ISTA Phnom Penh Theatre Festival
Ten Harrow Hong Kong Drama pupils attended the Phnom Penh International Schools Theatre Association (ISTA) Festival on 1st – 5th March. ISTA festivals are always unique and transformative experiences, and an opportunity for our pupils to work alongside children from other countries and with world renowned theatre practitioners. During this festival, our pupils were fortunate enough to also work with local theatre companies. The overarching theme of the Phnom Penh festival was ‘Power: Past and Present’ with a focus on the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia and the powerful message of the quote taken from an audio recording at the Tuoi Sieng Genocide Museum: ‘This is part of the memory of the world, now you are the keeper of the memory’.
This was our travel day. After a short flight, which consisted of plenty of snacks and movie time, we arrived in Cambodia. In the early evening we checked into the Frangipani Living Arts Hotel where all of the schools attending the festival were staying. The evening kicked off with a delicious meal in a nearby restaurant and a quick walk around the local area as we started to get a feel for Phnom Penh. Excitement was building for the first official day of the festival, as we took an early night to prepare ourselves for the weekend ahead.
This was the first day of the festival and we visited our host school The International School of Phnom Penh and met the other pupils we would be working with. The pupils at the festival were from Dubai, India, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and local Cambodian schools. The theme of the festival was introduced and the emphasis was on the use of art to express emotion, and to respond to the past in order to change the future. We received a Khmer scarf on arrival at the school; this was a particularly significant gesture because the Khmer is a traditional piece of clothing from Cambodia history and was the one piece of colour allowed during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer is now a symbol of a people whose courage and dignity has allowed them to overcome the challenges they suffered. Today, as Cambodia begins rebuilding it’s society, the younger generation have claimed the scarf as a legacy and the spirit it embodies.
The morning started with pupils mixing together with the other schools and working in ensemble groups to develop ideas for their final performance on Sunday. We then visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, the site of a former orchard and mass grave of victims of the Khmer Rouge – killed between 1975 and 1979. The visit to the Killing Fields was powerful for everyone and gave us all food for thought about the importance of humans working together to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated.
We returned to our host school in the afternoon and pupils worked in their ensemble groups to explore their initial responses to the Killing Fields. The festival artists used many forms of theatre to help pupils dramatise their emotions and start working towards a final performance that would symbolise not just Cambodia’s past, but the hope for its future- like ‘a phoenix rising from the ashes’, as one artist so beautifully phrased it.
In the evening pupils watched a performance by the Phare Cambodian Circus; this was breathtaking piece of theatre that inspired our pupils and opened their eyes to new theatrical genres.
Day three started with all pupils working together to create the opening of their performance. This final performance was directed by Dinos Aristudou, an extremely influential international artist. The opening of the performance was an alluring physical representation of the pupils’ responses and incorporated the powerful symbol of the Khmer.
The pupils then experienced two workshops run by a range of artists. One workshop,entitled ‘From Peace to Conflict’, was run by Buntheoun, Lay Noth and Sakun Po from the Cambodian Theatre company, Epic Arts. The focus of this workshop was to use creative movement as a way to explore some of the conflicts that we face on a daily basis and how we can encourage understanding, respect and communication as positive resolutions. Other workshops included ‘Let’s go to the Circus’ with Hout Heang from Phare Cambodian Circus and ‘Story, Theatre and Hope’ with the renowned theatre practitioner Jonothan Neelands, which used a variety of participatory storytelling techniques to explore the ancient Khmer story of the Neang Kang Rei mountain.
In the evening we watched a performance by Epic Arts, a local theatre company that works with disabled and able bodied Cambodian artists. The performance was indeed, epic.
Pupils spent the day working in their ensemble groups, and as a whole company, to create the final performance. The performance was then shown to an audience of local parents and pupils. Our pupils should be very proud of this piece. It used a wide variety of performance styles and was a deeply moving expression of Cambodia’s history and hopes for its future. One of the quotes used in the final performance was ‘We believe that through creativity we can expand our potential as human beings’. Our pupils did just that.
After the performance there was a huge surge of emotion as our pupils said goodbye to the new friends they had made and reflected on the power of their experiences. In the evening we said our final goodbye to the other schools over a fantastic feast of traditional Cambodian food at a local restaurant.
The entire festival was translated; everything from instructions, workshops, rehearsals and performances were in English, Khmer and sign language. The translation ensured that the festival was accessible to all involved and most importantly served to connect us as one community. The Khmer translators were talented local pupils and the sign translator was an artist from Epic Arts. Thanks to the translation, our pupils have made strong bonds with local Cambodian pupils and artists.
The weekend was intense, harrowing, creative, exciting and most of all inspiring for our pupils. Well done to every pupil involved. We were indeed transformed and moved and we now keep the memory of the festival, and of Cambodia and its people, within our hearts and minds.