Russia summer camp: teaching English through drama

This summer saw me head off to Russia again to work at a summer camp on the Black Sea for a month, running drama workshops in English.

I worked directly with CLASS Study and Training Centre this time, an English language school based in Rostov-on-Don, and there were three of us going over from England – myself, Hebe Reilly and Emily Sly, all of us East 15 graduates!

It was a fantastic experience – completely knackering but so rewarding. For the first half of camp I worked with the middle group of students, mostly aged 11, 12 and 13, then in the second half I worked with an older group of 13–16-year-olds. Both groups were wonderful – the first took a few days to settle in, so were a bit of a handful at the start, but once we were used to each other they turned out to be a very caring, creative and attentive group of kids. Being that bit older, and most of them having been to camp before, my second group of students were ready to get on with the work in our sessions right from day one. Check out the Facebook page we created for this year’s camp to see photos and videos of what we got up to in the sessions. My thanks to the wonderful Drama Menu book for some new games and activity ideas that I put to good use this year.

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My second group with their camp certificates

The camp sits on the coast of the Black Sea, not far from Nebug, nestled between imposing hills carpeted with trees and a beautiful watery horizon stretching off into the distance. Looking out to sea from the fourth floor balcony in the main accommodation building, the view is breathtaking – such a huge expanse of space, the blue sea below, the blue sky above.

Like last year, the students devised their own pieces to perform to the rest of the CLASS group at camp. The theme of this year’s camp was jobs, and each day a different job or area of work was explored through the ‘quests’ the teachers prepared for the students. I used this theme with my first group and asked them to choose a job to create a piece of theatre about, looking at a day in the life of someone doing that job. As is so often the case when working with children, the results were not quite what I expected – we certainly had some unusual job titles come up, and not so much a day as six months in the life, but it was the students’ work, not mine, and that was the important thing.

With the second group I decided to try a different approach, and rather than just leaving them to their own devices I came up with the idea of creating a sort of news programme with two presenters and a variety of shows contained within it. I asked two students if they would like to be the presenters, then mostly gave the rest of them the option of creating a news report, a film trailer or a commercial. The key element here was that we were focusing on good news – this started with a group discussion early on in the process about the phrase ‘no news is good news’, looking at how so much of the news we consume focuses on negative events. We wanted to highlight the positive things happening in the world and the more positive side of human nature, from the serious to the slapstick. In the end we had a mixed tone to the overall piece, with a news report on a utopian version of camp (where the kids had ‘loud hour’ instead of quiet hour, they could get up at whatever time they wanted, and they got to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast), a quiz show, a puppet weather report, a chat show with a message about valuing how a person is on the inside, and a film première.

I felt so proud of both groups and the amazing pieces they created. They say that a great teacher inspires their students, but every time I work with a new group of children, whether 7 or 17, I find that they are the ones inspiring me. Their ideas, their energy and enthusiasm, the questions they ask, the way they approach a problem and find a solution, all of this makes me see the world differently, through their eyes, and I realise I have just as much to (re)learn from them as they have to learn from me. This is why I do camp. The beach is a draw, as is the wonderful team of teachers I get to work with out there, who make camp such a special experience for everyone, but the main reason I do it is the kids. They make it one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Russia: drama summer camp

This post is so ridiculously overdue. Like many of my posts! In the three weeks since I got back from my first ever trip to Russia I have sat down a total of six times to try to write this post, and each time I’ve come up with nothing. Not because there was nothing in my head, but there was too much. How to put into words one of the most memorable experiences of my life? Impossible. But I had to write something, so here goes…

This was my second trip with Oxford World Theatre (the first being Sicily), and this time I went with a fellow team member, the amazing Olive Supple-Still. It was a huge comfort and support having her there – not only could we bounce ideas off each other, but it made the experience even more special having someone to share it with.

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We worked with teachers and kids from CLASS, an English language school in Rostov-on-Don, catching the sleeper train with them from Rostov down to the summer camp near Nebug, on the Black Sea. On that train I experienced just how hot Russian trains can get in summer, and I got well acquainted with the first of many mosquitoes. It turns out I am allergic to Russian mosquitoes, as we discovered when one bite caused my whole ankle to swell up.

Over the first few days of camp we adjusted to the pace of life there – we had 24 days ahead of us with no days off and only really two hours of free time a day. The rest was mostly spent with the kids. This took a few days to get used to, but once we were in the swing of things it was fantastic.

We ran drama workshops with two groups of children – one for the first week and a half and then a second group for the latter. These groups were divided into three smaller groups based on age. Check out the Oxford World Theatre Facebook page for pictures and clips from the sessions. With the first lot, I worked with the oldest group (13-16), Olive the middle (10-13ish), and we worked together with the younger ones (7-8). With the second lot of kids Olive and I swapped age groups. I’d never worked with children in the middle age group before so this was a great chance to gain some experience.

At the end of each group’s stay they performed short pieces of theatre they’d devised with us to their peers. It was fascinating seeing the different ideas they all came up with, and how two groups of the same age could have such different approaches and be interested in completely different subject matter. In the first older group the sketches varied from a horror story to the 1960s, with a brilliant piece about Harry Potter and how social media has taken over our lives, with such delights as Voldemort deleting Harry Potter’s Facebook account, Harry and Draco taking a selfie mid-duel, and the boys inventing a whole new social media network. In the end, however, the message shone through that we all need to spend a bit more time talking to our friends in person rather than constantly through a screen, when Harry and his friends decided to throw their mobile phones on the floor and be done with that social media business. (I would like to add that no mobile phones were hurt in the making of this play, thankfully! The guys had the brilliant idea of taking the less breakable backs off their phones and throwing these instead.) Olive’s older group explored some pertinent issues in their pieces, including bullying and prejudice. By creating a safe environment of trust and respect, Olive managed to explore some very difficult issues with her students and create some deeply affecting and important work.

In my sessions I tried out some new games and was thrilled when the kids responded so well and really got involved. You can see pics and a few clips of their work in the sessions and their performances on the Oxford World Theatre Facebook page.

Aside from the sea of young, smiling faces, the sunshine, the beautiful surroundings and the pure awesomeness of being in a new country (I went to RUSSIA!!! Woop!), what made this project really special was the warmth and generosity of my colleagues. I was so lucky to meet some of the funniest, kindest and most inspiring women I have ever encountered. The teachers I worked with from CLASS are super-human, I swear! (Though of course, being the daughter of a teacher, I know as a fact that all teachers are.) And with Olive, I couldn’t have asked for a more open-hearted and talented partner in crime. Sound like I’m gushing? Well I am, and rightly so.

Directing in Sicily with Oxford World Theatre

I’ve now been back over a week and my time in Sicily feels almost like a dream. Did it really happen? Was I really there?

Just over two months ago I saw the job with Oxford World Theatre on Casting Call Pro, got an audition, and hey presto! The preparation started with a vengeance, and then I was off to Sicily!

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The location of the project was a city slap bang in the middle of the country called Caltanissetta, a place I probably would never have visited if booking a holiday to Sicily, so I am extremely grateful that I got the chance to spend three weeks there working with two fantastic groups of students. I met some of the friendliest people I have ever met, especially at my local restaurant, ‘Amico’, where I ate lunch and dinner every day. With my knowledge of French and Spanish, I managed to get by in very broken Italian with the restaurant staff, who spoke only a few words of English. They were patient and encouraging with my attempts, and always made me feel welcome.

La mia famiglia Siciliana: my friends at Amico

La mia famiglia Siciliana: my friends at Amico

Because of my conversations with the Amico staff, plus watching Italian TV when in my room (which was mostly American programmes dubbed in Italian), by the end of my stay I knew enough Italian to just get by in most situations. Before this experience, if learning a new language, I would have studied a great deal before even attempting a conversation with a native speaker. However, getting stuck in from day one, especially with a language containing elements already familiar to me, proved a far superior method. By necessity, I had to communicate and make myself understood, so this accelerated my learning far more than just studying would have.

The project itself was challenging, rewarding, and great fun. Over the course of the three weeks I worked with two groups of students, one aged 14-15, and the other 16-17. Naturally, the older group was a bit more focused, but both groups were very enthusiastic and worked so hard. At the end of week two the first group – around 43 students in all! – performed their show, then at the end of week three the second group performed theirs, having put it together in only a week. They did a fantastic job, and I am so proud of all of them. I already miss their positive energy, creativity and beaming smiles.

The school had its own theatre!

The school has its own theatre!

I treated each session with the students like a proper rehearsal, with a warm-up followed by scene work, then notes from the director after everyone had shared their work. I have directed before, but only with a cast of up to six, so 43 was quite a challenge! We did split the group in two for the rehearsals, so I would work with 22 students at the most at one time. Managing a large group of teenagers, keeping them focused, and keeping in mind all the elements of the whole production, was an invaluable learning experience that I can see influencing and improving my own acting work and any directing I do in the future.

I think companies like Oxford World Theatre are creating something wonderful – the opportunity for young people learning English to engage with the language in a way they never have before. They provide an experience that is enjoyable, challenging and rewarding for everyone involved, and one that will hopefully stay with the students for ever. I feel so privileged to have joined the team, and am looking forward to my next adventure with them…. in Russia!

Please take a look through my photos of Sicily, including Caltenissetta and Palermo, where I went for a day-trip with another group of students. Pictures of the shows and rehearsals themselves can be found on the Oxford World Theatre Facebook page. This was three weeks that I will never forget, and I am so grateful to have met such kind and friendly people, and had the chance to experience this beautiful country – a place I hope to visit again and again!

Audition for Oxford World Theatre

I had my first professional audition recently, and it was a really positive experience. I met some wonderful people, got to sing a song and play my ukulele, and I got the job!

The audition was for Oxford World Theatre, a company founded by Oxford School of Drama graduate Daniel Zappi to ‘travel the world and bring people of all ages and nationalities on to the stage, in English’. The particular project I was auditioning for is three weeks in Sicily, during which I will be working with two groups of Sicilian teenagers to stage our adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – an adaptation I will be writing over the next week or so!

A group of us gathered in Hammersmith for our two-hour audition with Daniel, and instantly there was a friendly, playful feel to the session. We had great fun playing drama games in the first half, then after a quick break we went on to our songs – we’d each been asked to write a short song. With my guitar currently lacking two strings, I decided to whip out the ukulele instead, and wrote a first verse and chorus using four chords: C, G, Am and F. I wanted to keep it simple to create a catchy tune.

It was my first time ever playing the uke in front of more than one person so I can’t pretend I wasn’t a little bit nervous, but there was such a sense of support and non-competitiveness from the rest of the group that I easily relaxed into it. At several points I honestly forgot we were all auditioning, and felt instead as if we were in a workshop where we’d all come to learn and share our creativity.

The whole thing was such a positive experience; I left the audition feeling buoyant and smiling. When I then found out the next day that I’d got the job, I was over the moon. But whether I had got the gig or not, I spent two hours in the company of mostly strangers, playing games and singing songs and connecting with one another, and in what other job can you do that?

Making theatre – devising a show

I’ve just had my first experience of devising a piece of theatre from scratch for my MAP (MA Project). Well, not from complete zilch. In the beginning there was an idea, but then there is always an idea – it’s what you do with it that counts.

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My MAP family

What we did with our idea was take it from a chaotic collection of philosophical musings, through the focus of a question emerging from all this, to end up with a family on a caravan holiday who encounter The Void. Yes, it was quite a leap, but there were many stepping stones on the way – not all in the same direction, but I feel our meandering exploration took us on a very human journey that directly informed the final piece. And what more fitting vehicle to share our explorations than that beacon of western society, the family holiday.

Playing the mum of the family (this is the second time I’ve played a mum in a few months – is this it now I’m in the 25-35 category on Spotlight?!) unexpectedly brought up a lot of old memories of being a little girl. It also went to a place within myself that has awoken this year – a deep place of nurturing and nature and what it is to be a woman and own that womanliness. I certainly hadn’t expected such an experience to come from the devising process, but it just goes to show how involved and invested in the work we as both actors and theatre-makers become.

The devising process was a new adventure for me. Our group of six actors from the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School formed a company and did the whole marketing shebang. We booked rooms and loosely planned rehearsals. We scribbled spider diagrams on the whiteboard, bruised our knees choreographing movement pieces, and pondered our reality. Our question: to what extent do we create our own reality?

We drank coffee and discussed religion, we rolled around on the grass exploring mother-daughter relationships through contact improvisation, we went to the woods in character as a family. Improvising was a tool we used a lot to explore our characteristics and discover the family dynamics. One night we had a family sleepover at one of our houses, which was an extended improvisation ending at 10pm and starting up again for breakfast the next morning. It was an important part of our process and produced some important character discoveries, along with a fantastic recipe for bolognese! It was also absolutely knackering – although we’d rested as our characters, in reality we had all been working until 10pm and had very little time to rest as us.

One key lesson I learnt from the devising process was how to work in a group where there is no clear leader and everyone has an equal say. I also put into practise the whole ‘applying the white paint’ process we’ve been developing over the past few months of our training – knowing when to scrap this bit or that bit and knowing which bits to keep.

It’s been an enriching and exciting journey and, with the possibility of our piece having a life beyond the MAPs, one that hopefully isn’t over just yet…

 

Two jumpers, one alcove and a dog called Theodore – a director’s notes

Here is over. After a fantastic ten weeks of rehearsing Here by Michael Frayn for the Southsea Shakespeare Actors (SSA), my job as director is done. We did three performances last week in a local wine bar, Rosie’s Vineyard, in their ‘conservatory’ space out the back. Audience numbers were good and the review in the local paper was brilliant.

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Now that a week has passed I can look back on the whole experience and identify what lessons I have learnt, that I can hopefully take forward to my next directing project.

Rehearsals

I wasn’t sure how many rehearsals to fit into the ten-week rehearsal period we had. In the end we got to rehearse each section twice and then several times in the full and half runs, however it would have been nice to have had one more rehearsal for each part to really fine-tune it.

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As for planning the rehearsals themselves, I think organisation is key. I planned what section we would work on in each rehearsal, but within that I could have structured the rehearsal itself better. A solid warm-up at the start of each rehearsal, a set amount of time on each key bit covered in that rehearsal, and a wash-up at the end would have made sure we all got the most out of the limited time we had.

A few weeks into rehearsals I introduced a few activities, such as contact improvisation and some ‘grounding’ exercises for the voice. I think it would have been beneficial to have planned regular rehearsals where these would feature – being proactive, rather than reactive.

Set

Set can often be the tricky bit – you’ve got an inspiring and well-written script, a cast of fantastically talented and hard-working actors, and now you’ve got to somehow transform an otherwise bland room into a family home, or a doctor’s surgery, or even the middle of a jungle. It’s not just the actual practical creation of the set that I admire, it’s the set designer’s overall vision; how they can look at a space and visualise this world they’re being asked to create.

There were two key components of the set for Here that caused me grief from the start – the first being doors, the second an alcove. I left it too late to realistically install fully functioning doors. We do have several stage doors kicking around at HQ, where we rehearse, and the other place we own where we store a lot of the company’s stuff, aptly named ‘The Other Place’. However, we would need to find someone with adequate transport to get these great slabs of wood over to the venue, there would be little chance of them being the correct size to fit in the set we were creating, and we had no way of affixing them to the rest of the set (largely because it was nonexistent).

In the end I went for black curtains – not particularly imaginative, but they were easy to put up in the venue (which had beams running in between pillars around the edge of the room and the wall – perfect to tie and drape fabric over). Perhaps the mix of realism and representation didn’t work for everyone, but we made the best with what we’d got.

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The alcove was again left a little late in the process, however on of the actors came to the rescue. Working at a builder’s merchant, he could get us materials at a good price and had the know-how to assemble everything, with the very kind help of his dad. He used the beams in the room to create the alcove by cutting two pieces of hardwood to size, building a frame to reinforce the two sheets, then using plastic ties to attach the wood to two parallel cross beams. He fixed a metal pole between the two sheets and I bought a shower curtain from Primark to go on this. The curtain wasn’t ideal, and it did made that telltale ‘swish’, but at first glance it wasn’t so obvious it was a shower curtain rather than an ordinary fabric one. Either way, it was the cheapest option!

Props

Most of the props weren’t too difficult to source. The main issue was finding two identical jumpers in different sizes that were large enough and with stretchy enough necks to fit two heads in. If this sounds bizarre, there’s a scene in the play I call ‘the jumper scene’ – just before the end of Act 1 – so have a read and all will become clear.

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We realised what we really needed were some v-necks, but of course all the shops seemed to have decided v-necks were sooo last season and gone in for high round-necks; a very impractical jumper for fitting more than one head in without garroting your female lead.

Just as I was contemplating tearing the necks of a pair of round-necks we’d found my stage manager and head of props managed to find the perfect baggy, stretchy v-neck jumpers in Matalan. Result!

Venue

Revelling in the magic of the rehearsal room it’s all too easy to forget the practicalities of putting on a show – ticket prices, marketing, and of course any concerns with the venue. I’d chosen to put on a play where one of the actors spends half the time in a woolly jumper, in a room known as ‘The Conservatory’ for its glass ceiling, in the last week of July. Not the brightest of sparks sometimes, but of course the prospect of several audience members fainting and an actor sweating within an inch of his life didn’t occur to me until two weeks before the show.

My lovely marketing lady who also ran front of house had the genius idea of iced water, so we sent someone out to get plastic cups and a big bag of ice. Consequently the audience survived, as did the actor, though I’m not sure the jumper was particularly pleasant after the final performance.

There’s so much more to directing than I could ever have imagined. You’re not only the captain of the ship, you’re a mentor, a shepherd, a quick-thinking, super-planning, creativity-inducing organisation machine. At the best times it’s been exhilarating, at the worst, stressful and exhausting, but all along it’s been an interesting and invaluable experience. And I can’t wait to do it again…

 

Click on the thumbnails below to see larger images of the cast – Ben Tanner as Phil, Faye Williams as Cath, Sue Bartlett as Pat – during the dress rehearsal, plus a few props shots: