Lissette Lorenz '12 and Anabel Hirano '13: The Glee Club

Lissette Lorenz (Santa Claus) and Anabel Hirano (pink shirt) were Shansi Fellows at J.F. Oberlin University in Machida, Japan. This is their end of year narrative.

In the fall of 2013, the Japan fellows founded a club called “Great Language Engagement in English,” or “GLEE.” GLEE’s main purpose is to provide an alternative venue in which English language students can develop their language skills outside of the classroom. We made flyers and invited our students as well as those who came to Conversation Circle to join us on Wednesday afternoons for various language and theater games and activities. During the fall, some weeks we had up to fifteen students, some weeks we had one. By the end of the semester, our regulars were about six. In this first semester of GLEE, each session had its own goal, but they were not necessarily connected in any linear or long term trajectory. That we saved for the second semester, when we decided to put on a play.

The idea for putting on a play through the ELP came from various sources. Our boss, Damon, wanted students to have an opportunity to showcase their English skills, and commissioned the Shansi fellows to create such an opportunity. Since all three fellows share an interest in performance, whether it is theater, dance, or music, it seemed logical to combine our skills and interests and put on an original, bilingual musical with our GLEE club members.

Putting on an original musical is easier said than done, especially with only 15 weeks to do it. The work ahead included creating a story, coming up with characters, writing music and lyrics, and choreographing dances. We needed to find a venue, make costumes, a set, props,  and advertising posters. And most importantly, we needed a group of eager, stage-hungry students who would have enough time and energy to dedicate a large part of their semester to working with us.

 Before the spring semester started, we created a short promotional video introducing the concept of GLEE. This video was shown in all of the English Core classes during the first and second week of the semester. Our hope was to reach as many students as possible and get started on creating a play right away. The video payed off, as our first meeting was a success in terms of numbers - at least fifteen students showed up to see what we were about. That first day we did introductions, an explanation of what we wanted for the play, and various theater games.

Though the first meeting was fun, the real work did not start until a few weeks later. At this point the committed members included seven students, some of them returning from last semester’s meetings. Next we used several theater exercises to help spark our students’ creative forces and come up with a plot. This seemed like an easy enough thing to do, but it turned out to be difficult to get our students to be decisive about anything. In the general Japanese educational system, students do not often get asked to voice their own ideas, let alone in a different language. However, we were determined to create a “peer group brainstorm” rather than a “teacher instructs students” atmosphere, and encouraged them to speak in Japanese and English. It is amazing what lifting the language barrier will do to one’s creative power. After three weeks of brainstorming and improvising, the GLEE club members came up with a modified version of Journey to the West, a Chinese novel published in the 16th century and since adapted into several films. They threw in some Wizard of Oz plotlines as well.

Once we had the basic plot outline, we began rehearsals. We decided that we did not want a fully-written script. Since one of the most important goals of this play is to help our students become more comfortable in English, having them memorize lines would not be effective. Instead, we decided on the most important events of each scene, and made sure that each of these events would occur each time we ran through a scene. However, the bulk of the rehearsals were semi-improvised, the students creating the atmosphere and most of the lines by themselves. Recently, our rehearsals have increased to two or three times a week, and during each one, depending on who is available, we work on different aspects of the play, be it specific scenes, musical numbers or plot revision.

We are currently about two-thirds of the way through rehearsing the play. Each rehearsal loosely goes as follows: we sit together and make sure that everyone is clear on the important events of the scene we decide to rehearse that day. Then we let our students try a run-through of the scene, many blunders and pauses included. As the rehearsal goes on, we tweak certain lines, revise the plot, decide what we like best, and by the end of the rehearsal period we have a somewhat solid scene. In between rehearsals, we Shansi fellows get together and review what has happened and what still needs to be done.

GLEE’s semi-original plot of “Journey to the West/Wizard of Oz” is as follows: a group of unconfident Obirin English language students decide to go on a trip one weekend. One student, whose parents run a Buddhist temple, must journey to find a special Buddhist scroll to take back to her parents’ temple. Not wanting to make the journey alone, she rallies some fellow classmates--a kung fu master-in-the-making, a pig on a diet, a lazy 35 year-old monkey, and a kappa (Japanese water sprite). On their trip, they encounter a lonely non-Japanese speaking monster who keeps trying to foil their plans. He sets up three challenges along their path, challenges that help them each see a quality in themselves that they did not know they possessed. The challenges also provide keys into the monster’s heart, who more than causing trouble just wants to be loved. But how can the Obirin students overcome the language barrier and befriend the beast? All will be revealed on July 23rd, during our big debut. The final production will be recorded and made public on the Shansi website for your pleasure and entertainment.

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