In How to be an Unhappy Expat, I explained how I came to be co-directing a production for my children’s school. I was uniquely unqualified for this role. Sure, I’d written and co-directed shows before, but I’d never worked with children. I wasn’t a teacher. I hadn’t even coached a sports team. The closest I’d come to any sort of kids group facilitation was being a cub scout leader when I lived in Lagos.
I did, however, have a secret weapon – my children, Brutus and Maximus (not their real names), who were 11 and 9 back in 2010.
I originally wrote The Cup of Life for my Nigerian dance instructor, Buddy, who was pitching to produce a family show for the Lagos office of a multinational company. To ensure it would interest children, I consulted Brutus and Maximus. Unlike the adults I worked with, they weren’t interested in morals and messages, they just wanted a solid, fast-paced story. Fantasy was a preference, which was no surprise, as they’d grown up on Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. They gave so much input to the storyline that I credited them as co-authors.
Jack was born into a family of gangsters, who kicked him out of his home because he wasn’t bad enough. Forced to fend for himself, he grew stronger and tougher and developed a new identity as ‘Wolf Eyes’.
Angelina grew up with devoted crime-fighting parents. One day, they disappeared in the woods, and Angelina was rescued by Charlie, a Kung-Fu master. He raised her as his own and trained her to become a crime-fighter like her parents. She became known as ‘The Masked Angel’.
Both Wolf Eyes and The Masked Angel were trying to find The Cup of Life, a magical cup that made its owner invincible. The cup was owned by Countess Barkala, a reclusive woman who lived in a castle in the mythical land of Barkalino. She appeared only once a year at the festival of the Cup of Life.
Wolf Eyes and Angel both attended the festival to work out how to steal the cup. This led them to an inevitable confrontation.
The project didn’t get funding in Lagos, so it languished on my hard drive until I dusted it off to use for the school show in Houston.
The beauty of directing your own script is that you can adapt it. The original cast was small to meet budget constraints, but for a school production, we wanted to include as many students as possible. I added characters and performance groups to suit our available talent. In rehearsal, we tweaked it further. Some of the best lines came from the students.
My co-director, Jacquie Fox, was a powerhouse. She did the choreography, costume design and generally kept things running. Other parents stepped up to take on roles from photographer to secretary to front-of-house and everything in between. We developed a wonderful sense of community.
Of course, it wasn’t without its challenges. First and foremost, was maintaining discipline in rehearsals. Have you ever tried to get 20 kids in grades 2-7 to walk in formation and form a circle? The expression ‘herding cats’ comes to mind. We managed something more like a squashed pear. I developed a newfound respect for teachers.
We rehearsed in a small lecture theatre, the cafeteria, or the school gym. The acoustics in all these venues were terrible and the noise grew to the point where I couldn’t think straight. It didn’t help that parents came to watch and sat around chatting. In the end, Barto gave me a sports whistle that was so ear-piercing that the act of lifting it to my lips was enough to silence the room before I even drew breath.
The school didn’t have a suitable performance venue, so we hired the theatre at one of the local high schools. Wow! It was way more sophisticated than anywhere I’d worked in Lagos.
On the night, backstage was organized chaos. We had a few slow scene changes waiting for costume changes, but there were no irredeemable disasters. The kids and the parent volunteers were amazing. So much so, that we agreed to do it all over again the next year.
That was nine years ago now. I’m still Facebook friends with several of the parents, and it’s surreal for me to watch as those cute little kids I worked with are now all grown up and heading off to college.