Come late December 2019, Choice School’s revival of the age-old vendetta between the Montagues and the Capulets onstage left the audiences’ interest piqued. A group of young school-going children dramatised the Shakespearean classic Romeo and Juliet, breathing life into every single one of the characters, only to end the play with resounding applause from all those watching, captivated.
“Great theatre is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to fantasise about a world we aspire to”- Willem Dafoe
Cochin Herald met with the Principal of Choice School, Ms Sunitha Satheesh to get an insight into the institution’s tryst with extra-curriculars and its much-talked about recent play.
An educator with over 24 years of experience Ms Sunitha Satheesh has been a part of Choice School for over 24 years both as an educator and in administrative roles. She’s served as the Principal of this particular school, one of India’s top ten schools, for 7 years and her career has followed quite the trajectory from starting off as a primary school teacher to her current role as Principal.
Balance between academics and co-curricular activities
When asked on how Choice School always seems to strike the right balance between academics and extracurriculars, she states that this may not necessarily be what those inclined just towards academics might believe. She believes that in order to gain something, students who are more passionate about co-curriculars a little may miss out on a little something on the academic front.
She cites the example of a grade 12 student playing for the national sports team who hasn’t written any of his model exams. While he could be stopped from participating in the nationals to focus on his exams, the school recognises that that’s his future too and is willing to put in extra efforts once he returns to get him to prepare on the academic front.
She strongly stands by her conviction that these activities hone more confident students and a lot of learning happens as they participate in extracurriculars. While most of the school’s students are already in the 90+ mark bracket, she reflects on how they could score even better if just academics was focused on. But Choice School’s philosophy is more towards holistic learning rather than just performing well on examinations- the students are confident when it comes to appearing for interviews or putting up stage performances.
Maintaining a system like this took a lot of effort, especially in the higher classes. Even for rehearsals for this particular play- students, parents and teachers have all contributed and supported each other- to balance both academics and theatre to put up a show worth remembering.
All the world’s a stage- and Choice School’s students are ready!
From a kindergarten level, students get exposure performing onstage with their entire batch for a Class Day performance where their parents are called. Plays like ‘Juliet & her Romeo’ happen thrice annually- one each from Kinderland, Primary and the Senior School. The themes for the Senior School plays keep changing- could be a theatre play one year and a dance drama the next and a play in a regional language yet another year.
For the ‘Juliet & her Romeo’ play, Ms Sunitha has no reservations on how the epic Shakespearean drama would be executed- she believed in the ability of her students and their HOD Dramatics’ training.
A synopsis done a few years back by Feroze, Choice School’s HOD Dramatics sealed her expectations on this play. His output then, on a much smaller level, gave the school the confidence to bring out ‘Juliet & her Romeo’ as a JTPac production of a much larger scale.
Cochin Herald also chatted with M N A Feroze, Choice School’s HOD Dramatics who has been described as someone with the magic to transform anyone into a performer.
Feroze says that in Choice School, the focus is not just on acting, theatre or just putting up a play- quite a rigid dramatics curriculum is in place for students from grade I all the way up to grade XII, with weekly classes. The curriculum includes but is not restricted to theatre, acting, scriptwriting and designing and is designed in a manner that hones innate talents that students display early on.
Theatre games are incorporated into teaching methodology across all age groups to identify these talents. This is a process in place even for the most professional of actors. These activities work on the students’ personalities and are a way to shed inhibitions to best present themselves as the characters they play. In this instance, these theatre games got the actors to become more vocal with their opinions as they walked a mile in the shoes of the character and it led to them even writing two new scenes for the play.
An example of a theatre game used for students of a higher secondary level is ‘Character Interview’. As a team, everyone interacts with the student pretending to be their character. Their decisions are questioned by the other students, forcing them to create a past and future for their fictional roles, rooting authenticity to the part they play.
For younger age groups, an instance of a theatre game is ‘Teacher-In-Role’ wherein the teacher adopts the role of the character. A concept from the script is detailed to the students and they’re told to prepare questions that they may like to ask the character. The students can also ask the teacher to play the role of different characters and answer their queries. The interaction allows these younger minds to better comprehend the situations they shall soon replicate onstage.
An Introvert’s Inclination to Theatre
Feroze’s personal journey in theatre wasn’t one similar to his students- he hadn’t acted in any school plays and did not experience performing on stage owing to his shy introverted personality.
He doesn’t believe that anyone is necessarily born a thespian, but he believes that everyone possesses an urge to say something to the world. And most often than not, people find this voice through acting, painting or other forms of art.
In his personal journey though, this voice was heard later on- performing on stage rendered a change in his personality. He happily correlates how this is the case for many of his students currently too.
Feroze completed his post-graduation from the National School of Drama, specialising in Theatre in Education. As part of this programme, he was trained as an actor teacher, completing projects in local schools and gaining experience while creating a curriculum tailored to the group of students they worked with.
Theatre Transforming Lives
Feroze narrates the incident of a boy who was part of this ‘Juliet & her Romeo’ play and his father’s heartwarming reaction to watching him perform. The boy’s father hugged Feroze, with tears in his eyes. The boy in question faced some difficulty speaking and avoided eye contact while conversing. On stage, however, the boy personified the character to complete justice delivering his lines to perfection- and that is the power of theatre!
Planning A Play From Scratch
The 6-month long process begins with pre-production planning, scripting, creating blueprints of initial set and formulation of costume design. The process continues with auditions for the actors in the play and practices commence. Makeup, light design and music are other aspects of the play that could not be overlooked.
The auditioning process went on for two months- scripts of the selected play and the list of characters with a description of the role are put out for the whole school to see. Interested candidates receive audition scripts of the role they would like to play from their teachers. The students are given three days to prepare. 320 students took the scripts, 109 students auditioned for the plethora of roles within the closing date and eventually, 22 actors were handpicked by Feroze for the play.
Feroze does point out a potential challenge that the team could have anticipated in preparation for the play, which went on to resolve itself. The primary challenge is that the students’ class schedules should not be disrupted by practices. The solution to this was to begin rehearsals for the play at 6 am for a three-month period leading up to performance day. The practices went on up to 8.30 am, making use of the one-hour zero period before the school day begins. The school authorities did not want the students to practice for the play at the expense of their academic timetable and this did not happen.
Discipline was maintained as a rule was in place, for Feroze included, stating that even a 15-minute delay meant missing practice. Feroze’s professionalism shone in how organised his students willingly became- they began waking up earlier than ever before just to make it in time to rehearsals. Needless to say, parents were impressed!
In the Shakespearean times, when plays were put up in front of the public, female roles were played onstage by males as women were not allowed to perform. As a result, the author began penning down smaller insignificant roles for women.
Offering stark contrast, in this particular play, quite interestingly, Romeo is played by a female actor. Several male actors auditioned for the role of the play’s male protagonist but Feroze personally believes that female actors were stronger performers than their male counterparts. He says that they understood the depth of the characters and were passionate when it came to playing the part.
According to the script, there were only four female characters and hence, he took it upon himself to urge a few of the girls who auditioned for the role of Juliet to play her lover instead. An extended duration of a week to prepare for the audition was given to Devika (one of the girls short-listed to play Juliet) and Feroze believed that she did complete justice to the role of Romeo. The role of Juliet was finally played by Ruth.
Of the script with a total of 22 characters, there were only 4 written characters for females according to the play. Feroze orchestrated the script to fit in more female characters to replace the conventionally male roles and finally, three of those male roles (including Romeo) were given to girls.
The Principal’s Future visions for Choice School
With two decades of teaching experience, Ms Sunitha identifies that the attitudes and approach of parents and students over this timeframe have changed significantly. She believes that the students’ attitudes need to be retuned with an effort from their caregivers’ ends too. She expresses her reservations on whether, right now, society is moulding Gen-next that we really envision and feels that as a school, characters can be moulded by teachers to a great extent only with support from the student and their parents. Getting students there, to becoming rightful citizens of the country, is what she envisions for the school’s future over the coming decade.