By BRUCE DENNILL
From the Hip: Khulumakahle’s (FTH: K) Measure Up is a visual and dance-based movement exploration of what makes us all unique. When we measure ourselves against others we start to notice differences. Differences that can be experienced positively or negatively in the way we feel, express ourselves, dance or even smile. However, some things are impossible to measure, such as love, compassion and friendship. How do we measure up to expectations placed on us, how do we measure up next to our friends and, most importantly, how do we measure up to ourselves?
Measure Up explores the world of friendship between two seemingly different children. This performance brings to life the frustrations and celebrations of young children standing out while also trying to fit in. The show is directed and designed by Jayne Batzofin, performed by Thalia Laric and Bo Tasker and features costume design by Penny Youngleson and SASL (South African Sign Language) translations by Jazzhands.
The National Schools Tour’s objective is about promoting and advocating for SASL literacy development through creativity and the arts. The theatre show will be presented alongside creative play based workshops, and the schools will be left with a DVD of the show and a specially developed children’s book to represent the Deaf child. It will also aid in broadening the resource materials for Deaf Foundation Phase Learners. Both the DVD (which comes with English and Zulu audio tracks) and children’s book are presented with a teacher’s guide (as part of a resource pack) to help teacher’s be more comfortable using creative and artistic materials to encourage their learners to sign.
Jayne Batzofin shares her thoughts.
Celebrating our differences is as important in every sphere of South African life – politics, education, the arts, immigration, religion, gender issues and more – and could help improve relationships in all those areas. For an FTH:K school tour, what part of show and the activities around it highlight deafness as a difference, as opposed to the many other facets that might affect these kids (their race, their economic backgrounds, their sporting abilities and so on)?
I believe what makes this school tour unique is that it does not highlight deafness as a difference, but rather celebrates the Deaf child for the multi-facted children that they are. All too often, these children become easily categorised by their deafness as opposed to their strengths and individual aspirations that may make them different. We recognise these children by making the performances and workshops in South African Sign Language and addressing the issues they face being different as children, not just as Deaf children.
You’re teaching, through Measure Up, about abstract qualities like love and compassion – and frustration – emotions that are tough to describe and share under any circumstances and at any age. How is the production designed to convey those qualities, and to advise on how to pass them on or handle them appropriately?
Indeed, these are difficult abstract concepts, yet children of this age experience them and understand them at a phenomenological level already. The production conveys these qualities by performing them in the same situations that children may experience them, and thus also evokes strong emotions in the children watching it. So not only are they watching the situations that raise these emotions, but they experience these emotions while watching it being performed. I also developed the productions to align with the Foundation Phase Life skills and South African Sign Language CAPS curriculum guide, so the teachers will already be discussing emotions and how to handle them appropriately in the syllabus. We just provide the creative springboard to open up the conversations already happening in class.
What design elements are important in such a production? There are brightly-coloured costumes and outsized props, for instance – what is the intent behind using those over other options?
For me, there is a very clear and intentional choice in the design of this production. Firstly, Deaf children communicate through the visual world, so for me it is of fundamental importance that the look of the world of the show is inviting and engaging, without the performers being involved yet. So I pay immense detail to the colour, texture, fabric and surface reflections of materials – because I want the children to primarily engage with the set through their eyes and tactile senses. The oversized props speak to the theme of the production, playing with and manipulating the visual representation of size. A pencil may be a small object we don’t give much thought to, but what happens when it is 2.5 metres long? We may feel small sometimes, but if you change the perspective we may be bigger than we believe ourselves to be.
Advocating for SASL literacy development through creativity and the arts: what is the response like so far with Measure Up? Are there concerns raised about using theatre in particular and the arts in general rather than the more traditional methods in mainstream curricula? If so, how do you counter those?
I’ve been fortunate with both What Goes Up, our previous production, and Measure Up, that teachers have never challenged the method. If anything they deeply appreciate it and see the value in it. They have even commented saying, “I didn’t think to use games and play as a way to teach my lessons.” Hearing children obtain their language acquisition from a variety of sources: parents, siblings, teachers, strangers, radio, television, movies, theatre and more. However the Deaf child, only really receives SASL from their teachers and fellow students (maybe parents if they can sign), they don’t have the same wealth of choice in learning their language. Imagine if you only learned to speak at school, and only through using traditional methods? That was the reason I was adamant about creating a theatrical experience and a residency programme, so the Deaf child might have another avenue to absorb their primary language, one that was anything but traditional.
Creating a show as an educational resource versus writing something for a festival or a traditional theatre run: what differs in your preparation, given that you know that the audiences will be markedly different (for example, one audience may attend the theatre for fun; a school audience may not be given a choice), and that there, presumably, need to be more measurable deliverables where learners are concerned?
This is such an important question when making work for Early Years, especially considering that your audience is literally a captive audience! They don’t make the choice to come to the theatre. Either their parent or guardian or their school make the decision for them. It is in fact a question I am currently grappling with in my Masters studies. Any shows developed for Early Year’s audiences has an educational value, in my opinion – at such a young age, every and any opportunity is a learning opportunity. So I actually treat the creation of a new show for these audiences as I would do for a festival or a theatre run – with the highest regard for the artistic quality of the production as possible.
The marked difference is in the research of the pre-development of the shows – as I mentioned earlier, I wanted it to align with the South African CAPS curriculum, so that teachers can easily integrate it with their teaching plan. So it is not another activity to attend on top of them having to teach, but rather an extension of their classroom. While developing the show, I also worked alongside the children from Mary Kihn School for the Deaf. I took the developing material to them every week to gauge their responses to the work, and see what was pitched appropriately for them. Of course, I am making the work age appropriate and respectful of the audience watching it while trying not to undermine them. I am conscious that sometimes theatremakers might be too conservative in the topics we choose when working with young audiences, because of our own fears as adults.
Measure Up is currently touring in Gauteng. For further details, contact Miranda Tait at email@example.com.
For interest sake: If you’ve noticed the use of the capital D for Deaf or Deafness in this interview, please note that this is is intentional, with the words being used in their cultural sense rather than in their disability sense.