The arts centre is the backyard of Unatti Foundation Manager, Ramesh Pradhananga’s home and his wife’s chemist shop. It is a small cobbled yard with a gutter running through the middle and a studio to the side. It is enclosed; through the timber gates is a public square, houses, shops and many curious eyes.
When we arrive early for our 10:30am workshop we find a core group of children preparing the space. Shoes are removed at the gate. Children sweep the area then lay down straw mats and pieces of carpet to sit on. They hang some of the many paintings we have created in this and last year’s program. They take ownership of the space, attending to the tasks as a ritual which transforms the courtyard into their arts centre.
Children continue to stream in after the start of the class. They range from around seven years of age to maybe fourteen or fifteen. It is difficult to guess ages as they are small and often seem younger than their years. Some of the older children bring along the younger siblings they are looking after. Mostly the group size is around 25, but on some days we have had up to sixty participants.
We begin drama with games. Games are ice-breakers; they create laughter and put everyone at ease, they encourage cooperation between the kids, and help develop a sense of a group, our community.
When we are working in countries where we don’t speak the language, mime and movement, for obvious reasons, are useful starting points. We begin with simple exercises, like picking up a glass and having a drink. This is one way of developing focus and the imagination. We continue with some classic mime sketches, such as showing a wall and opening a door.
Through isolating, then moving different parts of the body the children discover different attitudes within themselves. For example, pushing the chest out makes them feel bold whilst pulling it in expresses weakness or nervousness. Working co-operatively in groups using their physicality, they create places and buildings around the town, including local temples and the neighbourhood well. This is a challenge to their creativity as well as social skills.
At first the children find it very hard to concentrate for more than a couple of minutes at a time and we have to draw on various techniques to keep them engaged. The boys, in particular find it near impossible to focus – at any opportunity they are either grabbing things or trying to hit each other.
We begin to understand how hard it must be living on the streets. We see they want to learn, yet it takes both Anne and I, with the local translators, to keep them on task.
Over the weeks we begin to see improvements. We repeat a number of the movement and mime exercises and encourage practice. As they begin to master the tasks, we see they enjoy them more and more. This encourages them in their learning. A few of the more accomplished students are starting to lead some of the exercises; this as one way the project will have a life beyond our time with the group. We encourage these young teachers to work in Nepalese where they can be more fluent and expressive than struggling with English. In this they are they also trying to teach something new and difficult for us, their language, and we are the students. It’s a nice exchange.
Role-play develops from these mime and movement skills; it starts with miming the day-to-day activities we see around their town, such as the potters at their wheels, weavers at their looms, the streets sellers and sweepers, farmers picking crops, and the men and women carrying enormous loads on their backs in a traditional Nepali fashion.
This leads to improvisation – small skits between various characters in their community, such as food sellers and customers, tourists and locals, students and teachers. Usually we would expect to see some sort of conflict emerge in these improvisations – the cheating seller and ripped of customer, the cruel boss and child labourer, and horrible teacher and meek students. But we have noticed a gentleness in the Nepali character that does not readily slip into conflict. Nonetheless, the children particularly like the school scenario, with the bad student and angry teacher.
They improvise in Nepalese. Although I do not understand their words, I can tell their by the commitment of the ‘actors’ and the laughter of recognition from the audience that the scene is authentic and working. It is great to see individual self-confidence, as well as their confidence and trust in each other grow.