on a painting each participant personally selected during a museum visit.
The article clearly outlines the key steps of working through a creative process with a class; beginning with the theory, reflecting on the required performative skills (and how to support those less inclined to be in the limelight), and taking into account the so-called coolness factor of creating personalised projects. Keller emphasises that she waited until the students were well into creating their audio-plays before offering them the opportunity to share their work during a public performance at the museum in which they had originally found their inspiration. Despite varying degrees of proficiency in the foreign language, the decision to perform the plays was apparently unanimous. What an inspiring moment for language teachers and learners alike!
Read on to find out more about Keller’s audio-play building process, and to discover some of the touching moments the students in this particular course experienced as they tackled various learning and language acquisition challenges throughout the semester.
ETAS Drama and Literature Special Interest Group Coordinator
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Listen & Watch: An audio-play project in an art museum
Hildegard Elisabeth Keller
The art of teaching involves elements of performance and play. Creative performance lies at the core of the course described in this article. Students approached the genre of the audio play through the making of their own audio plays. The author describes not only what she taught, but how and why.
Like me, Kurt Vonnegut was a Hoosier. He, however, was born in Indianapolis (1922), whereas I emigrated to Bloomington in 2008 as a professor of medieval literature in the German Department of Indiana University. Aside from Michael Jackson, Vonnegut, the inspiration for this essay, is one of our most famous Hoosiers. He explained his views on creativity in a letter dated Nov. 5, 2006:
You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances anymore because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow (Usher, 2014, pp. 193-195).
Vonnegut underlined becoming and to make your soul grow and took his leave by drawing a self-portrait. How good that I came to Indiana, for I had been searching intuitively for these same three nuggets of gold already long before I got to know Vonnegut: Practice art, experience becoming, make your soul grow. Vonnegut spoke to me from the heart. What does any of this have to do with best practices for teaching?
“Only doers learn”
As a German and Spanish teacher at the Gymnasium (MNG Rämibühl), as a professor of medieval German literature at the University of Zürich and at Indiana University, I was a doer, producing theatre – audio plays – and exhibition projects with high school and university students. This was all long before the call for creative pedagogy in the Humanities – the push to rethink traditional modes of teaching, to make them more interactive and participatory, to encourage them to take creative and intellectual risks – became the clarion call on everyone’s lips. Nearly all of my projects were embedded in a course. The words “Only Doers Learn”, on my first website conceived in 2001, come from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and radicalize, at least in my view, Vonnegut’s Credo for pedagogy.
The best practice presented here transforms students into ‘doers’: authors, performers, audio editors, sound designers, and directors of short audio plays (five minutes or less) created with reference to works of art. In that small format, big things can be learnt. The audio play counts as the final project. For inspiration, the students select a painting in the Indiana University Art Museum and engaged with it.
What is the project’s unique selling point? It:
- unites theory and practice, literary knowledge, and creative writing
- trains students in performative skills (diction, expression, direction)
- has a coolness factor (recording, edition, sound design, out-of-classroom experience, a product to be proud of)
- makes the school, the class, and the individual students visible
- lets everyone wear a hat other than the one they’d normally wear—which brings Friedrich Schiller into play.
I developed GERM-G424 as an audio-play course for undergraduates in the German Department (Fall 2015). Each class met twice weekly for 75 minutes. Of the 12 students, all but one bi-lingual student did not have German as their native language; their competency varied considerably. German was the language of instruction; all the audio plays were written, produced, and performed in German, but the project can easily be carried out in English as well. The rich tradition of audio performance in English-speaking countries begun long before the invention of the radio: “[A]udio theatre is a theatrical presentation written or adapted for the audio medium, using voices, music and other sounds” (Fish, 1998; 2001).
Excellent historical material can be found in Orson Welles’ works for the Mercury Theatre and for radio (above all, The War of the Stars, after H.G. Wells). The current boom in audio- and pod-casting, especially in the USA, has generated a great deal of terrific online material, very successful are Jonathan Mitchell, Radiotopia, USA, along with his audio-blog “The Truth” and the audio “serial” (https://serialpodcast.org/) from the producers of “This American Life” (https://www.thisamericanlife.org/).
1. Theory and practice
As always, I use the first class to introduce the subject matter, course requirements, and assignments. The students’ eyes grow larger as I expand on how theory, analysis, practice, and creativity can be linked in the final project “My Audio-Play”. The students come away knowing what they can expect and what will be expected from them.
During the first 10 weeks of the semester, we deal with media theory (including the history of radio in Germany and the origins of the audio play) and with a series of German-language audio plays of the 20th century (texts and dramatizations from before and after WWII by Ödön von Horváth, Günter Eich, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt). In class discussions, we analyze the literary means employed by the texts (dialogue, monologue, interior monologue, reportage, as well as specific means of communication with the listeners) and the various elements of sound (voices, articulation, sound effects, music). The participants learn how to construct an audible reality.
Conceptualization and writing begin in the third week of class. An excursion to the Indiana University Art Museum proved decisive for the students’ choice of topics (out-of-classroom experiences are all the rage). The collection stretches from Antiquity to the present and embraces all cultures and corners of the earth. A staff member guides us through the section for western art (Middle Ages to Contemporary); after the tour, the students rove and select one work of art, draft an exposé, and submit it in the form of an essay. The theme is: “My Painting: how it speaks to me and why I chose it for my audio play.” When the essays are returned, every student is given an individual consultation. Over the next three weeks, their scripts come into being. I edit each one, not once, but twice.
My own engagement increases as the students give freer reign to their fantasy and expressive abilities than in an ordinary classroom essay. Individual mentoring takes the form of the one-to-one coaching of equals. Step-by-step, individual students found their own vein of gold to mine. Here are just three examples:
Tom chose a Dutch oil painting of the eighteenth century, a genre scene of a peasant sitting by a fire. Tom made his audio play very much his own; he immersed himself in the gloomy picture and animated the man by the fire from the inside out. He wrote a monologue, performed it himself because he could already “hear” the figure, and was, in any case, fed up with group projects (it was his last semester). Touching!
Sue chose the well-known painting with an old boatman in a storm. The painter had German roots, just like Sue. She remained an outside observer and wrote a fictional discussion among museum visitors who were carrying out research on the picture and the painter. One character took the form of a man who condescendingly instructed a young woman (her own role) but who in the end got the short end of the stick. Very amusing!
In the same picture, Keegan found inspiration for a very different topic: consciousness. His rower found himself in a storm, but it became increasingly unclear to him whether it was a real weather phenomenon or a manifestation of insanity. Keegan’s German wasn’t as solid as that of the others; he gave himself only a small role, leaving the principal role to a fellow student who had at his command the kind of articulation Keegan dreamed of. A strong director and a powerful piece!
2. Performative skills
Rehearsals for the recording session began in week 6. The participants now had to don two additional hats: they were directors (of their own audio plays) and speakers (either in their own play or in someone else’s). Casting was done in class; each director sought out the voices he or she wanted according to what, in their view, would be best. It was a game in which we all, myself included, could participate.
We also rehearsed in class. I was the trainer (diction, expression). I also carried out speaking and movement exercises with the students. Whoever wasn’t on ‘stage’ acted as audience to provide feedback. Some students enjoyed their authority as speaking-coaches; others permitted themselves more self-expression. All in all, there was a lot of give and take.
The really cool stuff started to happen in week 9. I introduced the students to Audacity (free software for audio editing). We made recordings in the studio, using the wonderful facilities in the Monroe County Public Library, free to all, and worked to a strict production plan. The rough cut included voice editing only; those who were more tech-savvy helped their classmates within tandems. I then revised the rough cuts, once again with two rounds of revision. At this point, I had the sound effect artist, Tony Bremer of Bloomington, visit class to demonstrate how sound effects are produced and recorded. That was great fun for all, including Tony. At last, the final cut was done: adding sound effects and music, mixing the sound. All in all, a very labor-intensive process, for me as well as the students, who also learned what it means to take responsibility for one’s craft.
At the beginning of week 14, when the plays were more or less finished and I was thrilled with the results, I proposed that we give all the audio plays their premieres in the IU Art Museum, where they had first been conceived. I had already asked the Museum whether we could use the space for a performance, but I kept it secret so that such a pioneering project could unfold unburdened by the pressure of a public performance. I wanted the students to be free to discover their own creativity and only to make a decision once their own work had taken shape. Having discussed the matter, there was unanimity; everyone wanted to perform their play, and whoever felt weak in the knees let themselves be carried away by my enthusiasm for their work.
4. Listen & Watch: Performance
I nominated two students as production assistants. Their tasks included collecting and checking the finished audio files, loading them onto a computer, consulting with responsible parties at the museum about how, on account of security rules, we were to carry out the performance, and to collect the credits for all the plays.
With this information, I designed a program and a flyer which was distributed across campus and in town, in print and on-line. We posted the event on social media. The Museum rejoiced in hosting a program of student performances so directly related to their own collection. The event took place in the afternoon and was attended by 40 students, faculty and people from the town. One student’s grandmother came all the way from Montana to see her granddaughter perform.
The performance lasted a good hour taking the form of a tour from painting to painting. A small cart, closely watched by a guard, carried a computer and external loudspeakers through the collection. One picture, one station: The author of each play stood before the painting, said a few words of introduction and then pressed the start button. Each play sounded for five minutes, followed by applause and we were off to the next picture. It was just glorious.
“Listen & Watch” was a pearl necklace, which each member of the class could wear: maximum visibility and audibility for each individual as well as for the class as a whole, in the museum, across campus, and in the German department. Afterwards, the department chair wrote: “The dramaturgy of each production was of extremely high quality. Gripping stories. The sentiments were consistent and the performance amazing. From comedy to tragedy (from the lobster to the sad story in the tale of the drunk), it was all there. Wow! Thank you for doing this!” (F. Breithaupt, personal communication, December 12, 2015).
5. Conclusion: Play
Students and teachers alike can wear many and more varied hats than they are accustomed to without making fools of themselves. Much more could be said about the imposition of institutional norms and making space to fantasy and soul. But after 25 years of experience, what’s most essential is: Most people hunger for some form of spiritual nourishment through play– and so did I. When I was seventeen and received my first theatrical role (unfortunately a male role, that of the infamous Franz von Moor in Schiller’s Räuber), I was also driven by such hunger, the hunger to experience and to create something from the inside out.
I return to my beginnings. It was a medievalist who saw the driving force of evolution in the playful human being. His now famous homo ludens entered the stage precisely in 1939 (Huizinga, 1939). But, in matters of play, Friedrich Schiller (1795) deserves the last word: “To declare it, finally, Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.” Schiller continues: “the whole edifice of aesthetic art and the still more difficult art of life will be supported by this principle.” Schiller is resigned to the fact that this idea is rejected by some: “But this proposition is only unexpected in scholarship.” Greek Antiquity lived according to this principle, but they displaced to heaven “what ought to have been preserved on earth” (Schiller, 1795).
It is in this sense that I wish that you all may, with pleasure and joy, wear as many hats as you fancy. Why? Because I hear Schiller whispering: “Audio plays are also play.”
Fish, R. (1998, 2001). Genesis and renaissance: A brief history of audio theatre. Unpublished master’s thesis. Indiana University.
Huizinga, J. (1987). Homo Ludens. Vom Ursprung der Kultur im Spiel. In engster Zusammenarbeit mit dem Verfasser aus dem Niederländischen übertragen von H. Nachod. Mit einem Nachwort von Andreas Flitner (Vol. 435). Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt.
Schiller, F. (1795). 15. Brief: Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen. Retrieved April 10, 2016 from http://www.kuehnle-online.de/literatur/schiller/werke/phil/aestherzieh/15.htm
Usher, S. (2014). Letters of note: An eclectic collection of correspondence deserving of a wider audience. San Francisco, CA: Chronicles Books, pp. 193-195.
About the author
Hildegard Elisabeth Keller is is the founder of Bloomlight Productions GmbH and teaches at the University of Zürich. She is a jury member for the Days for German Literature at Klagenfurt and a critic for the Literaturclub on SRF. She has produced plays, performances, and films (Whatever Comes Next, 2015, documentary).