I rarely turn an offer down. The song in Oklahoma was written for me. As a result, I get that churning feeling in my stomach on most working days. But on Friday morning when I stood in front of a class of 8-10 year olds in a state school in Russia, I could barely speak for anxiety. They had very little English. I had one word of Russian.
I had a timetable in front of me of seven hours of contact time a day for three days. At 5.30pm on Sunday, they would be performing a play written by them in English to their parents and teachers. The anxiety was the least of my communication problems. “Spasiba” I muttered as a greeting, forgetting it meant ‘thank you’, and revealing myself as an idiot within ten seconds. The children smiled politely.
Three days later we’re looking at the song lyrics we’ve written together. The line we sing early in the play “I’ll finish what I started and continue” has changed to “I finished what I started and continued”.
“Ahhhh! In past is ‘d'” says a child who barely spoke on the first day.
They’re following instructions too. Instead of me having to say “sit down” four times, wave my hands towards the ground and finally in desperation plonk myself on the floor saying “this, this”, they sit first time. And stand and move in the directions I suggest. They laugh at my jokes. And laugh at what they think are my jokes, but which are just mistakes. They surprise me with random vocabulary that we just have to build into our performance – “he hurting and sad” one explains of the monster who turns out to be less terrible than I envisaged. “He vegetable” shouts another. I raise my eyebrows. He mimes eating. I assume we have a sad vegetarian on our hands. Which places our hero in a difficult ethical position.
Hence Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey narrative structure (an utter God send) gets a little update and a few new twists. I’ll never know if they were intentional.
Of course there were mishaps. Teaching lifts to children in a second language is foolhardy I learned as one left her blood on the floor. And “Pull the curtains” led to the whole rig coming down crashing on their heads. But they are Russian. All over town posters commemorating the losses of the Second World War (or Great Patriot War) are hanging and a few bloody noses and bruised heads are not putting this lot off.
So the parents arrive and watch their children perform a play in a language that most of them don’t understand. I’m playing the piano with my hands, operating the lighting rig with my toes. The song goes a bit wrong. But it doesn’t matter. Because like parents all over the world, their eyes glisten as they watch their child achieve something they didn’t think possible three days ago. And the children see this and their faces light up. And I remember not only what a powerful tool drama is for learning language, but also the power it has to bond families. I’m proud of these brave little children. And of myself. And I’m glad that I’m a girl who can’t say no.