to Co-Teacher Dr. Luke Dixon
Dr. Luke Dixon
Thank you so much for inviting me to teach in association with you, the Drama Department and the Language Studies Department at the University of Port Elizabeth, South Africa in Autumn 2000.
This experience was a perfect melding of all the aspects of my teaching work, incorporating language and writing skills, cross-cultural communication and performance skills.
It was brilliant of you to pick me up at the airport and drive me directly into the heart of New Brighton Township to watch two different theatre groups rehearsing. This gave me an immediate connection with the Xhosan South Africans with whom I would be working, something that a more formal introduction could never achieve. It was immensely heartening to see my counterparts and colleagues creating meaningful and powerful performance in the midst of living conditions that would be daunting, if not devastating, to most Western Europeans and Americans. It was extraordinary to recognize, in my first hour in Africa, that artists all over the world are independently working on the same themes and social issues Fear, Love, Sex, Death, Greed, Spirituality. What a testament to the essential nature of our work!
My aim, as a teaching performance artist, is to foster creative expression and communication of personal experience. It is always a challenge to teach writing and movement techniques without imposing my own style or preconceptions. I attempt to present my methodology in a way that engenders, enhances and supports text and movement, without dictating or suppressing expression. This approach has never seemed more necessary or correct than in this South African experience and I felt strong affirmation of both my creative process and my teaching .
The opportunity to work with the women from the singing group "Tambora" was enlightening and educational for me. I had worked mostly with North Americans and Western Europeans, and knew that my experience with the Xhosan South Africans would be different. I had expected that the Xhosas, raised in a living Oral Tradition, would be more fluid than my Western European and American students in their performance of text. I did not foresee that ritualizing of voice and movement would be so pervasive. For example, the same gesture was used to symbolize "God", "Mother" and "Love". My suggestion that the portrayal of something as fixed and permanent as "God" could be personalized was met with astonishment. I needed to find a way to encourage original expression through voice and movement without obstructing or oppressing strong cultural traditions. Challenges like this occurred in each workshop and have had profound and immediate effect on my skills as a teaching artist.
Throughout the workshops, the participants spontaneously employed ancient theatrical techniques and traditions. Seeing them instinctively use a Chorus to describe or explain action, change stage blocking to portray the balance of emotional power, and employ universal themes and content to solve problems encountered in the expression of the text that they had written, was like watching a history of the evolution of Theatre. This deepened my understanding of my own work, and of Theatre in general. What a valuable gift to receive after twenty years of performance!
Each workshop confirmed my belief that writing and performing autobiographically-based text enables both native and non-native speakers to recognize that English is a living language which can be used to communicate information about personal experience. Inciting participants to search for and discover the exact words and movements to portray universal themes through their personal experience is a great joy for me. It was clear that the participants also felt the exhilaration that stems from free artistic expression.
It was a great idea and absolutely invaluable to invite me to travel to rural schools with Beverly Burkett of UPEs Language Department in the first days of my residency. This gave me a chance to see the countryside and rural living conditions, and it provided a solid basis of my understanding of the language problems encountered by Xhosa students or by any student who is living in one language and learning in another. It was extremely useful and provocative to learn about the research and innovations currently being created world-wide by language researchers who are struggling with the challenges of bi-or tri-lingual teaching in societies where two or three languages are in use, but deliberately kept isolated from each other. This also gave me new perspectives on my experiences in Germany where students learned English, French or Russian, depending on their geographical location within Germany- and in Switzerland, where multiple language ability is the norm.
My workshop with the Primary School teachers at UPE was an extraordinary exchange of ideas and teaching techniques. I presented a lecture on my work as an artist and a teacher of creating autobiographically based performance, and how to use these techniques to support the teaching of the English language. I then invited discussion, which was so lively and stimulating, we went on for hours. It was fantastic to have been the catalyst for such a rare and long-needed exchange of ideas.
Our overwhelming welcome at the opening of the Community Centre in St Albans added another important layer of experience. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to see performances by local groups, to hear the politicians expressing their goals (in three languages), and our discussions over lunch with the Minister of Cultural Affairs and the Education Secretary for the Eastern and Western Cape. It was a very proud and moving moment for me to represent the United States, in that huge room filled with people who had never met or seen a live American, and certainly not one like me. Their desire to welcome me to their country and thank me for coming to witness their lives was an unexpected and significant highlight of the trip.
On my return to Europe, I immediately launched into a residency in Amsterdam at the School for International Trainings semester abroad program. This was a great opportunity to observe the ways in which my teaching had been enriched by my UPE work. I have since done residencies and performances in Germany and the USA and can unequivocally state that this experience has served to make me a better and stronger artist and teacher.
Thank you so much for your continued and unwavering support of my work as an artist, teacher, colleague and friend. I hope that we will be able to realize our idea of continuing this work.
With very best wishes,
© Janice Perry