Theatre Thursday

Many Cultures – One Community: My Adventures with World Theatre

This semester I had the pleasure of helping to teach a world theatre class in my high school.

World Theatre is an introductory course designed for a general student population that acquainted students with the origins and evolution of non-Western theatre and the performance art of Asia, Africa, and Latin American. Students were introduced to elements of theatre, dance-drama, masks, music and dance within different cultural environments. Students were involved in devising, researching, creating and performing projects that reflect the influences and styles of performance worldwide.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…” We are a part of a large human family.  World Theatre was designed to explore our place in the world, international cultures and diversity.  Only as we understand ourselves and our place in the world can we begin to make a difference in the world.

We began with the proposition that “ART SHOWS US WHO WE ARE” as we explore:

  • Became conversant about diversity of world cultures that produce rituals, theatrical events, plays, and a variety of performances that illuminate the human condition;
  • Explored what theatre as an art form exists throughout the world and how it is universally used to address ethical issues;
  • Explored how theatre and arts are often used to address social and justice issues within a given culture and, by extension, our culture;
  • Compared the cultures of other countries and their influence on Western theatre and how other cultures may be influenced by Western theatre;
  • Learned and implemented proper theatre etiquette to become more informed audiences for all forms of theatre and public performances by attending and discussing live performances with other patrons, thereby contributing to the theatre process;
  • Examined and increased a knowledge of globalization through the world’s many contributions to the performance arts;
  • Enhanced critical thinking and aesthetic appreciation skills by observing/reading/ performing a variety of material and performance modes that are beyond our Western experience.

Since our Production class project, Noises Off, was cancelled due to missed deadlines, we added a performance element from their class to our world theatre class.  Some took the opportunity and flourished.  Some squandered the opportunity, opting to let bitterness and disappointment rob them of seeing the joy of theatre and story telling.  They missed out in trying new things and being open to experiences that could help them to grow as artists and as performers.  Those who chose to take the opportunity learned great things, the least of which was a realization that they are part of a greater whole and that every little part matters in preserving great stories.

Actors from the production class contributed a reader’s theatre element, sharing prose and poems about unity.  They had the opportunity to work with a guest director that stretched their understanding of pace, inflection and interpretation.  This artistic element beautifully tied the rest of the pieces together showing our community that art truly does show who we are.

Two students were given the opportunity to direct a 10 minute folk tale each.  This assignment stretched them. They were responsible for all of the directorial decisions for their respective short plays.  They needed to decided on blocking, rehearsals, costumes, lighting, sound cues, etc.  They struggled with cast members schedules and memorization… all things that a director often must face.

One of these 10 minute plays was a Native American tale from a tribe in Canada.  This tale explored themes of acceptance and being open to possibilities.  In this story two sisters live in a small village.  One sister torments the other sister, beating her, burning her, and enslaving her.  She keeps her sister from visiting the “Hidden One.”  The Hidden One’s sister visits with the two sisters to see who is worthy.  Little Scar Face, the tormented sister, is able to see the Hidden One.  Because of her open mind, her scars disappear and her possibilities become endless.  I think it’s a Cinderella kind of story.  However, I can also see some beautiful themes of being open to new experiences, kindness, and inner beauty, lessons often missed by a “me” generation.  I loved that a story from another culture can help an audience member explore these themes.

The second folk tale directed by a student was an Iranian story, Forty Fortunes.  The story of the would-be fortuneteller is one of the most popular tales of Iran and the rest of the Islamic world, and is found in countless versions.  In our story, a well-intentioned fortune-telling peasant unwittingly tricks a band of local thieves into returning the king’s stolen treasure.  The peasant worries about being thrown into prison. Sure, he was able to locate a missing ring, but that was pure luck, and he knows that he has no real fortunetelling skills. He has only forty days to find the forty fortunes.  Fortunately, fate smiles on him and he is able to return the king’s treasure.

This was a fun story.  What I learned from this story is that when we make an effort, things have a way of working out.  In our classes, the students that took hold of the opportunities given and tried their best, were able to grow are performers.  They were able to succeed.

Our world theatre class explored story telling using shadow puppets inspired by Indonesian shadow puppets.  The students were assigned to research a creation story, write a script, create shadow puppets, and perform their stories.  I loved how this assignment turned out.  The students who performed during our production, Many Cultures – One Community, choose creation stories from Hawaii, Africa, and Mexico.

They also learned story telling through dance.  One of the dances I taught them was an African dance celebrating the harvest.

I also taught them a dance from India.  This dance told the story of courtship.  I also brought in a friend to teach them the salsa and some of the students in the class shared dances from their countries and cultures.  In all we learned two dances from Mexico, a dance from Saudi Arabia, and studied the art of story telling dances of the Pacific Islands.

When you take a look at the diversity of our class members, I am so impressed with how we were all able to come together, many cultures but one world.  In all we had a student from Taiwan, a student from Saudi Arabia, a student from Jamaica, and a student from the Pacific Islands.  We had multiple students from Latin decent and a handful of Caucasian students.  These remarkable students came together and learned to celebrate all that we have in common and to embrace our differences.

The main part of our production was a one act play entitled Manzi: The Adventures of a Young Cesar Chavez written by Jose Cruz Gonzalez.  The majority of the students in this one act were new to theatre.  They had never stepped onto a stage before.  Exploring story telling as actors was a scary proposition for them.  However, I am so proud of them.  They rose to the challenge and successfully shared their story to bilingual audiences.

The story of Manzi is all too real to many of the students who spend their summers working the farms of our community.  We began our rehearsals by opening the “freakin’ can of worms” of immigration and the labor movement.  We discussed why sharing the story was important and how it contributed to the preservation of culture and history.

The story is narrated by Cesar’s sister, Rita, as she shared her childhood memories.  As a boy, Cesario Chavez, who grew up and became a civil rights leader and United Farm Workers co-founder, lived with his parents and siblings on a farm in Arizona.  They worked hard.  They played together and swam in the canal.  During the Depression a man drove up and told the family that they had lost the farm.  They packed all they had into their car and became migrant workers in California.

The story focuses on the transition from the relatively carefree state of security we might think of as a “normal” childhood to a life in which migrant children were ridiculed, abused, discriminated against, and worked nearly to death.  These kids never really knew where they would be living season to season, whether there would be work to put food on the table, or how they would be treated.  I think the students discovered how hurt and indignities nurtured Cesar’s spirit of justice and compassion.

We kept our story telling simple.  We used acting blocks and simple everyday objects.

The story points out that Chavez wasn’t born a leader, he became one.  I loved this theme.  These kids weren’t born actors: they become actors.  These kids aren’t born leaders in the community; but as they share their stories and use the performing arts to make a difference in the world, they can become great leaders.

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Like a young Cesar Chavez these kids learned the value of education and the value of preserving our stories through the performing arts.  They learned that an education is worth seeking.  They learned that sharing our stories is what connects us to others.

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Sharing this kind of theatre can make the human heart laugh and cry.  A story such as this, a production such as this, reminds us that we are one.  We can unit and make a difference.  We can be a power for good.

I am so proud of this project.  This class only had 24 students.  However, the word got around and over 45 students have requested the class for next year.  These are not the “regular” theatre students of our school.  Not only has the class opened the minds of students to cultures from around the world and the many ways we share our stories, it has opened to door of theatre to the diverse population of our school.

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