Grease is the Word! by Bernice Farrell

2 min.

Anne-Marie can be very persuasive. ‘Just come and see what we’ve done so far’ she cajoled. And that’s why, rather reluctantly, I drove one March morning to La Scuola Media in Cortona to meet Patrizia, who teaches English there.

She’d had an idea how to make her class of 13 year olds more confident about speaking English.
They would do a play, in English, and put it on for their parents.  They had decided to do ‘Grease’, a full-blown American musical!
They’d cast it, started rehearsals, but they needed a choreographer, and that’s where Anne-Marie, a dance teacher from England living in Cortona, came in.  After a couple of rehearsals, she realised they needed a director – so she called me.

From the moment I met Patrizia and the 28 kids that morning, and watched them at work with Anne-Marie I was hooked.
They were charming, enthusiastic, lively, with a passionate desire to succeed.
Before I committed myself I had some questions. Is there a script and a budget?  No. Musical director? Not yet. Scenery, costumes, backstage crew?  Nope. Do the kids learn performing arts in school? No.
I then admitted that my Italian wasn’t that good. That’s OK – all rehearsals will take place in English. I looked at Anne-Marie, she smiled encouragingly, so I said– well, let’s give it a go, shall we?
I adapted the original screenplay and wrote an hour-long script for them. Patrizia set aside time in English lessons to practice comprehension and pronunciation.

Anne-Marie took responsibility for all the musical numbers. Two rehearsals per week were planned, for 8 weeks.
And so we started, without any clue as to what we were letting ourselves in for.

However, each week, as the cast gained in understanding, and in stature, their natural talent for acting, dancing and singing began to be revealed. With that, came increased self-confidence and self-discipline, an acknowledgement of the hitherto unknown ability of others and the importance of teamwork. They worked hard, they were committed, and they had fun.
From there, it mushroomed. The project caught the imagination of the Cortonese. The school staff was incredibly supportive, and, as the word got out that something exciting was happening, the town rallied round.  The Comune rented Il Teatro Signorelli for us.

Roberto Pagani, a professional musician, became our musical director. A local printer offered to do the programmes for us.
Local firms lent us stage furniture and props.  And then Jovanotti turned up.  He’d get a sound crew and do the lighting for us himself.  Wow! June 6th: performance night.

We’d expected about 150 people to come.  When we opened the doors, they swarmed in! The theatre was packed to capacity: 3 deep in the aisles and crammed in at the back. The lights dimmed, the music started and the cast entered to a roar of approval.  And they did it! They performed their version of ‘Grease’, in English: they danced, sang and acted their hearts out. And they were fantastic, truly fantastic.
The audience cheered, clapped, stamped their feet and wouldn’t let them go. The word we kept hearing over and over again was ‘eccezionale’. People’s faces were wreathed in smiles and we couldn’t get them to leave the theatre! I must admit, for us, it ‘better than bettered expectation.’ (Shakespeare!)

Was it worth it?  Of course it was. The kids learned a lot, both from us and from each other.
They were part of something BIG – and they knew it. They had Italian and foreign professionals backing them, all of whom gave their services for free.

Their knowledge of English improved by leaps and bounds, and they spoke with confidence and understanding – which was what it was all about in the first place.  And we’d all had a blast in the doing of it.

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