Global Creative Collaboration at its Best: The Story of ‘PopArt’

September 2011’s Out the Box Festival of Puppetry and Visual Theatre, Cape Town brought together an exciting artistic, cultural and educational collaboration between UK based Libellule Theatre (www.libelluletheatre.co.uk) and SA’s finest social enterprise Greenpop (www.greenpop.org).

Out the Box wanted to develop their own ‘green-ness’ and use the festival as an outlet for inspiring the local community to learn more about protecting our environment. Greenpop are the masters of ‘Greening’ but they wanted to develop the way in which they educate and  engage future generations in the knowledge and understanding of what it takes to sustain our natural world. And we, Libellule Theatre, have a wealth of experience in educating through the arts and wanted to be more than just a visiting performing company. We wanted to be a part of the community we were coming into and thus, the ’PopArt’ project was born!

The project had the overall objective of creating a piece of original theatre with 25 grade 7 students from Prince Georges Primary School, Lavender Hill which would be performed as part of the Out the Box Festival opening events. The content of the performances was to be based around the Greenpop concept of ‘Making Grey Areas Green’. An integral component of the work was to be the students understanding of the concept and the relevance that it has to them in their world. Placing the students at the heart of the project, giving them ownership of the final product and allowing the project to be steered by the participants was an ethos that all three collaborative companies were passionate about. The process that the students undertook, their own learning journey and the journey of the artists working alongside them, was of more importance than the final product. The project was about learning new skills, exploring new ideas, being open to new forms of expression and communication and the performance was to be a sharing of that journey with a wider audience.

 

Our first day with the students was a Greenpop planting day at the school. It was a wonderful environment in which to get to know the students as individuals. We were all brilliantly instructed in the correct way to plant a tree to be sure it has the best possible chance in life. We built ‘planting teams’ and created an identity for ourselves, we named and nurtured our trees into the ground and we laughed! It was a fantastic atmosphere to begin a relationship; we learnt together, we created together, we got mucky together and we achieved together!  At the end of the day we engaged the students in one activity which would inform the future drama work and start the students thinking in a different way. We asked them to imagine what a tree would say to humanity if it could speak. These thoughts were written on paper and each individual was filmed holding their words. The purpose of this was threefold; firstly to begin the creative process and see how the students responded to connecting empathetically with something other than a human being; secondly, to provide footage for the performance as we wanted to bring the process into the product and layer the live action with film footage which would inform and illustrate to the audience where the performance had germinated from. And finally to expose the children to collaborating with Makhulu Productions (www.makhulublogspot.com ) who, as artists, did not want to merely document the work being done in the classroom, they wanted to share in the experience. It also provided a whole new skill set and level of understanding for the students during filming activities.

Building on our first meeting we began an intensive week of skills building and devising, working with the students for five hours each day. The first practical days’ work on a project like this is always about finding your feet, getting to know the students and gaining an understanding of how they learn, how they respond to different teaching approaches and also different styles of theatre. These students had little, or no, exposure to professional theatre and so their experience of a performance was based on plays about issues such as bullying that they have put on for the rest of the school. Their understanding of a theatrical process was practising a script, wearing costumes and being directed what to do at each and every moment. But we wanted them to create! It was clear that the building blocks of creativity, devising and ensemble work would be high on our list of priorities for the week. It was also clear that this would take time as it was a totally new concept for them but it was also clear that this journey would be an amazing experience and learning opportunity for this small group of students…and us!

We worked hard. At first we used a lot of games to introduce the students to theatrical conventions such as the importance of stillness and focus, using their bodies to represent characters, objects, landscapes and emotions.  The students’ skills and understanding of different modes of performance was wonderful to watch and once the basics were in place we were able to move these games into more complex exercises to explore the theme and begin to develop material from their ideas.  We had a constant battle against calls of “When are we going to start practising the play?”  As much as we tried to explain that what they were creating would become ‘the play’ the concept was so very alien to them that it wasn’t until we started to piece sections together and discuss how the story would flow from one to another did they begin to see clearly the work they had developed  in a coherent context.

We were also lucky enough to be joined by a local artist Mo from MFusion Danz (www.mfusiondanz.com)  who took on the task of rehearsing the group in a celebratory dance influenced by hip hop, an embedded aspect of the young people’s immediate world which they thoroughly enjoyed and readily engaged with.

The most exhilarating and rewarding growth to observe was watching the group trusting in each other, being responsible for each other and working as an ensemble, both physically and emotionally. When we first met the group they found listening to, and accepting, each others’ ideas difficult and would very strongly vocally challenge anyone’s thoughts. They had little awareness of their own and others’ physicality and personal space and the concept of being gentle and respectful of other people made building an ensemble a challenging process for us. However, the hard work, persistence, positive energy and encouragement had a staggering impact on the group. By the end of the week the students were unrecognisable as the same class we had met just eight days previously. The students had created a strong ensemble which supported and respected each individual and self -disciplined from within the group to great effect.

 

The personal and social journey of development that this group of young people had embarked on was dramatically proved on one day, Performance Day! The students arrived full of energy and excitement at The Magnet Theatre with friends and family as support. Together we walked into the theatre and we experienced an amazing transformation! Whether it was nerves, a sense of awe at being in a professional theatre space, the reality of what they were about to do or a sense of responsibility and a desire to do well or maybe a combination of all of these factors we may never know. The result however was a group of young people who at that moment blossomed into a young company of performers who rehearsed for the final time, were focused and professional throughout the technical stops and starts and took on board changes which had to be made due to light and space without a flicker of concern, just a sense of calm and pride.

The performance was an incredible success. The students did a fantastic job despite some rising nerves and they told the audience their story; We see a grey world, its inhabitants and their mundane lives, suddenly something new.  A small tree begins to grow in the midst of the grey environment. A friendship blossoms between the tree and one of the ‘grey creatures’ and we follow them on their journey of discovery as the tree is nurtured and protected by her new friend. Finally the strange new plant is accepted by the community and allowed to flourish thereby bringing colour and joy to the grey world.

Simone Lewis, Libellule Theatre Associate Artist said of her experience  “This project has proved just how important, and effective, drama is as a tool in developing interpersonal skills, increasing self-confidence and instilling a strong sense of self-worth in young people. At the same time, drama can provide an alternative teaching method that breaks away from textbook based learning and the national ‘chalk-and-talk’ system of education we have all become familiar with.”

Greenpop said, ‘It was an incredible learning experience, not only for the 25 learners but for Greenpop too. Libellule Theatre showed us creative ways to work with our content so that students experience the learning rather than have it told to them. We look forward to collaborating again and embedding this creative educational process into every tree planting day that we hold at under-greened schools around Southern Africa. For Greenpop, education and practical learning around environmental issues is just as, if not more, important that planting trees. It’s vital to make this learning accessible, enjoyable and memorable for those who will be looking after our planet in the years to come.”

“The PopArt initiative once again proved that there is an inherent link between sustainability education and the creative arts. They built confidence, stimulated creativity and engaged kids in a key issue; climate change. Seeing this culminate in a performance during the opening of the Out the Box festival was amazing.” Said Gillion Bosman, British Council, Cape Town.

This project forms part of the British Council South Africa’s COPART project a project that supports a movement of artist, scientist and communities working together to create new ways of working within a climate changing world.

Written by Louise Clark, Artistic Director Libellule Theatre, UK.

With Special Thanks to:

The British Council

UNIMA

Out the Box Festival

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