Children learn thespian ins and outs at Brookhouse classical musical

Cast of the musical Matilda when it was staged at a local school in 2018.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Teaching 10-year olds how to stage a full scale theatre production might not sound like an easy affair, especially when you are talking about teaching musical theatre to more than 100 children who signed up for the theatre class taught by Joan Aywaya and Warucu Kijuu.

But on June 21, 2024, we saw how these two teachers took a hands-on approach by staging the award-winning musical, Matilda the Musical, at Brookhouse School in Karen. One of the few schools in Kenya where theatre is one of the core courses in the curriculum.

“When we’d asked our students if they had any preferred play to stage, nearly all of them said they wanted Matilda,” Joan told the BDLife right after the Friday evening show.

In the programme (which most theatre companies today don’t bother to create anymore) the two teachers (turned into co-directors for their annual productions) wrote a synopsis which clarified how the musical is based on the beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl about Matilda Wormwood.

Matilda is a bit like Harry Potter who’d lived with abusive elders, only Matilda’s adults were actually her parents whereas Harry’s elders are related to his magical deceased mom. Even Cinderella’s story follows a similar storyline of neglect, child abuse, and jealousy fueling the nasty treatment of our morally superior hero and heroines.

The synopsis doesn’t make comparisons between Matilda, Harry, and Cinderella, but it does note that Matilda isn’t alone in being abused at school. Her fellow classmates also get physically beaten (corporal punishment) by the ‘tyrannical Head Mistress, Miss Trunchbuli who hates children and runs Crunchem Hall with an iron fist.”

One of Matilda’s biggest deprivations is the lack of books in her home (her parents refuse to buy them for her). Her biggest blessing is meeting the school’s kind and carrying Miss Honey who recognises Matilda’s keen intelligence, curiosity, and delight in finding a place where she can read books to her heart’s content.

Miss Honey is also mistreated by Trenchbuli. Witnessing these injustices finally inspires Matilda to stand up to the tyrannical head teacher who was ultimately tamed by ‘a touch of magic’, humility, and intelligence.

It wasn’t too difficult to see how easily such a heart-warming story as Matilda could be understood by 10, 11, and 12-year-olds. But getting the pre-teens to understand all the nitty-gritty of staging a musical production might not be as simple. Nonetheless, putting that challenge is what the BDLife saw coming to life in Brookhouse’s weekend show.

Just sitting down with the cast and stage crew enabled students to see and learn how really good directors can behave. And when the directors are also helping their students understand the meanings behind the words, lines, and lyrics that they will sing, dance, and narrate, is even better.

It meant that teachers Joyce and Warucu were illustrating other aspects of effective directing. Some cast members may have already been involved with theatre through their churches so they too know how challenging learning lines can be, but that too is part of the teachers’ task, to not only memorise their lines but also understand the meaning of those lines.

In a few cases, as the BDLife watched this fun production, it was easy to tell that not everyone spoke their lines with conviction although they knew their timing and kept their line up as in their chorus line. But when those few who didn’t understand the significance of their lines charged swiftly through them, it wasn’t always easy to hear what they had to say.

Nonetheless, it definitely didn’t look difficult teaching students the joys of dancing, singing, and moving together as a giant ensemble or chorus line. In fact, the choreography was so good, I had to ask who the choreographer was since he or she wasn’t mentioned in the programme.

Normally, students who want to become professional thespians go to a college or university to learn all the in’s and out’s of musical theatre, including set design, costuming, lighting, sound, and even makeup artistry.

But at a Junior Prep like Brookhouse’s and several others, theatre is part of the core curriculum. That may be why there were more than 100 in Matilda the Musical. Or it might just be students had already caught what I call the Theatre Bug, since it’s hard to be cured of it, and often you can’t.

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