March 18, 2018. 3 pm.
The final performances of our 2018 Season (King Lear and Illspoken: The People vs. William Shakespeare), are actually happening right now! But I’m sitting at LAX waiting to board a three-tiered flight to the bottom of Africa to start an Arts Program – Shakespeare-centered and from scratch – at a rural primary school in Botswana. I have never missed a performance in 12 years of running the Shakespeare Youth Fest, LA! But there comes a time for roles to change and the teens are pros – they know what to do onstage and off. This is my version Empty-Nest.
My flight boards in 30 minutes: I’m getting texts from our Players that the shows are amazing. “Best ever.”
About to step off a cliff. Well, three cliffs: LAX to Frankfurt – Frankfurt to Jo-burg and Jo-burg to Maun, Botswana. In Botswana, an hour’s drive to Motopi, the rural village that will host me for two weeks. I am told that English is the “official” language, but isn’t spoken in most homes, Swana is spoken and I haven’t learned a word of it. Not even hello. I’ve been sick for a month and I’m still not recovered but Africa is a No Matter What for me. First thing when I land: I will learn how to say hello in Swana.
I sit here with many unanswered questions. Will the much revered, much feared Institution of “Shakespeare” be adaptable? (I already know the answer, but I’m still cautious) It easily take a nose dive. The way we do Shakespeare in Los Angeles is successful because it’s big, loud, on its feet. This should translate anywhere. I’m told the village has no internet, periodic electricity, small huts, donkeys and cows, one “bar” – a room where men play pool and drink beer. I will be the stranger from the industrialized world. Who cares about Shakespeare when they have to deal with heat, rain, plumbing, clean water? What nerve! How presumptuous! Go spread more Western Culture…I question our reasons for going. It always comes back to one thing – connecting people with each other – through the tools of theater is universal. Art making hits us at our core – and can be as critical as any basic physical necessity. People who have everything and people who have nothing both need a reason to get out of bed…
This is another world. Today is my weirdest day in travel. The second I arrived in Jo-Burg, I became schooled in the African Way. And how much like Shakespeare it really is. Funny, Dark, Epic, All-Engaging…
First lesson in the African Way and A Shakespeare Play. Things suddenly go south – in a moment – only to resolve in the next before you know what hit you. Weather. Tires. Animal sightings. Losing things. Finding things. Closures. Insect onslaughts. I may be a theatre director by trade – but here – I’m reminded I am just part of the show – definitely not running it.
I got worried in Germany, when I realized there was no place to check into Air Botswana online – only in person! I had half an hour to transfer and didn’t know if I would make it! There was a man that allegedly was to meet me – Brooks – at the Maun airport. I had spoken with Brooks by email once. That is the African Way, Lesson Two. Someone gives his word, that is that. No need for fifty more confirmations….
Stepping foot off the second plane, I got a blast of hot air – I am in Africa. It is a different feeling than other countries and i don’t have an explanation for that. My exhilaration immediately turned to abject terror when my luggage never came out in Baggage Claim. I was told that Customs was wrong and my bag is headed to Maun. Then this woman said quietly, “We need to run.” We ran so fast I got a side-ache and had to stop, but we did make it through that monolith airport to Air Botswana. I was in the clear. I felt relief and gratitude – I could never have found it on my own. She was the guide. The only way.
I’m at the check in counter – the final leg of this 26 hour trek – 2 more hours will fly by. So they speak in Swana but I can tell from their faces it’s not good. The flight is closed. “Come back tomorrow.” There is no tomorrow. Back to panic and horror! My world imploded. I had done everything I was told to do. Just because Air Botswana isn’t caught up with the rest of the world…. or…the African way. I cry. I try to explain there’s a man waiting at Maun, and there’s a school waiting in Motopi … and I came 26 hours…And then – like that, the gatekeeper said, “Okay. Go.”
I cried more. And ran more. The woman who guided me now brought me down the escalator to a van! Now I started laughing.
I hug her. Say goodbye. Tears down my face. My first half hour in Africa has included a marathon and a nervous breakdown and I am feeling quite alive. I am brought to down an escalator to an outside tram – I meet my fellow passengers, Australian and British tourists poised in beige Safari outfits – I soon realize we have little in common and just get me away from them! Fifteen minutes later, we’re driven to the tarmac. I sit in front of a British couple – bickering. I hear, “This is the tiniest plane on the planet.” I want to slap her. I just breathe and smile that I’m here. They announce that insecticide is going to be sprayed all over the plane – ‘with no adverse side effects’ – but some of the women freak out. We take off and I look down. I’m waiting for a magical jungle to appear. They serve us cheese and turkey sandwiches and I fall in love with this “tiny” flight – I love seeing Africa from the air. I see green and long, long, thin roads. We land on the tarmac and are guided to Customs where for me, more things go WILDLY HAYWIRE! Forms not filled, glasses lost, luggage lost, passport snagged until I “give an address of where I’m staying”! Then it occurred to me, I have no idea where I’m staying. So I’m told I have to stay at the airport until I do. I’m officially in a Shakespeare comedy – epic problems that are hilarious – only to spectators!
Then appears the Magic Fixer – holding a sign – Blaire Baron. There was Brooks! Brooks had no worries – he handled the search for the lost luggage, but the funniest part was, he didn’t know the address where I was staying either. In the village of Motopi … well … there are no addresses. No addresses at all – but soon, if all goes well, the address of the youngest Shakespeare troupe in Africa.
Next installment: First Day at the School: Meeting the Kids …