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Learning By Performing—in Spanish

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Holly Irvin tackled her first theater role in March, playing Figaro, a mustached barber, in a Federico García Lorca play.  Embodying a male character was no problem for the UW senior, but learning her lines presented challenge—especially since all those lines were in Spanish.

Irvin was one of 15 students in SPAN 449: Spanish Play Production, offered by Spanish and Portuguese Studies(SPS). In one academic quarter, students analyze a play, rehearse it, build sets and design costumes for it, and finally perform it for the community. This year, the class presented the Lorca play for three nights at the Cabaret Theater in UW’s Hutchinson Hall. “It’s such a unique way to practice your Spanish,” says Irvin. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

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Joshua Chessin-Yudin, as the romantic bohemian Cocoliche in Federico García Lorca's play Los títeres de Cachiporra, shared the stage with Mimi Santos De la Cruzadmires, playing his adored Doña Rosita. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Anna Witte, who teaches the course, is a lecturer in SPS with a background in theater. She finds that performing in Spanish is a remarkably effective way for students to study a work of literature closely while honing their language skills. “They learn the nuances of the language because they are working on phrases over and over,” says Witte. “It’s like no other class in that you have to be accurate in your pronunciation and delivery, including intonation. You have to put emotion behind the words where it belongs. You get to livethe language. It’s a total immersion experience.”

Witte’s first task in teaching the course is choosing an appropriate play.  There are many factors to consider, from the number and range of parts offered to the difficulty of the vocabulary, which should be challenging but manageable. And then there’s the play’s entertainment value, both for the performers and audiences. Simply put, it should be fun.

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Lyuda Kim as Mosquito—master of ceremonies and mischievous spirit. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

Lorca’s Los títeres de Cachiporra (The Billy-Club Puppets) fit all of Witte’s requirements. The play features dozens of characters—some students played multiple small roles—and its broad comedy allows students to ham it up. Featuring romantic escapades, puppetry, buffoonish bar fights, and dancing, the play “set such a fun tone for the class,” says Irvin. “We all knew that we had to be overly dramatic and goofy, so it was easy to laugh freely in class.”

The Lorca play also features songs, allowing talented singers in the class to shine. Witte didn’t just cross her fingers and hope for students with singing ability; she auditioned students in small groups prior to the class to assess their skills and commitment to the project. She also asked about other talents they might have, such as dancing or puppetry. While Witte has a play in mind each year before auditions, she has a second option ready in case the first choice doesn’t mesh with students’ skills. (Lorca’s play was her first choice this year—no substitution needed.)

“The audition process is very informal, but I need to ensure that students understand the effort and time commitment required,” says Witte. “And a certain language level is of course a prerequisite for participation.  Everyone will have their moment on stage, or in the case of the stage manager, will work very closely with the text.”

At the start of the quarter, the class dives right into the chosen play, starting with a table reading that helps acquaint students with the material. Witte shares information about the play’s time period, context, and vocabulary. “I have to explain certain ironies so they get the humor,” says Witte. “I’m still explaining things through the ninth week of the quarter, such as how their intonation can suggest subtle differences in meaning.”

You get to live the language. It’s a total immersion experience.

Witte has been consistently impressed with the students’ dedication, particularly as rehearsals pick up toward the end of the quarter. She recalls one student last year who recorded all rehearsals so that she could listen to her pronunciation and improve it. “As the quarter went on, she could hear how much she had improved,” says Witte. “By the end, she was fabulous.” Those sorts of gains are not unusual. “All the students make incredible headway,” says Witte. “Their vocabulary just explodes.”

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Salvador Gómez donned extra padding to play Don Cristobita, Doña Rosita's brutish suitor and Cocoliche's rival. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

After all their hard work, the students are excited to perform for the public at the end of the quarter—even those students who start the quarter requesting small parts and minimal time onstage. “Their attitude changes once they start rehearsing and having fun,” says Witte. “By the end, they really want to be on stage.” This year’s three performances were sold out, with audience members ranging from the performers’ family and friends to local high school Spanish teachers and their students. Even audience members with minimal or no Spanish skills enjoyed watching the production.

“While there were times when I was a bit confused about what exactly was happening, the cast made up for it,” comments UW senior Valeria Koulikova in a blog post about the play. Although her understanding of Spanish is limited, Koulikova reports that she was charmed by the production, whose  actors “approached the play in a fun and at times exaggerated manner, filling the stage with over-the-top movements and emotions, not letting me take my eyes off the performance.” She concludes, “It was so memorable that I still can’t get one of the catchy songs out of my head!”

That’s great news for Witte and her students. The satisfaction of a successful production is just one reason why Witte continues to teach the course despite its heavy time demands. Next year she will teach the class through a special study abroad program at the UW León Center in León, Spain, with students first translating an American play into Spanish and then performing it in a theatre in León.

“During the final weeks before opening night I always doubt I’ll have the energy to do this again because it’s so exhausting," admits Witte. “But then I see the joy of students doing something they didn’t think they could do this well, especially in Spanish. They’re ecstatic about what they’ve done. It’s so satisfying.  And I start thinking about what play to stage next.”