An Interview with Margaret Larlham


Margaret Larlham is a director and playwright at San Diego State University. Her scripts are adapted from children’s literature have a strong focus on physicality and cultural diversity.

Larlham was born and educated in South Africa, and taught in the Speech and Drama Department at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa prior to moving to San Diego in 1986.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? Perhaps how you ended up at San Diego State University and what prompted your love for theatre as well your work as a playwright.

A: As one gets older the story of ones life gets much clearer. From time’s distance, the path is more evident. Like a changing river responding to situation and event, the flow of one’s life marks the earth.

Unbeknown to me I was born into a troubled time in South Africa. The differences between my English Catholic immigrant father and third generation Afrikaner Mother seemed very normal and right to me. My childhood in a small town in the middle of Africa was full of activity. I could walk to school and the library. I took ballet and tap lessons in a community hall, music lessons with the nuns (Some German, some French)of the Dominican Convent. I played with young Zulu children on my Ouma’s farm and in the homes of schoolmates in the town. I took myself to the town’s Magnet Cinema every Wednesday and Saturday of my childhood – so I guess that was my window into the world! At school I learned about sewing and cooking, how to shoot a rifle and played Titania in A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Before coming to San Diego I held a tenured position for fifteen years in the Department of Speech and Drama at Natal University in South Africa as a dance and movement specialist and acting coach.

I resigned my position at Natal University to accompany my family and husband, Peter, who had obtained a tenure track position in the Department of Theatre at SDSU in 1987. While waiting for legal residency in the United States I returned to my studies of art, completing several courses in the Fine Art Department at SDSU. I began to exhibit my paintings in local galleries and after obtaining my “green card” continued to paint while working part-time for the Department of Theatre at SDSU, and later, for the San Diego City Schools, Visual and Performing Arts Department.

In 1989 I was hired as an artist/ consultant in the San Diego City Schools’ “Young at Art” Program and spent six years collaborating with fellow San Diego artists and teachers developing site-specific art/performance projects and programs for and with children in San Diego schools. I incorporated the knowledge gained from these first-hand experiences into the “Creative Drama” and “Theatre for Young Audiences” classes I was teaching part-time at SDSU. From 1994 onward, integrating my connection between SDSU and SDCS, I began to create new plays each year at SDSU to tour schools.

My intention in these plays was to serve the diverse multicultural audiences in San Diego, and to offer an engaging, sentient experience linked to curriculum enrichment concepts and youth issues. These constructs were well served by my formative years as an academic and artist sensitive to oppositions in culture in the political turbulence of South Africa.

Q: Much of your adaptation work has been of children’s books – Jungle Book and Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser!, most recently. Why the love for these children’s stories?

A: The creation and direction of new plays for youth is the central activity that connects my teaching, professional growth, and service to the University and community. My current teaching and creative work stems from my background as a professional dancer, choreographer, director and visual artist.

Philosophically, I view theatre as a fundamental mode of human communication that addresses and reflects the depth and breadth of the cultural and personal awareness of all people in all times. Theatre has the capacity to transform all participants by exploring collective and personalized experience, expressed in rich and complex symbols through language, movement and visual imagery. The human experience of gathering together to participate in theatre generates a power (identified by the ancient Greeks as ekstasis, communitas and catharsis) that amplifies and extends human understanding and feeling. Theatre for youth behaves no differently.

Plays and performances created especially for children often project a conventionalized view of what is appropriate for child audiences. Adults have, according to recent theatre for youth theorists, constructed a place which might be called “youthland” to protect children from the evils of the adult world. In some children’s theatre this “youthland” concept, (in effect, separating the world of young people from that of adults), results in sentimental, over-simplified plays. In my view this view underestimates children’s intelligence and limits their future as participants in the theatre as either audience members or as artists.

My efforts in playmaking are directed toward the construction of a “world” that radiates meaning for both children and adults and provides access to different cultural and language groups. In order to conjure up such a world I rely on the input of all participants in the process. My role as a director and creator is to set up the optimum circumstances for a collaboration between actors, designers, and audience, propelling and exploring complex subject matter, within a specified time frame.

Q: Do you have any favorites in terms of productions directed or plays written throughout your career?

A: One of my proudest achievements as a playwright has been FIRE and MIST – Stories of Old Town  produced in association with  a special school history/diversity program  for fourth graders  of San Diego City Schools, in Old Town, San Diego. My company, Grupo Jazztecca has performed this show every Friday during school semesters, for the last six years. To date roughly 60,000 children, from all corners of San Diego, have seen this show, possibly the longest running show in San Diego!

Q: What sort of pieces have you worked on? Please include past and present projects!

A: From 1995 to 1999 I created the South African inspired Bush Whispers (1997), and the first three English-Spanish bilingual youth touring shows for the Department of Theatre, Cascaras de Cebolla y Angeles/Onionskins and Angels (1996), Tortilla Moon (1998) and Beyond Borders (1999). The last two were invited to the Centro Cultural in Tijuana where they played to packed houses of Mexican schoolchildren.

My departmental charge is to develop and expand outreach and quality of SDSU’s Theatre for Youth program and to continue to create, and script new plays. Since my appointment I have created and directed four full-length new plays, and revised a fifth for publication. Three of the plays The Cat Feet of the Fog (2000), Underground Jungle (2001) and Modern Migration of the Spirit (2002) were developed through Theatre Practicum courses for performances off campus.

In 2001, my play Tortilla Moon was one of five selected from eighty-eight plays for youth for a Bonderman Playwriting Award. The national attention gained at a professional staged reading of the play at the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre led to a professionally mounted production at Florida Stage in May of the same year and to its publication by New Plays in January 2002.

Recently I have expanded my play development process to include an international component. Left Luggage (July 2001) and Underground Jungle II (July 2002) were created in South Africa for presentation at the annual Grahamstown National Arts Festival. Three Theatre students from SDSU accompanied me to South Africa as participants in the project in 2001 and four in 2002.

Since 1994 my process has developed to include more varied issues and themes: the poems of Carl Sandburg, the AIDS epidemic, the life of the Mexican Muralist Orozco, the history of cars; yet all plays display a similar inter-disciplinary performance style where dance, movement, song and visual imagery overlap to extend the meaning of the “story” or dialogue.

Q: How does your process begin?

A: The initiating phase of the process of playmaking is critical. The content is addressed and developed in consultation with cultural informants from outside or within the company of actors drawn from the diverse SDSU student population.

Special attention is given, early in the process, to activating the actors’ senses, memory and imagination in the projection of images. Preliminary movement and voice activities are designed to amplify ideas and empower each participant. The actors become “tuned” or “alive” to what is happening in the group and becoming sensitive to the mind/body circuits and action choices of others in the group. This phase of improvising and experimenting, gives way to reflecting, composing, selecting, refining, and finally to performing the new play.

The Wanderer would like to thank Margaret Larlham and encourage readers to learn more about her  by means of her website:


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