Bringing Steinbeck to life


On Wednesday 29th March artistic directors Paul and Simon delivered a masterclass workshop on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to sixth form GCSE learners at The College of Haringey, Enfield & North East London. Here is their report of the day.

Bringing the characters to life

We devised the workshop in collaboration with the college to motivate and connect with learners. The task was to bring life to the characters and themes in the book and help the learners take something away they could relate to, which would help them pass their GCSE English exam.

It was a busy day with two sessions, firstly for about 50 students at the Enfield centre. For the afternoon session in Tottenham we had over 100 learners in a large hall! Both sessions needed energy and commitment and we launched ourselves in.

We started with an introductory talk about the book’s themes, challenges and its relevance to today’s readers; as well as its qualities as a classic text. We wanted to reassure the learners that they could relate to the difficulties of the text and we could inspire them to read and study it. Though it contains offensive racial and sexual language it is very much of its time; however it is deftly written and beautifully structured with well-drawn characters and dramatic tension and inevitability.

The first exercise was for the learners to guess the character. We represented the eight primary and secondary characters - Lennie, Curley, Candy, Slim, Carlson, George, Crooks and Curley’s Wife - one at a time through physicalising the character and speaking a line of dialogue. For each one the groups of learners discussed briefly and held up a card with their answer. Each time we explored their reasons for their choice from what they saw and heard and what they knew. The learners had no trouble guessing the character and the value came in the discussion of the characters’ features that had been observed together with their knowledge of them - our quick physical and spoken sketches brought them to life.

Character analysis

The next exercise was to introduce a character profile template that the learners could complete for the characters in the book. The template asked five questions of each character for the students to answer from the evidence in the book:

  1. What words are used to describe the character?
  2. What does the character do, say & think?
  3. What do others say about the character?
  4. How is the loneliness of the character shown?
  5. What impression is created of the character from the words used?

One of the themes of the book we were asked to address was loneliness and how each character experienced this, which was reflected in question 4. Other themes could equally be explored in the same way.

The learners practised using the template on a celebrity or someone well-known to them. Donald Trump was a useful choice as the characteristics and words said about him could easily be sourced!

We then dramatized sections of the book performing selected dialogue including the descriptive text of the characters physical and emotional states. We asked the learners to listen out for appropriate words to begin compiling a character profile with the evidence in the book. Question 5 asked them for their impressions of the character and we emphasised the need for any impression to be justified from the text.

In between each scene dramatization there was discussion about the characteristics and words shown and any evidence of loneliness. We heard from one of the teachers present that they had not noticed before an interpretation of the text which we raised – this shows the value of bringing in alternative perspectives on the text and to making the text heard out loud rather than just read.

We brought the performance side of the workshop to a moving close with the scene where Lennie kills Curley’s Wife, complete with suitable wig!

The theme of loneliness

The final exercise was for the students to order the eight characters from most lonely to least lonely and this provoked interesting and revealing discussions on their understanding of the characters and their interpretations of the direct and circumstantial evidence shown: for example, several characters state they are lonely such as Curley’s Wife and Crooks, whereas others indicate evidence of a lonely life, such as Candy; or potential loneliness in company such as George and his constant companion Lennie. This crossed over with further themes of dreams and ambitions, and of being trapped.

Feedback

We received some very encouraging comments at the end of the workshop from learners and teachers about how it had brought the book to life, and given the learners something to relate to. As with Shakespeare, hearing the words and being able to interact with the text brings a whole new value and meaning over just reading them. This is beneficial for all types of readers and learners. We hope that our energetic input engaged them and will help them with character analysis for the exam.

“It has given me a much better idea of what the characters are like. It was much more entertaining and engaging than just being taught in the classroom, and so you remember it better, which will help with the exam.”

“I’ve read the book and the characters the actors’ performed were just how I imagined them to be. It really brought it to life.”

The college blog

At the Tottenham workshop, Paul Cassel, Publications Relations and Communications Officer, took photographs and wrote about the workshop on the college blog:

http://www.conel.ac.uk/news-events/news-archive/2201-actors-bring-characters-from-of-mice-and-men-to-life-for-gcse-english-students.html


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