Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ulpan Drama: Playing's the thing.

Yom chamishi, 1 Iyar 5771.

Two of my Raise Your Spirits heroines, Avital Macales and Yael Valier, are the talented Ulpan Drama instructors.
Let's see now...  A chance to work closely with two of my "stage idols"...  An opportunity to learn Hebrew in the form of play...   A once-a-week requirement to hang out with ladies I like.  That sounded like a great plan.  So I signed up for eight weeks of Ulpan Drama, yet another brainchild of Dena Lehrman of Efrat.

Dena opened her home for our Ulpan Drama session.
Dena is an occupational therapist who for the past five years has worked with teachers, students and their parents to improve organizational and learning skills.

 I was privileged to encounter Dena shortly after my family's aliyah.  She arranged for the talented Yaron Shane to teach our children a thing or two about film-making.  It was a great introduction for then-15-year-old Stunt Man to the world of Hebrew, and a pretty good outlet for his creative talents.

I asked Dena what inspired her to come up with the Ulpan Drama concept.

"The past two years I've been running a workshop getting students ready for high school," she said.  "We noticed that even [many of] the kids who had been in Israel for a while and 'spoke Hebrew'...had a weak vocabulary and had a hard time expressing themselves."

I asked her how she came up with the idea.  "I try to be an out-of-the-box thinker and approach students with my 'hands on' style as an OT. Ulpan Drama seemed like a natural offshoot.

"We started brainstorming about how we could use drama and role playing to facilitate Hebrew development. I thought of 'playback theater,' which really forces the participants to reinact real life situations. From all the research on language development, it seems that there is a greater chance to remember and file away new words more efficiently if they are learned in a real, experiential way. It also helps to decrease some of the stress and tension when learning by acting, as opposed to more traditional frontal learning."

 This sounded like a perfect venue for me to try to improve my Hebrew.  Even though I am terrified to be "on stage," I found this technique to be much more fun than it was threatening, mostly due to the small group size, the warmth and patience of the instructors, and the support of my fellow players.

Did we have fun, or what?!  Avital and Yael gave us many and varied opportunities to practice thinking on our feet in Hebrew during each session.

They would give us a tzena -- a scene -- to play out, with some key word or phrase that must be incorporated.  For example, two of us played trainees to a third's surgeon.  We learned many new words, and practiced inserting those we already knew into unlikely moments.  (How many times could one say "I've never done that before" in an inappropriate place during an autopsy to elicit laughter, especially when her partner kept asking "When do we eat?")

Another scene should have been perfectly ordinary: how to ask an exterminator to help rid the house of cockroaches and ants.  We learned many useful words -- but we also learned of a creative approach to natural extermination, as Heather had us doing a "La Kukarača" tap-dance to help her crush the little buggers...

Our teachers would give us objects to describe -- and none of us could resist offering completely new uses for household items.

Try describing your unique use for disposable plastic gloves in Hebrew.

Some of the ideas for using a towel were pretty creative -- and funny.

What you see as a rug beater became a fly-swatter for mutant flies, or a piece of jewelry, or...
If we didn't know the word for "fly-swatter" in Hebrew, our fearless leaders did, and taught us.  They gave us characters to portray, sometimes in scenes with others, sometimes with secret character traits for the others to guess at.

I didn't get pictures, but one of my favorite exercises caused me to end up doing a Broadway musical with Sandra.  We were quite smashing.  And ridiculous.  :-)
What an actress!  When Hannah Sara is sad, the whole world cries with her.

One of my deepest and most annoying roles was as "kinim" -- lice -- which were invited (?) to a Pesach Seder.  "Yecch!" was the classic review of my performance.  Score!!!

The body language delighted me as much as the dialog.
Yael and Avital asked us to describe objects or events so that the supportive audience -- hey, they were going to be "on stage" next! -- could guess.

Each time we learned new words, Avital or Yael would dutifully mark them on a whiteboard; and we would get an email with all of our new words, and their translations.

My pile of flashcards grew...
...and GREW...
...and GREW!  By the time the eight weeks ended, I really had learned a lot of words...  because I lived them.
These ladies were so talented, it did not surprise me to learn that most of them involve themselves in Raise Your Spirits, or in Dames of the Dance.  By the time our classes ended, I wanted everyone's autograph!

Dena sums up Ulpan Drama:  "Baruch Hashem it's been a wonderful experience both for the participants as well as for the three of us running the project. It's been great to see how the participants gained confidence and started to integrate new words into their everyday lives. As you know, it was also a lot of fun!"

Thanks Dena, Yael, and Avital.  Thanks Sandra and Heather and Meira and Hannah Sara and Shimona and Zahava.  I had a great time!

More sessions of Ulpan Drama are coming up or are in progress.  Contact Dena at 054 942 5600 or at  for more information about classes with Yael and Avital for women and girls, or to register.

Yael Valier received her BA in Psychology from YU, and her MSW from Bryn Mawr's Clinical Social Work program. She has further professional training in grief counseling through Nechama Counseling. Yael has experience teaching stage skills, interview skills and public speaking to teenagers and adults. She acts with the Raise Your Spirits Theater, for whom she has also written, and has also acted with two Playback theater companies – the Hebrew-speaking Dance-Playback group Na'na for women, and the English-speaking Playback Hamra. Yael has enjoyed the challenge of translating songs from Hebrew to English for bilingual movies. She currently works in voice-overs and sells her educational science album on her website Tremendous Earth when she isn't working at her day-job doing background searches in patents. Yael has six sons who keep her amused.

Avital Macales studied Hebrew Language at Bar Ilan University and is currently completing an advanced editing course at Efrata College. She is an experienced actress and singer, including playing the lead role in Sandcastles, a feature film which was screened all over Israel in 2009. A resident of Efrat, Avital recently appeared in her third Raise Your Spirits production, Judge!, as the bold heroine Yael. Avital did her national service in Tehilla, the aliyah organization, helping English-speaking children acquire Hebrew in fun and creative ways. Avital made aliya from California when she was two years old. She has six sisters and therefore has a soft-spot for young girls, enjoying having fun with them and teaching them important skills painlessly through the things she does best.

1 comment:

sparrow said...

Enough! I'm making Aliyah TOMORROW! What a complete hoot this must have been. As a former drama teacher, I really "get" this kind of language teaching. How fantastic. More pictures and more stories please!