Commedia School.

Educational Theatre training for youth in Kenya

[subheader]Likoni, Mombassa, Kenya[/subheader]

8 January 2011

To begin the New Year 2011, on the first of January I boarded a plane from Copenhagen to Nairobi and from there to Mombassa, Kenya to give a brief one week intensive training in theatre to a select group of AMURT Youth.  I had been told that these youth had been doing some theatre, but their basic knowledge of the craft was not very extensive.  My expectations and objectives were quite high – in one week to produce two to four quality presentations ready for public presentation dealing with issues facing the youth of Likoni, a slum suburb of Mombasa.  These issues, I had been informed, included HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, early marriage, and inter-religious conflict.

I had also been informed to expect a different sense of time, and although the scheduled time was 9:00 A.M., I should be prepared to begin much later.  This was not true and during the entire week 22 people were ready and eager to begin ahead of time.

In nearly all my classes anywhere in the world the enthusiasm and excitement for theatre quickly mounts.  This was no exception.  The energy level was high and the focus sharp from the beginning.  Within a short time and only a few exercises I could understand that I had a highly talented, committed group of young people who could match my demands.  My task then was to constrain that energy and enthusiasm into clearly structured presentations, for me a very pleasing situation.

In a workshop such as this, I pass through four phases.  The first is to disturb perceptions of the participants, to put them in a state where they no longer have preconceived ideas about their own limitations or what might happen during the workshop.  This group was extremely willing to play and absorbed all the exercises with their African style, making everything into a song and dance.
The next phase is what I call physical spontaneity, playing physically with others in loosely structured situations with their texts coming spontaneously from the action.  In this play they were not playing humans.  This group’s play was big, loud, fun and funny, enjoyed by all.  Even passers by stopped to enjoy seeing them play.

The next phase is called physical focus and entails concentration in stillness and silence.  This  is often difficult because by this stage of the workshop excitement is high and the energetic participants expect to continue at the high level.  It was the same with this group.  But they were easily able to master the discipline necessary and surprised themselves at the results.  It was just a short step to the final phase, fusion, putting all the three first phases together.

After three and a half days of these exercises this group was ready to quickly create their final pieces using elements from the four phases.  They managed remarkably well with very little input from me and produced two twenty minute pieces, one concerned with the issue of HIV/AIDS and the other on the issue of religious intolerance.  Both pieces were at a level ready to perform publicly.

One of the most important issues for the peer to peer education program of AMURT Youth is HIV/AIDS, a sensitive subject to deal with theatrically. The problem came up for this group, and everyone agreed that it is offensive to the public to depict the sexual act on stage.  A clever and enjoyable solution had already been revealed to them in the earlier exercises.  With a helpful little suggestion, they made the connection and produced a lively, funny, and moving piece on this urgent and sensitive issue with a cast of eleven.

The second piece was a touching presentation on religious intolerance and the pain and disruption this causes in families.  It not only dealt with the problem, but showed a positive solution as well.

My original plan had been to make four pieces because I expected difficulty in producing finished results with large groups such as these.  I was pleasantly surprised to see them working so effectively even with eleven in each group.  The quality level of their presentations far surpassed my expectations and even those non-Swahili speaking guests who saw the results were moved by the performances. These AMURT Youth revealed to me a very keen theatrical sense.  If they are able to persevere as performers, which I hope, these groups will surely extend their influence beyond Likoni.