Macbeth is a great leveler | James Erskine | TEDxYangon

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven If you’ve ever found yourself
trying to teach Shakespeare to kids, I would recommend
that you start with Macbeth. It’s a nice, concise story. There’s a murder about every ten minutes – keeps everybody interested. It’s full of manipulation,
deception, back-stabbing – all things that children are
very familiar with from the playground. And nobody falls in love! I mean falling in love is great,
but nobody wants to act it out, particularly not children. Uck. But this story starts
with a production of Macbeth at the National Theatre in Yangon. Has anyone ever been
to the National Theatre? Yeah, it’s not the most beautiful place, a rather inauspicious starting place. But I was putting on
a play of Macbeth there, and this was a play like no other. It had 250 children starring in it, from incredibly diverse backgrounds. We had children from monastery schools, from orphanages,
from international schools, and a big age range as well – I think our youngest were six
and our oldest were twenty-one. And if you know Macbeth,
you know there are witches. And there is nothing more terrifying
than a six-year-old witch. (Laughter) As we’ve just heard in the last talk, the Myanmar education system
is very rigid: there is a right answer,
and there is a wrong answer, and there is no more difficult question
than “What do you think?” So when we were going
into these local schools, the orphanages and the monasteries, you know, this is a play
that is full of “What do you thinks?” Who’s in the right? Who’s in the wrong?
Who’s manipulating who? Who’s a goodie? Who’s a baddie? And it turns out, these children
could think very creatively, and after a few sessions, they were much more comfortable
expressing themselves. And so after this
insane rehearsal period – of dashing around
from one school to the next, with one group of kids to the next – each group had prepared a scene, and we brought all
those 250 children together at the National Theatre to perform Macbeth. There’s a commuter train in Yangon;
most of you have probably been on it. It’s really bumpy,
it’s uncomfortable, it’s hot, and it runs in a 50 kilometer loop
around the city – my kids love going on it. A few years ago, my colleague suggested that we
do a performance on one of these trains at the hottest time of year. Now, my producing head said,
“No, this is a stupid idea.” In fact, any common sense would say
that this was a very stupid idea. But he chipped away at me, and eventually the beauty
of the idea won me around. And so we did this
on a tiny, tiny budget – this motley crew of local artists and a few artists from the expat community put together this show
on a five-carriage train. And it stopped at
three stations along the way. And it was an absolutely
ridiculous thing to do. (Laughter) But it was also one of the most
memorable days that I’ve had in Yangon. And people still come up to me and
talk about that crazy day on the train. Before I moved to Myanmar,
I was a producer. I used to work at
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Shakespeare’s Globe
is a replica of Shakespeare’s theater, and they’re famous for producing
productions of Shakespeare plays, obviously. And a few years ago,
one of the producers called me up to ask about the possibility
of performing Hamlet here in Myanmar, as part of their global tour. And I was really excited about this because I’d been using Shakespeare texts
for cross-cultural performances since the Macbeth in 2013, and Shakespeare’s great
for cross-cultural performances because he understood
what so many people forget: is that people, they’re just people. And his characters and his stories,
they echo through the years. So these plays, that were
written 400 years ago, still resonate with people now, still resonate in a country that is so far away
from where those plays were written, but they’re just about people. And people are just people. And here was an opportunity
for me to get these kids along to see Shakespeare’s Globe
perform Hamlet. So we went to a lot of these groups, and we ran workshops so that they would know
what the play was all about. And then we brought them along to see the show in the ballroom
at the Strand Hotel. So, we’ve got Shakespeare’s Globe in Myanmar. We’ve got a show on a commuter train, and we’ve got 250 children performing a bilingual Macbeth
at the National Theatre. Come with me. There is a thread. When we staged Hamlet,
1,000 people came and saw that show. Five hundred of them paid $50 a ticket,
admittedly some of them quite grudgingly. But the other 500 couldn’t have dreamt
of paying $50 for a ticket, would never have dreamt of seeing Shakespeare’s Globe
perform Hamlet. Until really quite recently, it was illegal to gather
in large groups in public spaces. And so when 250 people turned up
at Yangon Central Station to see a show on a train, a few eyebrows were raised. And then when that train pulled
into a station in the outskirts of Yangon and those 250 people
rolled out of the train to see a seemingly spontaneous
choreographed dance, underneath all the smiles
and the laughter, something interesting
and significant was going on with the democratization of space. The National Theatre –
it was built in 1991, when I’m told that all
the interesting people in Myanmar were either in jail or in the jungle. And the next 25 years, that stage had been the preserve
of the Myanmar elite, through the darkest years
of military rule. And here were 250 children
performing a play in Burmese and English about power and corruption. Nothing political there. Or nothing overtly political. In fact, nothing overtly political
about any of this work. But – and this is my first point – creative public projects, they don’t need to have a massive budget, but what they can do,
if they’re done well, is create moments, shared experiences. And these shared experiences provide moments of complete solidarity and just momentary equality. And these moments are absolutely
fundamental to a democracy. I was running a class recently
for young children, five- and six-year-olds, and I was asking the children, “How would you represent time on stage?” And there was a lot of,
you know, ticking and clock hands, and there was sort of
wind-up clock-work things. And there was this one girl, she got down on all fours, like this, and if you know yoga, you’ll know
that that’s the downward dog. If you know yoga, you probably know
that I don’t know yoga. (Laughter) And I did what all adults do when
they have no idea what a child is doing – I tried to ignore her, and I just hoped
it would go away, but it didn’t go away. It was right there
in the middle of the room, and eventually I had to ask, “Wha- what’s this?
How does this represent time?” And she said, “I’m the times table.” Brilliant. I mean, what an amazing cognitive leap
that is not open to us as adults, but for a child, that’s perfectly logical. And that creativity
is key to facing the future. We don’t know what Myanmar
is going to look like in five years time, twenty years time, not a clue. But if we can nurture
that cognitive agility, then there’s hope. Now, I run a lot of workshops
for different age groups, sometimes in English,
sometimes with a translator. Unfortunately, my Myanmar’s
not quite up to it yet. And there is one game
that works across the board, and it’s a very, very simple game. It’s called, “Yes, let’s.” I put people in pairs,
and you got Person A, Person B. Person A has to make a suggestion, and that suggestion
cannot be constrained by reality. And whatever they say,
Person B has to say, “Yes, let’s.” And then it’s Person B’s turn. So Person A might say something like,
“Let’s go to the moon.” “Yes, let’s.” Brrrrroooooooom – and they’re off. And it doesn’t matter how old you are,
what language you speak, what your religion is – it really doesn’t matter. Once you give them permission to go on that imaginative,
creative flight of fancy, you’ll go because that instinct
is in every single person, and it crosses borders,
it crosses boundaries. And these are the two foundation stones
that sit underneath all of this. Number one: all children are artists – in fact, no, forget that –
all people are artists. All people are artists; it’s just that children
are a bit better at it. They’re better at making mistakes, they’re more genuine in their inquiries, and they are far more generous in receiving ideas that they
are not immediately comfortable with. And number two is that that creative urge, that urge just to drop
all the cultural baggage and just go on an amazing,
imaginative flight of fancy – that crosses all borders. Now, I’m just going to take you back now
to that production in 2013. One of the schools that was
involved in that is a monastery school. Now, you’ve heard about
some monastery schools earlier today. They’re very common across Myanmar. They basically, quite often, provide a safety net
for the state education system. Often children will go there because they can’t afford
to stay in the state system. It might be that they
are from a very rural area where there is no state school. There’s lots of areas that have been
afflicted by conflict in Myanmar. Often, the children, if there’s no school,
they get sent away to a monastery school. So some of them are residential. A lot of the parents
of these children live in slums, which is unofficial housing,
so they don’t have an official address. And this particular monastery school does a very good line helping the children
of those parents get an ID card. An ID card is obviously integral; you can’t get a job,
you can’t get a driving license, you can’t vote without an ID card. So you need an official address, or you
can’t do it – this school is good at that. Another one of those schools
is an international school. International schools
are less common throughout Myanmar. We get a few in Yangon. They generally teach in English. They’re generally –
they’ll be a fee-paying school, quite expensive, and they cater for people
who are moving around a lot, and so their children
can have continuity of education. This particular international school
has children from all over the world, but also it educates a lot
of the children of the Myanmar elite. Two very, very different childhoods. And my realization with this project was that once those children
stepped on stage, it was exactly the same experience. Two childhoods you
couldn’t imagine more different. And yet, when they stepped on stage, and they’d finished the last rehearsal, and the blood was pumping, and the nerves were tingling, and the butterflies were fluttering, and all the eyes were looking up at them – none of that background mattered. It was just a perfect, tiny moment
of absolute equality. Now, I’m not completely deluded; I don’t think I’m going
to transform the world. Some of these kids, maybe
they’ll be a little bit more creative, maybe they’ll be better
at working in a team, maybe they’ll have made new friends. I’m pretty sure all of those kids will remember that bearded white guy
who came and played games with them. And that’s great, because play
is very important to children. But what I do know is that creativity, the creative process,
any creative process – theater, dance, music,
gardening, programming – it creates moments of solidarity
and absolute equality. And it’s just a moment. But surely that’s better than none at all. Thank you. (Applause)

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