When KICS proposed starting a January term, my principle asked teachers to consider what kind of course they would like to teach that does not fit into the regular course schedule during the year. I immediately started to describe an intensive theatre making course. The idea was to bring guest teaching artist to Rwanda from Arena Theater (my theatre program at Wheaton College), to build an ensemble of students through a retreat experience, and finally to return to KICS to create an original story for our Kigali community. The idea, the dream, came true.
I first sent an email to the Arena Theater patriarchs and matriarch. After I sent it, I least expected Mark Lewis, Work Out Ensemble director to reply asking if I would like his particular flavor of spice as part of the project. I replied with enthusiasm, communicating my strong desire to host him in Rwanda. Mark brought his daughter with him, Olivia, who blessed the experience with her thoughtful presence and love for the students, even documenting the retreat with some of the photos you see here.
Side note, yet important note, it is extremely humbling to have your teacher and mentor come to love you by supporting you as a teacher, leader and mentor. Mark was there with a kind word, key question, and engaged/participant stance, as I lead. I know I sounded just like him as I taught my students, “lean in” and “don’t forget to rest your hands” etc. Mark says we all model our teachers.
After Mark’s stated interest, I cast out a larger net and collected three beautiful women, who had the desire to make and the desire to love my students and me by investing two weeks in Rwanda. Each one of them possessed the talent and creativity to direct their own project, however, each humbly accepted the tasks I put before them. Not only did these women bring their gifts, of music, dance, scenic design, they also brought their commitment to the idea of process over product, and modeled the delicate ensemble-dance of “giving and receiving” to my students.
As mentioned in the first brainstorm of what this course could be, on the first day of January Term we took our 28 students on a three-day retreat out of Kigali, to a rural camp/retreat center. Our students ranged from 6th to 12th graders. For many of our students, this was their first time away from home with their classmates. The joy spread through the bus ride and late into the nights as they chatted away in their dorm rooms.
The purpose of the retreat was three fold, to begin building ensemble (relationships), to begin building a shared physical and verbal vocabulary about theatre making, and to learn the story that we would adapt into a play – Max Lucado’s You Are Special. We started our mornings together on our mats, (given with love by current Work Out Arena Theater students), warming up our bodies and praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, I am here.” Following breakfast and lunch, we explored different theatre making exercises. In addition to lots of time together as a large group, the students were divided into small groups with one teaching artist who served as their personal guide/mentor. The small groups providing students safe-spaces to explore their own stories as well as begin to embody and tell their own stories. In the evenings after dinner, we gathered in a circle to hear a “Feet to the Fire” a true story from the life of our guest teachers. Stories shared ranged from their relationship with God, to ideas of being an actor and artists, to experiences of being a teenager etc.
Following the retreat and a weekend of recovery for both students and teachers, we reconvened back at school for our second week to start making our play. Guided by their teaching artists, students wrote scenes and original songs, learned choreography, and developed their characters. The days were long as we were with our students from the time the bell rang at 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM each day. Our guest teachers, Matt, and I, would journey home or to a coffee shop to rest and plan the next day of making.
Soon our first full week came to an end, and with that Matt and I had the impossible task of taking our friends, (did I mention that the guest teachers were some of my dearest friends) to the airport.
Another important side note- when you experience doing the thing that you love most with some of the people you love most, it makes it hard to consider doing anything else. It felt like such a fragile gift to be reunited with three of the 10 women who were in my graduating class… too many things had we witnessed in each other and now this! In addition to witnessing them being in my hometown of Kigali, Rwanda, I get to witness them as teachers and colleagues.
I must also say, as much as we worked so well together, I truly believe you could have taken the four of us out and replaced us with four other alumni from our program and the entire experience would have happened much the same. Our shared friendship and vocabulary for making theatre that Arena Theater had given us made it all possible.
Okay back to the chronological telling of it-We dropped them off at the airport and had to continue without our friends through our last and final week. I was grateful to have with me, Matt who facilitated the technically details and production managing, and Melia KICS’s music teacher who kept reminding the students to use their God given voices and directed the musical elements of our play. Where our first and second weeks were largely generative, our third and final week involved making choices and repetition as we honed in on the shape of our play.
Two days before our showcase, I decided to add in one final element that we had explored during the retreat to our play: the idea of an actor advocating for someone else’s story. Each student was guided to write a three-sentence story, either a star or dot story from their own life. The first sentence – “I knew I was going to get a star/dot when…” The second sentence – “Then I got a star/dot…” Third sentence – “The moment after I got my star/dot I felt…” After each student wrote their true and honest star/dot stories, they found a partner. The partner’s task was to learn and embody their partner’s story as if it were their own. During the climax of our play before Punchinello chooses to see Eli (sorry if you do not know this children’s story this might be unclear-please read it if you can) – each of our 28 actors chose one audience member to tell their three-sentence story too. After they told them their story they gave their audience member their star/dot sticker, “To remember my story, this is for you.” This was my favorite part of our play, when the audience was invited into our process to learn one of our real stories, and hopefully to consider what role star/dot culture plays in their own life.
When our play ended Thursday night with a dot falling to the ground, I felt in that moment I would do the process all over again.
Here are some pictures thanks to Olivia Lewis (photos of retreat) and Louise Koonce (photos with the J-term brand).