Oman - Part 1
February 26, 2013
As part of our World Shakespeare Festival journey, exploring where, how and why Shakespeare is taught around the world, The Ministry of Education in Oman invited us to deliver training with their teachers. So we devised a project with the British Council to involve a week of training in active approaches to Shakespeare, leading to a drama festival in early March 2012.
Drama is a co-curricular activity in Oman. In addition to the core curriculum subjects (which include on the arts front: music and drawing) Omani children choose from co-curricular subjects offered by their school, often sports, and arts such as drama. Those teachers delivering drama become drama specialists by default rather than training, taking it up because of their own interests and enthusiasm. So the 13 teachers we had from all four regions of the country were teachers of biology, languages etc. The other 15 participants were supervisors, responsible for drama in their region or working with the Ministry; some of these were also actors and directors. We had a few of Oman's top TV actors, including our translator, Nora, who is a celebrity in Oman!
Shakespeare is well known by Omani students in the way that Sophocles is well known to UK adults: many have heard of him, know his reputation and may even name Oedipus, but few have seen or read it. There are Arabic translations of Shakespeare, but few students have read them. However, in Oman, the arts in general are highly valued: the Minister of Education, speaking of our project, said: 'It coincides with the attention given by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said to all forms of arts being important for the development of brain, body and soul.'
On our first morning, my colleague Ginny and I arrived at the Safeer Intercontinental hotel where the training was to take place. Our space was the basement room - large but L-shaped and used mainly for weddings: all set out with round tables, heavy chairs with sickly yellow coverings and a low level stage. All things which could be moved. What could not be moved were the four wide mint-green pillars dividing the space. Because we're used to working in halls and studio spaces with wooden or carpeted floors, the polished marble floor also stared up at us yelling, 'Health and Safety? Ha!'
When our participants arrived, they were all dressed in traditional clothes: long white dishdashas and turbans for the men and black abayas for the women. They looked beautiful: men choose their turbans as western men choose ties with many colours and designs; abayas are trimmed with intricate beading and coloured details - but one side of the room was black and the other was white - and ne'er the twain would meet!
Those of you who have attended an RSC workshop will be familiar with our favourite introductions game, 'Boal handshakes', which involves players shaking hands with everyone in the group. I was concerned that this would not work in an Arabic culture and in a planning meeting the evening before we had asked our translator, Nora, but she was insistent it would be fine. It wasn't.
We soon realised that there were other agendas going on. Oman is a very young country which in the last 40 years has grown into a state keen to compete in the modern world. From the start of his reign in 1970, Sultan Qaboos has encouraged equality for women in education and work. However, progressive ideas seem often to be in conflict with deeply-held religious traditions. Although we made small steps in encouraging the genders to mix, to the last day we had a female half of the circle and a male half facing them.
And while many women were happy to work with the men, a significant minority did not feel they could, one or two even refused to talk in front of the men. We needed people to feel comfortable and felt in no position to push this agenda despite ministry encouragement. These explicit cultural differences panicked us slightly. So much of our work is about collaboration and trust - the whole being greater than the sum of the parts and all that - how were we ever going to work with a group with such deep divisions? Could we build them into that cherished RSC concept, an ensemble?
In connection to the issues around working with the opposite sex, and feeling outside their comfort zone with regard to the activities, we also had another problem: they were very easily distracted. Our Omani colleagues soon acknowledged and discussed their behaviours, but teachers across the world will no doubt recognise the issues: wanting to work with their friends; focus dissipating as soon as they left the circle (not helped by those damned pillars which were so easy to hide behind); wanting to laugh and talk to each other about what they were discovering rather than focussing on the pace and direction of the whole group; mobile phones; and our class clown, Abdullah - who of course became the sniffer dog in our Hamlet coronation scene.
By the end of day 1 we had worked through a sequence on the first scene of Romeo and Juliet which would normally take around 90 minutes and by day two we were realising that some of our tried-and-tested strategies just didn't work here, and that the pedagogical vocabulary of questioning, problem-solving, collaboration and encouragement was not such a familiar part of their armoury as for western educators.
Then there were simple language issues. 'Zip zap boing' is a very well-known game in the UK. On introducing this game to the group, Nora whispered that 'zip' is a rude word: in colloquial Arabic it is a word for the male organ usually residing behind a zip. Oops! We had to quickly rename the game on its feet.
After a long detox walk along the beautiful Quarm beach, we took stock. Despite the difficulties, we knew these were lovely, talented people interested in our work; building the trust and understanding needed was just taking a little longer and was complicated by translation issues. So we built a strong strategy: rather than sounding the retreat and starting again with a new play, we would stride onwards and go deeper into Romeo and Juliet, in search of the emotional heart.
Creating the first scene, Shabeer had described the tension as a volcano about to explode; creating tableaux of parents grieving their children, Khalid offered in a thought-tracked moment, 'If destiny were a man, I would kill him'. The Omani people have a deep vein of poetry and a strong sense of storytelling and this was where we needed to go.
Fortune favours the brave and by the end of day three, we were feeling almost buoyant. They had told the story of Romeo and Juliet beautifully, working in small groups but contributing to a whole with commitment and discipline. They had shared their different opinions about how far children should obey their parents and had actively made different choices about to whom Lady Capulet's line: 'You are too hot' could be addressed.
'This work moves the students from a level of thinking which is just reading to being able to analyse the script.'
'I am realising my students may have more ability and creativity than I give them credit for.'
On day four, we moved on to Hamlet and spent much of the morning building the coronation scene with each individual taking on a role as staff, guest or named character in order to create a whole; and we tried the scene with different choices. It was a triumph - now we really did have an ensemble! 'Everyone has respect for what is happening,' said Mahmoud.
By day 5, we were in a position to reflect on what and how we had learned and begin to make practical decisions for their regional festivals and for Massad to wisely comment: “The beauty of Shakespeare is that it is up to you to think and in our schools now we need to ask our students to think more.”
This week in Oman has been tough but hugely rewarding. We really have built an ensemble and have faith that our charming but also talented and committed teachers will build ensembles with their students to discover what Shakespeare can mean to them.
We relaxed on the last evening eating pizza next to the beach with Paul and Zuweina from the British Council. Paul, BC director in Oman, has been hugely supportive and his assistant director, Zuweina, has been a rock, sorting everything out, smoothing problems and stepping in as translator when it all became too much for Nora. We're hugely grateful to them, to Abdullah at the ministry, and to Nora - and to all the participants who became our friends. We were so happy with how the week had gone, we didn't even miss the alcohol in our mocktails.
Photo by Tracy Irish © RSC
by Tracy Irish
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