Russian Theater Workshop: Enhancing Diverse Language Skills

Nancy Tittler, Binghamton University

Over the past decade, secondary and post-secondary Russian language instruction, while making a salutary shift from grammar-driven to more communicative teaching, has come to embrace a wider range of student needs. As traditional non-native students persevere, they are joined by those from Russian-speaking homes who bring their own set of goals and problems. A course I have taught for four years at Binghamton University addresses, in a workshop setting that culminates in a theatrical performance, several pertinent questions. How can students of varying language abilities, from beginner through native speaker, benefit from reading plays together? How can the special issues that challenge heritage speakers be treated in such a setting? How can a theater workshop enhance the learning experience in traditional language classes? Finally, as my first-year students initially ask, how can a beginner tackle a play in Russian?

Briefly, students are admitted to the Russian Theater Workshop from second-semester through advanced heritage-speaker level. While plays are read in class in Russian, beginners are given an English translation to read outside class. In class, as plays are read aloud, parts are assigned arbitrarily and exchanged frequently. In the workshops I have run, students actively assist each other, as fluent readers help learners with pronunciation and intonation, and heritage speakers with minimal literacy are thrust into intensive reading practice. Having read a number of short plays, the entire class chooses one to perform, and the workshop becomes an acting company. Moving to the performance space, students work on aspects of production, as well as memorizing lines. To accompany my conference presentation, I propose to show video clips from at least one production, to demonstrate the level of confidence and proficiency gained through this class.