Drawing children to the theatre of possibility
Cape Town - The thousand glittering lights dim, a hush falls and the plush stage curtains – so immense only a giant could have the power to part them as effortlessly – open on an undiscovered world.
Every child knows this magically pregnant moment in a dim theatre, and the anticipation of being transported.
Except, of course, not every child does.
Many of the children at Wesbank Primary School No 1 in Delft, for instance, have never even set foot in central Cape Town, let alone sat in the velvet seats of Artscape.
But that’s about to change through a collaboration between an Oxford-trained Londoner and a Wesbank-raised teacher who met two years ago and formed a budding alliance to broaden the opportunities and the imaginative horizons for children whose world might otherwise be limited to the poverty and social degradation of their economically stressed Cape Flats neighbourhood.
Lindsay Johns and Louise Jeffries have starkly contrasting backgrounds.
Johns, who was born to South African parents in London, was inspired as a teenager by the novels of none other than District Six writer Alex la Guma to reach beyond himself. He read modern languages at Oxford and embarked on post-graduate research in London in Medieval Latin and Italian literature and philosophy before becoming a writer and broadcaster.
Louise Jeffries, who grew up in Wesbank, always wanted to be a teacher – yet when she fell pregnant in Grade 12 that seemed out of the question. She felt that “my world would end”. It didn’t, but not without strenuous effort on her part. She ended up working in retail to make ends meet, but not for long. Her still-burning ambition decided her to apply for a B.Ed degree at UWC, which she finished in 2010, and a year later was “over the moon” to land a teaching post at Wesbank No 1 Primary School.
Not for nothing, Johns refers to Jeffries as “a formidable ally”.
Johns, who has family in Athlone and Grassy Park and often visits Cape Town, met Jeffries after being introduced to Wesbank No 1 Primary through a UWC initiative, and was “incredibly moved by what I saw at the school”, the great need, but also the commitment of teachers like Jeffries.
He took it on himself to begin raising money for the school from Britain and, with Jeffries, has crafted a project to give Wesbank children not just a chance of going to the theatre, sitting in those velvet seats and seeing the curtain sweep open on other worlds, but to begin to sense that they themselves could set their bearings on cultural and geographic frontiers well beyond the familiar and often discouraging confines of Delft.
Fifteen pupils aged 12 or 13 will be selected for each trip – the first is planned for some time in the next two months – to a play chosen by Johns and Jeffries. The aim is to run a trip every three months. Pupils will be expected to write a critique in English about the play, giving their thoughts on the production and on the experience in general. These will be shared with the theatre.
The collaborators are hoping to get help to cover the cost of the theatre tickets and the taxi fare to and from the venue, but a condition of the project is that all pupils make a contribution themselves, no matter how small, to avoid encouraging a “culture of dependency” which Johns believed “is counter-productive and harmful to the very people one is trying to assist”.
For the past 11 years, back home in London, Johns has been engaged in a similar initiative as a volunteer mentor with young people in Peckham on the strength of having “discovered a passion for theatre while at university, which changed my life”.
“The canon of great plays and books, whether Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare and Rattigan, Ibsen, Camus, Baldwin or Alex la Guma, can be tremendously empowering and life-changing, hugely contributing to our understanding of life and our philosophical world view, and help to develop a sensitive, nuanced appreciation of the human condition – in all its beauty and sadness, majesty and meaninglessness – and, crucially, can augment our humanity.”
Johns said he felt strongly the plays must be selected “on artistic merit alone, not necessarily ‘relevance’”.
“Any theatrical experience is preferable to none, but if push came to shove, I would far rather take the kids to see a canonical Shakespeare or Ibsen play than a play for example about gangsterism on the Cape Flats.
“I’m not saying gangsterism is not a vital topic, but in all probability the young learners already have that as their quotidian reality and are informed of its perils. I therefore want to expose them to something new, universal and timeless – a piece of great art which can take them out of themselves and connect them with something far bigger than themselves.
“If 13-year-old kids from Wesbank can see and understand a Shakespeare play set in, for example Ancient Rome (Julius Caesar) and enjoy the mellifluous iambic pentameter of the verse, or the perennial themes of love, repression and power in a 19th century provincial Norwegian play (Ibsen), or a 1940s English middle-class, parlour room drama (Rattigan), then the chances are they will be able to understand anything,” he said.
“I have no desire to limit the young learners to plays which only deal with their local, daily reality or solely focus on nefarious stereotypes of coloured culture. That is too myopic and narrow a focus.”
The trips were also about “ownership” – showing Wesbank children that “they too belong in these ‘exclusive’ or ‘elite’ spaces as much as anyone else” – and helping to “get the young learners out of the debilitating spiral of the poverty of aspiration which can afflict so many in township environments”, Johns said.
“It would be hoped such trips would help the young learners grow in confidence, maturity, to take themselves more seriously and thus to get taken more seriously by others, to improve their school grades and to learn invaluable life lessons, thus preparing them for the wider world. Is it ambitious? Certainly. Is it worth trying? Definitely.”
Jeffries personifies the virtue of making an effort to inspire children.
She has no illusions about a teaching job she describes candidly as “very challenging”, but sees in the experience the scope for her own growth.
“I wouldn’t want to teach at any other school,” she said.
It was an advantage to know Wesbank with the familiarity of an intimate.
“The fact that I’m from here has helped a lot. I know most of the kids and their parents personally, and their circumstances. We face many challenges daily, like gangsterism, poverty and the fact that most of our kids are restricted to Wesbank and do not know that there is a world out there waiting to be explored.”