In India, students need only walk down the street to find inspiration for their art–in the vibrant colours of the beautiful sarees, the patterns of the mandalas in the temples, the smells in the markets, the textures of the foods, and the diversity in the culture. Yet this ISTA festival seeks to explore beyond celebrations of cultures and to find inspirations from a variety of places.
As we began our first teacher’s workshop at the festival, artistic director Mike Pasternak introduced us to the ‘Inspiration Pack’, an impressive collection of artwork that is shared with the visiting artists before each ISTA festival. Through an exercise in Tableau and movement, Mike demonstrated ways in which artists find inspirations through issues (in this case gender inequality) and also through a particular theatre medium. For this ISTA festival in Chennai, students explored the issue of gender inequality or gender violence as well as one of three different performance styles.
The festival’s theme is entitled ‘Equality, Dignity, Safety’. India often attracts international attention for the often brutal treatment of women, yet gender inequality and men’s violence against women are global issues that affect every nation on the planet. Because of Green School’s strong focus on social justice and gender studies, our students have strong foundational knowledge of these issues and can find inspirations through their passion for justice. In India, we have had the privilege of visiting a local organization called ‘The Banyan’ and learning about the work they do with women in need here in Chennai. Our students learned about systemic power imbalances that exist between men and women and how that affects one’s opportunities and life choices.
For this particular festival, students are working with three interrelated yet very different theatrical styles to inspire their performances. Cendrine Belleux leads the shadow ensemble. In that particular ensemble, students are learning how to create metaphors with shadow and light, and how to play with dimensions and space to enhance narrative. Suzy Davies leads the musical ensemble that is working on compositions that communicate in a variety of different languages, using music to make connections and celebrate diversity. Ruth Spencer leads the movement ensemble, where students learn how to use their bodies, both individually and collectively, to tell stories. Each ensemble group is unique, yet collectively they weave together like tapestry, producing a narrative that coherently expresses the students’ stories and understandings of the issue.
The process is harmonious. As our students explore the difficult issues relating to gender inequalities they find new ways to express their feelings–through metaphor, through imagery, through music, and through touch and movement. It is cathartic process. And it is enriching.
Right now it is two hours before showtime and the teachers are huddled in a classroom, barred from the theatre as the final preparations and rehearsals occur. As we sip our seventh coffees of the day there is already a sense of accomplishment, a sense of finality. I cannot wait to see the performance and I am sure it will be spectacular–but so much of this festival has been about the process. Through this process, each of us–students, artists, teachers–have explored our own relationship with issues of gender inequality and have grown through the process.