Schools Drama Project in the Solomon Islands with support from ACT
This is a good-news story. Over the past three months, an excellent thing has happened in Honiara in the Solomon Islands. It came to fruition on Thursday evening, 7 June. It was the HAMS Inter-School Drama Competition.
HAMS is our Honiara community-theatre group. Its main activity has been to put on two or three comedies a year, chiefly for the adult expatriate audience. We decided to do something different—to reach out into the community, to promote drama in the local elementary schools while bannering the Environment as a critical issue for the people of this South-Pacific archipelago.
The project was led by a chap in the British High Commission here. He was prompted by his teenage son who had seen the success of a similar competition (in a different field) in the UK. About ten others of us pitched in to help with planning and arrangements, and to serve as ‘mentors’, assisting the schools who took part. Sponsors included a bank, a computer company, conservation agencies and others—plus Prince Edward Island’s own ACT (a community theatre), which covered transportation costs for the school drama groups.
The competition worked like this ...
- The challenge was to create a 10-minute play—to develop the ideas, write the script, make the costumes, props and set (with a grant of about 14 Canadian dollars!), and present the drama using 6 or 8 pupils plus a 2-person stage-crew. The play was to have a strong societal-improvement purpose, deriving from the general theme of protecting the environment.
- Everything had to be done by the students themselves—at the grade 4, 5, 6 level—under the guidance of their teachers and with advisory help from the HAMS mentors. We arranged with WWF (World-Wide Fund for Nature) education specialists to visit each participating school to get the ideas flowing.
- All elementary schools in Honiara were invited to take part; 6 took up the challenge, and that turned out to be a perfect number.
There was a burst of creative energy over a three-month period. Besides the weekly work in a classroom or under the canopy of a giant rain-tree, each school had a day at the HAMS theatre for rehearsals and the chance to do some fund-raising, while showing off their play to classmates and parents. At a dress-rehearsal run-through, all the kids had a grand time watching each other’s plays.
Then came the gala performance evening. The theatre was full: the Lord Mayor of Honiara, diplomatic officials, the Principal Secretary of the Prime Minister, teachers, school-mates, parents and ‘wantok’ (kinfolk) plus a surprising number of people from the general public. Scores of student actors and assistants clustered outside, waiting for their turn on the stage.
What a show they put on. We were all astonished at the level of acting skill, the creative genius of the costumes and set, the provocative impact of the environmental messages about beating the degradation of clear-cut logging, thoughtless rubbish and dynamite fishing.
The prizes went home with a good spread over all six schools—certificates, trophies, computers ... for costuming, set, stage-crew, actor, actress, group acting, script, overall production/performance, and ‘spirit of the competition’.
The other outcomes were probably more important than the awards.
- A lot of publicity gave profile for the schools, for HAMS, for the idea of grass-roots theatre, and of course for protecting the environment.
- Participation: about 60 pupils were performers and stage-hands; dozens more got in on the action of developing the scripts, costumes, props, set and whatnot. About 15 teachers volunteered for the experience of learning and leading; most started in a rather shy or modest way, to be honest ... but then grew and grew in enthusiasm, imagination, responsibility and pride.
- We found that there is a great pool of dramatic talent and imagination among Solomon Island youngsters, and this developed enormously during these few months.
- What else developed was confidence and self-esteem. White River School is the outstanding example. A disadvantaged school in several ways, it found this project a big challenge ... and then factors like missing set and costumes contributed to a disheartening dress rehearsal. The kids bounced back two days later with a final show that had the audience rocking; that put mile-wide smiles on the students’ faces ... which lit up even more as they took home the computer for ‘Best Spirit of the Competition.’
Environment is crucially important in the Solomons. The effects of shifting from age-old customs to ‘western ways’ and of pillaging the forests and reefs have been killing the capacity of land-and-sea resources to sustain the people’s traditional subsistence living. The plays made the problems concrete and visually demonstrated that solutions are within reach.
There is no shortage, though, of other serious problems—urban drift, political instability, land tenure, inter-ethnic tensions, haphazard education and such. So there is ample potential for using ‘popular theatre’ as an instrument for guiding people to recognize and analyze an issue and feel their way toward remedial action ... and there is no reason to omit children from that process.
We can be almost certain that the HAMS Inter-School Drama Competition will become an annual activity.