The Blue Machinist: Incorporating theater into language pedagogy

The Blue Machinist / Синий слесарь. November 9th & 11th in the Torian Room. Starring the students of RUSN 311: Composition and Conversation and directed by Susanna Weygandt.

The Blue Machinist was first performed in 2007 in Moscow at the documentary drama venue, Teatr.doc. The playwright, Mikhail Durnenkov, is one of the most prolific writers of the pioneering New Drama / Novaia Drama movement. He had worked at a factory in Tol’iatti, “the Detroit of Russia”, before he moved to Moscow to study film and theatre. Some expressions and anecdotes that he recalls from his own experience in Tol’iatti appear in the dialogue. The setting of his play takes place in a contemporary factory (near Moscow), where several factory workers pass the time by composing haiku. The audience doesn’t see actions that drive a plot forward; rather, scenes from everyday life, including breaks in between factory shifts. This is characteristic of contemporary Russian and European plays written in the postdramatic style, or “after drama.” While there’s not much action or struggle in stage directions, there’s a lot of experimentation with language in the dialogue. The haiku that the playwright weaves into dialogue offer one example. Audience members had the choice of referring to English versions of the script (selected from New Drama: An Anthology, Columbia UP, 2019, eds. Weygandt and Hanukai). While my students’ performance was in Russian, the gestures of the student-actors and the accompanying soundtrack (featuring Deep Purple and Grimes) helped to convey meaning in the play. 

Memorization of Russian scripted dialogue is powerful in language learning. But when I incorporate rehearsal of a dramatic text into language class, the process is just as important as the result. According to the world-readiness standards of American Councils on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), students at the advanced level of second language acquisition should be able to summarize (pereskazat’) at least a paragraph length of Russian text that they read and hear. I see pereskaz asa pedagogical tool to use when performing dramatic scenes in Russian. At some moments when students struggled with some parts of their dialogue, I asked them to retell / pereskazat’ the main idea of that area of text. So students’ own Russian replaced some of the dialogue.

Susanna Weygandt, Department of Russian

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