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Playing with the greats

By Nina Saunders

Rudolph Steiner1 said that “the syllabus is in the child”, and this is the premise from which we operate at the McGregor Waldorf School (MWS).

To embrace the learning process truly, the whole human being must be engaged: head (thinking), heart (feeling) and hands (willing and doing). So the basic idea of learning a play ‘the Waldorf way’ is to do it. Any school can. Using the words in the script, just play! Much has been written about how difficult the classics are to study, but plays were written to be performed; simply acting them out brings the students closer to their intrinsic meaning. Even misinterpretations can have value – think of how the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin lost nothing in ‘mistranslation’ in the film The King and I.2

Approaching scripts boldly

So much joy that students – and their teachers – can derive from the classics is lost through fear. What drama teacher has not heard the cry, “Even the average Briton today knows very little about Shakespeare, so why do we insist on performing his plays?” At MWS our answer is, because if we approach them boldly, our students drink up the language, declaring that they love it. It empowers them. The rich rhythms and rhymes resonant of ancient times ring passionately in the ears of students whose cultures are rooted in the African oral tradition. The ‘playing field’ is levelled by this approach to a craft that requires both physicality and mental acuity on the stage. Each of our diverse cultures has something to offer the whole.

Love of alliteration and assonance, personification and metaphor is fostered by group recitation, unself-conscious and uninhibited, of lines that have held audiences entranced for hundreds of years. Fear is engulfed by the love of the word and the action and presto – Shakespeare is accessible! It is a joy to be part of the magic moment when a class ‘gets it’. Every production has its ‘wow’ moments. Students who struggle on many other levels, can still recite with pride, gusto and understanding, whole speeches authored by ‘The Bard’.

Professor Walter Saunders believes strongly in the value of slight modernisation of ancient scripts, removing archaisms like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, but keeping the rhythm and poetry so that second- and even first-language students can enjoy and understand literary greats. He has published versions of Shakespeare’s plays with the ancient and modern texts side-byside. These scripts prove invaluable to teachers and are perfect springboards for performance.

We adopt the same approach to classics from all over the world, known and less familiar, spanning the history of the spoken word. It’s the touch of the people.

‘Theatres’ are everywhere at the MWS

The road to McGregor – a cul-de-sac. Our village – a prehistoric seabed. Our school – a river ran through it. Our theatre – outside in the sun, wind and rain.

Any empty space can be used for a performance filled with images: a masked Medea on stilts against a grey horizon, with capes and cloths blowing in the howling wind and rain. Oedipus among the reeds of a small dried-up dam with stairs and stage cut into the dam bed. A huge Karee tree the home of the Furies, with the child Orestes swinging on the same swing the maddened Cassandra spins on later in a prophetic trance and that Athena uses to soothe the Furies into adopting a new function in The Oresteia. A subsequent production of The Eumenides with a much smaller cast of six used a table placed between a pair of beautiful old gate posts, Athena and Apollo standing statue-still on each post as a plinth, with the Furies wallowing in the dust below.

Karoo heat chased us under an old bougainvillea, audience and actors sharing its shade for improvisations and theme programmes. We wrapped a rickety jungle gym in black cloth and rich fabric for Inez de Castro, suspending the dead Inez with spine-chilling effect from same. King Lear saw the elements playing with us by providing an unseasonal downpour and a neighbour told us we had “Euripides turning in his grave” during rehearsals of The Trojan Women, when the cast were reciting their lines, moving rocks to create the stage and to feel like the slaves they were embodying. At least the neighbour recognised the lines, so we could not have been mangling them into oblivion.

We’ve taken to the streets during village festivals, joining the local band in parades, and performing snippets of Alice in Wonderland at pavement cafés and tableaux from The Threepenny Opera in obliging restaurants. A very young violinist has ‘fiddled on the roof ’ of a slowmoving truck and statues have come to life on street corners.

We’ve had accolades from audiences who enjoy the images we create, and some even confess to an understanding of Shakespeare for the first time after watching one of our productions. This is most gratifying, though not our major aim. What thrills is the transformation of a class; the empowerment it feels as it conquers glorious lines and complicated characters, building up the strength of the group dynamic and proving that anything is possible.

Nurturing a love of dramatic expression

It is not our intention to create a bunch of famous actors. Students take on parts they wish to play, with sometimes astonishing results. What we are nurturing at the school is an awareness of the richness of dramatic expression, a facility with English and its nuances and an appreciation of the visual image. And, of course, the confidence to get up in front of a crowd and ‘just do it’.

We are building a permanent outdoor stage, with tiered seating and a back wall in the shape of a parabola to enhance the acoustics and lessen the strain on young voices. (Friday night performances mean competition with the locals’ vocal celebration of the start of the weekend.)

The old bougainvillea is already adorned with a balcony that was used in our 2011 production of Romeo and Juliet, and the wall awaits our breach of the city of Harfleur in this year’s Henry V. Soon Medea will be mourning in the dust again as new students tackle the tradition that has grown in our isolated village, where most of them have experience of professional performance only through television and DVDs.

Category: Winter 2012

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