January 24, 2022

by Lee Ann Etzold, Wilma Theater Portable Studio Program Director 

Learning a new language as an adult is not easy. It requires practice, focus, and dedication. But what can help inspire that learning is creativity and a strong community. 

For a couple of years, the Wilma Theater’s Portable Studio – which offers free theater programming and classes for adults – has partnered with the Philadelphia libraries’ Conversation Circles to provide English language learning through storytelling.  

The Conversation Circles led by the Portable Studio make practicing English fun and inspiring, strengthening human connection and sharing culture. 

I am proud to announce that this year, the Wilma’s Portable Studio has received a $16,000 PA SHARP grant from Pennsylvania Humanities, which will allow us to expand this impactful programming, in partnership with the Free Library’s Languages and Learning Center. 

This state grant, which is funded by the American Rescue Act of 2021, will allow even more people the opportunity to build confidence in speaking English while meeting other international adults in a casual learning environment. 

Through the program, curious library users experience the Wilma’s productions for free and explore storytelling, movement, and collaborative creation with other artists from around the city. 

While the circles remain virtual for now, we have forged strong connections. Some participants join us virtually from as far away as Iran, staying up late, or getting up early to account for differing time zones.  

I find that what truly makes this programming special is that participants are invited to bring their whole selves — sharing their culture’s traditions, performance practices, and individual stories.  

I believe that when we are invited to express our true selves, we deepen our connection to the English Language and to each other.  

I also cannot forget I live in a Sanctuary City, and I believe this approach to programming welcomes new Philadelphians and creates access to our city’s unique arts community with care.  

Along with celebrating a diversity of cultures, we have explored a diversity of creative forms. Together we have learned how poetry, acting, and physical storytelling unlocks language learning and human connection.  

Questions we ask include the following: 

  • How does a poem feel when we move along with the rhythms of the words?  
  • Do scenes from a play remind us of a scene from our own life?  
  • How do the idioms we use really express what we feel and think? 

One of our participants shared that the Conversation Circles are “…a different way to learn, because you use corporal expression that makes you learn at another level of conscience. Also, it allows you to connect with others in class.”  

Time and again, I am left in awe of the courage it must take to express oneself among a group of strangers, in a language that is not your own and then generously stay in conversation about the art, challenging ideas, riffing on themes.  

I am so thankful for this reminder to stay curious and brave. 

Learn more about these Conversation Circles and other Portable Studio programming here. 

The next Conversation Circle begins online on March 8. Please join us by clicking here, or share this link with someone who would benefit from this programming. 

Funding has been provided by PA Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.