On stage: Exciting adaption of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, presented by Westlake Primary School, Cape Town, May 2021

What: Adaption of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, presented by Westlake Primary School, Cape Town

Where and when: Sat May 22, 2021, 7pm, at Artscape, as part of the Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa (SSFSA)   Cast: 19 learners (11 – 13 years) from Westlake Primary School Directors: Celia Musikanth and Coleen van Staden Producers: Circle Productions in partnership with Fondazione Labia Tickets: R50, from Computicket or Artscape box office on 021 421 7695 Info about this production-Julius Caesar: Coleen on 072 120 5645 Info about Shakespeare Schools Festival: www.ssfsa.co.za   

During the pandemic and lockdown, the curtain came down on live performance. We think about theatres but we may forget about how vital the arts are in transforming young peoples’ lives. Live performance provides a potent means of expression and may incorporate dance, music, visual art, puppetry and other modes of expression.  Coleen Van Staden and Celia Musikanth of Circle Productions, based in Cape Town’s seaside town of Muizenberg rose above the challenges of Covid. In partnership with Fondazione Labia [a charitable trust], they have been working with a group of learners from Westlake Primary School on an innovative adaption of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The project was very much about giving the opportunity to learners to experience the joy of Shakespeare and to have fun working with the classic text, Julius Caesar. This production would not have happened without the financial support of the Fondazione Labia as the learners come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The production will be on stage, on Saturday May 22, 2021, 7pm, at Artscape, as part of the Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa (SSFSA). The festival is in its 11 year and is about making the Bard accessible, exciting and relevant for learners.

TheCapeRobyn: Can you tell us about the process of staging Julius Caesar and “turning this play on its head’?

Coleen van Staden: When we attended our first Zoom meeting with the SSF team early in 2021, the Covid Restrictions were on Level 3,  if I recall correctly and so the discussion was around presenting our Shakespeare pieces in a variety of ways to avoid ‘on-stage’ work and no audience. Suggestions ranged from working with Facebook/WhatsApp technology to filming to stream.  Our discussion also focussed on what to present and here too we were encouraged to look at the Covid restrictions and adapt our productions accordingly. Because our drama sessions with Westlake included skills training as well as rehearsals for our show we had to consider the time we had with the learners so we took the festival’s primary school script  of Julius Caesar (30 minutes) and broke it up into  stand-alone scenes. We looked at the scenes that we could effectively stage and that best tell our story. We are offering four scenes in our production of Julius Caesar, running for approximately 20 minutes.  Bearing in mind the Covid protocols and the fact that we had initially chosen to work on-stage with a film crew to film our production, we have opted to do a lot of chorus work (19 learners) with short bursts of dialogue, movement and mime for visual effect and some voice over recordings. Without giving too much away, we have opted for colour, humour – yes in a tragedy – and a visual rather than literal representation of the story.  The stabbing in the Senate?  Done as a Reality TV show called Rome’s Got Talent– gives you a taste of our production and our commitment to ensuring that both our learners and audience have a great time.

TheCapeRobyn:  Why did you choose this play? It was first performed in 1599. Here we are 2021, 2nd year lockdown. How have you positioned the learners the learners who come from an under-resourced community (with a well-equipped school) in relation to this play?

Coleen van Staden: Both Celia and I are familiar with the play and – as a piece about power, greed and betrayal. It still has its place in 2021.  As the play is rather graphically violent, we talked with the learners about how we can best represent, for example, the stabbing scene in the Senate. We workshopped how stylised mime can be more effective than a literal depiction and can add to the drama of the piece. We had discussions about the warnings given to Caesar by both the Soothsayer and Calpurnia and also the characters of Caesar, Brutus and Antony.  Our learners are 11 – 13 years old and have shown a keen understanding of the Julius Caesar story and how best to highlight it in modern times.

TheCapeRobyn: Where or when is your production set- in period or contemporary?

Celia Musikanth: Our opening line is: “This is ancient Rome”. But we have in fact, not chosen  to stick to place or period and this could play out in any street in any city. Some of Shakespeare’s text has been left intact and this brings a bit of Rome into the picture.

TheCapeRobyn: Is the first time that Circle Productions is directing a show for a school at the Shakespeare Schools Festival? 

Celia Musikanth: This is indeed the first time and Circle Productions is excited to be part of this excellent innovation.

TheCapeRobyn:  How did you go about adapting the play? Did you workshop the adaption with the group – getting input?

Celia Musikanth:  We went in with a basic concept and once all 19 learners had enthusiastically auditioned for all the character parts, the voice overs, the movement, etc. We could then build on the concept and add to it as we worked through the skills training component of our lessons/rehearsals. In terms of workshopping, our theatre games were geared towards the text and action and the learners gave their constructive input during many of these theatre games.  With just three males in the group, we were also thrilled that the learners were not phased at all about our production not being gender specific.

TheCapeRobyn: Where did you rehearse and can you tell us about the process?

Coleen van Staden: We combined our regular lesson plans that we use in our drama skills training programme with auditions and rehearsals and worked at Westlake Primary School from February onwards.  Not being on-site educators, did present a set of challenges time wise.  One session might be just one hour and another could be a whole morning. We worked on the days that the learners were not required at school which needed a commitment from them. Happily, 99% of the time, they were committed. 

TheCapeRobyn: How have you dealt with the challenges of working in Covid?  Learners have to wear masks. Diction is core to Shakespeare and masks muffle voices. How have you adapted?

Celia Musikanth: Wearing masks, social distancing and other protocols have been very challenging. We have opted not to use cloth masks but rather the surgical type.  We have played projection games to help the learners and have honed in on character and having the chorus work in unison.

TheCapeRobyn:  You have worked with the Fondazione Labia, under your banner of Circle Productions. When did your association with the foundation begin? Did you suggest to the foundation that it would be a great idea to do a production at the festival?   

Celia Musikanth: We initially started working with the Fondazione Labia in 2019 by offering a drama skills enrichment programme at the request of the Foundation – the chosen school was Westlake Primary School as the Foundation supports arts development in disadvantaged areas. This was an extremely successful programme and the management of the Foundation, Westlake teachers and the parents were blown away by the showcase that was presented and the achievement of their children.  This progressive experience had included many disciplines of performance and the introduction to theatre etiquette. Unfortunately, 2020 with two newly identified schools, supported again by the Foundation, did not happen because of the Corona Virus.  It was decided that in 2021, because we were not quite out of the woods yet, we would go back to Westlake Primary and take the programme to the next level which includes performance on a theatre stage and the Shakespeare Schools Festival was an obvious choice.

Celia Musikanth and Coleen van Staden of Circle Productions, working with learners from Westlake Primary at The Casia Labia in Muizenberg. This photo was taken prior to Covid- which is why the learners are not wearing masks. Circle Productions, in partnership with Fondazione Labia [a charitable fund], have been working with Westlake Primary School on an innovative adaption of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which will be staged on Sat May 22, 2021, 7pm, at Artscape, as part of the Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa (SSFSA).

❇ Sponsored content. Note: There are two productions on the bill, on May 22, 2021, Artscape, Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa: Westlake Primary with Julius Caesar and Westerford, with King Lear. The evening starts at 7pm and will end at about 8.30pm. Circle Productions and Fondazione Labia are not involved with the Westerford production, at the festival.