Improvisation allows students to prepare for real world situations, but often in regular role plays, the conversation runs more smoothly than in real life. In the real world, people find themselves challenged by awkward situations. In theater class, we address the pragmatics of minor conflicts through improvisation.
First, we might read a scene in which a character is trying to send implicit messages in a socially acceptable way, such as a restaurant owner wants to politely get rid of a job applicant who is trapped by a flood in Rising Water.
Petra: We’re closed.
Ajax: Oh, I’m sorry. I’m not a customer. I’m here for a job interview. My name is Ajax. Ajax Cooper.
Petra: Hi, Ajax. Weren’t you supposed to be here 30 minutes ago?
Ajax: Yes, but the rain . . . Um. . . The bus was late.
Petra: (Understanding) Yeah, I get it, not your fault. Look, um, I’m sorry, but it looks pretty bad out there. I got a weather alert a couple of minutes ago, so I think we may have to put this off for another day.
Ajax: Okay. I’ll just go then. (He hesitates.)
Petra: I’m really sorry you came all this way, but if it helps, I’m impressed you made it!
Ajax: Oh, um, thanks, I guess. (He nods) I totally understand. I probably should have called, but I forgot my phone on the bus. (He turns around to leave.)
Petra: Ajax, wait!
Petra: Do you have a ride? How are you going to get home?
Ajax: The bus.
Petra: Are you sure?
Ajax: Yeah, I’ll be fine.
Petra: Where do you live?
Ajax: The north side.
Petra: Oh! The water is rising over there.
Ajax: I’ll be fine.
Petra: (Looks at her phone.) The freeway is flooded. The buses aren’t going to be running.
Ajax: They’re not? Are you sure?
Petra: No. Is there somewhere else you can go?
Ajax: Oh yeah. I’ll figure it out.
Petra: (Doubtful) I kind of feel responsible here. What are you going to do?
Ajax: My friend is at the library. I’ll go there.
Petra: (Relieved) Oh, are you sure? Because if you can’t get there, I guess you could. . .
Ajax: No, it’s fine. It’s really not that far.
Petra: Okay then, if you’re sure.
Ajax: Yeah. My friend’s always trying to get me to go to the library, so now I’m going!
Petra: Do you want to call him?
Ajax: I don’t know his number.
Petra: Yeah, phones, right? How about your family? You said you don’t have your phone with you.
Ajax: Um, no I don’t. I don’t remember their numbers either.
Ajax: It’s okay. If I can get to my friend, he can connect us.
Petra: Right. So, you have a plan. That’s good then. (She turns back to her paperwork.)
Ajax: Yes, um, should I call you later? To reschedule?
Petra: (Looks up.) Yes, next week. This flood is going to be a disaster. We’ll probably have to close for a few days.
Ajax: Okay, I’ll be in touch. Bye.
Petra: Bye! Stay safe!
Students read the scene, discuss the intentions of the characters, and then reflect on times when they felt uncomfortable. They can answer a series of questions in pairs: Where were they? Who were they with? What did they want? What did they say? What was the result?
Afterwards, they share with the class, and the teacher elicits what they wanted to say to the board, for example, “Leave me alone,” and “Stop asking me questions.” Next, the teacher introduces fixed expressions that signal messages politely next to the blunt statements, e.g., “Well, I’d better let you go.” signals you want to leave. “It’s complicated,” can signal that you don’t want to answer a question. Or, a simple “I don’t remember.” Or “I’d rather not get into that right now,” might work depending on answers to what and who.
The next stage is to have students improvise scenes that challenge them to handle situations like these. Here are some examples.
At work: Colleagues – A wants to find out if B is pregnant or married without asking directly.
In the neighborhood: Two dog walkers – A wants to learn about the new neighbor, but the new neighbor, B, is in a hurry.
At school: A is trying to get a group task done, but B wants to chat.
At home: Roommates – A wants to study, but B wants A to go to a party.
You can also use the students’ own experiences, but help them reiterate them more gracefully.
It can be helpful to give students a little time to prepare their roles, but since this is an improvisation, five or ten minutes would be the maximum. Finally, have them take turns performing their improv for the class. The teacher can give notes afterwards on language, intonation, gesture, and other elements that can help students navigate potential discomfort in their interactions. Such and activity can actually be fun, as well as a way to give students confidence and skills for the real world.