Learning to find peace on the stage

Children between the ages of four to 18 stand in a circle playing a concentration game. They are calling out an order of numbers, repeating them faster each round and getting more excited by their accuracy as they complete each set. It’s the morning vocal warm-up for the children, preparing them for a day of workshops and rehearsals.

Director, and co-founder of artInsideOut, Dick Scanlan is leading a group of children who are a part of an intensive three-week theatre course at non-profit Nkosi’s Haven in the south of Johannesburg. The point of the course, the Tony award-winning director says, is to use the creative process, in this case, the theatre process, to help children achieve a goal while handling the setbacks.

Nkosi’s Haven, founded by Gail Johnson in 1999, offers holistic support and care for mothers and children living with HIV. The organisation is registered as a place of safety nationally which means that children who have defaulted on their ARV treatments will be placed in the care of the haven. With 107 children and 27 moms living at Nkosi’s Haven, it is a microcosm of the 4.4-million people in South Africa living with HIV and receiving treatment.

Since 2011, the artInsideOut programme, which forms part of the organisation Artists Striving to End Poverty, has organised a theatre production based on a theme chosen by the mothers and children to be performed at the Market Theatre Lab. With artists from South Africa and the United States, from the Market Theatre to Julliard and Broadway coaching the learners, Scanlan says the programme helps children learn to “Speak your truth so that others can hear it.”

The programme, says associate producer Thembile Tshuma, helps both the teachers, mothers and children find answers and peace during the process of the production: “I believe the more you perform, the more you hear and speak, it all forms part of the healing of the soul and being aware of the different dreams that you have and how to move forward”

Each year the programme helps mothers and children speak their truth, whether it was through their first show Ubuntu, the shows Shoes and Noise to their latest show Roots/Routes which explores how our backgrounds can shape us heading into the future.

artInsideOut, which receives some of its funding from Broadway Cares, is the largest and most intense arts programme for Nkosi’s Haven, says Johnson.

If it were up to Johnson, there would be more arts programmes. In March this year, she had to cancel Friday afternoon dance classes because of a lack of funding.

“Our running costs are about R5-million and we are only getting about R2.2-million,” says Johnson. “We live on donations and with the present economic climate those have dwindled down. So too have international donors, except Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS they give us the same amount every year.”

It costs R9000 a month just to buy vegetables for the organisation, says Johnson. Gracie Muthumuni, who has worked with Johnson for over two decades as a cook for the haven, says she daily cooks 12.5 kgs of maize meal for breakfast, 10 kgs of rice for lunch, 24 tins of fish and an additional 10kgs of flour/maize meal for supper. When there is no money for meat, she says she makes a thick gravy to compensate.

After the morning warm-ups have come to an end, children practise on musical instruments, design theatre sets or work on their dance routines. The toddlers are enthusiastically blowing bubbles.

The intensive three-week course held during the June holidays is about exploring themes rather than the actual production, says Tshuma. Nor is the emphasis on the programme to encourage children to become artists, says Scanlan. Instead, the programme focuses on learning about life and the possibilities it holds.

“If you can build a show,” says Scanlan, “You can build a life.”

This year, the production focus on Roots/Routes took place at the Market Theatre Lab on July 4 at 3pm. 

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