Devised puppetry project in Russia

Puppetry is powerful. It has the capacity to make people believe in life where there is none, to see a soul in a collection of strings and wooden sticks. And it doesn’t only affect the audience. It can have a profound effect on the puppeteer.

With this in mind, for my third time teaching at the English summer camp in Russia, this time through ENgage Theatre Arts, I focused on puppetry for the whole project. At last year’s camp I ran a puppetry workshop with the students where we made newspaper and string puppets then devised short scenes. With both age groups I worked with these workshops went down really well, so this year the final performances themselves involved puppets.

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My wonderful colleagues at CLASS Study and Training Centre, with whom I work in Russia, had organised a theme for this year’s camp based on virtual reality and communities. We created a world within the camp – Campus – whose ruler, VerLock, delivered regular recorded messages to the students containing instructions, comments and clues to riddles. We realised that puppetry could work really well within this theme, so I asked my students to feature VerLock as a character in their final pieces, then looked forward to seeing their interpretations of this mysterious figure.

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Teachers with their puppet versions created by the first group

This theme explored community-building through the separation of the students into different communities or nations. Carrying this on into my drama sessions, I tasked the students with asking lots of ‘What if?’ questions about their nations and Campus as a whole. All fictional stories are basically the writer asking ‘What if this happened? Or this? Or that?’ then providing a possible answer to this question through their story. Working in their separate nation communities the students explored various different scenarios until they had boiled it down to their favourite, which they then built their final performances on.

IMG_1070They were all enthusiastic about the puppetry, even if a little daunted when I first told them they were going to create and perform puppet shows to their peers. Natural leaders emerged within the groups, and I worked with them to ensure that everyone in each community had a role, while trying to make sure the leaders weren’t relied on too heavily by everyone else. It became clear which parts of the process each student enjoyed and excelled at or found challenging. One boy struggled to engage with the devising process, but as soon as we started making the puppets he got stuck right in and his excitement and enthusiasm was wonderful! I could see him working through problems and coming up with different solutions as he tried this way of attaching the neck or that way of creating a shoulder joint.

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The final performances were an absolute delight – a little rough round the edges, as to be expected, but utterly charming. What stood out for me was the teamwork involved in the process and the final piece, and the level of creativity the students showed. All four groups I worked with created their puppets in a slightly different way, and all four stories were different, though interestingly there were some moral themes that ran through all of the ideas.

I love what I do. Travelling to interesting places, experiencing different cultures, sharing my passion for theatre and puppetry, and working with students who are discovering their own creative potential is immensely rewarding. Like every performer or creative, what I don’t enjoy is constantly worrying about money, the job insecurity and the rejections. At the end of each creative project there’s the necessity to get a day job back in an office for a bit, returning to a life I thought I’d left far behind when I set off to drama school (oh how naïve!). But when I’m feeling glum and I start wondering whether this career change really was a good idea, and isn’t it about time I said: “Well that was a lot of fun and I’ve had a great time, but now I really should get back to something sensible”, I remember what one student said to me at the end of a puppet-making session on camp: “I love doing this. I wish we got to do things like this at school”. Heart strings suitably torn, I realised I have to keep going, to keep creating and making and sharing. The joy I witnessed as I saw that boy delighting in the chance to be creative – that alone is enough to keep me going.

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To Moscow! Staging The Emperor’s New Clothes

My first time in Moscow coincided with the world cup in Russia this year. Not much of a football fan, the purpose of my visit was actually to direct a performance of The Emperor’s New Clothes with ENgage Theatre Arts.

The State Historical Museum in Moscow

The State Historical Museum in central Moscow

Working at the New School, Moscow, with 15 Russian students aged 12-16, I arrived at the school with only the plot and a scene breakdown – the students did the rest. In only five days they managed to create a script and devise a show. For each scene we would familiarise ourselves with the main events, then the students would improvise the action before choosing which bits of dialogue to keep.

Each session began with warm-up games to energise the students, followed by a few activities to increase their focus, creativity and teamwork skills, then finally scene work. Although I helped shape the work on stage and gave the students notes on how to improve their presentation and performance skills, and ensured the English was correct, the students did a lot of the work. After exercises where we looked at how each character walked and their physicality, they suggested their own little touches to their characters. For example, the student playing the Emperor’s manservant added haughty flicks of the hair to his officious hands-behind-the-back walk, along with a deep character voice and RP accent.

Colourful scenery created by the students

Colourful scenery created by the students

We didn’t set the play in a specific time period, as our costume options were shaped by what clothes the students could bring in from home. Instead we decided that the townsfolk would all dress in bright colours, thus highlighting the more subdued colours of


the two weavers’ clothes (they come from another town). It also solved the question of how to stage the scenes where the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes – we opted for a white vest and shorts to suggest underwear. This contrasted well with the Emperor’s usual outfit, which included stylish sunglasses and a big animal-print coat the student had borrowed from his grandmother – very 50 Cent!

Although I was only in Moscow for five days and six nights, I managed to fit in a spot of sightseeing amongst the teaching/directing. My first few attempts to visit landmarks or suggested tourist attractions were thwarted by the football. On my first night I took the metro in to the city centre, intending to make my way to the famous Red Square, only to find my route closed by police. On the second night I headed out on foot to a viewpoint over the city 25 minutes’ walk away from where I was staying. I decided to turn back after finding all the connecting roads but one closed, and ending up stuck in the throng of football fans spilling out of the fan zones. I can happily report that I did make it to the Red Square in the end, on my final night in the capital!

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.