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St Julian's Theatre Ensemble

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ISTA Festival 2001
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Red, Black and Ignorant
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Vienna ISTA Festival, 1999
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ISTA Newsletter - November 2001

Here at St Julian's we are lucky enough to have a dedicated creative arts team team-teaching in years 6-9. Although facilities are less than ideal we have seen a real surge in ability and interest in the performing arts. Each of the year groups (about 60 in each group) has a double lesson per week and three teachers attached. Typically this involved a theatre/drama teacher, a dancer and a musician. We teach very much in the ensemble tradition and follow a curriculum closely modelled on the IB MYP and Dinos Aristidou's much published monograph. Central to our approach is the balance between an integrated approach to the performing arts but also training in each discipline. Much of the ensemble work leads to some form of performance before peer and parent audiences. It's not that we are obsessed about product: on the contrary our collaborative arts approach seeks to arrive at shared understandings and a great deal of emphasis is on experiential learning. In particular we do a lot of physical work: students have to learn complex kinaesthetic, aural and visual languages. Our theatre ensemble which has been active for three years now is similarly focused and has been producing some great work in the last couple of years. It was with this in mind that I proposed a festival which would allow opportunities for students to experience a very physical approach to theatre and one which would challenge those who had not been exposed to dance for example.

As preparations for the festival started to take shape the dreadful events of September 11th sent shock waves through the school and the ensemble. In particular because we were devising a piece about virtual reality. I felt a real anxiety about pursuing a piece which I felt was trivial when such colossal events demanded some form of response. Some in the ensemble thought otherwise and were worried about an overtly political approach. This in itself led to some interesting improvisations and discussions about theatres role - And we decided that there was room for theatre to be heard - we chose to perform the explicitly political play by Edward Bond, Red, Black and Ignorant, knowing that it might raise some eyebrows but also knowing that we would have to employ all our imaginative resources to produce such a powerful anti-war drama.

The focus theme of the festival was Myth and Ritual : we felt that this would allow both a traditional and experimental approach to classical myths and also to a recognition of the role of ritual in our daily lives. We werent to be disappointed. If one thing impressed me abut each visiting schools' approach to was the eclectic choices they made. The structure of the festival had been thrashed out and a relatively new format emerged: one which would place all the short performances on the first evening. Workshops and ensembles would take place over the next two days, with three workshops now taking up a two hour slot each. We took the potentially risky decision to adopt a carousel approach to the workshops, which would effectively do away with choice, and so forcing students to tackle areas might not otherwise choose. In addition the ISTA team was keen to allow for a smoother transfer of skills between workshops and ensemble-devised work. The ISTA team was carefully chosen to allow for experts in the varying disciplines. I think this was the most inspirational aspect of the festival culminating in a frenzied and exciting carousel with six ensembles rotating with 6 group leaders, each session lasting fifteen minutes then moving on to the next stage. All pieces incorporated mask work, movement and text. This culminated in a purposeful and imaginatively successful performance of six pieces of theatre in progress. Simon, one of our students, said the time limit and focus led to snappier, sharper, harder edged pieces of work.

Although the integrated performance work was clearly successful there was room for more open, improvised and spontaneous approaches in the closing final session leading a to a beautiful and moving whole group improvised ritual, within a narrative framework which Anthony Cunningham provided.

I should leave some space for our students to respond. Feedback has been immediate and varied. Our ensemble had an interesting and lively debate about choice. Most certainly valued the opportunity to do something they wouldnt have chosen. Sofia said that initially she had been happier with a previous festival which was more "text based - acting - whereas here it was much more physical theatre but on the other hand it forces you to try something different I felt I was challenged more. What turned out to be my favourite was the cyborg workshop. As soon as I heard I was in that workshop I was almost devastated but it turned out to be the best thing in the festival for me because while you like to choose what youre more comfortable with you find out some much more about what you can do." This was echoed by Louisa who said, "I was really surprised that I was able to do things that I never thought Id be able to"

I think I was most impressed with one of our year ten students who seemed to provide the most compelling evidence for the focus: Georgia said that she thought this (the theme of myth and ritual) would mean dressing up in gowns and chanting but that shes discovered "the basis of ritual in everyday life and the role it played". She came to an understanding that ritual has no inherent positive value - that in fact many rituals, because unconsciously embedded in our daily social being, can limit and operate as obstacles to change and freedom.

The final words must be left to Ana: "I felt whether or not I was enjoying every single minute I could feel things being pulled out of me. I feel so much more of an all round performer now. I have discovered theres more to performing than being an actor with text in a space."

Much of the work in preparation for the festival and of the activities during he festival can be seen as a purpose-constructed web site at the following address: http://darrenscully.tripod.com/sjte/. Visit it and let us know what you think. Although there isn't space here to go into detail it is much easier to set up than one might imagine. Just log on to the Tripod.com web site and you can have your own ensembles work up there in minutes.