Blog – Los Angeles Drama Club

Why the Best Teachers are Learners – Gertrude of Africa

From the Journal of Miss Blaire,  March 20, 2018

We reach Chicken’s house in Motopi. It’s very hot in here and I’ve been traveling for 29 hours and I want to jump in a lake but I can’t because there are hippos at night in there and besides, now I have to learn how to work the house. It’s not a SmartHouse, people. You have to heat your shower water in a tub from an electric tea kettle.  Then there are the breakers, which my new neighbor Pinky demonstrates.  Then there is Dooming the Room (spraying for mosquitoes). Brooks sees that my brain is cracking so he and Chicken and Pinky leave and soon I am left alone. Too tired to sleep, especially due to one mosquito which I swat to no avail. I hide under the sheet, but he is loud. I follow Brook’s advice, Doom the Room and go outside. There are a zillion stars in the sky. I see two fall inside five minutes.

I see things in the sky I never saw before. I ask myself, why do we go to the moon? We’re already on a spaceship, this is the greatest spaceship ever. We can breathe and eat and move….

Motopi School, Botswana, Africa.  From the Journal of Miss B.  March 21, 2018

Why am I always asking myself questions? I guess because I don’t want it to end with “this I know.”  I want to re-ask old questions and dust off old ideas.  I’m not a teacher. I’m a learner and an unlearner. And what do I do with youth and theatre? Just ask them to try and untry stuff. That is what I will do today when I meet the children in Motopi as I’m shaking off spiders and screaming in the yard.

Brooks swings by for instant coffee and biscuit then brings me to Motopi School. The school is a group of buildings on dirt and overlooking a field. There are classrooms, offices, a kitchen and toilets way off in the field. I hear a rumor about the kids killing a python in the yard recently.

I meet the school headmistress Mma Bharata. Brooks translates for me – speaking in Swana, so that we are on the same page. She  does speak English, but this gives us more of a flow. I show her what we do at Los Angeles Drama Club by playing videos of our young kids. It is obvious on Day One that they aren’t sure what to do with me.  I know that if I could just have some time with the students, everything would become clear. Classes starting and it’s time to meet the Children of Motopi School. Mma Bharata brings me around to each classroom. When we enter, the children immediately rise and greet us in English: “Good morning, teacher!” From pre-school to seventh grade, they wear uniforms and are impeccably groomed. I say “Good morning, how are you?” “We are fine, Madame.”

We are on a morning Nutrition break. It’s a beautiful hot African day and the entire school is running free. I learn that some of the kids come to school hungry and this is their first meal. It’s said not as a complaint, but a piece of information as to why some are less ebullient than others.  Everyone dips their hands into pails, scooping out what looks like hominy. One grabs my hand – the goo spreading. Great. I assume now, that this gluey substance just…stays on our hands…until it’s forgotten?

Blended Fingers.

Sticky fingers everywhere. I really want to find a towel to wipe it off, but I’m physically trapped inside a mob of First Graders huddling for a photo. (the kids crowd in; they have gobs of space, but they love to clump together like one flailing octopus). In the middle of this clump of bodies under the Acacia tree, an idea comes to me.  I speak, they repeat. Over and over. Now they do it on their own. In five minutes, the first words of Shakespeare are officially spoken by a group of six year olds.  “To Be Or Not to Be.”

The hominy stuck on my hand has dried. And for the rest of the day….is forgotten.

To Be Or Not To Be.

My favorite teacher, Miss Hayes, was an archaeologist, and she was always learning. Coming back from a dig or some kind of research adventure. I remember her because of her storytelling. It was about what she had JUST LEARNED. Everything she said felt like it was happening now. The best teachers are storytellers. Curious, open-minded and allowing new approaches into their pedagogy.  The teachers in Motopi are required to teach out of books. But when they break the pattern of that and speak from their passion or experience, it’s a completely different energy and everyone wakes up. I feel so lucky as a teaching artist – this is ALL I get to do – is speak from passion and wake everyone up.  The women teachers in Motopi are nurturers but they also have fire. The first one that catches my attention is Gertrude. I marvel that her name is Gertrude. She knows about Hamlet’s Gertrude. Could Shakespeare have known that 400 years down the road, a woman in Botswana will be talking about her given name being a one of his characters? “Not for the age but for all time….” She invites me to her classroom after Nutrition. A bell is rung and in a minute, the children are gone and the yard is quiet.

Stand Alone and Say It !

I walk into Miss Gertrude’s 4th Grade class. They stand and greet me. They are up for anything.  With English being academic here, I keep it to almost zero talking.  I start tapping out: dee DUMB/dee DUMB/dee DUMB/dee DUMB/dee DUMB… on my chest. I invite them to join. Everyone understands a heartbeat.  “This is the language of the heart. And our writer might have walked while he thought of his lines, so his heart was pounding – the rhythm matched.”  (This is really a theory.) Once they got the five dee dumbs, class receives their first Iambic Pentameter line: the one we like to start with at L.A. Drama Club:

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Second Time Around.

So now it’s time to fill this line with ingredients. No writing anything down! Every word is conveyed through sound, tone, and gesture. UNEASY. Since it is not the opposite of “easy,” we look for a synonym …we work with the concept of being very uncomfortable, of feeling unsafe. They get UNSAFE. Now we all stand together, acting out what “unsafe” looks like, feels like.  Now I ask, “Who is a person who wears a crown?” No blank stares here. A tiny voice calls out: The Queen. I thought, this is interesting that Queen was thought of before King. Now we talk about POWER. “Why should a king or a queen or a president or general be ‘UNEASY’? With castles, mansions, fame and money, why are they saying they’re uncomfortable? Can they ever rest? What if somebody wants to take it from them? Maybe they worry about the country all the time.”

Botswana president, Ian Khama*, is a responsible man and a conservationist. Brooks tells me how he has re-routed the Botswana army to focus on poachers. Also, in this country, no cammos allowed! Hear that America? It’s not a fashion statement over here. So in this case, the “Head that wears a crown” might be uneasy from sadness or concern about the elephants being shot for tusks in the Kalahari.  Class gets it.  They all chant the line, tapping out the dee DUM. And they take on the tone of the line now.  Hands go up. Every single one of them vying for the opportunity to  to chant it alone, in front of their peers.

Gertrude’s Fourth Grade class  now shows a visceral, personal understanding of this one simple Shakespeare line. They also get to ponder how getting to the top of the Power Food Chain has a price.  It was in their bodies now.

They ask for another line.

This is when I say, “I think we could put on a show here.” Gertrude was all in, almost ahead of me.  “Let me handle the audience. You’ll have your show.”  I am heartened that there are curious learners here teaching curious children. And I have hope that this can be the first “Youngest Shakespeare Troupe in Africa.”


Meeting the children of Mma Wilson’s class at Motopi School. Getting ready to try our tongue twisters!


*At the time this was written, Ian Khama was President. On April 1, his term ended.

“Lost in Translation” – LADC Speaks out on “Play On!


As the country’s Youngest Shakespeare Troupe 10 years running, we’ve been successful in creating a passion for Shakespeare in children ages 5-17. One of our primary missions has been to make Shakespeare accessible to everyone. We mean everyone. We present our young Players with the original Folio text and urge them to dig in to the words, scan the rhythms and ride the wave of the iambic – and in doing so, they have made incredible discoveries, have become empowered with a new rich vocabulary, and – most rewarding – gained a new perspective on life itself. Our children (over 100 of them) perform the plays as written, trusting that Shakespeare can and will do the rest.

Our direct experience directing Shakespeare’s Canon with young people from diverse neighborhoods and incomes, with various learning styles and educational backgrounds, incites us to voice our strong concerns with any institution of power and influence that attempts to “translate” Shakespeare.

However well-meaning, we do not believe that “translations” of the Canon will make Shakespeare “accessible” to the masses: the very presumption that Shakespeare is beyond the scope of a “regular” person  goes against a decade of direct experience with the exact opposite.

The study of Shakespeare is an extraordinary learning tool, primarily because of the way it challenges the mind to wrestle with the language – and why shouldn’t it? Achieving that “Ah, ha!” moment when we’ve decoded words and phrases is part of the joy of great literature. Why should that moment be taken from us by a modern “translation?

The Play On FAQs assure us that “these translations won’t simplify the originals.” Then what will they do? Is it the just the archaic vocabulary that makes Shakespeare challenging?

“He jests at scars that never felt a wound” – most of our 3rd graders (many from underfunded schools, who’ve had little or no arts education prior to us) would have no problem recognizing and defining every word in that line.

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” This might inspire a discussion about the fact that “breaks” has multiple meanings, or what “soft” might mean in this context, but again, nothing that a 3rd grader can’t wrap her head around. How will the “Play On” translations make these beautiful phrases more “accessible” to our students without losing their original magic? The thought that a student’s first encounter with the Balcony scene might be anything different is heartbreaking to us.

So, what about those who aren’t “studying” him – those who simply want to enjoy watching a play? Anyone who has experienced Shakespeare (on either side of the curtain) knows that the key is a cast and production team that has a deep understanding of the text, and can convey it with conviction and passion. If that’s the case, then the play becomes accessible to anyone: from a 9-year-old to a prison inmate. If it’s not the case, then we don’t care who “translates” it – it won’t be accessible.

If the OSF were commissioning 36 dynamic, creative and inspiring, study guides with modern tie-ins, we would cheer them on. But it is stated quite clearly that they mean the works to be performable. We ask why? Sure, someone might go see a production of Migdalia Cruz’s Macbeth, and be inspired to check out Shakespeare’s original, but the likelihood of that is slim. The risk is that theatre-goer now assumes, “OK, I’ve seen Macbeth. Check that one off the list.”

When we think of the inaccessibility of Shakespeare, we’re more likely to consider the price of tickets, or teachers untrained, passionlessly introducing mandated Shakespeare to middle-schoolers. Does a new “translation” solve these problems?

Apologists for “Play On” claim we’ve been editing and tweaking Shakespeare since the beginning. Indeed, we have. These are called adaptations and re-imaginings – something entirely different. In fact, how wonderful it would be to see the extraordinary resources expended in this project to commission original works inspired by each assigned play – imagine a new “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” or “Kiss me Kate” or “West Side Story.” Or they might have funded a ticket program to provide low-cost tickets to those who can’t afford $83.30 a ticket (or even $30.00 a ticket). Perhaps a teacher-training program to give teachers the tools to inspire a love of Shakespeare in their students. As noted scholar, James Shapiro said in the NY Times, “It’s likely to be a waste of money and talent.”

We’ve read the many examples cited in articles about the OSF project, and the conceit that these “translations” will make the plays any more accessible seems unlikely. What is likely is that the magic and alchemy that has made Shakespeare Shakespeare  for the last 400+ years will be skewed, even lost. Lost in Translation.