There is something magical about watching children dressed as animals, walking on stage and singing an acapella version of the Bee Gees song, 'Stayin' Alive', or filling into the aisles and hanging from ropes to the to the tune of boomwhackers that transport us all the way to Africa.
For many children, year-end theatre productions, habbas and annual days are not just great ways to showcase talent. They also help them reflect on the journeys of the preceding months and to really take the reins of their own learning. For the people of Bengaluru, these events are part of their memories.
Priyanka Shah, for instance, grew up watching plays in Bengaluru and the 1998 production of The Sound of Music produced by Ashley Williams from Sophia High School remains one of her favourites. "It was staged by both the students and the teachers. Seeing the seniors enact the characters and sing the songs was wonderful and such moments stay with you forever," she says.
Valuable life skills
While theatre and the performing arts are all about that final performance, for many children, it's the journey that counts as much as the end-result. Team work, coordination, vertical grouping and understanding complex entrances and exits on stage, these are skills that they learn from theatre, and these are the experiences that stay with them for life.
For instance, Bethany High School has staged huge productions like Shrek and Pippin in the past. While they were massive successes, the stress has always been on the experiences that the children would acquire in the process, instead of just a successful show. After all, a huge Broadway style musical has so many moving parts.
Miriam Andrews, an acclaimed theatre director who has helmed seven Bethany productions in the past, believes that these plays are about two crucial learnings â€“ acquiring life skills and giving back to the community. "Children who were not trained in theatre or were originally shy, turned into powerhouse performers," says Miriam. "Everyone, right from the 6-year-olds to the 16-year-olds, have become a huge family. I have also introduced something that helps children a great deal. We have two casts. When the main cast is performing, the extra cast acts like a buddy system, cheering them or prompting them on when they sing or act their parts, so much so that the backstage energy is always high, and the entire group becomes a tight-knit community."
The biggest takeaway from staging a play is that even toddlers learn from a show! During the annual school play last year, the tiny tots at Gaia preschool had to deal with an unexpected situation â€“ the power went off and the mikes played truant. Says Rekha D'Souza, director of the preschool, "The children were initially taken aback but did not hesitate to continue with their performance quickly. Nothing could stop their enthusiasm on stage."
For Megha and Akshara, students of Aurinko Academy, the sky is the limit. The staff and management leave it completely to the students to decide what they want to do. "In January 2018, we will be holding a bazaar, where we will make and auction items that we have made from recycled material," says Megha.
Says Chetana Keni, founder of Aurinko Academy, "Our annual days are not about showcasing talent insomuch as the children showing their parents what they have learned the past year. For instance, History is one of the favourite subjects in school, and this year, during the annual day event, our students want to enact small scenes from History and mythology, especially untold and unacknowledged stories from Mughal and Maratha histories."
For the children at the Vidya Soudha Public School, the annual day was all about discovery and satisfying their curiosity. Says Monica Rajan, a nursery teacher in the school, "Our annual day had festivals as its theme from Class 1 to 10, and the highlight of the event was the bathukamma that the students performed, a Telangana dance that none of us had heard about before."
As much as the spotlights and the music thrill us, all the school productions have something else in common - they deal with themes that are larger than the craft. In a memorable scene from Every Inch Upstream, a large-scale Broadway style theatrical extravaganza staged by the students of Inventure Academy, the ghost of Enid Blyton makes a surprise appearance. Some of them remember her books with joy, but the others want to break away from her legacy and embrace the future that will, among other things, give its women more ambitious roles to play.
This idea of change was germane to the play. Says Anoushka Shyam, one of the script ideators, "We spoke about the problems we face as friends, peers, daughters and what we wanted to do to bring about change. We also talked about our identities and the changes that are happening within us, and that is how we decided on the concept of change being the core of the play." From writing the script and designing the set to the music and the choreography, the students were involved in every aspect of the production, and the individuality of the script shines through in every line and scene of the play.
Another school that gives its children a free rein is Headstart Academy. Says Samta Shikhar, head of the theatre department in the school, "We offer diverse theatre workshops and experiences for the students. If the students are interested, we collectively develop it into a play. As a facilitator, I love to work with the reality of the children, instead of coming up only with my ideas."
In the beginning of 2017, Samta brought a short story written by Slawomir Mrozek to class. The story was called The Elephant and the students of Class 11 immediately saw a lot of potential in the material. The result? The students adapted the story into their own play titled Better than the Real, which they staged earlier this year. What makes Better than the Real unique is that it was an emerging script, continuously developed and improvised by the students.
For an adult, Slawomir's story is primarily about corruption, but the students wanted to do a take on education because they came from that reality. Says Anika Pravin, one of the actors in the play, "We had just finished our board exams and we had witnessed the stress, the importance placed on marks and formal education. We immediately saw a connection between our situation and the story of The Elephant."
While performances are great ways to display talent, they are primarily learning experiences. Says Nooraine Fazal, the co-founder of Inventure Academy, "It takes a lot of heart to involve 500 students in such a big event, but the benefits to our students are tremendous. The life skills that they learn, defer gratification, and discipline their thinking, creates multiple pathways to success. We have seen children who are struggling emotionally and academically transform completely thanks to the production."