Budding actors and young theater lovers from Beijing and beyond will come together to create and perform new dramas next weekend, at the Middle School ISTA Festival.
ISTA is the International Schools Theater Association, a not-for-profit organization promoting drama in international schools, and the event, to be hosted by Yew Chung International School of Beijing (YCIS Beijing), will be attended by students from the International School of Ho Chi Minh City and King George V School, Hong Kong. For Head of Performing Arts Dan Pearton, hosting the event is the latest stage of an ongoing process of raising the profile of theater studies at YCIS Beijing. He sees broader academic benefits from involvement in drama.
“It’s a great way of showing kids that teamwork doesn’t just happen in sporting activities, it can happen in the arts too,” he told us. “They learn about creating as a group, thinking critically about theme, drawing on their own knowledge and on material from teachers and professionals. And if they go on to study IB [International Baccalaureate] Theatre, then it has direct academic application.”
One of the IB Theatre students at YCIS Beijing is 17-year-old Nina Fitzpatrick, who told me about her experience of attending ISTA.
“I first went in 2016,” she said. “It was kind of scary at first. There was a really tall girl, like six feet tall, so I was really intimidated every time I had to work with her! But we were given a task where we had to talk about things we liked, and that helped us get to know each other.
“This year it was easier. It’s definitely increased my confidence.”
She told us how her ideas had formed the core of her group’s performance. Each group was given a poem to work with, and hers was Pavel Friedmann’s “The Butterfly”. She described how they integrated techniques from different traditions which they had learned during the Festival’s masterclasses: Chinese stick fighting, Japanese drama and English mumming. They also chose blue lighting and a Jewish folk song for the music, creating a complete theatrical experience.
I asked her what advice she had for the middle school students attending the Festival at YCIS.
“Don’t be afraid of talking to people,” she answered. “It may seem scary at first but it makes the whole experience so much better. I don’t think I retained as much knowledge as I could have from my first year. This year I had a lot more fun, and it’s also given me more to think about. It especially helps in IB Theatre, I can incorporate all these things into my devised piece or director’s notebook.”
The inspiration for the middle school festival comes from YCIS Beijing’s immediate neighborhood, Pearton told me.
“The theme is Community,” he said. “Last year the markets by the school were closed down. They used to be a real hub, and I was thinking about what it means for the community. The area is so different to five years ago, it’s really gentrifying.
“That got me thinking about what China used to be like, even ten or twenty years ago. I talked to the Chinese staff at the school about their experiences growing up. They said that everybody used to know each other. Now it’s very different.”
Participating students will go to Chaoyang Park on their first day, to learn Chinese games. They’ll practise taiji with a master, and learn the art of the diabolo and the jianzi (the shuttlecock-like “hackeysack” which you have to keep in the air with your feet.) They’ll think about parks being a place of community, and explore what community means to them, especially given the impact of technology on their lives.
“Then on Friday,” Pearton told me, “we’ll have a group of local artists, including a Jingju performer, Master Shieh who will teach them kung fu, and a Beijing drum teacher. On the last day, they’ll work with artists to create drama, devising a piece with lots of ensemble work.
“The biggest thing is that drama has got a real buzz at the moment. Four years ago there wasn’t really a drama program at the school. Having kids experience this, they can bring back the skills, and that leads to other experiences.”
Following a recent triumphant performance of Legally Blonde: The Musical, drama is really on the up at YCIS Beijing.
This post is sponsored by YCIS Beijing.
Photos by YCIS Beijing