By Elisabeth Tooms
My husband was intrigued by what made individuals take an interest in a particular activity or hobby. For instance, as a boy he was fascinated by buses – all kinds of models – and man and boy he loved cricket. I, on the other hand, have been interested in theatre from a very young age. Some of my earliest memories are of organizing my younger brother and our neighbour into performing stories in the garden, usually ones I had invented. Later, I acquired some beautiful string puppets and gave puppet performances to members of the family.
All through school and university I was always involved in theatre in some way, and I learned that this is a team activity. I became involved in all levels of production – directing, creating the story, costumes and props, lighting and sound. It was through a production I directed at university that I encountered MRA/IofC.
After graduating I volunteered to work with MRA and joined an international group of young people who worked together for a year supporting MRA teams wherever we could be useful. We created a musical review, Time to Choose, as a vehicle for sharing our stories and vision. I was asked to direct it.
This was a major learning experience for me. The challenge was to blend a group of people from different cultures and theatrical styles into a whole. I had to learn to listen to others and change and adapt instead of always insisting on my own way. We were invited to go to South Africa and Zimbabwe to support people there in their struggle against apartheid and for independence. Zimbabwe was in a state of civil war at the time. Possibly the most powerful sketch we had was a double monologue between two South African girls, contrasting their parallel experiences of growing up under the apartheid regime. A mixed race group performing to thousands of black school children or white college students told a powerful story.
A couple of years later, two friends of mine created a play with music about the life of Columba, a sixth century saint who played a key role in the early history of Ireland and Scotland. I was asked to direct the play and take it on a fringe-style tour through Britain, although sadly we never managed to get to Ireland itself. Interestingly this project was not much supported by the MRA fellowship at first, although it was important to the Scottish MRA Team. Our aim was not to preach the message of MRA but to show the audience Columba’s motivation and drive as we understood it, and let them make what they would of it.
This is my central point about theatre. Theatre is not only about sharing stories but also about sharing a point of view. Every art work – music, painting, dance – shares an insight into the worldview of its creators. This is not the same as propaganda although there is a place for that as well. A play with a negative message can be as powerful as any propaganda.
Theatre is a collaborative activity which can do as much for those creating it as those receiving it. For over 12 years I have been privileged to work with a London-based project called Intermission Youth Theatre. The inspiration behind it was to use theatre as a way of helping young people at risk of offending and being offended against. Its artistic director, Darren Raymond, encourages young people to create modern interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, mixing Shakespearean language with the language of the streets. In the process they learn skills of performance and self-expression, confidence and teamwork in a supportive family atmosphere. Under Darren’s guidance they have created some powerful and high-quality performances. My part has been to be their stage manager and technician, travelling alongside them – and on the way learning a lot of new words.
As a career, theatre is tough and not well paid. But as a commitment it is hugely rewarding. I have had the privilege of meeting people in many diverse environments and situations and made life-long friends.
Elisabeth Tooms is Vice President of IofC Switzerland.