Actor, theatre director and education graduate, Akolo James Anthony, has embarked on a research project exploring the effectiveness of performing arts in promoting solutions driven learning at the primary and secondary school levels. Having worked with children, scripting their dialogues in radio dramas and as a teaching practitioner, he discovered and began working on the creative powers of the performing arts to challenge the present theoretical and uninspiring system of education prevalent in Nigeria. He speaks to CHINELO CHIKELU on this.
You are involved in Radio scripting, with two radio scripts to your belt, Common Ground, and Our Children Are Talking. What peaked your interest in Radio Drama?
To pay the bills. I have not been too keen on radio though it was something I could do. I heard of the job, there were bills to pay, so I took it up. However, it turned out quite exciting and educational, because with the radio drama, Our Children Are Talking, I realised it is more difficult to script for children.
What were the challenges?
Sometimes, you are struggling to get their diction, vocabulary, to get into their psyche, the way they think and speak. In addition, it is a radio drama to be acted by children, not adults mimicking children’s voices. Sometimes, I had to revert to my childhood memories to figure out how I felt or reacted to similar situations as in the script. Sometimes, after a script reading, you realise certain vocabularies are above their heads, other times scripting scenes that excite children’s imagination and reactions are quite hard. With the kids you have to roll with the comedic, or at least not so serious scenarios.
I assume at some point you had to work with the children to interpret their lines and delivery. What is it like working with the children?
We (the scriptwriter and the playwright) had to be with the director and the producer at the studios. We are often asked to work with the kids, keep on explaining and turn yourself into a child, to get them to loosen up and feel at ease with you to deliver.
And these are kids who have no experience in acting?
Most of them. You have found a way to make your education certificate factor into the arts you love in your research, drama in early childhood education. Tell us about your research and why you think drama (the performing arts) can be a more effective instrument/tool for learning for children? I am a trained educationist; during my teaching practice, I discovered the kids wanted to be in my class because I employed drama and music in teaching them. I promised my pupils that we would do a theatric production on Children’s Day, of which they are to come up with story and manage the production. Studying them during the teamwork and brainstorming sessions, I monitored their temperaments and personalities; Some were quiet that you’d think they had nothing to offer, others came up with stories so fast too. My teaching practice had ended, and I was just hanging around to ensure the production was realised before leaving when a theatre company called me for a job. The job required much of my time.
With just the story for the drama onhand, I thought I had left the project halfway. To my surprise, the children insisted on doing the production when they heard I wasn’t returning, and it was those quiet ones that didn’t speak during rehearsals that coordinated, managed and administrated that excellent production. With that I realised that with such methods you can teach children self-knowledge. Those who managed the artists in their midst can also manage businesses, agencies etc. What we simply did was make them discover they are good managers. It doesn’t matter what they manage. If they can manage themselves to produce a minimal theatre, this will be an effective tool to teaching children self-knowledge and self-efficacy. The key to making a child do well, is to make the child believe in him or herself, be it in the Arts or Sciences. And the Arts always help children believe in themselves, by bringing up stories that mirror their situation, make them empathise with one another, and allows them to proffer solutions to the imagined or reflected problems.
In other words, the performing arts are a means of nudging children towards a creative and solutions driven education rather than the theorized system we have today?
Exactly. While rendering assistance at the University of Jos, we conducted an experiment in schools to find out children’s attention span with drama among other things, the experience was wonderful.
At what level is this research?
Currently, it is not yet official, but I have a contract with the University, with a professor I assisted. Presently, we have written the stories, a series of new children stories that are centered on Nigerian proverbs, traditional and contemporary proverbs such as “Who Go Say Im Mama Soup No Sweet” and “If E No Be Panadol, I No Fit Be Like Panadol.” The latter was drawn from an advertisement. We wrote stories around these proverbs, and we have had people protest that, if you teach children in Pidgin what will they learn, how does that show or improve their education?
What are these proverbs supposed to teach the children?
First, it teaches them to be imaginative. Of course, the two proverbs mentioned were just the contemporary proverbs. We have traditional Hausa proverbs we worked with too, like ‘The Onion Does Not Take After Water, Otherwise, It Won’t Be Pepperish’. We wrote a story around this too. We have 12 stories in all around 12 proverbs. We are going to adapt the stories to stage plays to decipher how effective they are in expanding the children’s imagination, and into musicals for a wider audience. By May, June, the storybooks will be published and we will be touring schools with questionnaires for teachers, and interviews with students after read aloud sessions with the children, to determine how it has expanded their imagination.
These are all part of the research?
Yes. We will do the performance with local percussions, read aloud sessions for the children followed by a test to determine how it has expanded their imagination. The manuscript is ready and is being adapted to fit the children’s audience. Someone else does this stage, as this isn’t my part to play.
At the rawest form though, right?
Yes. That is what we want to do. We are not looking out for props. We will ask the children to look around their environment to see what props they can come-up with. It will be a very cost-effective way to run theatre. Within a class, we might say, ‘using improvisation’ they should come up with a story, with just an idea of a story, and without lines, as well as a good way to settle conflicts amongst children. At one experimentation at school, we asked the pupils to imagine one of them as the school prefect, we created two separate groups, one which supports the prefect, and another which says they are marginalised. We leave them to work out a plot that resolves the conflict among them. How would the prefect resolve that scenario caught in between two groups he cannot seem to please? At the end of the day, we asked them, those who put the class prefect under intense pressure; do you see how it feels? And they go, “Yeeaah.” This teaches them conflict resolution
Do you believe in sustainability, greening theatre or recycling as much theatric materials as possible in order not to deplete or pollute nature each time we embark on a production?
I came up with an idea, which I scribbled down someplace, and it could be turned into a future project. I like hiking, which I do a lot since we have higher planes in Jos. During one of such hikes, I discovered a place on top of those rocks that I think could be used as a performance space, without building sets, it can fit and hold a performance. I am looking forward to the time when I can get actors, audience and a team where all come in without a foreknowledge of what they are about, and without sets or set dialogues, can meet up in those planes or gardens impromptu.
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