Playbuilding Part I

There were around 80 of us sitting in a circle, listening to Helen and Chris tell the folktale of The Magic Calabash. Their arms gestured wildly as their voices imitated curious children, greedy parents, playful Water Spirits, and a Giant Water Monster.

“Once upon a time, long ago, there was a small village in the low hills.
The land was sandy, and the crops did not grow well.
The people were poor and hungry…”

This story follows a group of children who bought a bag of magic seeds which- much like in Jack and the Beanstalk– grew a huge calabash vine that leads them directly into a magical world beneath the lake. Eventually, the children find new playmates in the Water Spirits, eat and drink merrily, are given tours of this underwater wonder, and bring riches back to their parents in the form of golden turtle eggs.

They also spend a great deal of time hiding and running from the Giant Water Monster that is intent on catching and cooking them. The children steal the turtles, the parents kill the Monster, the Water Spirits kidnap the children, and both sides end up destroying the land of the other. Contemporary themes are not hard to find…

Time to playbuild!

To clarify, playbuilding is a technique used to create a piece of theatre from scratch. This means no predetermined casting, scripts, or staging. We follow the interests of the participants and basically…see what happens. In this case, we have two days to build the entire story with 80 people before we perform it on Friday afternoon.

On this first morning, we moved into small groups and created four still images that illustrated the main plot points and characters of the story. Next, we paired up the groups and used only our bodies to create water monsters that could stomp, roar, bite, and swing their long spiky tails. We then had to embody the multitude of turtles that might live in the lake: the shy ones, the happy ones, the turtle with its tongue hanging from its mouth, and the grandma turtle who whacks her grandson with her cane for moving too slowly.

At one point I turned to Jill and whispered: “This is our life right now.”

After lunch we chose the groups of characters we wanted to portray in the play, and quickly worked to structure different sections of the story. Chris worked with the parents in one room while the children, turtles, lake creatures, and water monster were devising at the same time in another room. Helen kept making her rounds and giving us new pieces of the story to develop, bit by bit. By the end of the afternoon, we were dripping with sweat (was it just me?), exhausted and panting. It was glorious!

I still can’t believe I’m here in Kigali, creating theatre alongside some of the most open hearted, imaginative, joyous, loving, and engaging people I have ever encountered. Every day seems brighter than the last.

Tomorrow here we come… the story will continue …


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