Participants work together at one of the NTID playwriting workshops in Florida.
From May to August, 2017, theater professionals from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) presented a theatrical script writing program to students who are deaf and hearing students closely connected to deafness. The ten-hour program, held at five sites in Maryland, New York, and Florida, offered students a creative way to explore their feelings of identity, disability, isolation, community involvement, and aspirations.
Aaron Kelstone, director of NTID’s performing arts program, and Fred Beam, coordinator of NTID’s performing arts outreach program, said the participating students were ages 13-21. Kelstone and Beam answered questions about the program in an email interview, sharing insights into the students’ experience learning about theatrical script writing.
VSA: Tell us about what the students enjoyed the most in your script writing program.
Kelstone and Beam: The students enjoyed creating a play, especially when they were about to make a story as a group. For example, a student will start one part of the story and leave the next part for the next student. Everyone took turns in creating a scene, and it helps them see their ability to create a play.
The students also enjoyed the pre-writing theater workshop session. The workshop began with a warm-up, or icebreaker, which teaches recognition and awareness of facial expressions, body language, and body movement. The next section was the “clay” activity, which allows students to create a prop with their hands and show action with their body; this helped students understand how props can play an integral part in the development of their play. Finally, the students participated in a “mask” activity, which allowed them to change their character and show their feelings after their mask was put on, then return to normal after the mask was taken off.
A student signs to a video camera during an NTID playwriting class.
VSA: What playwriting lessons were particularly well received?
Kelstone and Beam: The introduction of playwriting vocabulary words, like script, acts, scene, character, setting, dialogue, and conflict, offered interactive activities for each word. We defined the word, offered an image that reflected the word, and then modeled how it was structured.
The next lesson was the brainstorming session. We gave students a worksheet that asked for information like title of their play, characters in the play, character descriptions, setting, conflict, and scene summaries. Then students had a choice if they wanted to write in a word, write in a sentence, or draw a picture on the worksheet. After that, we guided students through making a storyboard and encouraged them to edit their storyline. We wanted students to be able to see their scenes in a specific order and add a necessary element if anything was missing.
Deaf students signed their stories; we had them tell it to the audience or record it on videotape. They then used that process to support themselves while doing further writing. Students also received sample scripts written by others as a reference.
VSA: Your program also explores the students’ feelings about deafness and Deaf culture. Did the plays spur a helpful conversation within the classroom?
Kelstone and Beam: Yes, it allowed the students to express their experiences with barriers. They were able to identify frustrations about their feelings and relate to each other when they have similar experiences by sharing their stories. A main theme that emerged from the students’ work was communication in a different language (American Sign Language, or ASL).
A student story board created in an NTID class.
VSA: How did literacy skills improve within the participating students?
Kelstone and Beam: Many of the students we worked with use ASL as their dominant language, and needed some support writing in English; others did their writing independently. Everyone worked on literacy skills, and it happened in several different ways.
For instance, we had students who drew a picture and asked us, “What is the word for that action?” Then we introduced new vocabulary words, and they used them in their storyboard or script. Other students had their story all mixed up, and organizing it on a storyboard really helped them learn how to structure and write in ways that created order or put information in the proper places.
Some students were not comfortable with only writing, and they had the freedom to sign their script and put it on video, draw a storyboard, and explain what happened in each scene. By watching the video of themselves, writing what they saw, and asking others for help, they were able to learn new words, sentences, and phrases. It also helped them develop a richer story because the video taught them how their facial expressions and body language contain a depth of meaning. It was similar to the growth one gains from translating from one language to another.
One teacher told us that one of her students would not write a paragraph when given a written assignment. After participating in our program and learning about playwriting and storyboards, she wrote a whole script!