Natasha Jovanovich interviews Dr. Paul Murray from Belgrade English Language Youth Theatre

This month, Natasha Jovanovich fromAngloland in Belgrade, Serbia kindly offered to organise the interview for our magazine.  She spoke to Dr. Paul Murray who runs theBelgrade English Youth Theatre (BelTheatre)  in Belgrade.  Through Natasha’s questions we find out more about BelTheatre and how drama and acting help improve English levels while taking off the pressure of formal language learning.


NJ: Hello Paul. Tell me something about yourself.

PM: I was born in Leamington Spa in Central Warwick
shire, England and in 2009 I graduated from the University of Winchester, Faculty of Arts U.K. with a PhD in Theatre. In 2004 I graduated from University of Warwick, Faculty of Drama U.K. with a Masters degree in Theatre, Education and Cultural studies and in 1989 I graduated from Bretton Hall, UK with a B.A. in Dramaturgy and Acting.

NJ: You run an ENGLISH LANGUAGE YOUTH THEATRE based in Belgrade, Serbia. Tell us more, please.

PM: I am the founder of the school and have worked as an actor, director and pedagogue.

BelTheatre is now in its eighth year of working in Belgrade. It is an artistic and educational organisation aiming to improve the confidence, creativity and language skills of children and young people aged 6 to 18 years of age.

Over the past eight years we have had the pleasure of teaching over 150 children and producing thirteen original productions. We have also arranged exchange visits to other countries including the UK, Czech Republic, Italy, Crotia, Belguim and Slovenia and have performed at festivals in Serbia.

As we continue to grow and develop, our aim is maintain our unique methods in order to make every participant feel valued and necessary to our current and future success.

NJ : When did you first come to Belgrade ?

PM : I first came to Belgrade in 2007. I came here under the invitation of an NGO called ‘Zdravo Da Ste’ in order to give a presentation at their annual meeting and from that moment I was attracted to the place and the people.

NJ: You told me the other day that you now consider Belgrade your home? You are just being English, right – i.e you are being polite?

PM: No, I am not just being polite J Before living in Belgrade the longest I had lived in any one house was three years, I have lived in the same house in Belgrade now for 8 years and it is definitely home.

NJ: How do you like it here? Did you find it difficult to adapt to the new ways?

PM: Like everywhere, there are good and bad points. One thing for sure is that for me it is rarely boring and that is the most important thing. I think that adapting to new and unfamiliar things helps keep us feeling young and creative: which are essential skills in my work.

NJ: Have you encountered any cultural differences in your drama groups approach to acting or in general?

PM : It is hard to say if there are any cultural differences, and I don’t like to look at things this way too much but perhaps some of the children here are a little more lively, or more open to express their emotions in some ways. I also think young people here tend to be more worldly-wise, somewhat ironically given the fact they have generally had less opportunity to travel than their English counterparts.

NJ: You’ve mentioned you sort of enjoy being a foreigner here because loads of people here speak very good English and are happy to do so. How come?

PM: I said it is easy to be a foreigner here because people speak good English and are welcoming.  I like being a foreigner generally because knowing that I don’t know the complexities of the culture or the language means I spend time observing other things that I would otherwise miss. It is said that the theatre audience remembers the words of the theatrical event less than the visual aspects of the show; I feel that I am in this mode for much of my time in Belgrade. It is a new way of seeing.

NJ: To your mind how are kids and teens different from those in the UK? Is there a striking difference do you think or do kids and teens tend to be the same everywhere?

PM: I don’t know if the kids are different in any other places, however the ones I have met in the places I have been are far more similar than different.

NJ: In what way do you think drama and acting in English help kids and teens learn and improve their English?

PM: Firstly, I am working only in English and do not have the option of conversing with them in Serbian. Secondly, what I am offering them is the chance to play. They will be able to play the game whatever their level of English. However, in order to be able to play the game most fully they need to be better at speaking English; this motivates them to learn. Also, there is no pressure from me to learn above and beyond for their own benefit, there are no tests, curricula, no levels, competencies, no official pedagogic measures; I think this again takes the pressure off. One final strange thing is that when performing as an English-speaking on stage character one can pretend to speak English before one can actually speak English. I for example can be recognizable as French without knowing any French language. Performing English before knowing the language puts the language into perspective as being only a small part of our communication processes. Again, this takes the pressure off children to know before they try.

NJ: From what I have gathered, two prominent names in ELT have contributed to ELT in this way: Susan Hillyard, born in Liverpool and based in Argentina, and Ken Wilson, who has written plays, radio and TV programmes and countless other supplementary ELT titles. There has been some academic research on the use of drama in ELT by Paul Davies, to name but one. It is interesting that you are doing this because there is no ELT involved as such which I dare say might be a good thing because there is no element of ‘teaching the language as such’ in it, as you have rightly said above. While we were talking about this, I was thinking that there might even be some similarities between Lexical Approach in ELT developed by Michael Lewis and the way kids and adults seem to be picking up English while playing in a drama. I am unsure as to whether I can substantiate that though, but it is certainly well worth further research.

NJ: Tell us more about your trip to Bath, England this spring with a group of teenagers from your drama school.

PM: We were invited by The Egg (the youth arts section of the Theatre Royal in Bath) to come and perform a show and work with their youth theatre members. We travelled with ten of our members, aged between 15 and 16, and stayed in Bath for four days. It was a great experience for us all and gave the young people a chance to practise their language and performance skills in front of a native speaking audience for the first time. I was amazed by how they responded and how much they seemed to develop their skills in such a short period of time (I think it was to do with confidence).

NJ: Who writes the script/scenarios for the classes and performances?

PM: More often than not the plays are written in collaboration between the group and me, with the ideas coming from us all. Occasionally we will do a play that already exists or commission a play, as we did for Bath, by an English playwright which suits the particular needs of the group at that time.

NJ: Do kids and teens get to practise and rehearse the classics such as Shakespeare and Moliere first, or do you have another approach to drama/theatre techniques?

PM: I have used some classic texts in class and they can be very interesting of course, but at this stage in their educational career I don’t think these classics are always the most effective way of learning how to act in or speak English. There is a lot of time required to decipher these texts and one falls into the danger of it being a class of text analysis rather than acting.

NJ: Who is your favorite playwright?

PM: Bertolt Brecht.

NJ: Is there any selection criteria as to who can join the drama classes?

PM: Age is the only selection criteria: we start with 6 year olds.

NJ: How old was your youngest or the oldest student ever?

PM:  My youngest student was 6.

NJ: Tell us about the ‘Improvathon’ and ‘19 Tiny Plays about Britain’ staged this June in Belgrade.

PM: The “Improvathon” was a 12 hour non-stop drama improvisation performed and arranged by the eldest group at BELT to raise money for their trip to Prague. The group themselves made refreshments, brought costumes, decorated the space and acted all through the day; it was most impressive, and set an unofficial world record for the longest drama improvisation in a foreign language. The 19 plays about Britain were performed by group 4 of the school; 14 and 15 year olds. These dialogues of roughly 2 minutes each were first published in The Guardian newspaper in the UK and have since proved very popular with young people as being ways of practising their characterization, accents (English regional accents) and stage craft. The texts are very versatile and contemporary and paint a picture of the UK which is by no means rose-tinted or romantic.

NJ : Any special Bel Theatre plans for next year or is it still early days?

PM: Always got some plans brewing! We are hosting a group from Rijeka in September and will do a return trip to their place in June 2016. We are also in contact with three other groups in Europe to try and arrange visits for each of our top four age groups.
I am delighted to announce that as part of our season of activities BelTheatre will be taking a group of young people from Belgrade to Antwerp in Belgium in May 2016 to perform a theatre show and take part in workshops with hosts from the  English Youth Theatre in Antwerp. We are in the early stages of this project and are just starting making plans

NJ: Any tips for budding actors and actresses or promising performers with loads of hidden potential out there who might be too shy to give it a go?

PM: A huge number of people tell me that they would love to act or they wish they could try it. We have classes for adults and children alike so if you feel the urge just get in touch.  The classes are in Belgrade, Serbia.

Interview with Dr. Paul Murray by Natasha Jovanovich from Angloland, ELT professional, Belgrade, Serbia.


Many thanks to Natasha and Paul for taking the time to do this interview for us!