(Over the coming weeks we’ll be casting an eye over the performing talents of our community’s students and teachers, as we preview some of the upcoming school shows.)
For their school show, Keystone Academy students grapple with the moral questions posed by a twentieth century classic. Brecht’s Chalk Circle is the story of a peasant girl who rescues and raises a baby abandoned during a war, but later faces a legal challenge from his wealthy parents. Who is the child’s “real” mother?
To find out how they deal with the weighty issues raised by the play, we talked to Allen Babcock, Keystone’s drama teacher.
“We have talked a lot about how the production is about heavy, complicated themes: justice, parenting, responsibility,” he told us. “The shared values of Keystone (Ren 仁 Compassion, Yi 义 Justice, Li 礼 Respect, Zhi 智 Wisdom, and Xin 信 Honesty) have been put to great use as a framework to discuss the character’s choices in the play. For me this play weaves together three important strands: the heroine’s noble journey, the judgment of ‘justice’, and the compassion of true family; ultimately the journey is worthy, righteousness wins and authenticity is rewarded.”
What other challenges have you faced?
“In a world where we are so often lost behind small glowing screens, it is a challenge for young people today to find presence, to truly be, to authentically inhabit a space. This is a gigantic challenge, for not only for our work on Chalk Circle but for all MYP Drama/IB Theatre training. I believe at my core that setting high expectations for students is the only way to avail them of the opportunity to achieve more than they ever thought possible. We have done just this, and they have created something magical.”
What have the students enjoyed most?
“Understanding and beginning to unabashedly embrace the weirdness of Brechtian conventions has made for great fun in rehearsal. We allowed ourselves to ‘go big’ in the service of creating clear story and impactful moments, but also found special moments of truth and simplicity. Working as a company is difficult, especially when much of the norm of school life places the individual and her achievement paramount. There are literally moments in the show where a life is at stake if we are not working as a full company. This challenge has not always been happily or successfully met, but ultimately the company found a way to live and breathe as one unit on stage.”
What have the students learned from the experience?
“Observing student growth is, hands down, the most enjoyable aspect of working in educational theater. In the weeks of rehearsal for this production I have watched students who spoke so softly that I could barely understand or hear at the outset evolve to inhabit characters who stand on stage and use language to achieve an objective. They have embraced the challenge. It is a joy to watch the chorus of the show work as a unit. In education we are often so focused on individual achievement, this has been a novel and instructive opportunity for a group of students to work toward absolute unity in voice and deliver. It has required consummate teamwork, focus and patience, but also a curiosity for language as they helped to shape the Chinese language translation of the original Brecht text.”
As a bilingual school, how have you made the play accessible to all?
“Since Brecht’s interpretation of Chalk Circle is actually based on a Yuan Dynasty play (灰闌記 by Li Qianfu), we have honored its roots in this production. Our production of Chalk Circle is presented in both Chinese and English; the chorus is fully spoken in Chinese while the scenes of the play and the words of the characters are delivered in English. In this way thought and feeling and community are represented in one language while the spoken dialogue is delivered in another. Sometimes the language changes line by line, sometimes there are long sections in one language. We employ simultaneous translation in the form of subtitles: when student actors are speaking English, Chinese is projected and when student actors are speaking Chinese, English is projected.”
Performances take place at the Keystone Performing Arts Center, No. 11, Anfu Street, Houshayu, Shunyi District, at 7pm on December 9 and 10, and 2pm on December 11. Tickets cost RMB 50 for adults/ RMB 20 for children, and can be booked here:
Photos: courtesy of Keystone Academy