All the world’s a stage: experimenting with greenscreen storytelling

This week we have a lovely post by Phoebe Graham, a HUP volunteer based in the UK who, (as you’ll see from the post) has been doing some very creative things with her green screen. 

To collect photographs is to collect the world – Susan Sontag

I have carried a certain fascination with the theatre for as long as I can remember. Something about the endless creative potential of an empty space, all the stories waiting to be told, ready to transport an audience through any measure of time and to every kind of place. The theatre as an artistic medium allows performer and spectator to transcend their own personal, social and geographic boundaries, and to see the world through someone else’s eye.

Since recently joining the Hands Up Project in August, I was particularly keen to see how the development of online technologies – another means of crossing geographical borders – can intersect with the art of drama and storytelling to encourage creativity and form intimate connections with our wonderful classes in Gaza.

Most recently, a number of volunteers, including myself, have been experimenting with the use of the greenscreen in storytelling, a tool which can be enabled when using Zoom (the greenscreen itself can be purchased easily and cheaply online). This technique has allowed me to gather images and tailor visually exciting backdrops for when I link up with my class. Until now, volunteers have been using ‘SlideShare’ as the main means of storytelling and showing images. The downside of this method is that the boxes which frame the storyteller and the class consequently shrink in size, which can hinder the interpersonal engagement of the story being told. As seen here, the facial expressions and the gestures of the volunteer can become obscured.

Phoebe 1

However, the greenscreen remedies this obscurity. With a visual backdrop, the volunteer is framed within the action of the story; the narrator is no longer separated from the narrative. This places the emphasis back onto their unique performance, creating an immersive experience of the tale for the students.

Phoebe 2

Over the past few weeks, I have experimented with different ways to incorporate the greenscreen into my lessons. I have found that, while it is a vibrant way to frame yourself within the world of the story, it suits certain styles of storytelling better than others.

When I have worked from picture stories, where all the essential narrative elements are contained within each image, I have found that the body of the volunteer can obstruct the main action of the story. While the greenscreen does allow the students to engage with my gestures, voice and facial expressions, it is still important to ensure that every visual element of the story is taken in, so that the students can align what they hear with what they see. With fear of blocking the story, I found I had to push myself to the side of the screen to make room for all the details in each picture. In the image below, you can see that I am blocking the face of the sleeping lion with his eyes closed, an integral aspect of the narrative, as the mouse is trying to get away with stealing the lion’s meat unnoticed! I wouldn’t have encountered this particular problem with SlideShare, as the storyteller is separated from the story pictures.

Phoebe 3

I tried to see if I could find a way to resolve this issue. I discovered a much more productive use of the greenscreen when I told a physical story. This is when the storyteller relates their tale with accompanying actions, while encouraging the students to copy these actions, embodying the movement, language and narrative for themselves. To do this, I downloaded a set of different backgrounds for the greenscreen (e.g. cloudy skies, a luscious green forest, the deep blue sea), which I would change as my story entered a new landscape against which I could perform. The versatility of the greenscreen means that an image switch is the equivalent of a set change. I could fluidly travel from place to place throughout my story with a single click; I could go from walking in a forest, to climbing a mountain, to swimming in the sea. As the greenscreen image merely acted as a backdrop, I gained the freedom to play around with movements within the proscenium arch of the laptop screen, whether left to right, zoomed in or out; the emphasis of the story was placed on the intimacy of my actions and expressions.

Phoebe 4

Phoebe 5

As well as real-life photographs found from the internet, I also incorporated drawings that the students made for the class, bringing their creativity into the process of storytelling. Here, I can be found relaxing on a beach sketched by my student, Maisoon (inspired by her ideal summer adventure), which acted as the final chapter of my physical story. This makes for an empowering use of the greenscreen for the students, as it places the storyteller into their imagined and valued artistic worlds.

Phoebe 6

The greenscreen can also be used in more general class interaction, especially to contextualise the volunteer when getting to know the students. In my first ever session with my weekly class, I introduced myself while showing a picture of my home in Devon which I projected behind me. I have also set myself against a photograph of Gaza, to the excitement and enthusiasm of another class I met recently. This personalised use of the greenscreen is an effective way to share each other’s home and heritage, as well as to establish a connection over land and sea almost as if you were really there with them, despite the geographical disparity.

Phoebe 7

The greenscreen can also just make for a nice general backdrop to reinforce the tone of the lesson, one which can be changed each week. For a session focusing on the story of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, I ensured that I used a colourful image as my backdrop, matching the animated and lively spirit of the story.

Phoebe 8

I am now very keen to explore how classes in Gaza can incorporate their own greenscreen for this year’s Hands Up Project Playwriting Competition. As we have seen, the greenscreen makes it quick and easy to gather and change sets, taking an audience to any place the storyteller wants to go, whether that’s into a photograph taken from far away, or into a picture designed and drawn by the students themselves. There’s a real innovative potential to be found in the combination of storytelling and the visual possibilities of the online greenscreen. I look forward to seeing how we can develop this creative tool into a vibrant facet of the Hands Up Project in the near future.


A feeling of missingness

All of us at the Hands Up Project are really pleased to welcome back our first ever volunteer, Alex Guzik after a long break from doing sessions. The reason for Alex’s absence has a name and he can be seen in the picture below. So congratulations Alex on the birth of your beautiful baby boy (also called Alex) and we are so glad to have you back…

alex baby

Alex says…
It has been nearly six months since I had my  last session with the Hands Up project. And I couldn’t even imagine how much one could miss these sessions.
This school year I was all ready and set for another session for a couple of times, but for some reason we didn’t manage to have any. Sahar, my Palestinian ‘sister’, is desperate to get all the necessary permissions and a reasonable connection. While Sahar is going through these difficulties, I was left behind feeling useless and falling slowly into despair. (Excuse such strong words, but it really did feel like this). I can do nothing to help Sahar -just wish her patience and luck.
One day I got an email from Nick asking for free volunteers. ‘Bingo! I’m the one!’ A message to Nick, day and time set. A few hours before the session started another message from Nick, that there would be two groups. ‘Wow! Challenge! Great!’
So there I was, sitting at the laptop, waiting for the girls to appear, feeling anxious as though I’ve never taught before.
The first smile and the first trouble. Guess what? Connection. I could not understand who was speaking, the picture froze, the sound disappeared, the girls’ screens kept going black and then came back. What happened next is coming in another  blog post.
But what I felt at the end of the session, was the strong feeling of have missed the entire experience, the happiness of getting back to our virtual zoom classroom and the feeling of still being a part of this great project.
Now I’m preparing for the coming session and looking forward to Sahar’s message giving  me good news!
Thank you for the opportunity, Nick!

Online sessions with very young learners

This week we have a post from, Dalya Saleh, a teacher of English at Mamonia Elementary co-ed “A” school, Gaza about her online sessions with very young learners.

dalya 4

I joined the hands up project two years ago when I first heard about it . Since then, I’ve really noticed the positive impact on the children’s performance and their attitude toward English language.

When I was told at the beginning of this year to start teaching students where all of them are aged between 6 and 7, I felt a bit worried and started to try to think of ways to engage them in a real enjoyable learning environment. The first thing that came to my mind was the online sessions with Nick. I sent him a message asking about the possibility and applicability of engaging such an early age of students in the project.

dalya 1

He enthusiastically supported the idea and connected me with Elena, a volunteer who expressed her readiness to join and lead the sessions. At the beginning, I was still dubious about the success of using these sessions with this group of very young leaners, but now after just two sessions I can say that I am having the most successful and enjoyable experience with the hands up project. Children sing with Elena, play memory games, describe pictures, draw and discuss different topics and more. They always tell me how much they wait for Mondays to enjoy English in the sessions. My students and I are very lucky to be members of the project and to experience this unique opportunity.

dalya 3




Make your own green screen story

A few weeks ago I was leading a training workshop for our volunteers around the world on green screen storytelling (You can read more about this here and find Zoom’s own guidelines about how to set it up here)

One of our long-term Hands Up Project volunteers, Sara Wood, a teacher of English based in Spain who was attending the session suggested giving the learners a set of pictures and asking them to create a green screen story using all of the images in any order they wanted to.

I love this idea so here are six pictures below all taken from ELT pics , a great website created by ELT teachers, where pictures can be downloaded for free for educational use. So, wherever you are in the world, and whether you’re a teacher, a student, a HUP volunteer, or Hans Christian Anderson himself, your task is to create and perform a story using all of these 6 images in any order you want to. If you have a plain green background, you could make a recording of you telling the story with these pictures behind you and send it to us at the Hands Up Project. If we get enough of them we could create a special youtube channel for these stories.

And since we’ve just launched the remote theatre competition for this year, and since one of the only real differences in the rules is that green screening is possible now, this activity might be a good warm up activity to get your creative juices flowing for the competition. Good luck everyone and I look forward to seeing your stories!







The 2019 Remote theatre competition

The Hands Up Project Remote theatre competition 2019

A play writing and play performing competition open to young people living in Palestine, launched, administered, and judged by the Hands Up Project, a UK based educational charity (Charity number 1170272)


-to provide a motivating context for young people in Palestine to practise and develop their spoken and written English.

-to provide young people in Palestine with an international audience for their creative work.

-to raise awareness around the world about the creative work of young people in Palestine.


-The play must be a maximum of 5 minutes duration. (It can be less than 5 minutes.)

-It must be performed by a maximum of 5 actors (it could be fewer than 5 and each actor may play several parts)

-All participants must be aged 15 or under and attend an UNRWA or Ministry of Education school in Palestine.

-Participants need to submit the following components in order to compete in the competition. All the components must be submitted using our own online form, which will be available at the end of November.

-a video recording of the young people acting in the play. We strongly recommend that this recording is made through the videoconferencing tool zoom so that the play naturally complies with the conditions of remote theatre (see below). The required file format is .mp4

-the script of your play, as a word document

-the subtitles of your play in .sbv format (instructions on how to do this will be on our website from November)

-A written introduction to the play (maximum 200 words) explaining what inspired it and how the children made it?


-The play must be performed as a piece of Remote Theatre. It can be filmed on any digital device, but we highly recommend using Zoom. The recording device must not be moved at all throughout the whole play. The camera angle must not change and no zooming or effects are allowed. It must be filmed in one take with no stops or pauses using the camera controls. If music, narration or any other sound effects are used they should be played during the performance and not added later. No editing of the video whatsoever may take place. It is essential to achieve the highest quality audio possible and so the use of external microphones is permitted and encouraged.

-The main language of the play must be English.

-It must be an original piece of writing. We want this to be a learning experience as much as possible so teachers can of course help the children improve their scripts. However, the starting point for the plays must come from the children. Participants may choose to use an existing, well known story but the lines of the play must be their own words.

-The video and the script must be submitted using our online form by midnight on the 31st December 2019.

-Anything reaching us after this date, or which does not fulfil the other requirements will not be accepted.

Suggestions for plays

Providing the requirements are fulfilled, the topic of the play is very flexible. Plays could be performed with or without narration. Some suggested topics could include:-

  • An adaptation of a traditional story
  • An adaptation of a modern story
  • A story about life in Palestine
  • A story created entirely by the participants
  • A play about an event in history, or a famous person

Suggestions for performance

Since the play will be performed through video, rather than face to face, it’s important to ensure that the actors are as close to the camera as possible and that they make eye contact with it as much as possible. It is really important that the audience can understand what is being said so it’s important to speak clearly. Incorporating gesture and physicality wherever possible will also make things clearer for the audience. It is fine to include, masks, puppets, music or singing in the play but none of these things are a requirement. If a green screen is available it may be used for backgrounds and scene changes. (This is an inbuilt feature of zoom).


The best entries will be published in a Hands up project book and our youtube channel. All finalists will be awarded with trophies at an awards ceremony and invited to perform at theatres in the West Bank.

Judging criteria

The judging process will be confirmed after the submission deadline once the number and range of submissions has been established. The panel of judges will pick the best play based on quality of acting performances, quality of the play, creative expression and clarity of expression. Though English should be used, the plays will not be judged on the level of English of the participants. So it will be possible for learners of English at a low level to also take part. Even if the level of English is low it is very important that the delivery is clear.

We very much look forward to seeing your entries. Good luck!

Nick Bilbrough, on behalf of The Hands Up Project board of trustees

To fill in the online form, please click here.

In their own write

I decided to write my first book for teachers, Dialogue Activities (CUP 2007), because of an idea which I think I’ve always been very interested in as a language teacher. This is the principle that when spoken language is written down by learners (as in when they create a dialogue for example) it can provide a slowing down of experience so that more noticing of language, and ultimately, more learning may happen. It’s a way of focusing and reflecting on spoken language without the immediate pressure of having to produce it spontaneously in real time communication. This premise is central to many of the activities in the book.

Dialogue Activities

It’s also one of the main rationales behind the playwriting competition that we run for Palestinian children – now about to enter its third year. Of course when creating a play, there are many other things to do before getting down to writing the dialogue (brainstorming ideas, coming up with stories, agreeing on which story to turn into a play etc) but even at very high levels, both the thinking involved in composing a story and the discussion involved in choosing a story is likely to happen in the mother tongue. I would argue that working together in groups and drafting, redrafting and editing the script is one of the stages of play making which is most conducive to second language development, and since as language teachers our contact time in class is never going to be enough, I’d say that this stage is what we should prioritise class time for.

So we could ask learners to do these other stages outside of class time, or it may be more appropriate to give learners ready-made scenarios in small groups and ask them to start working on turning them into scripts straight away. This way there is an immediate focus on spoken English and, because the learners know that they are going to be saying the lines that they are writing, there is an inherent need for what is written to be accurate, appropriate and clear. Learners will also automatically start mentally preparing themselves for saying the lines if they know that the lines are part of a dialogue.

Here’s one of the scenarios that I used with some children in Gaza in a workshop on remote theatre that I was running in June this year.

The hospital window

Two women are lying in bed in the same hospital room. One has a bandage over her eyes as she is waiting for them to heal. She is really depressed about her situation. The other is sitting up and looking out of the window (the audience). The two women talk a lot about their lives and the woman by the window describes all the beautiful things that she can see out of the window to cheer the other woman up. One day the woman by the window dies peacefully in her sleep and soon afterwards the others woman’s bandages are removed. Her eyes are better, and she looks out of the window only to see…a brick wall! The woman can’t understand why the other woman was telling her about all of the beautiful things that she said she could see. The nurse explained that the other woman was blind and she said those things just because she wanted to make her feel happy.

making a play
Children in Gaza working together to create the script for a scenario

Now I know I keep banging on about the benefits of young people creating plays to be performed in the language they are learning (this must be at least the 5th post I’ve written here about the topic!) but it’s because I’m convinced that it’s one of the most powerful ways that there is of enabling learners to move away from just being regurgitators of language supplied by their coursebooks or their teachers, and towards being fully fledged users of language in their own right. If you haven’t already tried asking your students to make a play in English, I’d really recommend that you give it a go.