Get to Know a Teacher - Elena Pnevmonidou

Elena Pnevmonidou

Germanic and Slavic Studies assistant professor Elena Pnevmonidou talks to Stephanie Harrington about her course Performing German Drama, which was recently staged on Dec. 7 and 8 at Merlin’s Sun Home Theatre in Fairfield.

Congratulations on the success of the German Enlightenment play Nathan der Weise. Could you explain the premise of the course GMST 488 Performing German Drama?

Beyond serving as the platform for a German student theater group, the course provides an educational framework that creates bridges in two directions: bridging, on the one hand, the divide between theatre history and performance, and, on the other hand, the divide between language learning and cultural production. The course aims to give language students of all levels the opportunity to engage meaningfully with culture and literature in the original German and to do so at as sophisticated a level as possible.

In language courses, the focus is typically on the day-to-day lived culture of a society, its mores and customs. Cultural, literature and film studies courses, by contrast, deal with culture writ large, which encompasses literature, cultural and artistic movements, aesthetic theory, the history of ideas etc. There is a real gap between these two conceptions of culture, and language students do not have many opportunities to access that aesthetic dimension of culture in the original German, or they have to reach an advanced level of language competency before they can do so. I wanted to narrow this gap, and I developed the theater course on the basis of my firm belief that even beginner level language students can engage meaningfully and productively with capital “C” culture in the original German.

The goal is for students to develop collectively a staging concept for a German play that has a strong academic grounding in the research of the relevant culture, theatre and performance history and to have a production process that relies on the intense collaboration among students of diverse academic backgrounds and levels of German language competency. The disparate levels of German competency can be accommodated in the course because of the bilingual learning environment, and because of the reliance on peer teaching, collaborative learning and drama pedagogy, which enables students to move beyond the passive assimilation of foreign course content and to become actively engaged as creative producers of culture. 

It is challenging enough to teach a language as difficult as German to students with varying levels of fluency. To organize an entire theatre production on top of that is incredible. How did you manage this feat from a pedagogical perspective?

Organizing a theatre production in a difficult foreign language with students who for the most part do not have theatre experience is indeed a challenge. This is the fourth time I have taught the course and staged a German play, and each time I have made the same remarkable experience: The opportunity to engage creatively with the language and culture, to take ownership of it by putting it on stage is so immensely empowering for students that they all, without exception, are willing to put in the work it takes to realize our collective creative project.

And this year the students worked especially hard. Lessing’s Nathan der Weise is a massive play that needs a lot of trimming and arranging before it can be performed, and the play is written in a sophisticated stylized German which would be challenging even for 18th century German speakers.

My pedagogical approach relied heavily on drama pedagogy and on collaborative and peer-assisted learning, for example by giving the advanced German students and the German practicum student the role of peer teachers who assist their junior peers with language and dialect coaching. The casting itself was also designed to enable the students to support each other during the performance. The play is about overcoming religious and cultural prejudice through reason and the discovery of our shared humanity. Most characters in the play do overcome their prejudices, except for one, the character of Nathan’s Christian servant, Daja. For two of the beginner-level German students we developed a creative solution that was both practical, giving them a chance to support each other, and symbolic, enabling us to connect this 18th century play to our troubled times today: Since Daja remains firmly anchored in her prejudices, she is a personification of the unenlightened public. In our production, we amplified that by having Daja played by two actors, the “Dajas” who speak in unison. And because she doesn’t really think for herself and only speaks in ready-made prejudices and clichés, we created “fake news” tabloids inside which the actors kept their script and were able to read from it quite demonstrably during the performance.

For the other students learning the script by heart had to be supported emotively and kinaesthetically. Research in psycholinguistics has proven that memorization of vocabulary is more effective if it can be attached to bodily gestures. If I make the gesture of raising a glass while memorizing the verb “to drink,” not only will I memorize it more quickly, but the vocabulary will also be stored in my long term memory and be imprinted in a more lasting way. For the production, this meant that we combed through the script line by line to figure out the emotional motivation of any given passage and then attached specific gestures to the words and their related emotional intentions.

I could see that, when the actors were struggling with the lines, they started by finding their emotional spaces and making the physical gestures, and then the words followed more or less naturally. It is with this method that one of our students accomplished the unimaginable: Performing the second largest role with only one semester of beginner level German training!

Why did you choose to stage a play about religious tolerance from the 12th century? How did you think it would resonant with students?

I chose to stage Lessing’s Nathan der Weise because of its urgent relevance. Nathan der Weise is celebrated as the most important tolerance play of the German Enlightenment. It is set in 12th century Jerusalem – a place and time of immense turmoil of the crusades and hostility driven by military imperialism on all sides, cultural prejudice and religious fanaticism. Lessing looks back to these truly dark ages through the hopeful lens of his values of Enlightenment, universal humanism, rationalism and tolerance.

Lessing’s 18th century critique of prejudice has lost none of its bite and, sadly, his utopian call for a tolerant humanity is still only but an ideal awaiting its realisation – except for in some pockets, in little corners where in the most unexpected of ways one human being encounters another. What miracle! With our production we wanted to tell the story of such an unexpected human encounter. We wanted to take our audience through the treacherous waters of ready-made opinions and modes of being, all the way to the edge of the precipice, to the almost-tragedy of Lessing’s dramatic poem – and then make the call to them to do their part towards building a better world.

What kind of feedback did you receive from students about simultaneously learning a language while staging a theatrical performance? How did the two things feed into each other?

The feedback I received from the students was very positive. The junior students feel much more confident about continuing to more advanced levels of German study, and the more advanced students are eager to go to Germany now.

All students agree that it was actually the theatrical performance that enabled them to work with the language at such a sophisticated level. Overall I would say their increased understanding of the German language cannot be measured purely in the number of new words or sentence structures they learned. The impact of this performative learning experience is rather on the level of the subtle intuitive understanding of the language they acquired and the confidence to express themselves that comes with that intuitive grasp. As the student Fiona Donnelly-Rheaume writes specifically in response to this question, “For me, it actually was very liberating when I could just let go and just let the German words spill out. They were Sittah's words and she spoke German, so in the end, the English words would have seemed less authentic. In the beginning I had the English words in my head when I spoke German, to help me try to evoke the intention behind her words, but then in the end I just refered to the German script; going back and forth to the English, just slowed down the process of ' finding' Sittah.”

What advice can you offer for others considering bringing experimental learning into their teaching repertoire?

Apart from the time and energy it takes to develop an experimental teaching approach, the most important advice I have is that experimental teaching cannot be done without the collaboration of the students. The pedagogy has to adapt itself to the capacities and talents of the students, not the other way around. Be prepared to change your pedagogical assumptions in the classroom and to adapt your approach spontaneously.

Do you have anything else to add about the process?

I would like to mention two more significant contributions to our process. One contribution came from the students of Shamma Boyarin’s course, Introduction to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which took place concurrently with my theatre course. His students, Jana Barkowsky, Isabelle Bennet, Rebeka Krest and Kiel Mausette, visited our course three times as peer-teaching consultants and really helped us unpack some of the core issues in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The other contribution came from two students in my course, one of whom has no background in German and the other only basic German knowledge. These two students have a music background though and developed a sound plot for the production, which gave additional definition to the characters on stage, punctuated crucial moments in the plot with an additional language, and also enabled us to expose the prejudices themselves as invisible-but-audible characters on stage. 

Check out photos from the performance on UVic Humanities.