Marianna Houston’s International Theatre Literacy Project in Africa

TZ_Teach_1_-_373(1)By Jill Marie Lawrence

So we’re located on the eastern coast of Africa in the country of Tanzania. Nestled in the middle of a huge cornfield lies a village known as Tengeru.  As we’re walking down a dirt road as a “dollar dollar” van packed with commuters whisk by. There are woman on the bantu stands, others sport what seems to be the days grocery  stuffed in a wicker basket, stacked high on their heads like a lady walking down Lenox Ave. with her new Sunday hat.

All of a sudden without notice a crowd of kids come running toward us with nothing but pure joy & excitement on their faces, as if a Mr. Softee truck perched itself on a Harlem street corner.  I literally spin around to catch what all the excitement was, and right before me they yell, “Mama Marianna , she’s back! She’s here she’s here.” This was a moment that would make a lady clutch her pearls!

Picture_296What caused all of this ruckus you ask? .Her name is Marianna Houston and she’s “kidnapping” — her students that is, in a good way of course! Her weapons of mass production? is The International Theatre Literacy Project (ITLP) which she is the founding executive director and creator.

The project entering in its 6th year now, is an organization that brings theatre artists (like myself) from the United States to developing countries to conduct community-based playwriting and theatre workshops for secondary school students and teachers. It all began in 2003, when she came to the country with an organization called Cross Cultural Solutions as a volunteer and was asked to cover an additional week for a head teacher who had been recuperating from surgery. Both moved and terrified at the invite, Marianna quickly thought that maybe perhaps discoveries can be made when thrown into life’s greatest risk; therefore she took on the opportunity and went with it!  From the experience, Marianna noticed how hungry these students were for the artistic voice and vision she had exposed them, which was unlike any other experience ever offered to their eager minds.

Even more so, moved by the demand they had for her to come back, Marianna thought long and hard about the children that she now call “her babies” and wanted to give them a voice. The thoughts that ran through her mind were, “What are your thoughts? What are your dreams? What are you passionate about?” These questions would help them foster independent thinking in a way that can make them utilize their imagination. Such questions would be new to the students due to Tanzania’s formal way of teaching. Along with cultural artist, Stephen Dimenna, Marianna developed a new way of teaching to children in rural communities in Tanzania. A week long workshop was conducted at Akeri Secondary School in Tengeru Village, which was a huge success.

When Marianna and Stephen returned back to the U.S., they shared their thoughts and experiences with colleagues and friends who were absolutely “wowed” by the idea and concept of having this continue. Many opportunities and relationships have developed from ITLP since its infancy. In other words Marianna likes to call it “spawning.” The word began to spread in Tengeru and then before she knew it, the request was out – a teachers college along with two more secondary schools had put their bid in to participate for the following season. Partnerships with the University of DarSelam in Tanzania and their theatre artists wanted to join in on all of the excitement. Also here in the United States a new partnership with an organization called Teachers in Action which does secondary school teacher training are now also working with ITLP. Marianna mentioned the excitement is due to the growing interest on both ends of the spectrum in Africa and the United States which only seem logical to form a non-profit organization and institutionalize this wonderful exchange that started happening.

The logistics of the program goes as follows: the secondary schools make their space available which are normally closed that time of year for their summer break and allow us as the teaching artists to conduct the workshops. A number of exercises, writing activities and scene assignments are conducted and 2 and a half weeks a fifteen minute play is then created. Every student has a role to play in all of the productions, both on and off stage. As a teaching artist myself, I really began to see the growth and even leadership skills develop with the students each day and how eager they were to take on even more responsibilities with their artistic vision and duties. ITLP alum come back every year and are always delighted to help with the students in their play developments.

At the end of every ITLP experience all the students, their parents, teachers, friends and relatives from the community come together and have what we call a “Student Play Festival”. This is where the magic happens and even bigger dreams manifest on that special day.  As a teacher,  I  would see my students transform into – - what seem to be our future leaders, teachers perhaps even performers come into full bloom.

ITLP mission is not to make these students necessarily actors, but rather to let them know that, they have a voice and can make a contribution to humanity”. Marianna who we affectionately call “Mama Marianna” often saids “this is using English and having FUN, that is the operative word here”.  The students have fun and have a sense of feeling empowered after the fact.

ITLP has also engaged the attention and respect of the Tanzanian Ambassador to the United Nations,  Augustine Mahiga and has a long standing relationship with ITLP almost since the beginning and also sits on the board. Mr. Mahiga says that, “ITLP can truly revolutionize Tanzanian education” with its rich experiences both for the students and teaching artists with their cross cultural exchanges.

ITLP understands that the children in these developing countries, have very little often too poor to even have electricity in their homes or even pay for their tuition. Marianna as well as the ITLP family love and support have been perennial and graciously accept donations and contributions through out the year for the students in their need for uniforms and tuition assistance. Just go to www.itlp.org .

On behalf of  my teaching colleagues and myself , I thank Marianna  for the opportunity, she’s bold, she’s generous, she’s a visionary, she’s beautiful and welcomed by the Tanzanians and the children that love her – -she’s KIDKNAPPING!

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