Monday, October 29, 2012

Pilot Project: Complete

The project, which brought weekly theatre workshops to a set group of 16 "learners" (what South Africans call students up to age 18) from a township school, is complete.  The students from UFS who served as Assistant Teachers suggested a sort of  finale to honor our group's dedication and commitment, which we delivered.  After transporting the 16 "learners"  from their school to the UFS campus, a full day of theatre activities commenced.

We arrived on campus for a dance workshop led by a professional choreographer and assisted by a few of my college students.  The workshop was held in the large movement room in one of the theatres.

A male teacher from the school, who accompanied the group, told us he had never seen the children so happy.  Indeed, we paid particular attention to the girl who is the second from the left in the video.  She had a very meek voice, and we could not get her to remove her hand from the front of her mouth.  The hand always trembled when she was spoken to, and we suspected something traumatic had happened at some point in her life.  This is no small surprise when you consider that South Africa has the highest incident of rape in the world, and that Sub-Saharan Africa holds the record for HIV-AIDS.  Life expectancy in South Africa is 51.2 years.  The graduation rate for 2011 was 70.2%, but only 23.5% qualified for entrance into any higher education degree program.  This number is expected to drop severely due to recent government corruption that resulted in non delivery of text books to hundreds of thousands of youth.  The 2012 school year will soon end, and the books still sit in a warehouse, never having reached the schools.

You'll see that in the video, the girl has lost all self-awareness.  The arts have a tendency to do that.....

Following the workshop, we had a buffet lunch, which produced the most enthusiastic eaters I've ever had the pleasure of dining with.   We then drove the learners through our beautiful campus, and tried to stimulate their desire to consider higher education.  Next stop---our rather large proscenium theatre where our guests were given a tour by the Assistant Theatre Manager, and through him  learned a variety of stage terminology.

We had discovered during one of the workshops that not one of the students had ever entered a movie theatre. In fact, I recently had a conversation with a black lecturer at UFS who told me that his first  movie-going experience was in his 20s. This is not due to a lack of theatres, which are relatively abundant, or inflated ticket prices.  When you can not afford  pap (porridge) for your children, the idea of a movie ticket becomes unattainable.  Unreachable.  Foolish to desire.

With this in mind, my UFS students suggested taking the group to a movie theatre.  I asked for sponsors to pay for the tickets, but no one felt the learners were a worthy endeavor.  One of my colleagues suggested closing down the large proscenium theatre and showing  a movie privately.  The white cyclorama behind the children turned into a giant movie screen with stereo sound and crisp video images.  We deliberated over appropriate titles.  Consideration regarding the ability to understand content became paramount.  And we settled on.....Nemo!  One of the girls turned to me, gestured for me to bend down to her level, and said, "I'm so happy.  Thank you."  And that's all we needed.

The day ended with official certificates of completion for all, and a group photo for each young actor to carry home.  There were many tears, and not just on the part of the children.

We then returned the children to their homes in the township.

 This isn't the greatest picture to indicate how far in the distance the tin shacks can be seen.  But they do stretch into the horizon.  Trash collection does not exist.  And children are frequently seen picking through huge piles for food and other usable items.

In the end, I think we gained more from the experience than the learners.  I know I did.  And my students and colleagues, all South Africans, seemed to have found a new perspective as to how devastating the poverty actually is.  I believe, in the end, they learned that you start with just one person, and a desire to do better in the world.