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Educator reveals drama of English – and life



When Marcelle Pincus (née Rubin) was growing up, her parents’ great hope for her was that she would leave school after Grade 7, and work at a till at OK Bazaars, giving her a “career for life”. But Pincus, one of six children, always wanted more. So, she made a plan to have a much bigger “career for life” that would have an impact on the lives of thousands of others.

Not only that, but this dynamic 84-year-old educator, speech and drama teacher, adjudicator, textbook author, and now playwright has created a play about her life, which will be performed at Theatre on the Square and Crawford International Sandton for a night in June and August.

She will also do charity performances at Sandringham Gardens and Elphin Lodge Retirement Village, which is where she lives. Pincus says at Elphin Lodge she has a “new lease on life”, which was one of the reasons she decided to bring her life story to the stage.

The play is titled What if Nobody Comes? in reference to her reaction to a colleague suggesting that she perform the play. As a speech and drama teacher, it had been a personal project, but he recommended that she take it to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. “But what if nobody comes?” she asked. “Well, there’s your title!” he replied. People did come, and the play has been performed numerous times since.

This newly reworked version will include 12 child actors, and performances by Jonathan Birin, Ros Basserabie, and Tulla Eckhart. The dancing is choreographed by Dani Davis.

Pincus’s family came to Johannesburg from Lithuania, “so in our home, I only heard Yiddish. The result was that I wasn’t very good at English,” she says. “This hindered me as far as school was concerned. As far as home was concerned, we had a beautiful home. My parents eloped – yes, eloped – and were very happy. They had six children. I loved my childhood days. I was very creative. We weren’t rich, but we were happy.”

One defining moment in her life was when a teacher accused her of stealing a book, saying she was “evil, wicked, and a liar”. That moment “wrecked her”, but it also showed her how a teacher’s words could have a deep impact on a child, in turn ensuring that she became a better educator.

She didn’t love school, and battled with English, but it was meeting elocution teacher Norah Taylor that made her decide that she too wanted to become a teacher. “I wasn’t going to go to OK Bazaars,” she quips. She went on to train as a speech and drama teacher. She worked in numerous institutions over the past 60 years, having an impact on “disadvantaged children who came to school with no shoes” and generations of Jewish children. She’s still teaching today. Her workshops have been presented in Welkom, Maputo, Manchester, New Zealand, and throughout South Africa.

Writing the bestselling English Handbook and Study Guide textbook with Beryl Lutrin was also life-changing, allowing her to no longer worry about her finances for the first time in her life. Most importantly, it allowed her to make a positive impact on people’s lives just as she always dreamed of doing. A comprehensive English reference book, it covers language, comprehension, writing, literature, visual literacy, oral communication, spelling, and vocabulary, from senior primary to matric and tertiary level. It’s a teacher’s handbook, a student’s textbook, and a home reference book.

All her work is connected, she says, as she “teaches English through drama, and drama through English”, so her passion shines through, even in a textbook.

What she loves about teaching is the children themselves. She says they tell her she’s “strict, but very fair”, and that she respects every child she teaches. She has loved seeing the children she has educated go on to do great things, and she has always tried to help children see the positive, even in difficult times. She believes that speech and drama allows every child to believe in themselves and gain confidence, a crucial factor. Now, at the age of 84, interacting with children is the highlight of her day.

She has been through challenges, from losing her beloved husband, Danny, in 2016, to witnessing her daughter undergo a 10-hour operation to remove a liver tumour, which was discovered to be benign. “That was a miracle, inspiring me to give whatever I could.” She gives in all kinds of ways, from helping Jewish life thrive at Elphin Lodge, to performing her play to bring joy where it’s needed.

“I want my message to be that people should never give up – you can have an impact on your own path and what will become of you,” she says.

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