In Grammelot: The Wisdom of Gibberish

Many theatre teachers get students going with text as soon as they can in the year.  I don’t. I work first with the picture, then the body, and finally with speech, before text.  I tend to restrict dialogue in early scenes to two or three lines or sound effects, preferring that my students focus on behavior. Then  I introduce gibberish.

I taught a great day of gibberish yesterday. I knew it was great because the students said goodbye to me at the end of class. They do that when they’ve had fun.  I laid it out as follows.

WARMUPS

It was Friday, so we start with the game we always play on Fridays, Bibbety Bibbety Bop, also known as Bibbety Bop. I have a Friday game because it’s something I don’t have to think about, it basically covers all bases, and the students thrive on routine and tradition. If you don’t already, and you’re having issues with either focus or class culture in your classroom, please consider creating a routine warmup with which you begin every day, or the practice of the warmup. Clapping, a tongue twister, any energy circle, toss around a ball.  The kids love a good classroom practice like we love a good yoga practice. It is comforting and unifying.

BIBBETY BIBBETY BOP

Bibbety Bibbety Bop is a game where students stand in a circle and one student ( or sometimes we play with up to three students simultaneously) has to walk up to someone in the circle and say “Bibbety Bibbety Bop.” The student who is being addressed must say “bop” before the first student is done speaking, or they are now out, or rather in the circle, and the first student gets to take their spot. You then add on caveats, rules and mods as follows:

  • BOP- If the first student says “Bop”, the second student cannot say anything. If they do, they are now in.
  •  JELLO- The first student can also point at someone and say “Jello” and then begin counting to ten. The person they point to must shake like jello, and the students on either side of that person must place their arms around the person, becoming “the bowl.” If any of the three fails to do this by ten, they are in.
  • ELEPHANT- The first student points to someone who must now place their arm in front of their face, cradled by their other arm, making the trunk of the elephant. The people on either side become “ears”.
  • AIRPLANE- Person in the middle makes the ok sign with both hands, flips them up on her face to become goggles. Side people become wings. Everyone makes an airplane noise.

You can look up endless variations of this online. You can make your own.

ABC

From some brilliant improv teacher somewhere. Students grab a partner.  This won’t work with a group of three, so you may need to play.

Person 1: A

Person 2: B

Person 1: C

Person 2: A

Person 1: B

Person 2: C.

Once they get that going, tell person 1 to change “A” to a nonsense sound. Like: “Blargh!” or “Lololololo!” or whatever they do.

Now it goes:

Person 1: Kaching!

Person 2: B

Person 1: C

Person 2: Kaching!

Person 1: B

Person 2: C.

Now B adds a nonsens sound, so you get:

Person 1: Kaching!

Person 2: Splerk!

Person 1: C

Person 2: Kaching!

Person 1: Splerk!

Person 2: C.

And then you replace C, so you end up with:

Person 1: Kaching!

Person 2: Splerk!

Person 1: Greooooow!

Person 2: Kaching!

Person 1: Sperk!

Person 2: Greooow!

They love it, the are now warmed up vocally a bit, and feeling fancy.

1-10

Have them tell their first partner that they’ll never forget them, and then have them get a new partner. If you have TA’s, use them when people have trouble finding partners.

Have them count, alternating, 1-10.

Then tell them to do it again like they’re having an increasingly funny conversation. Now like they’re having an increasingly frustrating conversation. Now like they’re getting real sad, or really into each other, or whatever.

Then have them create a scene using these numbers as dialogue where two people interact. The numbers should go in order but don’t have to alternate. One person can say “1,2,3” and the next “4” and so on. Give them five minutes. Tell them to sit when they are done. Walk around the room and notice the strong ones. Ask them to volunteer as tribute.

Watch 3 to 5 of these scenes. Ask students what they noticed. then talk to the students about subtext, what’s behind a piece of dialogue. There’s no “right way” to say a line. Pick up an object.

GIBBERISH

Without skipping a beat, transition into gibberish. Don’t explain it first, because if you do, it becomes awkward. Just, you know, go from “Make sense, everybody? To “Squakalinga verbochylla. Locky fee fie, cha si morunga twa.” And hold up the object. Give it a gibberish name. It’s best if it’s an object like a ball, that does stuff. Address a student, the one who’s the most likely to humor you. “Spee ba fro rocka? La rocka”, indicating the ball. If they don’t say “La rocka,” continue on until you find someone who does, and then ask more kids, and toss them the ball, and get everyone to call the ball “La rocka” or whatever, and then stop and ask them what language you were speaking.

You weren’t, they will say. What you said didn’t make sense. Then ask  how did they know what to call the ball? They will say  you demonstrated, you repeated it, you held it up.

Tell them that the language is a special language for theatre, that it is called gibberish.  You may also add that it dates back to the 16th century, when it was called grammelot by the Commedia Del Arte performers who used it to mimic the vernacular of whatever country they were performing in so that audiences could understand the performance, and also so avoid the censorship of the Church. Great into if you’re doing a Commedia unit.

TEACHING OR SELLING

Ask them to take their original 1-10 partner and grab another partnership, making a group of four, and come up with a scene where someone is either TEACHING people to do something or SELLING something.

The scene can be short, English can be used for brand names or money (give the example of a soccer announcer, for instance, speaking Spanish and then saying “Nike” or “Facebook”.

Give them about 10-15 minutes, give each scene a number, then watch the scenes. Ask them what they noticed.  This is a formative assessment among many others exploring voice.

SPECIAL ISSUES WITH GIBBERISH

The school I teach at, Cupertino High School, is a school where most of the students are bilingual. There are usually between 5 and 20 other languages understood by students in any given classroom. Therefore, students, particularly immigrants, may feel uncomfortable with gibberish, either because they have experienced negativity around issues of learning English or speaking accented English, or because they may feel they are mocking a relative, culture, or heritage. Since my students have previously done an assignment called A Moment From Life where they were encouraged to speak their language of origin in a naturalistic scene from their own lives,  they hopefully feel a bit more comfortable with language by this point, but maybe not.

Get this all out on the table. On your side to help you are the teacher from Charlie Brown, Beaker from the Muppets, Boomhauer on King of The Hill, and the Minions from Despicable Me. Gibberish is speech without speech and is designed to help the audience understand and free the performer from having to think. It is a unifier, not a divider.

If you haven’t already had the stereotypes talk in your classroom, every drama teacher’s is different. Mine is basically this. When you’re doing theatre, use your powers for good. If you want to use ethnicity, race, or gender as a factor in character, check with your group members. If you are an audience member and you feel frustrated by a particular portrayal, it’s ok to say something. If you don’t feel comfortable saying something, it’s ok to tell the teacher and have the teacher say something.

This opens the door for students to be able to portray the people around them and to bring their experiences from their homes and their countries of origins into the classroom, instead of drama class being the land of the homogenous.  It’s not perfect all the time, and it requires courageous conversations, but it makes for happier kids and better theatre to allow them to play, argue, and grow in an environment where their voices are heard.