Stefanie Giebert – Jeans stories: Staging globalisation
ETAS Journal Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2018), pp. 24-25
I have selected this best practice report because it compellingly demonstrates how the arts can enrich a regular university Business English course. Stefanie Giebert shares her experience of staging an evening of short plays about fashion and the global textile industry with EFL learners at University level.
This best practice report describes an English theatre project for university students that took place at Reutlingen University, Germany, in 2012. The report describes how the course complements regular Business English courses and the process of staging an evening of short plays about fashion and the global textile industry.
The Business English Theatre
This article describes a theatre project that took place within the framework of a regular theatre-course at Reutlingen University of Applied Sciences, Germany. The Business English Theatre (BET) was offered from 2009-2016 by the Institute for Foreign Languages as an extracurricular, ungraded course for students of all study programmes. On average, between 12 to 15 students from the schools of business, engineering, and design took part, of which about half were international students.
The aim of the course was to offer an alternative, playful approach to English, especially Business English (for more details see Giebert, 2011; 2012). Students rehearsed once a week for 10 to 12 weeks to produce a play shown on campus at the end of the semester. In my experience, this product-oriented approach proved useful, as students were motivated and willing to stay in the course in order to participate in the show. Fonio (2012) describes similar experiences with his own theatre courses: “public performances are […] a powerful stimulus for students to maintain their attention and concentration” (p.19).
The productions were always original plays, that is, they were written by the teacher (myself) or devised with the participants. Topics and setting from the business world were to give students the opportunity to practise relevant vocabulary and experience language in business contexts (e.g. in meetings, office phone calls, company presentations) and to enable them to implicitly learn language in context (van Handle, 1988). The business topics were combined with fantasy elements. For example, one play was set on a pirate ship while in another Santa Claus is in danger of losing his job.
Admittedly, this leads to business situations that are one step removed from reality. However, looking at business in an imaginative way provides students with a change of pace from the style of role-play often found in textbooks, which can often be less than inspiring, as described by DiNapoli (2009): “… the principal aim of such undramatic role-plays is the correct performance of grammatical structures, language functions, and conventional discourse. As a result, the students’ concentration is primarily fixed on form and their performances often lack affective commitment” (p. 101). Additionally, in my experience, it seems that students often have an easier time endowing a make-believe character with expression and emotion than one that is closer to reality.
100% Denim – Staging the globalised fashion industry
In winter semester 2012, the course topic was the globalised fashion and textile industry. The topic offers a range of interesting aspects to explore – including problematic ethical aspects such as environmental pollution or the exploitation of workers, which are sometimes overlooked in the more technically oriented lectures.
In preparing the course, I researched aspects of globalisation in the textile industries and decided to focus on the production and retailing of jeans. Blue jeans have a cultural history, a globalised production process, and are also an emotionally charged product – think for example of the short story A Pair of Jeans (Shahraz, 2005) in which wearing western clothing (jeans) costs a young Muslim woman her relationship – and they thus offer rich material for dramatization.
The decision to work with loosely connected short plays (under the title of 100% Denim) enabled us to rehearse in smaller groups, to present different genres, to integrate students who only wanted small roles, and to present this multifaceted topic from many different angles. Due to time constraints, the research phase was limited to the teacher: I read Louise Snyder’s book (2009) Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World, as well as newspaper articles and various websites. It would, of course, be optimal to let the students do at least part of the research, should there be enough time within the constraints of a course.
The learning opportunities inherent in this process, which Neelands and Goode (2000) call documentary, are described as follows: “… researching significant material; selecting material for its dramatic potential; extrapolating and interpreting likely colour from sources without distorting factual content, translating material into dramatic form; sequencing” (p. 55). In our case course time was limited, so a small group of interested students met before the semester started to contribute ideas for the plays. The script was primarily written by the teacher, along with two students who contributed poems and songs.
Overview of the plays:
• Intro: The Biography of a Pair of Blue Jeans (staged newspaper article, chorus)
• Cotton Ghosts (focusing on a series of suicides among Indian cotton farmers, drama)
• Waiting for Cotton (cotton trade in Uzbekistan, theatre of the absurd)
• Tight Jeans – a fairy tale (fairy tale parody) • A Perfect Fit (genetic engineering and
surveillance, dystopic drama)
• Denim and Distress (cowboys in the wild west vs. fast fashion today, comedy)
The jeans chorus
As an example for how a non-dramatic text can be staged with the help of a number of drama conventions, the opening scene of the show will be described in more detail here. In order to give our evening of short plays a dramatic frame, the first scene involved all the actors and introduced the topic of ‘jeans’. As rehearsal time was limited, the newspaper article was staged using a technique called choral speech. This technique requires minimal choreography and requires relatively little work on characterisation and blocking (using the space on stage). An article from the Guardian, which describes the production of a pair of jeans (Abraham & Astill, 2001), served as the pretext: cotton is farmed and harvested in several countries, spun, woven, dyed, and sewn together with various other parts and eventually shipped to the UK to be sold.
The opening scene was set up as follows: Symbolising the 13 countries where components for the jeans are produced, actors with written signs come on stage and freeze (one could see this as a variation of the drama convention called group sculpture: “(…) this activity usually produces images of a non-representational nature unlike Still-Image, which tends to favour literal representations” (Neelands & Goode, 2000, p. 79).
Next, the various steps in the jeans production process are shown by individual actors, who step forward to recite a text. Some of the actors take on multiple ‘characters’ (e.g. the cowboy, the philosopher, the sports reporter, the know-it-all) through the use of different voices (e.g. a Texan accent), body language, and the use of some props
(e.g. hat, microphone, smartphone).
Some characters, such as the hard-working seamstresses, whose activities are commented on by the sports reporter, are acted out silently by the chorus. Compare also Neelands & Goode (2000) on Mimed Activity: “[A] useful way of establishing a context, i.e. workers on a production line” (p. 63). Using a technique called Soundscape (Neelands & Goode, 2000), a chorus of ‘whisperers’ assumes that the production of dye is going to be moved from Germany to China, suggesting an atmosphere of uncertainty and rumour mongering by their way of speaking.
The process described above can easily be adapted and is also suitable for larger groups and for school settings. For a school production, the students could begin by reading the pre-text (the newspaper article) together: Unknown words can be explained and understanding of the text can be scaffolded by comprehension questions, before the learners tackle the performative tasks which will allow them to gain a deeper understanding of the text. If no show is planned, performative elements could be integrated into a lesson with an entertaining presentation of the article’s contents.
For example: “Create a piece of edutainment for the open house of an organisation that wants to educate the public about globalisation.” It would also be possible to have two groups work on the topic, with one working for the textile industry, presenting the positive aspects of globalisation and one for a critical organisation focusing on the dangers and risks of globalisation. A discussion of the topic of ‘informing versus influencing’ could be a follow-up to such a lesson.
Fairy tale parody
A second scenic interpretation, which will be briefly described here since it can easily be transferred to a school context, is the fairy-tale parody. Fairy-tale parodies are especially suitable for big and/or heterogeneous groups of various ages since a narrator – in our case ‘Granny’ with an oversized fairy tale book on her lap – tells the stories and a flexible number of actors can appear on stage. In our show, we told the story of a girl putting on a very tight pair of jeans, in preparation for a date – with some hilarious complications.
There were intertextual echoes of Snow White and Die Rübe (The Enormous Turnip) in this scene, which was co-created with the students. Depending on the age and ability of the group, stylistic elements such as parody and irony can be incorporated into the show – our scene echoed high-school comedies, with the actors using very casual language, which was in strong contrast to the usual style of fairy tales. My students definitely enjoyed this creative freedom, and showed me that (parodies of) fairy tales are suitable even for university students.
A detailed description of each scene in the show 100% Denim would exceed the scope of this article, but hopefully it could be shown here, how the abstract topic of ‘globalisation and the textile industry’ was put on stage in order to show the many facets of the topic, while making use of the different talents of the participants. In my opinion, the topic is also suitable for high schools because students can relate to it – everyone wears clothes and many are interested in fashion. In addition, the topic offers many chances for interesting dramatisations and allows actors and audience insights into bigger themes such as the global economy and how it affects the lives of people here and elsewhere.
Abraham, F. & Astill, J. (2001, May 29). Story of the blues. The Guardian. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from https://www.theguardian.com/g2/ story/0,,497788,00.html
Dinapoli, R. (2009). Using dramatic role-play to develop emotional aptitude. International Journal of English Studies, 9(2), 97–110. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from http://revistas.um.es/ijes/article/view/90771
Fonio, F. (2012) Stuffed pants! Staging full-scale comic plays with students of Italian as a foreign language. Scenario: Journal for Drama and Theatre in Foreign and Second Language Education, 6(2), 18-27. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from http://research.ucc.ie/scenario/2012/02/ Fonio/04/en
Giebert, S. (2011). Shakespeare and shareholders:
A Business English theatre project. Scenario, 5(01), 1-14. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from http://research.ucc.ie/scenario/2011/01/ giebert/04/en
Giebert, S. (2012). Much ado about business – Fachsprache im Theaterprojekt. Scenario, 6(01), 64-84. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from http://publish.ucc.ie/scenario/2012/01/ giebert/05/de
Neelands, J. & Goode, T. (2000). Structuring drama work: A handbook of available forms in theatre and drama. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Shahraz, Q. (2005). A pair of jeans. In H. Korff (Ed.).
One language, many voices: An anthology of short stories about the legacy of empire (pp. 174-194). Berlin, Germany: Cornelsen.
Snyder, L. (2009). Fugitive denim: A moving story of people and pants in the borderless world. New York, NY: WW Norton.
Van Handle, D.C. (1988). Developing proficiency in context: The creation and production of German plays. Unterrichtspraxis /Teaching German, 21(2), 196–198.
About the Author
Stefanie Giebert is a lecturer for German as a Foreign Language and Technical English at Konstanz University of Applied Sciences in Germany. Her interests include drama and teaching ESP, adapting non-dramatic texts for the stage, and applied improvisation. She organises the annual Drama in Education Days in Konstanz with Eva Göksel.