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?