An interview by Martina Bednáriková
As a teacher, you do not have to stay within the lines of the usual. David Fisher, a professional actor and an ELT Forum presenter this June, knows what he’s talking about. Make use of everything to enhance your students’ learning process – discover and rediscover gestures, sounds, and words… because when learners are able to break through those initial language difficulties, they can find expression of what’s really on their minds.
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): Let’s start with how you got to the Czech Republic. Can you share the story behind your life there?
David Fisher (DF): I first moved to Prague after I finished university in Scotland in February 1990. I had been studying philosophy so I wasn’t on a career path. The idea was to travel a bit and try teaching to see how I liked it (both my parents were teachers.) I liked it very much indeed and stayed in Prague teaching in language schools and later translating too. I hadn’t specifically targeted Prague, I had a general goal of getting a job in Eastern Europe or Spain. The first concrete offer came from Prague and I have been there ever since.
SCET: You are a professional actor – have you always wanted to become one? What do you like about being on stage? On the other hand, are there any drawbacks to your job?
DF: I never intended to become a professional actor either. It is a classic case of a hobby becoming a job. I never went to acting school, it actually took a long time before I had the courage to actually say ‘I am an actor’. But the fact is that if you do anything long enough and you have any kind of natural ability for it, you will eventually become quite good.
However, in my heart I am still very much an English teacher more than an actor. I value teaching above acting as a profession, although I love acting in evening theatre as a hobby. The theatre I run, ‘The Bear Educational Theatre’ specialises in using theatre to help students learn. I find this a lot more worthwhile than ‘just’ being an actor playing in evening theatre or films.
The drawbacks to being a professional actor are never having job security, always going to castings and hoping somebody else likes you. Then your influence on the show you are in is limited, you can easily end up in terrible projects just because you need the work. Finally I get very frustrated by long rehearsal processes. I always think there is so much more I could be doing with my time. That is why I am not just an actor.
SCET: Out of all the movie projects and theatre performances you have played in, which one is your favourite and why? Which one is your least favourite?
DF: Linking to the answer above, I find our educational shows the most satisfying to play in. Educational theatre will never have the respect and prestige that top evening theatres have, but doing it well is much more of an art. Creating a magical atmosphere in a theatre with professional lighting, music, sets all kept in the same place is easy. We try to do it at 8.30 a.m. in a school canteen with a group of e.g. 14 year olds, in a foreign language, using the contents of two suitcases. When that works, as it usually does, it feels like a real achievement.
However, I have also been very lucky to play in big Hollywood films and in professional Shakespeare productions in theatres. Stand out memories from these are the film ‘A Knight’s Tale’ where I had scenes with Heath Ledger, and another film where I got to play (very briefly indeed) with Anthony Hopkins. In the theatre the highlight was playing the big part of Kent in King Lear in Houston Texas, with only two days to prepare! My least favourite experience was on a student film. Nobody knew what they were doing, it took a long time, and the end result was terrible.
SCET: As a founder and director of the Bear Educational Theatre, you specialise in performing educational shows in English in various schools. What is the story behind the concept of uniting theatre and education? How did you get to this idea and when did it first occur to you?
DF: Theatre in Education is very widespread in England and although I had never done it or even seen it before I started here, the basic idea was always close to me as a teacher who liked theatre as a hobby. To be honest, in the beginning I produced educational shows as a hobby so that I could practice my skills as a then amateur actor. Since then though I have just kept going and going because the project has been so worthwhile. I could talk for a long time about the benefits of drama in education and it is one of my goals in life now to bring more drama or ‘physicality’ into classrooms.
SCET: In what way can drama in general improve one‘s English language skills? Apart from motivating them, how can students of English benefit from attending your performances?
DF: Drama should be a central part of learning a language because in real life words are just one part of a communication process that is mostly physical. I like to use the example that when people talk on the phone they gesticulate, grimace, walk around … Why? The other person can’t see them? The fact is that moving and various forms of physicality are natural in the process of creating language.
It is unfortunate that in our classrooms language becomes a passive theoretical subject as we try to prepare students to get through written exams. A lot of the talking that takes places is just from talking heads and that is a shame. I think that movement, gestures, making faces are natural to the process of making language and can only help the learning process.
Our performances are short (one hour on average) and so the impact on an individual’s life is of course limited, but the main benefits are… motivation. The shows are fun, students enjoy them and so leave a show feeling good about English as a subject and about their own ability to understand the language. On top of that, we teach certain specific points of grammar or ‘maturita’ topics through our shows. Teaching like this, through a theatre show, makes the subject matter more memorable for students and makes life easier for teachers when they come to teach the points again in the classroom.
SCET: Where do you find inspiration for the plays? Since the first idea until the very first premiere, what does the process of the whole performance creation look like?
DF: It is difficult to say. We have several detective based shows as they are always popular. I have always been a big fan of Agatha Christie. Now we also have a number of shows on maturita topics. Generally, I try to think of what may be interesting or useful for a specific age group.
As for the writing process, I usually have a basic idea for a story and then maybe a number of games or jokes that I want to work into the show. Then when the mood is ready (or the deadline) I just start writing. For example, years ago I had the idea that there could be aliens who make specific grammar mistakes and the students have to recognise which characters are aliens by recognising the grammar mistakes. I thought this was a really good idea for a show, but I didn’t actually write the show (The Alien Grammar Show) until about two years later. By that time I think I had consciously or subconsciously gathered a lot more material that filled out the final script.
When writing, I write a first version of the script pretty much as quickly as possible. I don’t worry at all if it is good or not or if there are gaps that I need to fill in. It is the first version, nobody is going to see it. Then after a while I will look at it again and start the process of changing it and filling in the missing bits. My feeling is that seeing the problems in something that isn’t very good, but which exists, is a lot easier to than trying to create something perfect out of nothing.
SCET: What have you learned from your experience as an actor?
DF: Acting isn’t as difficult people think it is. It is a lot about just being confident and comfortable on stage with people watching you. Also, it is a great skill to learn, especially for students, as it helps you feel confident in many other life situations too.
SCET: What motivates you to keep going during hard times?
DF: I believe very much in the intrinsic value of the theatre. I look at what we are doing and I always think to myself how The Bear Educational Theatre is simply a fantastic project and how lucky I am to be making my living doing something like this.
I used to have fantasies that one day, if I learned to manage the theatre really well, it could make a lot of money. That thought really helped me in the hard times. I now know that it isn’t true; the theatre is being managed well (not just by me, I should add) and there still isn’t much money left over. Theatres are just like that.
David Fisher is the founder and director of The Bear Educational Theatre, Prague. He has lived and worked in The Czech Republic since 1990. His theatre specialises in performing educational shows in English, directly in schools The aim is to entertain, but more importantly to motivate students in their English studies. David is also a professional actor and has played in several cinema and TV films including Dune, Joan of Arc and A Knight’s Tale.
Workshop: DRAMA ACTIVITIES FOR TEACHING GRAMMAR AND VOCABULARY
4 SKILLS/GR/VO/DRAMA – LOWER S/UPPER S – B1 – ALL TEACHERS
SATURDAY 13:15-14:15 in SYDNEY