Outer Space Improv: Arts & UDL in the Classroom, Part Five | Richard Jenkins

Part Five: Generating Dialog and Actions for Fictional Characters

Building on the students’ growing confidence with acting, I was eager to employ dramatic improvisation as a “writing” activity. Or as a colleague of mine puts it, “writing on our feet.” In addition to writing and drawing, improvisation would provide another way for the students to engage with story making, specifically creating character dialog and action. The goal was to get the students to generate story ideas without being impaired with the barriers to their learning. Also, this activity would allow students to revise their ideas on stage, as they performed.

I began with an introduction to improv. I compared it to a play, which is a story with actors and a stage, but in improv “we would be creating the story as we go.”  I also established roles — students in the “audience” were to watch and listen; students who were the “performers” were to act out their ideas for the audience.  After the introduction, I provided the pre-scene set up:

The situation – What is happening just before the opening line?
The Outer Space Immigrant has arrived at the bus station, his/her first time to come to Earth, and wants to make some friends. A child sees the Alien for the first time.

The setting – Where the action is happening
Bus station waiting room.

The character/s – Who is in this scene
The Outer Space Immigrant and a Child

The opening line – Who says what to whom?

The students began by enacting a meeting between their alien characters and a fictional child. The alien characters initiated the scenes with their fictional greetings, which were created in the previous activity. The child characters would respond with improvised lines, the outer space character would invent a response, and so on. This exchange developed into an improvised dialog between the pair of students performing the scene.

The student performers were allowed multiple “takes” in order to revise their ideas. And, as they did their takes, I provided gentle guidance from the side as they performed. These provided them with options for sustaining their efforts.

At first most of the students were a bit shy. But as the students saw that it was safe to perform, and that they each received applause at the end of their performance, all of the students became very eager to take part in the acting.


 Click HERE to see the full video of the Improv Session

When the special needs students were onstage, I used shorter instructions and gave them more time to process them, which allowing the students options for comprehension. For the oldest special needs student, the one whom I was most concerned about, I gave him extra time and multiple chances to improvise his lines. Also, I listened to his many ideas, on stage, so that he could select his “best choice.” With only a few extra takes, he quickly engaged in the improvisation and invented his own lines. He was happily engaged and I was relieved.  After each performance, I guided the students in a reflection of what they saw happen on stage. The students shared their observations and their favorite lines and dialog. Then I invited the audience to suggest revisions or variations on the performances they saw, further recruiting their interest by encouraging individualized choices.

In their eagerness, the audience sometimes forgot their role and spoke out of turn, so I reminded them to “hold onto their ideas” until they were on stage or they were called upon. This gave them a strategy by which to manage their emotional engagement. In this reflection, I also challenged the students to come up with ideas for what might happen next.

The ESL teacher continued to provide translation of my instructions. Also, she transcribed the performers’ dialog and audience’s ideas in order to help the students make the connection between improvisation and writing. During our second session of this improv activity, three students eagerly volunteered to transcribe the dialog and ideas being generated.

After two exciting periods of improvisation, the students were then assigned the task of imagining and creating the next scene, using their own characters. Providing options for expression, the students were allowed to write or draw the next scene, which they quickly began to do with much gusto. This work would be used as the “middle” of their stories that they would create in our next session, Outer Space Immigrant Stories.

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