Blog – Los Angeles Drama Club

Shakespeare in Africa #3: Becoming a Different Person.

Shakespeare in Africa #3: Becoming a Different Person.

I am still headed to a rural African village called Motopi where I will live by myself and work in a local school teaching Shakespeare (what I do at home). I’ve done many daring and rash things in my life. And a lot of very strange and difficult things have happened to me. I survived my childhood and adulthood and it was rarely easy. I don’t do things because they’re easy. Easy never interested me. Well…it’s starting to. But for now, I am programmed to do hard things and to teach others to do them too.

L. A. Drama Club: Our Theatre Company makes Hard look Easy.

I am on my second Luftansa flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg with one more German woman sitting next to me (German seat partner: mandatory for all international flights). We left off where the German seat partner was balking at my decision to book two African flights within 40 mintues of each other. I don’t have the mental bandwidth to explain — not my decision to book the two flights — yes, my decision to trust an online booking agency. I am realizing that there is no way to “check in” online to Air Botswana, but in person. Old school. I have half an hour to transfer in J-Burg and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m stuck here for 8 more hours and can do nothing but…

Start making a list of what is emerging as The African Way for Westerners.

AW#1: You Think You “Got This.” You don’t.

“I got this.” A popular phrase. So American. Being a rugged individualist, totally self contained, on my own…gets prasied and rewarded, even though it’s an illusion. We urban dwellers are deluded. We believe we’re independent but one strike of an earthquake or hurricane would prove otherwise. I start to consider, “I don’t Got This at all.” Interdependence seems more the African Way. Tribal thinking makes more sense! I know that am going to need help over there. I don’t like the feeling. It means putting others out, being dependent, and trusting. A thought occurs to me: Not Trusting is a sign of privilege. The luxury of not trusting….

Johannesburg Airport. I am walking off the plane and am hit with a blast of hot air — “Welcome to the Land of the Protea.”

A preview of what is to come. Motopi School.

All the self help, 12-step, therapy and bone-crushing life lessons I’ve learned did not bring me the kind of catharsis as did stepping foot on African Soil and allowing that blast of hot air to hit my face. Easy and swift. A new voice. Not the Troubleshooter, not the Naysayer, not the Imposter. This is a wise voice.

You are different. You will never be the same person who fussed all the way here. You have done the work to be ready for this moment. And you get to have it.

After that sets in, I am told to go get my suitcase in baggage claim. I look around in wonder. When last suitcase tumbles onto the carousel, it isn’t mine. I show a woman who works here. She says, no. Your bag has gone to Botswana. A young airport worker looks at my ticket, then at me.

AW #2 : Sometimes things change, and you need to run.

She runs, I run…so fast and so far, I get a side-ache. J-burg is a massive airport. We finally make it to the Air Botswana gate. I could never have found this on my own. She was the only way. Now she is talking to the Check In Lady. There is a problem. A big problem. I am told….

“The flight is closed. You are too late. Come back tomorrow.”

Like making it to Oz …and having the little window open and slam. But this isn’t Oz, it’s Johannesburg. I do not know what I’m doing here. I have a man waiting, a place, a school. I can barely form words.

“There’s a man waiting …he is my only chance. There’s a school the expects me…I’ve been traveling 24 hours…I don’t know what to…”

This is not like me. I always know what to do. I’m the I Know What to Do Girl when it comes to traveling. “I got this.” The Check in Lady looks at me…I’m crying. To make it this far and then…fall apart.

AW #3: If You Fall Apart, Sometimes the Rules are Bended.

“Okay. Go. Just go.”

She just single-handedly changed the rules based on…heartstrings? The woman who ran me over there says, “Hurry! We have to run again.” And we do: down the escalator and out the doors to the outside. To a van! My face still wet from crying, I am now laughing. I’m being gaslit by the universe and it’s funny. My drops of tears, I’ll turn into sparks of fire. And I will.

I hug the airport worker who changed the fate of this journey. Years holding onto the idea that abandoment was the norm for me…she somehow erased it. Gone in one final act. I’m feeling quite alive. My first half hour in Africa included a sprinting marathon, a nervous breakdown and two serious plot twists.

Boarding Air Botswana tram, I now meet my fellow passengers on this flight to Maun. Australian and British tourists in crisp Safari costumes…er, outfits. They look like they’re playing the part of wealthy tourists on Safari for a movie shoot, when I realize…. they are wealthy toursits on Safari. We board the plane and I am next to a bickering British couple. “This is the tiniest plane on the planet.” I might not have her money, but I grin, just glad I’m not her.

AW #4: There are Bugs in this World. If you forgot, we will remind you.

When the Attendant announces that insecticide — ‘with no adverse side effects’ — will now be sprayed up and down the aisles, the women bury their heads, horrified. I grin again. My bionic ear records more conversations. They are excited they can be in Botswana versus Kenya — for the exclusivity and the Okavango Delta. They will go on game drives. I wonder will I even see an elephant? I am relieved to hear there is no hunting allowed in Botswana. I look down the entire time. Africa from the sky.

Botswana from the sky.

Long, needle-thin roads and a windy river….I feel peaceful. I drift to sleep.

We land on the tarmac and are guided to customs where everything goes HAYWIRE! Forms filled wrong, glasses lost, luggage missing, passport snagged…I am asked to “give an address where I’m staying”! It occurs to me, I have no idea where I’m staying. It’s all up to Brooks. The “two email” man. But they won’t let me go out to find him.

I’m in a Shakespeare comedy: epic problems — hilarious only to spectators. Then, just like at the ticket gate in J-burg, they change their minds and let me go look for Brooks.

I turn a corner and there he is, holding a sign with my name. Instantly, he is pulled into my mini drama. We get right into action. Brooks puts a search out for my lost luggage. But I still can’t put the address where I’m staying. Why? Brooks tells me:

AW #5: Sometimes there won’t be an address.

We sort of…make one up. I think to myself no addresses in Motopi but if all goes well, perhaps the address of the youngest Shakespeare troupe in Africa.

Brooks and Machine save the day!

We leave the Maun airport and cross the street to an open air Indian place Tandurei. Instantly, cousins, nephews, brothers of Brooks…pass by or sit wth us. I meet “Machine” — brother of Brooks. He is a teacher and he is curious about his students learning Shakespeare. They want their kids to speak more English. It gives them an edge. Swana is only spoken in Botswana, so if they want to leave, they better know English.

AW #6: Sometimes you won’t have your clothes. And it’s actually fun.

I have no clothes because my suitcase is missing. Brooks takes me to a store and I now get to re-invent my entire African wardrobe that I so painstakingly chose before leaving. For 26$ I had plenty. Food is next. I will need food for the village. At the grocery store I notice most items are imported from South Africa. Nothing local. Granola, milk in a box, potatoes, carrots, bottled water and tea biscuits. Brooks looks skeptical. “Not enough. There is nothing where you are going.” Nothing?

AW #7: Know that you are dependent on protein bars unless you’re one of those rich Safari guests.

Lunch, brought from home. #Bison

I remember my friend telling me to pack beef jerky and protein bars. I think, really? I packed 5 “buffalo bars” which ended up being my lunch every day. Brooks was right. There was no food unless I knew how to kill an animal and cook it.

We drive away and Brooks cuts up a small road and weaves through some sporadic homes. We check on a house Brooks is building so he can rent it out and retire as a Game Drive guide. This is where I first encounter the Botswana House Spider: the size of my hand. I really really dislike spiders. This is a challenge. He lets me know, they are in all the houses. They are part of the walls… He tells me about this American teenager whining, “OMG, Mom, I wanna go home, like right now!” I vow to face my arachnophobia and overcome it. I mean… do I have a choice?

AW #8: See AW #4 !

Weaving Spiders, come not Near!

We pick up a woman called “Chicken” who owns the house where I will stay. She is riding along to let me in the house. Chicken explains that she is a widow and she left her home in the village and moved here to Maun after her husband died. So now I will live in her empty house in the village.

The road to Motopi is filled with potholes: cars swerve and it’s a comical sight. We stop at a Checkpoint where we get out of the car and step into a wet box of dirty water and bicarbonate of soda which — magically wards off Hoof & Mouth disease at the county border. The virus wiped out Botswana’s beef industry years back. The thing is….the water is contaminated with the bottom of everyone’s shoes. But it wasn’t my place to start pointing things out.

AW #9: If you step in a box of water and bicarbonate of soda before crossing the border, you are magically sterilized.

The trees are epic and line both sides of the road. The sky is wide and filled with animated clouds, all telling stories. Magic is not hard to find in this African sky.

It’s my first of many drives with Brooks, where we talk about many many things. I am being taken to the school of his childhood. These are the kids he wants to help. He comes to talk to them about Why We don’t Shoot Elephants.

We pull up to Chicken’s house, where I will stay. And here I am. This spot— in this village — is about everything I’ve done in my life up to this point. It all has come together for this moment. I meet my neighbor Pinky, a mother who also cleans the local school. We all visit but I am showing obvious tand the electical system. After they leave, I accidentally shut off the breakers and Pinky must come to the rescue. Silly American…. “I don’t got this. “

I will report to the school 8:30am tomorrow, meet the teachers, the principal and the kids and get to work.

12pm — Everyone gone. Just me and one misquito terrorizing in my bedroom. I’m under the sheet, totally, but he will burrow through, I know it. Brooks had taught me to Doom the Room. I really resisted the thought of spraying chemicals above my pillow….but at 1am, sleep deprived in this hot bedroom, all bets are off. I “Doom the Room” and run outside.

I stop and look at the sky. Two stars fall within 10 minutes. I haven’t seen a falling star in decades. I go back to my bedroom. The pesty misquito is apparently….doomed.

I go to sleep… a different person than who I was at LAX. At Frankfurt. At J-Burg, and drifting off, I wonder who will I be tomorrow?

Next. Shakespeare in Africa #4: If You Come, They will Build it.

I never expected this.

 

 

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

Shakespeare in Africa #2: The Unlikely Spot Where I Found Hope for Humanity. Germany.

Installment #2 – Shakespeare in Africa.

I’m on my way to attempt to launch a Shakespeare Troupe with kids in a rural village in Botswana, Africa. But right now, I sit in seat 23D over New Jersey pondering my bad life choices and wondering why, on every flight I’ve ever taken, there’s a German woman next to me who’s been all over the world. This flight is no exception. “Ana” in 23C has been to Botswana and thirty other countries in Africa. Listening to Ana pauses my overactive brain. She looks a lot like the wife of the relative from Stuttgart who turned in my grandmother for communist agitation in ‘36. Maybe she’s their daughter. I decide not to bring it up. Then I smile, proud of my improved sense of discretion.

My racing brain slows down the further away we get from Los Angeles. Now my thoughts go from panic over packing to …bad life choices.

I should have stayed in New York. Nah. 

Thoughts over New York:  Is it normal to have regets for bad life choices? I made so many. Should I have left New York let him convince me to leave New York. Should I have stayed in New York? … Nah.

“Would you like a beverage?”

I stare at the Styrofoam cups at my eyeline. Cups for you and me to sip 8 ounces of unnecessary beverage, then toss. Where do they go and how many thousands are discarded in a day? Who decided on Styrofoam? Bad choice. We are such invaders on this planet. I’m 9 and a vegan. I’m worried about cows and where the world’s trash goes…I recall my dad’s response that “someone is running things and they have it under control and everything is going to work out.” I knew he was wrong then. You see, I need to by cynical, it keeps the pain away.

Is Greenland underserved? Maybe they need Shakespeare here.

Thoughts over Greenland : Who lives on that ice? Are there kids in Greenland? What’s it like to be 18 here? Do they stare into cell phones there? Should I start a Shakespeare Youth troupe here? If everything is going to melt here, maybe this is where I should live. Sounds like a good choice right now.

Nothing bad happens in the Cotswalds.

Thoughts over Britain: London is losing its iconic skyline…a ferris wheel? High-rises? Britain controlled the world for five minutes — and in that five minutes, borders changed, tribes disrupted, the future altered forever. Bad choices, Britain. Look at you now. Look at all of us now. 

“Would you like a beverage?”

“Not until you stop using Styrofoam.” Um…Did I just say that? Good or bad choice? I realize “choice” is incorrect. We all have choices, what we make are decisions. Then it hits me. What if it was every single bad decision from the very beginning — that got me here, in seat 23D, on my way to Botswana, Africa? 

Train to Altstadt, Frankfurt. 

Hope for Humanity found in Frankfurt Coffee House 

I’m onto something. If I can think this way, I won’t carry the world on my shoulders anymore. I leave the airport for a long layover and Frankfurt is snowing. I grab a train to Old Town and walk for hours on cobblestones. I’m seeing with newish eyes. Light shimmers on the snow, colors seem brighter, the air in my lungs is crisper. I feel every cell in my body on this walk over the bridge. I land in a coffee house to write about it in my journal. It’s warm and soft. I sit on a purple velvet sofa, dumping my heavy bags and sipping espresso. Suddenly I feel…hopeful. What’s happening?! The colors and fabrics, the lighting, warm tones…but it’s something else. SOUND. Everyone is talking. I’d forgotten this sound in this context. People are talking to each other over coffee.

In Wackers Kaffee I realize…people still talk. 

With the exception of Shakespeaere rehearsals in our theatre, my days are quiet. If I’m writing in a coffee house, no one talks! We stare into screens. Starbucks is a library without books. Talk in Groundworks, you offend the budding screenwriter next to you. Not here. I’m in awe as I listen to multi conversations in multi languages. It heartens me – Germany is filled with people conversing, smiling, responding. If people still talk in coffee houses it means revolutions can still be plotted. It means not everyone is on Snapchat. It means we still matter to each other. If I never make it to Africa … I can still go home with this new hope. I feel good about people for the first time in years. I get it. I have a choice: cynicism and isolation or hope for humanity. Today in the coffee house in Frankfurt, hope for humanity is my decision.

I’m relaxed. I’m in the moment. I know how I want to think now. Life is an adventure. Every day. The Troubleshooter in my brain got wind of this and feels the need to crash the party. In a gentle tone… Can you please….see if you got an email from Air Botswana? You should have been alerted to check in. Damn you. I search on my phone. Nothing. I can’t think about this, nor can I solve it. Time to return to the airport.

On the plane now. I meet my Frankfurt to J-burg seat partner. “Petra” has been to Botswana and 20 other countries in Africa. Petra laughs when I ask her about Air Botswana. She laughs when I ask if I can check in online. She laughs when I tell her I have 30 minutes to transfer at J-burg. Petra is German. She laughs as she says, “You are learning the African way: Make all the plans you like! Just be ready for what happens…”

I let my German seat partner laugh all she wants. I have a beautiful life. If I made a bad decision by in booking two African flights back to back, well…it’s only going to lead to a future miracle.

Next Up: Shakespeare in Africa #3: How to Be a Different Person.

 

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

a-and-c-fdd

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.