Saturday, August 15, 2009

Two More Days...

Hi everyone,

We are eagerly anticipating a fantastic showcase tomorrow. As always there have been unexpected challenges, but Josiah and I could not be more encouraged by the wit, heart and dedication of these students. I wish you all could visit out here to see how truly remarkable this school is! The teachers and students have been working diligently to make costumes and prop pieces for us and the rehearsals have gone very well during this past week.

We will have video footage of the performance available a couple days after the show.

Right now Josiah and I are recovering from an illness we've termed "The Monsoon." No real food or drink culprit to pin it on; it just seems like every two weeks one or both of us comes down with a 48-hour malaise involving frequent trips to the bathroom. For this reason it will be nice to get back to the states. Your thoughts and prayers for our health are deeply appreciated.

Thanks to all who have kept up with us via this blog. We cannot wait to see you all as soon as possible to share tales from our adventure!


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nearing the Home Stretch

Greetings Friends!

So it's been a while since we updated you on our progress over here in Delhi. Many apologies for the wait.

I am lounging here in our Jasola Vihar flat sipping french-pressed coffee and listening to live tracks from The Hold Steady's breakthrough LP, "Stay Positive." It seems little more than coincidence as the album's title has been a recurring mantra for Josiah and I over the past couple of weeks. A lot has happened since our last post. We have made significant progress with our actors but we have also encountered some major (let me repeat for emphasis) MAJOR obstacles.

Here's a comprehensive summary...

Two weeks ago, the ensemble finished writing their four-show performance. The shows are tentatively titled "A True Love Story," "Mariner's Revenge," "Family of Thieves," and "The Fall of the Proud." We held auditions the following week with some unexpected surprises. One reason to "stay positive" is that we now have three enthusiastic girls as a part of our company to complement the nine boys. This is truly a miracle. Unfortunately, one of our most loyal and energetic students decided not to show up for auditions and therefore will not be acting in the showcase he helped create. The absence of that particular student notwithstanding, the ensemble has gelled over the past week as we have been blocking the shows (theatrespeak for "putting the actors in the right places on stage"). The actors have shown tremendous resolve and initiative in learning their lines and more often than not they demonstrate a keen facility at taking directions.

However an unforeseen obstacle was the recent revelation that the Eleventh Standard will be starting their regular classes beginning August 3rd. This stands to remove approximately twenty hours of planned rehearsal time between today and the performance (scheduled for August 17th). Please pray that we can find adequate time in the afternoons and on the remaining weekends to rehearse the show. It's mad scramble mode from here on out.

(Stay Positive. Stay Positive.)

As if that weren't enough of a monkey wrench, we have also run into problems regarding the content of two of the plays...

One of our pieces, "A True Love Story," is based upon the actual events in the life of a student's parents. In the play, the "lovers," Alex and Tina, are from different castes so they decide to marry without their parents knowledge. Tina's family reluctantly approves of the union but Alex's father curses them and says they will not bear children because of their actions. This is the close of Act One. As Act Two unfolds, the couple acknowledges the severity of their elopement and they turn to God for guidance and forgiveness. Ultimately, their faith leads them to repentance and they are blessed with a baby boy (that baby would grow up to be Yabesh, our student). Alex's father and mother return in the final scene to make peace and deliver the blessing Alex thought would never come.

Now, as I said, this is a true account of the events that brought Yabesh into the world and drew his family closer to the Lord. However, the story has raised eyebrows among teachers and administrators for its frank portrayal of feelings between a young man and woman. There is no kissing, hand-holding, or even hugging onstage; the simple mention of "true love" and a "court marriage" independent of a family's designs has drawn the aforementioned scrutiny. In a second story, "Mariner's Revenge," questions have arisen over the main character's disobedience to his parents, a decision which directly precipitates the major objective of the play: to rescue his parents and best friend from the pirates who have kidnapped them.

The pirate story has proven a much easier fix than the story of Yabesh's family, which is by far the most touching and palpable piece in the entire show. In both cases, it has been frustrating to feel accused of encouraging frivolous content for sheer shock value when both of the stories contain scrupulous resolutions to the conflicts that the protagonists face.

The challenge Josiah and I face is to edit the shows appropriately and to convince the administrators of a reputable Christian school of the value and integrity of these shows without overstepping the bounds of cultural sensitivity. We are bending over backwards to do justice both to the students' work and to the reputation of the Good Samaritans School. Our fear is that we will get to the final weekend of rehearsals only to be told that we can't perform the pieces at all.

It's at this point I begin to identify with Jeff Goldblum in ANNIE HALL, meekly admitting: "I forgot my mantra."

Fortunately, I have not totally forgotten my mantra. I temporarily lose it, like my car keys. But more than just staying positive, I have renewed faith that these challenges, which feel far too big for me to handle, are instruments for God to work his will in the lives of all involved. It's hard not to feel despondent when you imagine so much time and effort going up in smoke over something as miniscule as a few lines of dialogue. Theatre is nothing if not provocative, I suppose.

Please keep us, the students, and the community as a whole in your prayers as we negotiate these sensitive issues.

Despite the challenges that await, I couldn't be more excited about the next two weeks. I have no doubt our finest work will arise out of the most seemingly hopeless times. There are more positive items to report (including our fantastical weekend in Mussoorie) but I've been typing away for a while. The Hold Steady has given way to Grizzly Bear's "Veckatimest" (another delightful record) and it might just be cool enough outside for a therapeutic jog around the neighborhood... ahhh India.

Stay Positive y'all :)


Saturday, July 11, 2009

July, July!

Greetings Everyone!

Here's hoping you and yours had a fantastic Independence Day. I have been enjoying some Neutral Milk Hotel and Damien Jurado while composing this entry. If you're wondering why I'm still awake at 4:30am it's because I've also been following my beloved Cubbies on ESPN GameCast... whew! We just beat the Cardinals 5-2. Go Cubs Go!

Just thought I would let you all know what has been going on with our class recently. The kids have made incredible progress with their writing and acting this past week. We have been crafting the students' shows through scene work and improvisation.
There are four awesome pieces in the works for the final showcase which is tentatively scheduled for August 15 (coincidentally the Indian Independence Day). The showcase will consist of a comedic morality play, a medieval fairy tale, a heartfelt family drama and a swashbuckling pirate caper. In case this is your first brush with our blog, these are all original scripts of our students' invention.

Our Illustrious Acting Troupe macho they scared off all the ladies

Once the class has fleshed out the scenes to their liking Josiah and I will tape the scenes and transcribe the dialogue to a working script for each show. After all the scripts are in place, we plan to conduct informal "auditions" so the kids get a taste of the professional acting life. It's going to be fun. Our biggest concern right now is making sure we have female students in attendance. We have had 9 boys attending very consistently and they have been troopers, playing girls' roles when needed (classical theatre at its finest, right?). For all the bravery and hilarity of gender-bending in rehearsal, we are fervently praying that more girls join the ensemble this coming week. We currently have one attending regularly.

Okay, the coffee is wearing off and more baseball games have started back over in the states. I must pull myself away from the digital scoreboard. I wish you all could be here; these kids are truly remarkable.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Week the Third, part two

Hello all,

Josiah here. I’m giving Mark a break from writing all the blog updates. I’m currently listening to Boxer by the National, a band I somewhat wrote off at first but I’m starting to warm up to. Speaking of warming up, Mark and I just got back from a vigorous run in the 109 degree heat. I’m just getting back to the point where I feel up to physical exertion. A little advice to those of you who may find yourself in a third world country sometime in the near future: if you’re more than a seven hour drive from coastline or some other fish-worthy body of water, steer clear of eating the fish. The combination of incredible heat and food poisoning is not exactly pleasant.

The students' first taste of fight choreography... and the hand of the master

As I think back on the strides we made in class in the past few days I am very pleased. The students have gotten to a point where they are writing and performing their own works. It didn’t exactly come easily. The first couple of days Mark had the students working on short plays; they made real progress, coming up with some excellent stories. On Wednesday we got them up on their feet and started improv-ing through them and on Thursday we saw a story that really got me excited. It was about this kingdom of fools where everything is opposite. It was truly a complicated and interesting story. I was blown away. But to my dismay after the story was finished one of the other students revealed to me that this was a story that the children had read in class a couple of years earlier. It was one in a slew of several roadblocks we’ve hit along the road that ends in a final performance.

The notorious family of thieves

Finally on Friday we meet with the intention of getting some real original work written. We divided the class into two groups with an assignment to come up with CROW and conflict for a story. For those who are not familiar with the CROW system I’ll explain. CROW is an acronym that stands for Character, Relationship, Objective, and Where. CROW is essentially the anatomy of the story. Then we have the students come up with a conflict or an obstacle that gets in the way of what the characters want to achieve. They come up with some really good stories: one about a family of thieves and the other about a school bully. We only had time to improv through the thieves story, but it went smashingly. We will get to the next story on Monday and also write some new ones. All and all it was a very productive week.

I hope this update finds everyone happy and healthy.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Week the Third, part one

Hello to all -

I'd like to begin this week's post by commemorating the life of famed sarod player, Ali Akbar Khan, who passed away on June 18 in San Francisco due to a prolonged kidney ailment. Born in modern day Bangladesh, Khan grew up in the north Indian region of Madhya Pradesh and his compositions heavily reflect the Hindustan tradition. Often addressed with the title of Ustad, or master, Khan is widely credited (along with sitarist Ravi Shankar) with popularizing Indian classical music in western culture. In addition to his many film scores and mesmerizing performance at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 (at which he appeared alongside Shankar, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and George Harrison), Khan gained international renown for his eponymous Colleges of Music established in Calcutta, San Rafael, CA, and Besel, Switzerland.
He will be deeply missed but his legacy will be felt for generations to come. Ali Akbar Khan was eighty-seven years old.

Now on to the classwork...

Monday greeted me with a new--though not entirely unexpected--challenge; due to what we believe to be an undercooked fish curry, Josiah fell into a bout with severe indigestion and some other stuff too gross to describe here (I'll let you imagine). This afforded me the somewhat daunting task of instructing our budding actor/writers on my own. Up to this point I had relied on Josiah's previous experience with several of our current students to help build my working relationship with the class. Now... I've taught American drama students on my own before, but I knew that this group of rambunctious, punctuality-impaired teenagers would be a different beast altogether.

Things started off pretty well. Most of the class was on time (to my amazement). We rollicked through warm-ups, vocal exercises and theatre games but I'll be honest; once I actually started teaching I felt like I was free-falling without a parachute. I can guarantee you this: never has the phrase "Does that make sense?" been used so many times to fall on so many blank stares. Once I split them up into writing groups with an assignment in mind, I was able to breathe easy.

For about two point five seconds.

At this point I should note that we are not the only class going on at Good Samaritans School. Though it is technically summer holiday, there are some "extra classes" for the tenth-graders as well as remedial classes for eleventh-graders who need help passing their government-issued exams. So more often than not, Josiah and I are forced to contend with roaming amblers who do their best to provide ample distraction for our pupils, be it cell phones, cricket or just plain ol' gossip. (Hey at least they're not fighting each other, right?) Getting people onstage is no problem; keeping them focused on the task at hand with myriad tangents swirling around, is more often than not, a Herculean labor.

However, after sternly warning the curious and talkative tenth-graders "if you can't sit and watch quietly in the audience, you will have to leave," I found things ran a little smoother. Yeah. Those words came out of MY mouth. Weird. I am now officially a grown-up. Maybe I gained a modicum of respect for issuing this ultimatum. Maybe they made jokes about me and sniggered behind my back. Either way, my students seemed to buckle down to task after that.

All in all, things went pretty well on Monday and Tuesday even with Josiah's absence. They divided into three groups and I instructed them to write out the foundation for a story (CROW and a conflict) of their own invention. One group managed to brainstorm and scrawl out a synopsis very rapidly while the two others raised their hands and demanded my assistance. I could tell they were trying to envision a story as a whole rather than focusing on the basic elements of CROW; after suggesting several possibilities for the Where? element, I asked them "now what types of people would you see in this place?" They rattled off a laundry list of responses and for the next twenty minutes the room was abuzz with ideas flying back and forth in the small groups. The first group even wrote down prompts for a second story!

Your blogger in action

We ended class on Tuesday by sharing the summaries each group had written and began staging one of the stories: a parable about filial jealousy written by students named Sikander, Radha, and Harish. I was very impressed with their enthusiasm and creativity and did my best to record the session for Josiah's perusal. The tape didn't come out quite as slick as I had hoped, though the fact that I was simultaneously side-coaching and manning the tripod could have had something to do with that. I guess from time to time even the teachers learn a lesson or two, n'est-ce pas?

A healthy and happy Josiah Correll was back with us on Wednesday. The rest of the week was devoted to teaching them new improv games and continuing to stage their self-written stories; stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion in part two of Week the Third.

Right now, I'm wicked hungry and off to eat some vegetable utthapam and masala dosas. Yummmm! Thanks for reading.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day!

Greetings friends!

Hope all you Dads out there got spoiled rotten this weekend. You absolutely deserve it!

I am happy to report that the kids have been up on their feet all week presenting self-produced versions of stories with which they are already familiar. From De Maupassant's "The Necklace" to the Good Samaritan story in the Bible, our students jumped in head-first acting out an array of talesOur goal this week is to crank the ol' creative gears and improv through some stories of their own invention. It has been astounding to observe their tremendous progress in such a short window of time.

We finally got the FireWire cable necessary to transfer video from my camcorder to the computer so you can look forward to some moving pictures here in the next day or so.

Also, folks have been asking me for updates on our leisure activities, i.e. food, entertainment, etc. Be on the lookout for a cuisine review here soon. Just know that Josiah and I have been eating adventurously, sometimes to our stomach's dismay. When in Rome, right?

We haven't ventured out of the city yet but several trips are planned for the upcoming weeks so we'll keep you posted.

All the best,

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Week One Recap

Welcome to class, ladies and gentlemen


Just got back from lunch after a walk in the 108 degree midday heat. After kicking off the Birks and cranking up some Radiohead (Hail To the Thief, for the curious) I decided that a sweltering Saturday afternoon would be a great time to update the world at large on the exploits of our exceedingly talented acting crew. It's been a while since we last connected; Josiah and I are proud to report...

The Good Samaritan Players are officially off and running!

One week of preliminary improv and playwriting classes under the belt and we're feelin' pretty good. We had an average of 10-12 students show up each day this week which is not too shabby considering the school is on holiday after what I am told was a very grueling period of government-mandated testing.

Ours is the only class going on at this point and attendance was more or less voluntary as the buses were not running to the slums this week. Despite not having all 20 students who initially expressed interest, we were still able to make significant strides. The kids learned some classic tongue twisters and warm-up games like Zip-Zap-Zop, Bitty Bitty Bop, and Big Booty (re-named Big Fruity for cultural sensitivity's sake) before progressing into more challenging exercises.

Thursday's game of Big Fruity

Friday's Final Three in a blistering round of Zip-Zap-Zop (L to R: Asim, Sikender, Harish)

The story-building exercises, derived from Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theatre, are designed to encourage commitment to action and physicality, team play, observation and listening to your partner. Using a variety of 2 to 5 person exercises, we introduced to them the concept of CROW (Character/Relationship/Objective/Where) as the basis for improvised scenes. So far the kids have retained this acronym masterfully in class discussions; next week we'll put it on its feet.

Two shots from the surprisingly difficult game "What Are You Doing?"

Noushad and Palak

Gajanand and Mumtah

We have been slowly integrating homework into the class. On Friday the students brought in favorite fictional stories as well as anecdotes from their own life in which they identified the elements of CROW and the conflicts that stood in the way of achieving their objective. The stories we heard were outstanding: from learning to cook, family disputes, and dealing with temptation, the students who participated really took the assignment to heart and amazed Josiah and I with their attention to detail. We hope to have video of these responses up on the site soon.

Audience responding to a particularly entertaining "Bus Stop" scene

The students made a great deal of progress this week and I even learned a few Hindi phrases. Our hope is that, no matter what the numbers turn out to be, we will have consistent and punctual attendance from a core group of 12-15 students so we are not constantly repeating concepts. The goal by the end of the session is to have the students writing and performing their own work through improvisation and collaboration. We have some amazing talent and enthusiasm in this class. Every second spent in their midst is a blessing; I can't wait to see what next week has in store!

Please keep Josiah, myself, and the children in your thoughts and prayers.

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