by Alexandra Erath, A16
This past July, the nine-member student cast of Shakespeare's Richard III—the Department of Drama and Dance's spring 2015 production—traveled to Grahamstown, South Africa to perform in and experience its annual arts festival. Grahamstown's National Arts Festival is an eleven-day celebration of both indigenous and imported talents, including traditional theatre and spoken word performances, dance, music, and visual arts exhibits.
Gibson Cima, a visiting lecturer specializing in theatre history and directing, was inspired by the recent discovery of King Richard III's bones in Leicester, England, to create an abridged version of Richard III. In Cima's version, the cast brings the drama of the archeologist's discovery to life: each actor portrays both an archeologist and one of the traditional characters in Richard III.
Cima's decision to portray Richard as a more morally ambiguous character, rather than the stereotyped villain, provided an additional twist. "I didn't want to do a traditional Richard, where he's visibly deformed and skulks around the stage being evil," says Cima, who adds he had in mind a more historical version of the play. "I was trying to highlight the dig that found his remains and how it might relate to the play," he explains.
Cima's production of Richard III ran for five performances at Tufts Balch Arena Theatre in April, but Cima was already looking further ahead. As his own research focuses on post-apartheid South African theatre, he was familiar with the Grahamstown festival, having attended five times since 2006. While he enjoyed visiting the festival, it had always been his dream to bring a performance there.
When Cima learned that Dr. Megan Lewis, a colleague at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, had recently begun a study abroad program that included a trip to the festival, Cima partnered with Lewis to extend the opportunity to Tufts students as well.
"We were all excited at the idea of even just going to the festival, never mind actually performing," says cast member Tyler Beardsley, A16, who played King Edward IV and Sir William Catesby, about Cima's proposal to take the production abroad. To Cima's surprise, the entire cast made plans to attend, with the exception of one actress who had already committed to an internship. The cast prepared by taking an online class that required each student to read essays and plays on South African culture and literature, and to submit a paper interpreting these materials.
Before the festival, the combined UMass/Tufts group traveled to Johannesburg, where they did most of their historical and cultural touring. "I don't think many of my castmates were expecting to have such an intellectual and academic experience, but the context that those first few days in Johannesburg provided proved absolutely necessary for the rest of the trip," says Emma Wold, A15, who played the Duchess of York in the Tufts performances, and Lady Anne and Prince Edward in South Africa.
The students first toured Constitution Hill, the former site of the apartheid-era prison that is now the location of the nation's highest court. They also visited the Liliesleaf Museum, the Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park, and Soweto, a black township just outside of Johannesburg, in addition to volunteering at the Thembelenkosini Care Givers Center in Soweto, an afterschool program for at-risk children and orphans.
"All of the history we encountered came back in the theatre we saw at the festival," Wold recalls. "We were able to see, through art, how the country is processing its history."
The Grahamstown National Arts Festival is divided into the "fringe" and "main" festivals. Securing a place in the fringe festival, as the Tufts Richard III production did, requires a submission and an entrance fee. The Tufts students performed Richard III four times as part of the fringe festival, enjoyed sizable audiences, and received a favorable review in the festival newspaper, which called their production "compelling" and complimented the students as "a talented group of young actors who slip seamlessly between characters and keep the audience engaged."
In between performances, the students saw almost thirty productions over the span of the festival's ten days. "I saw both the best and worst theatre I've ever been exposed to," says Wold. "The volume of content was massive, but it was refreshing to be reminded how little I know of the world."
In addition to their festival performances, the cast also signed up for the Arts Reach program, which expands the festival's reach to underserved audiences. They were assigned to perform at Grahamstown's Waainek Correctional Centre, a medium-security facility housing 730 inmates.
"It was really their most incredible performance of the play," Cima recalls. The cast, he says, seemed to portray a deeper, more emotionally rich interpretation in order to compensate for language and cultural barriers.
Beardsley echoes the sentiment, calling the experience "absolutely incredible." "Only about 50 percent of the inmates spoke English," he says, "and yet we had everyone's complete attention. It was really cool to see the transcendence of language, and how much your body language and intonation can convey."
Overall, Cima feels his students came away with an exceptionally unique study abroad experience, one which combined the academics of South African theatre instruction with the practical experience of performing several times.
"Artistically and culturally, it was an amazing learning experience," Beardsley agrees, "just an extraordinary thing to be able to do in college."
Wold, who has always been heavily involved with theatre at Tufts, is excited to bring what she's learned back to campus. "I'm inspired to make theatre that will resonate with audiences in the way that shows at the festival resonated with me," she says.
Although Cima has left the Tufts faculty to teach at Grinnell College, he and the cast are hopeful that future Tufts students will attend the festival through the University of Massachusetts course.
"I think many other students at Tufts should take the opportunity," Beardsley says. "It was very exciting and very stimulating to experience this festival."