non-profit – 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.

“Shakespeare in Africa? What Do You Think You’re Doing?”

From the Journal of Miss Blaire.  LAX.  March 18, 2018. 3 pm.


I’m headed to Africa based on two emails. Two. Emails. That’s what no one else really knows.

The final performances of our ’18 Season (King Lear and my own play, Illspoken: The People vs. William Shakespeare), are actually happening right this very friggin’ minute. I feel strange. I’ve never missed a performance in 13 years of running the Shakespeare Youth Fest! It’s weird not being backstage right now. Like I’ve lost a toddler that’s made a mad dash into the crowd. Aren’t I supposed to be shushing the players or teasing hair or getting Zane’s bloody eyepatch to look red not pink. Making sure Aaron doesn’t touch the set so it falls on ‘Mma again (pictured left). It’s closing night, why am I sitting here at Bradley Terminal waiting to board a three-pronged flight from L.A. to the bottom of Africa? By myself. Why am I crying? Why am I so sad?  Am I scared?  Why am I doing this? I’ve been sick for weeks and I can’t seem to recover. I cough and get weak and lose energy. I was told to cancel this trip (by people who cancel things). But I don’t. I’d sooner die than back down. I was supposed to go with two other women who have been here before. One is my oldest friend. But they had serious things happen and they couldn’t go. How much caffeine was I spinning on when I asked to go to Botswana by myself? And not on Safari, but to launch a performing arts program from scratch at a rural primary school?  No Safari. The voice of multiple people are in my head, now.  “Excuse me.  Shakespeare in Africa? I mean culturally, that makes no sense. More Western thought? And who cares about Shakespeare when they have to deal with clean water and food scarcity? Plus…you’re not James Shapiro, you’re not the RSC or OSF or  The Globe. What do you think you’re doing?”

Los Angeles Drama Club is anything but cute.

With Imposter Syndrome now fully set in as I sit in the terminal. I’m trying to remember, did anyone actually say this to me? No. But I’m sure it’s what all the WhiteSplainers are thinking.  Then, “Oh yeah. No one is thinking about you. Get over it.”  I think I’m taking on shades of Lear himself….”Who am I to my kids?”  The insanity is interrupted by a text from Regan (actually our player, Julia E). “Lear’s going amazing. Best ever.”

Great show. As always.

Yay. Now I can add FOMO on top of Imposter Syndrome. Why can’t I be content, let alone happy? 

It is because I’m a jaded grouch or is it because “no artist is pleased”? I am actually very happy for our Players and I am wise enough to know all the crazy monkey mind talk is fear. I feel like Gloucester at the edge of the cliff. (Even my eye is messed up today). I started this entire “thing” – whatever it is, and even back then I didn’t know what the “plan” was except to get two 5 year-olds to speak Shakespeare. It was an experiment that suddenly  mushroomed into hundreds of kids and 27 plays in the Canon already performed… thirty minutes until boarding….okay. I want this nagging voice to leave me the !$*%!! alone before I walk onto that plane.  I have thirty minutes to write a push back and purge it forever.  Setting alarm with Siri for 4:15pm.  Go:

Why do anything? Why try? If I were nine and a visitor was coming to my school from as far away as southern Africa to share customs, teach a dance, impart the language of Swana, tell stories and legends of their ancestors, act out their folk lore – how would I feel? (….excited, honored, ignited. curious, open, grateful).  So why wouldn’t they feel the same? This is about universal stories. New stimulation. Theatre games bringing connection. Self discovery. Play. I am allowed to show up and play. I am not a colonizer. I am not a celebrity going into a village for photo ops. I am not a tourist on safari. I am an artist who loves young people and theatre and Shakespeare. And I don’t need to be in the Royal Shakespeare to be a champion of the Underdogs, the Forgotten, the Ignored, the Abandoned and the Other 99% of the world.  I am the person to do this. If we fail, we fail. But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail!  Thanks, Lady M.  And thanks for your concern Imposter Syndrome, but I don’t need you on this trip.  You’re staying home. I’m sure you’ll pick me up at the airport…

Jesse, Marieke, Vivian, Sebastian in King Lear

That push back took 9 minutes to write.  With 21 minutes to spare, I’m off to get my last Starbucks. Maybe ever.

6pm. Over Detroit.

Or thereabouts. I left “Who do you think you are?” back at the airport but Nature abhors a vacuum so a new personality has surfaced. The Troubleshooter. The Troubleshooter has accepted that it’s a done deal. The Troubleshooter (my Mother from the grave I’m sure) has caught on to my little secret which no one knows… This trip to the bottom of Africa  hinges on two emails between me and Mr. Brooks Kamanakao: who I don’t know.  Why am I not panicking? Brooks was referred to me via my friend Dee Dee. I trust Dee Dee and Dee Dee trusts Brooks. His last email: “See you at the airport.”

At this point I am ready to arrive in Maun and have no one be there and deal with it. But right now I’m trapped in a tiny seat in Coach with my mother’s voice. An onslaught of: “Where are you staying?… Find a hospital … What if he isn’t at the airport? … You didn’t learn one word of Swana … Did you forget the malaria pills? … Have your passport around your neck.”

I can’t. I won’t. Yap all you want, Troubleshooter.  We’re going to just sit here in coach and stare at the seat in front of us that’s practically rammed into our knees…with all these unanswered questions.  For the next 9 hours.

 

Next installment: Getting to Motopi, Botswana