Friday, April 16, 2010


You can only sing “The Hokey Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” so many times before you begin to wonder how camp counselors and kindergarten teachers keep their sanity. I teach six hours of English clubs per week, three of which are with younger children up to sixth grade, and after countless repetitions of the aforementioned songs, I decided we needed a goal other than “make Miss Anna completely exhausted.”

And so, I decided to write and direct a short play, where the kids could continue to sing and dance but I would get to watch. Not being particularly creative in the script-writing department, I decided to adapt a traditional fairy tale: the kids learn about American culture, and I don't have to worry about plot development! The final choice was “Cinderella” because it has lots of parts, both large and small, as well as many “extras.” This turned out to be a fortunate choice, because they have the same story over here, only her name is “Zolushka” instead of Cinderella. So even though the entire play is in English, which most of the audience won't understand, they should get the general gist of the story. And, to keep it interesting, I added several musical numbers and dance sequences, as well as some self-composed poetry:

To open the play:

A girl, Cinderella by name,
will quickly attain lasting fame
when her sisters two
can't put on the shoe.
I tell you, this story's not lame.

The fairy godmother says:

Right now you have not got a dress.
I'll do what you never would guess.
I'll wave my small wand.
Your rags are all gone!
You're beautiful, like a princess.

Mother Dies
"The opening scene of the play is very heartbreaking; right after Cinderella's mother says her one line, “I love you, Cinderella,” she falls ill and dies. The funeral scene is quite moving; a few kids even pretended to wipe away tears"

"I think my narrators' acting skills were wasted in their roll: they cried more in the funeral scene than even the widower did"

I thought that “like a princess” was a nice bit of foreshadowing. I must confess, however, that this literary device was inspired not so much by my poetical prowess as by my lack of a rhyming dictionary. Likewise, my writing poetry in the first place was not brought on by my overflowing creative genius, but rather by my lack of access to any other poems. (Curse that once-weekly internet!)

A lot of things in this play (one could say everything) are driven by my lack of resources. For example, my special effects budget is approximately 0 tenge. Therefore, we haven't got the capability to turn a pumpkin into a carriage, or, for that matter, even a large piece of orange paper into a larger piece of carriage-shaped paper. And so, the only thing keeping Cinderella from the ball is her lack of beautiful dress. This may seem a minor and rather vain problem, but it is insurmountable to Cinderella, who weeps over her lack of beautiful dress in a very touching scene.

"Cinderella, in her working clothes. (The transformation scene was too short for her to completely change her clothes, so we had to improvise with costuming. I think she looks a bit like the little mermaid)"

I'm afraid my play in general might be teaching some less than noteworthy values. Or maybe, in its extreme simplicity, it reveals the shallow values that have been driving the story of Cinderella from the very beginning. For example, the story tells young girls that if they dress up in a beautiful dress, a prince will fall in love with them. My play helps drive this point home when the prince laments Cinderella's disappearance (in a poem I also wrote/adapted.)

Oh where, oh where has that pretty girl gone?
Oh where, oh where can she be?
With her beautiful eyes and her beautiful dress,
Oh where, oh where can she be?

Are her beautiful eyes and her beautiful dress the only things that the prince can remember about Cinderella? The shortness of their acquaintance, not to mention the rhythm of the poem, dictate this.

"The evil stepfamily, who make Cinderella work all day while they watch tv and eat chocolates"

I did take a bit of artistic license when I adapted the story. There's one scene I added where the king tells his son that he must get married. (We needed more male parts, and there was a big scuffle over who got to be the prince and wear a cape. So now the king gets to wear a cape too.) The king's line is: “Son, I want you to get married.” The trouble is, the king is always getting mixed up, and keeps saying, “Son, I want to you get married.” I'm not sure, legally, how this would work. The son's reply is even more disturbing: “Father, I do not love a girl.” Every time he says this, I keep thinking, “Well then, who do you love?” Sadly, I did not spot this unfortunate turn of phrase until it was too late to change it because the prince had already spent countless hours memorizing his line. I think, when I wrote this, I was trying to teach the vocab term “girl.” Or else my time in Kazakhstan has hindered my ability to speak English.

Prince and King
"The King, telling his son, “I want to you get married”

I also took artistic license with the opening scene. In order to squeeze another musical number into the production, not to mention another female character, I started the story with the death of Cinderella's first mother. She has one line to say, “I love you, Cinderella,” before she kicks the bucket. This makes her the perfect role for one of my shyer students to play, and also allows me to write a moving funeral scene where the chorus sings, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The chorus is my most inspired idea yet. The attendance at my club is constantly fluctuating, and if I were to be always reassigning parts I'd probably give myself a headache. The chorus and dance group, therefore, gives every hyperactive child who shows up to club something to do, without leaving a glaring hole when they never come back. (Probably scared away by my dance choreography.)

"The herald, announcing the ball with the coolest prop ever!"

Lack of resources also drove me to choreograph all of the dances. The trouble is, I have very little dance experience. I danced a couple of times in the Bollywood dance at my college's International Fair, and also joined the hula one time for the Hawai'i Club's Lu'au. And I took one semester of ballroom dancing for a PE credit. But there was a reason I was always put in the back row during our performances.

I started dredging my memory for any fragments of dance moves that I remember. It was a pretty poor haul. I started with a short dance another volunteer, Noelle, created during Pre-Service Training. She performed this dance with her host sister during a school concert. It's a variation on the electric slide, keeping the foot movement while adding some arm movements. But it wasn't very long, and if I was going to drag out the play, I'd need some more steps. And so, without any respect for the cultural nuances of these dances, I mercilessly stole, cut, combined, and otherwise butchered the few dance moves I knew, putting together the strangest conglomeration of Bollywood meets Hula meets where-on-earth-did-that-come-from. And we dance it to the song “Jai Ho!” from “Slumdog Millionaire.” The good news is, the kids love it (at least, the girls do) and are constantly begging to dance it. I wouldn't be surprised if Broadway came knocking, looking for the next up-and-coming choreographer.

Fairy Godmother
"The fairy godmother comforts Cinderella"

Next, I added some songs; people here love singing, and will sing karaoke at the drop of a hat. My lack of resources, however, continued to plague me. The only songs I had to work with were any folk songs I could remember the words to and the songs already on my iTunes. I really wanted to stay artistically honest, so even though my audience won't understand the lyrics, I still wanted them to have some bearing on the context. This led to an eclectic mix that rivaled my dance choreography. When the stepmother and stepsisters are getting ready for the prince's ball, they sing Carly Simon's “You're So Vain.” Then, after they leave Cinderella at home in her rags, she sings Switchfoot's “Only Hope.” (Only I had to change the word “pray” to “say” to prevent any religious conflicts.) Finally, when the fairy godmother arrives to help Cinderella, she sings The Beatles' “From Me To You.” (The first verse of this song is perfect, but the bridge, where the godmother tells Cinderella “I've got arms that long to hold you...I've got lips that long to kiss you,” is a little disturbing.) The final scene of the play features the chorus again, singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as Cinderella gets married to the prince (and is carried into his home – see the connection? Yeah, me neither.)

Jai Ho!
"The dance scene, complete with my groundbreaking choreography. The girls all complained about dancing in their ball gowns, but I insisted. It's incredible: every girl here owns a super fancy dress, and they are dressed to the nines for any special occasion"

"The prince fell in love with Cinderella as they danced the rumba. Well, tried to dance the rumba; my prince didn't have any sense of rhythm"

"The prince tries the shoe on the stepmother; I guess Cinderella's dad isn't good enough for her"

Swing Low
"The play ended with a rousing rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” complete with arm movements I learned in Sunday School"

We're planning a big performance of our production this Monday, with many of the teachers in attendance. I'm looking forward to showcasing all our hard work, and also being done with rehearsals, since the kids are starting to be bored of the songs. But I worried: what on earth am I going to do now? I guess it's back to the “Hokey Pokey!”