Wilma den Hartigh
The African Research and Educational Puppetry Programme Trust, or arepp:Theatre for Life, is adding some spark to life skills education in schools, using humour and music in its interactive performances to demystify taboo subjects and enabling young people to make informed lifestyle choices.
There is a great sense of orderliness ahead of arepp's performance at the Rhodesfield Technical High School on Johannesburg's West Rand.
The familiar sound of the school bell signals the end of each lesson, prompting pupils to walk briskly along the corridors to their next class, and in the reception area there is serious talk of reports, averages, tests and results.
But as soon as the play starts, the school hall - with a group of about 300 grade eight pupils neatly seated in rows on the floor - explodes with laughter, whistling and cheering. Even the teachers who are supervising the noisy group of teenagers can't help but smile.
The performance that follows will undoubtedly be the highlight of every pupil's day.
Targeted at grades eight to 12 pupils, the focus of the Look Before You Leap play series is on choices, problem solving and self-image. It explores how ideas of gender and sexuality affect perceptions of self and society.
Arepp's approach to educational theatre is all about making learning fun and, through the different characters, help pupils make an emotional connection with the content of the play.
The award-winning educational theatre group takes learning out of the classroom onto the stage, and there is nothing high-brow about these performances.
Instead of sidestepping the serious issues affecting young people in South Africa, arepp's candid approach and innovative use of theatre highlights difficult social and personal issues such as sexuality, relationships, pregnancy, substance use, HIV/Aids, physical and emotional abuse and gender equality.
Learning can be fun
Brigid Schutz, director at arepp, says the structure and character development of the plays help pupils to identify closely with the situations portrayed.
Unlike traditional theatre, the audience are not passive observers, as the play mirrors their personal experiences on stage.
One of the actors, Ruan Zed, says that theatre is a powerful medium that helps people to see issues from a different perspective. "Theatre puts your own life story on stage," he says.
This particular play, Look Before You Leap: Oh Yeah! deals with issues that all high school pupils can relate to – peer pressure and temptation, not fitting in and being different. It also examines the uncertainty of early relationships, being true to one's identity and self-esteem.
"The characters in the play go through an emotional process and because it becomes a personal experience for the pupils, they can identify and connect with it," Schutz explains.
Making life orientation relevant
The productions, which run for an hour – the first half is the play, which is then followed by a 30-minute problem-solving discussion with the audience - are specifically designed to be performed as a life orientation (LO) lesson within the school's daily schedule.
LO is a compulsory subject in South African schools for all grades.
This new area of learning replaced subjects such as career guidance, physical training and religious education. The point of LO is to enable pupils to make wise choices, understand healthy living, get career direction, learn study skills and become aware of environmental, community and society issues.
Although it covers non-academic skills needed in life, Rhodesfield's LO teacher Elliot Faku says there is a perception in schools that LO is not as important as the more academic subjects like maths or science.
"The subject is highly relevant as it deals with what life is like after school," he says.
He is a great supporter of using theatre as a learning tool. "It further entrenches the concepts that the pupils learn in class," Faku says. "Even though the kids see it as a break from their normal school routine, they are still learning."
Problem-solving through discussion
After each performance pupils have an opportunity to ask questions, talk about the issues raised in the play, contextualise the content and debate the decisions made by the characters.
The discussion time is important because it encourages open communication. "It shows the pupils that their opinions are valued," Schutz says.
Most of them are not scared to ask difficult questions that they might not usually want to discuss with other adults such as their parents or teachers.
Throughout the discussion, the group is encouraged to offer answers themselves, which builds confidence and problem-solving skills.
Zed notes that in all the discussion sessions they've noticed that the questions and opinions of the pupils are closely related to their own lives. By sharing their understanding of the issues, pupils become more confident to talk about them in the classroom, on the playground and at home.
"Arepp doesn't give right or wrong answers," he says. "What we want to do is develop resilient youth who can deal with any challenge and know what they stand for," Zed says.
Reaching as many kids as possible
Arepp's life skills and self-efficacy development programmes reach all age groups in schools with four series of shows: Look Before you Leap, aimed at groups between 13 and 22; About Us for 10 to 13 year olds; No Monkey Business and the Monkey Tales series for the groups between six and nine and three and five respectively.
"There is a need to do more of this type of theatre in South Africa," Schutz says. "There are many theatre education initiatives that start up, but keeping it going is difficult because it is very costly."
The organisation relies entirely on external funding to continue its work. Currently it receives support from the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, the STARS Foundation and a foreign donor agency in the Netherlands.
Established in 1987, arepp reaches about 120 000 pupils between the ages of five and 18 in 350 schools each year.
Feedback from teachers last year showed an increase of 81% in the audience's knowledge, skills, ability and confidence to deal with issues directly affecting them.
The reported percentage of physical and sexual abuse cases in those schools halved from the previous year, to just under 4%, and reported pregnancies declined from 9% to less than 1%.
Reported suicides decreased and overall, 80% of audiences indicated changes in their feelings of worth, competency and control with regard to the issues presented in the plays.
"This shows that our performances are helping to make a difference," says Schutz.
Last year the company was selected from 976 applicants from 60 countries to receive the 2011 STARS Foundation Impact award in education.
The foundation offers awards to charities in the Africa-Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions working with children in the areas of health, education and protection.
The award is allowing arepp to fund additional theatre projects and perform about 200 more presentations, which will benefit 30 000 additional pupils.
Schutz describes the award as an important accolade as it validates the organisation's work and recognises arepp's contribution of 25 years to the promotion of human rights in South Africa.
"It highlights the vital importance of assisting young people and children to understand, engage with, and contextualise the notions and practical applications of their rights," she says.
• Slideshow image courtesy of Andrew Aitchison