Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On the theatre of the child

Theatre isn’t about acting and awards only, this I’ve learnt. It is fashionable to rationalise the performing arts in terms of examinations, certificates, and adult-praise, but the truth is that it eventually becomes its own virtue. There are other factors at work therefore, not least of which the ecstasy and excitement of working together. Tension, energy, and emotion: all these come out, in snatches if not gushes, and adorn the final performance. And it’s not just the cast: everyone else, from the prop designer to the scriptwriter, gets involved. No ownership or bragging rights possible there.

I am no thespian and I suppose not being one makes it difficult to assess the performance arts. Not being a child, too. Small wonder. When we’re young we think we know everything and we want to impress our elders. When we grow older, as Irangani Serasinghe (no stranger to the theatre) once told me, you grow more self-conscious and you become shy, if not disturbed, about performing in front of an audience.

Children are different. They love to perform. They love to flaunt. They love to do what they do with passion. They don’t pretend and if they do, it’s not to get tokens paraded as awards.

This is a story about a group of children, 375 to be exact. On Wednesday, September 21 at the Bishops College Auditorium, they will perform and act out 13 items. The show (titled Tales Through Time) will feature conventional plays, folk tales, and allegories and myths, crisscrossing different cultures and relayed to unearth what the children possess. Some of them will get awards, others will not, while a few will act as part of an exam organised by Trinity College, London. All in all, a veritable assortment.

It all began several years ago. Ken Pickering, then Chief Examiner for Drama and Speech at Trinity, was in Sri Lanka. He met a person. That person was Odile Melder, teacher in charge of the subject at Lyceum International School, Nugegoda. He was taken around that school by her and, at the end of the tour, was given an idea to work on: since Speech and Drama were taught as examinable subjects to middle school, why not bring it down to lower grades and let students from primary classes perform and be assessed by Trinity?

Others had heard this idea being mooted and they had listened. But Pickering was ready to do more. So he set to work. He went back to England. On Melder’s suggestion, he initiated an exam for lower grades. There was by then a category titled “Young Performers”, but it was a hotchpotch. Pickering broke it down to three other categories: Bronze, Silver, and Gold, corresponding in that order to each level in primary school: Pre-Grade, Grade One, and Grade Two.

These were then implemented throughout the world and that eventually helped create a platform for young, creative children to come up and perform. All because of one teacher, one school, and one country. “That’s something I take pride in to date,” Melder remembers, with a twinkle in her eye.

Lyceum performs every other year. This year they’ve chosen several items, spanning more than 350 children and more than one teacher. I talked with both Melder and her daughter Andrea, and waited patiently as they reflected on what they had done.

But first, some numbers. There are 13 items altogether, performed by 13 groups. Three are from Grade One, three from Grade Two, two from Grade Four, one from Grade Five, one from Grade Six, one from Grade Seven, and two from Grade Eight. While Melder’s daughter Andrea is in charge of Grades One, Two, and Six, Melder herself is in charge of the rest.

The items themselves provoke comment. Andrea is organising five: Thoppi Velenda (from here), The Kangaroo and the Wombat (from Australia), and The Armadillo (from Latin America) for Grade One; The Ant and the Grasshopper for Grade Two; and that much beloved and contorted classic, The Little Mermaid (“Which has a twist at the end,” she highlights for me) for Grade Six. They are all taken from the folk tradition and were chosen to acquaint the children, young as they are, with the past.

Andrea says it best: “These stories were selected to make our children feel a country and way of life, to make them understand the rhythms of a culture and of a people. Naturally, we’ve accounted for everything: the music, the words, the movements.” She adds that each item has been peppered and flavoured (there’s really no other way of putting it) according to cultural temperament, so that, for instance, The Armadillo is sourced to an ancient fable about how the “charango”, an instrument made from the Armadillo’s shell, came to be.

Andrea, however, prefers to keep things short. No frills, no adjectives. Her mother on the other hand likes to explain and likes to splash some colour. I turn to her next.

For Grade Four, Melder has taken in two classics: one, the Nalapana Jathaka, a meditation on the virtue of resourcefulness and one which (in her own words) made ample use of the children’s inborn desire to be “the devils that they are” (as she remarks with a chortle); and the other, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Both items were devised, which is to say that the students were told a story and asked to respond to it. “Devised drama doesn’t begin with a preconceived script, but with the ideas submitted by the cast it congeals into one,” she contends, adding that in preparing her students for both items, she allowed them to multitask. Doesn’t make the other items less interesting, but she regards the Grade Four performances and, in particular, the Nalapana Jathaka with unmistakable nostalgia: “We made use of children exceptionally talented at Kandyan dancing. One can’t expect perfection from every child, but I am gratified by how able they are in this regard.”

The rest of the items are as interesting and as promising. There’s a take on Brother Bear (coordinated by Amanda Raymond Lee, “the most versatile member in our team,” as Melder says) for Grade Five (with a cast of more than 50), Medusa in Grade Seven (with a cast of 44), and Cinderella and Pandora’s Box in Grade Eight. Incidentally, these haven’t been selected for their aesthetic merit only. “I have a soft spot for Greek theatre, especially Euripides. Pandora and Medusa reflect that. I took in both for their message: the former on how evil came to the world, a theme explored by every religion, and the latter on how punishment can be a form of release.” Characteristically, she quips here: “When a student is punished wrongly, he or she can reflect on Medusa.” She then smiles. Again, characteristically.

What comes out most strikingly in this whole show, I believe, is how its organisers have tailor-made each item to suit the student. Medusa, for instance, will feature a girl with long hair, while The Sorcerer’s Apprentice will feature a boy (“A sweet and well-meaning one”) who possesses a near-perfect combination of voice and looks from among the cast.

And not for nothing have the organisers opted for this method. As Melder herself remarks, “If you select the play according to the temperament of the child, you are appreciating him or her. You cut down on the tendency of the cast to bicker and promote a sense of collaboration among them. So yes, this is THE method to go for when organising a wide array of items with children.”

Any final words? Andrea: “The more enthusiastic the students are, the easier it is to work with them. If you don’t forget your roots and if you flavour these items with their cultural backdrop, you will get variety.” Melder: “Forcing and pigeonholing the child won’t encourage him to collaborate. You need to be actively engaged and you need to be mindful of their strengths. Some may know to dance, others may know to sing, a few may know both, but if all you do is push them into how YOU want them to behave, I doubt you’ll get what you will this Wednesday. So yes, I encourage everyone to come. What you’ll see is what you’ll expect. Simple as that.”

Simple indeed. I suspect we can take her word for it. And I suspect we can all go and watch what she has done. This Wednesday.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY