Open with a bang

posted in: Production | 2

I had always intended for the play to start with a lone figure entering from the back, singing a lullaby, as a way of capturing the audience’s attention, but as yet we had not had the opportunity to select a singer, song, etc.  So a suitable candidate was plucked from the chorus and the song was chosen for her.  Ndiivhuwo immediately took her place and walked forward, singing beautifully, alone and unaccompanied, in front of the entire assembled company; I would never have found someone with that level of confidence in England.

But then we needed to open with a bang, and we arranged for that song to be interrupted by the entire cast bursting in from all four corners of the theatre in a wildly cacophonous explosion of noise and energy.  Luckily (pun fully intended) Lucky was available to co-ordinate, orchestrate, and choreograph the whole business.  The trick was to appear to have wild anarchy, while actually having a rigid skeleton of self-discipline to hold it together.  It certainly wasn’t polished perfection, but the structure is there, and it has the impact I was after.

The storyteller of the first story brings that opening to a close, and commences the play proper.  It was, I promise you, genuine serendipity that that storyteller was Ndivhuwo.  Just lucky, I guess.


Reflections VII – Culture clash

posted in: Life in South Africa | 0

Taking advantage of a long weekend – Human Rights Day – we headed into Kwa-Zulu Natal and the town of Dundee, an excellent base to explore the battlefields of the Anglo-Zulu and Boer Wars – we took a guided tour of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift (for those of a certain age, think “Zulu” with Michael Caine.) Our guide, Pat Rondgren, gave an excellent insight to battle strategy (and stupidity), but also into Zulu culture.

The Zulu were raiders, with no concept of borders and the ownership of land, and had little interest in things that were anchored. There are monuments to both sides  – the photo is of a monument to the Zulu fallen at Rorke’s Drift, a statue of a leopard on hide shields – but it is largely for the benefit of (white) visitors.  The Zulu see far greater point to the tree planted alongside, which provides shade and sustenance.

Western virtues do not sit easily with Zulu culture. We value punctuality (the politeness of kings), making eye contact upon meeting, even the idea of ladies first when entering a room (it is the duty of the Zulu man to enter first to ensure no danger lurks within). And, knowing this, I have had cause to question my own teaching.  Am I being stubbornly dogmatic (and racist) in demanding that the learners in my class “listen with their eyes”?  Should I continue to insist upon the learners arriving on time for lessons and rehearsals, and getting down to work straight away?  (That is certainly something the school insists upon.)  Or is it patronising (and racist) to make allowances for a different approach, when they will have to make their way in the modern world.  No straightforward answer, I fear.

The crying game

posted in: Production | 0

Nokuthule was drafted today as the poor little cripple girl (European equivalent: the little match girl – the connections just keep happening.)  She is a late replacement, after I tired of people not turning up for rehearsals, and re-cast from the four who did.  There may be trouble ahead (as Fred Astaire used to say) from a disgruntled cast, but I’ll just have to face the music.*

She appears in The Tree, one of the three plays which rehearsed today.  The other two were The Three Sons, under the direction of Val, and Soup, directed by… themselves!  (Fortunately, that is something they are good at here.)  All groups were (reasonably) satisfied with their progress, but of course we are many steps behind where we ought to be.  As I frequently remark, nothing new there then.

(* – and dance?)

Football crazy, football mad

posted in: School life | 0

We’ve mentioned before that the lawn right outside our window is frequently used as a rehearsal space, chiefly by the choir.  The downside is that it is used even more regularly as an inpromptu football pitch, every night after dinner, and as such it is far louder than the choir.  Not exactly two jumpers for goalposts, as the goals are a single dustbin at each end, which does make for an interesting variety of tactics.

Football is also played every break in the playground by the learners, as well as, just down the road on a scrappy piece of wasteland, local youngsters.  In both venues the players exhibit a good deal of skill, and here (and no doubt there) many have the ambition of playing professionally; the chances are, of course, virtually zero.

Naturally, with the globalisation of the beautiful game, most people here have two teams: one South African, one Manchester United.  I regularly try to suggest that there are alternatives, and have many conversations about the merits of other teams… well, one other team.  I also possess a Kaiser Chiefs shirt, which provokes much excitement, but just a hint of disappointment when I confess that my interest is more in the rock band of that name than the team.

Reflections VI – Mallingering

posted in: Life in South Africa | 0

Shopping malls are very big in South Africa, both literally and figuratively. For some sections of the population, they are truly the only place to shop. And that is all kinds of shopping: fashion and homeware as well as the weekly food shop, as they are home to all the major supermarkets, from (curiously) Woolworths at the luxury end down to Pick’n Pay at the budget. Apart from in the malls, there are plenty of other shops which call themselves supermarkets – eight on the short trip to our local swimming pool, along run-down Jules Street – but they are what we would call corner shops, and fairly wretched ones at that, with food on pallets and a lockable gate at the door; that is where the majority of the poorer black population does its shopping.

There are black people in the malls, but apart from the relatively small (though growing) black middle class, they tend to be the people working there – shop assistants, waiting staff, security guards.

Malls are also leisure venues, containing cinemas and private gyms. Most have an area open to the sky, with a children’s play area fringed by restaurants of all kinds – Italian, Indian, Mexican, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese… all staffed by black people. There will frequently be a hotel attached, and along with the other Stowe teachers who came last February, it was in one of these that I was booked. Apart from when we were in a car or inside the school gates, the mall was pretty much the only place we saw.

For mall goers, there is no concept of walking to the shops – it’s always a drive. The trick is to work out which multi-storey car parks gets you closest to your preferred shopping destination. And after transporting your purchases to your car, staff tether together huge trains of trolleys and return them to their respective stores, often maneuvering them by hand, sometimes using golf buggies or small tractors.

Note – this will be our last posting for a few days. We are taking advantage of the school being closed for a long weekend to visit the South African battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal (or KZN as it’s known here), so the blog will be on holiday too. More news upon our return.


posted in: Production | 0

The play “Soup” was the major focus of this afternoon’s rehearsal, a slightly bizarre tale with the message that, just like the ingredients of soup, we are better together.  Plotwise, it is a cross between The Ugly Duckling and Rumpelstiltskin: Duckling learns the name of her future husband, and so becomes a (married) swan.

As I’ve said before, the big problem with rehearsals is getting all of the required actors in one place at the same time.  So far at least, that hasn’t happened with any of the plays, though it does tend to be a different person (or persons) missing each time.  So people ARE rehearsing… only not together.

The cast of “Soup” are, however, uniformly wonderful (even when not there.) Though I do think their named characters – Salt, Pepper, Spice, Sauce, Onion leaves and Dripping – would be very thin fare.  Even together.

Once upon a time

posted in: Production | 0

So here’s the poster for the show, designed by Simbarashe Mabaire, a Grade 10 learner here (i.e. about sixteen.) “Kwasuka Sukela” means Once upon a time in Zulu, referring to the storytelling nature of the play, while “Footprints” refers to the idea of a journey, from the past to the present, from tradition to modernity. The first five stories in the play are told in a traditional manner, leading to the sixth which has a modern context, but includes actors and characters from the first five, re-appearing as their modern equivalent. It was a concept which arrived more or less by accident, but I’m pleased with it all the same.

I’m pleased with the poster too, though it was something of a struggle to edge Simbarashe away from blocking out much of the design with an ugly information box. Now all we need to do is get it printed and displayed, and sell some tickets. And integrate the action with marimbas, drumming, dance, the choir. And finish (whatever that means) rehearsing the play. Nothing unusual there then.

Say a little prayer

posted in: School life | 0

Dominican Convent School is, of course, Catholic (small c as well), and this is an aspect which is by no means tokenistic. Although there are no longer nuns living on site, or involved in the day-to-day running of the school, they maintain a presence, attending the weekly church service, and represented on the management board.

The most noticeable aspect of Catholicism in the school is the place of prayer. The staff briefing each morning begins with prayer, grace is said before and after every meal, and prayers are said by all at the line-up which takes place three times a day.

Discipline is strictly enforced at these gatherings, silence, order and attention insisted upon most firmly. There are occasions when a certain tension exists between the religious and the secular messages given out; render unto Caesar, I suppose…

The Da Vinci code

posted in: School life | 0

One of the huge bonuses of living and working at DCS is that we are regularly exposed to their wonderful choir. This afternoon we had the privilege of accompanying them to the Da Vinci hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg’s well-heeled business suburb (and Africa’s richest square mile, according to the signs.) They were providing the entertainment for the launch of a British Council-sponsored youth initiative, named COSY (Creating Opportunities for South africa’s Youth); it was ironic that cosy perfectly described the cramped and over-warm venue. Despite this, they produced their usual superb and consummately professional job.

From a personal perspective, their performance was too short (more Exploiting South Africa’s Youth for the Benefit of their Launch) but it was still wonderful.



posted in: School life | 0

Today was Thinking Day, a cross curricular off-timetable exercise for the whole school, with the learners in mixed – age and gender – groups and given a lot of challenging material to discuss and debate. The theme was to do with identity, image, stereotype – one result being the ‘just because…’ placards shown in the photo. Their commitment was impressive. They stayed on task, they engaged with the issues, they listened to each other, and shared their own postings on social media – one important element of the topic.

Most striking, and provoking strong debate, was a controversial short film, depicting a clever reversal of the norm in South Africa: black tourists on a luxury coach, gazing out at poverty-stricken white families; a black driver locking her car door as a white boy walks past; a white nanny with privileged black kids. I found it witty and pertinent; mostly, it made them angry.