A Journey of Language Acquisition through Broadway
By Kara Seigal
“What does Gloriosky mean?” Mateo asked me. Gloriosky? How do I explain a term typically used in older vaudeville Broadway shows and movies? How do I contextualize this for a Peruvian student with zero reference to this type of genre? These are the kinds of questions that I would blindly answer as I, along with 20 to 30 Peruvian students, perused through the adapted scripts of the 1960’s Baltimore-based Hairspray, the mythic Aladdin, the fantastical story of Wicked, and most recently, the contemporary show Waitress, based somewhere in the American South. My challenge always remained the same; how to adequately explain the language and subtext of Broadway shows to native Spanish speakers from a country that is generally unfamiliar with most of the thematic constants from classic American Broadway shows.
I fell in love with Perú when I visited as a teenager with my best friend and her family. Everything was beautiful to me at the time – the food, the topography, the culture, and most prominently, the people. There was no doubt in my mind that I would end up there at some point in my life. I studied in Perú several times as an undergraduate at New York University and subsequently moved to Lima after graduation.
With a background in music and a degree in Latin American studies, I longed to return to performing arts after a few years ofworking in the tourism industry. After teaching several summers at a musical theatre summer program through The University of Chicago Laboratory School, I realized just how much I loved working with kids on musicals. It occurred to me during those summers that teaching through musical storytelling could cultivate English language learning in a unique and engaging way for young people.
After leaving the tourism industry, I began teaching music at the bilingual Hiram Bingham School in Lima. Soon after, I asked to develop a musical theatre program to put it to the test. The school was gracious enough to give me a chance and the results convinced me that this kind of language immersion could indeed be successful. Confident in my results, I developed my own performing arts company called Spotlight.
A show takes students out of their normal everyday lives and places them into a story. A story is a fun way for young people to learn language, and acting out the story further helps them to understand meaning. When they come across phrases, dialects, and unfamiliar cultural contexts, acting serves to internalize the meaning. I have taught English over the years in a formal setting and this, by far, has been the most immersive and effective way to teach language and to maintain the attention span of young people.
One of my biggest obstacles was having my students truly understand what they were saying or singing. Musical theatre is a challenging art form. Integrating singing, acting and dancing at the same time is no easy feat, not to mention the added challenge of doing it all in a language that is not your own. To help bridge the gap, one exercise I implemented was having the students use only their bodies to convey meaning. For example, in the show Wickedwe had our lead actresses physically express songs before adding in the lyrics. They had to emote the song without the words in such a way that the audience, meaning their teachers and fellow students, had to be able to understand each piece through their expressions alone. Only after they were successful in wordlessly conveying the meaning of the song did we integrate the lyrics. These types of exercises forced them to internalize the meaning of the words instead of just repeating memorized lines.
This was hard work for the students, but that was my job, to make them fully understand everything that they were saying. They had to interpret in a way that made it their own, while staying true to the genre and time period. Emoting and reacting to someone else’s expressions makes acting more than just a sequence of words to memorize.
Without a doubt, this has been the most rewarding job I have ever had. I am constantly in complete awe of my students; jaw open, eyes full of tears. They are exceptionally talented, kind-hearted, and compassionate. They have made me a better teacher (and human) in more ways than I can count. Watching them develop not only their musical theatre skills, but their language skills as well, fills me with a tremendous sense of pride.
Don’t they say that the best way to memorize a list of words is to turn it into a song? Well, we’re taking it two steps further by turning an entire language into a song, a story,and a dance.
Kara Seigal is the Founder and Artistic Director of Spotlight Perú, a performing arts company based in Lima, Perú. Her company provides advanced musical theatre training and English language acquisition to youth in Lima. Spotlight brings guest actors, dancers, and vocalists to workshop with students, in addition to facilitating a performing arts exchange program with students from the Chicago area.