Artistic License

I have just sat through my daughter’s school production of Alice in Wonderland, and I now realize that I am a total literary dunce. I had no idea that it was all so confusing.

The problem with Lewis Carroll is that his writing breaks all my golden rules for enjoyment of a children’s production. Despite extended practices and enthusiastic, talented producers, it still failed to meet my personal expectations. His plot is so convoluted that you are too busy trying to keep track of the storyline to be able to spot your own child, let alone make out what they are actually saying. His dialogue makes no sense whatsoever, so the time honored tradition of pregnant pauses and hasty hilarious ad libs from middle schoolers is ruined – you can’t tell what was his work, and what was the children’s own imagination. And nobody, but nobody fell off the stage. It was a parenting nightmare.

It wasn’t as fraught as our previous experience of an Alice production, performed at one of the largest private schools in Nairobi, under the steely gaze of Ms P, the drama teacher. Thankfully, it was George (previously featuring in It Started with a Kick) who was subject to the artistic whims of her frustrated creativity, which included her withholding the script and CD of the songs because he was unable to attend the practice where they were issued. The logic behind this cruel and unusual punishment was a little flawed as George had a considerable number of lines, and the Braeburn crowd were unlikely to be impressed with utter silence, nervous giggling or a ten year old ad libbing in place of scripted dialogue. Ms P also had failed to reckon with Suzanne, who while she gives the impression of being a genteel lady from the Home Counties, actually hails from Yorkshire, where plain speaking and pithy remarks are ingrained from birth. Suffice to say that most of the ‘conversation’ was pointed, forceful and ended with Suzanne uttering the coup de grace loudly across the playground “Let’s try and remember who is supposed to be the adult here, shall we?”. It may not have been popular in dramatic circles, but we’re still using it as a catchphrase 5 years later.. Still, Mrs P had the last laugh – the deadline for being ‘off book’ and note perfect fell immediately after half term, so our planned vacation spent on sun loungers, watching distant children irritate the kid’s club staff and sipping dawas was rudely interrupted by repeated off key performances of “I’m late”. Hmm.

We have had better luck with other dramatic performances. The drama club in Nairobi was run by an extremely talented and creative woman, who held the children spellbound and nurtured their artistic passions, culminating after six months in a production of the Lion King. At least, I think that’s what it was.

The first clue I should have had that it was not going to be run strictly to script was when Martha announced she was going to be a squirrel. Those with keen observation skills will note that there is indeed, not a squirrel in Disney’s version, nor in the Elton John one. The other slightly unusual directorial decision involved doubling up acting roles with backstage ones, so that actors frequently carted their props and backdrops off stage as they exited stage left, and Pumba was required to nip backstage to press ‘play’ before any musical number could begin. The script was abandoned in the first three minutes, after which each character resorted to enthusiastic ad libbing and general acting out on stage.

It was mesmerizing to watch. Attempts at videoing it were hastily abandoned, lest grandparents wanted to see evidence of what amounted to theatrical carnage. The story line descended to a more generic ‘High Jinks in the Jungle’ motif, with enthusiastic participation from all concerned. Laughter become the new ‘clapometer’ and the more they could generate from their partners in crime onstage, the better. And the audience expectations could just take a flying leap.

It has spawned a love of the theatre that continues to this day. The Wiggy One’s favorite class is stagecraft, where they learn the art of set construction and backstage management. The Feisty One tries out for every school production for the sheer joy of being involved. Neither of them harbor any real desire to be the star, centre stage, but they both appreciate the camaraderie, the creativity and the work that putting on a production takes. Shabiro, you should be proud that you took a group of stage-struck children, instilled a love of self expression, and had the strength to stand back and let them enjoy it. They still talk about you today.

Ms P has a lot to learn.

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