DENÍK DĚTSKÉ SCÉNY or ‘The Diary of a Children’s Scene’, if you don’t speak Czech is the literal translation of a week’s festival of children’s theatre where Michael was this year’s international guest practitioner. For six days 15 participants attended Michael’s workshops every morning to explore and deepen their drama practice.
The Fabrika Cultural Centre of Svitavy, a few hours east from Prague, was the location for the 43rd annual Children Theatre’s Festival. The Festival celebrates, and debates, the winners of regional children’s theatre competitions held earlier in the year. It also provides those who work with young people and children across the Czech Republic, the opportunity to develop their understanding and practice.
Michael’s workshops were attended by teachers with a vast range of experience – some just embarking on their work with young people, others with a great deal of experience and expertise; some had to pay for themselves to attend whilst others were fully supported by their school – some were even given time out of the classroom during term time (can you imagine 4 days out of school for a drama conference in this country?). Although many participants spoke very good English, when dealing in matters of nuance, precision is required and a highly skilled interpreter, Petra Kuncikova, was on hand throughout the week to support Michael.
Michael’s response to his brief was simple – “I was sharing my practice and sharing my understanding of working with children and young people”. Inevitably, with a practice built over decades his workshops were varied in approach and content:
- Saturday – Teacher in Role and Children in Role.
- Sunday – Employing traditional tales to explore contemporary issues.
- Monday – Working with texts – from Shakespeare to Pinter.
- Tuesday – Theatre games and techniques to deepen the dramatic experience.
- Wednesday – Employing images to develop narrative dramas.
- Thursday – Greek drama in contemporary settings.
During the six days, the group worked together through tasks and exercises to develop their understanding of drama practices and techniques – finding Michael’s classroom experience insightful and refreshing. We asked Michael what he found most interesting in delivering his workshops, “There was a clarity, coherence and commitment to what they were doing and why they were doing it. They took time to reflect, discuss and share their understanding and in all that time I didn’t hear league tables mentioned once – but references to children and young people repeatedly. I’m still receiving emails from participants now, who continue to reflect on their experiences and learning during the workshops. If I could speak the language fluently I think I’d live in the Czech Republic!”.
One such participant wrote to Michael to share her thoughts, “Most of all I appreciated your continuous analysis. It helped me to see the real problems and on the other hand the key principles of teaching. Of course I know the principle of “small steps” that we should take with the children to lead them safely to success, but only when I experienced it with you in simple games, only then I fully realised what it means and how small these steps may be or must be used for us to be successful. I was enthusiastic about your levels in the simplest games – and it taught me so much: I saw that I don’t need to introduce all the rules right from the beginning or I don’t have to stick to them right from the beginning, that it is better to let children cope with the game and become more strict on further levels – that was a revelation!”
Michael has also received great feedback about how he demonstrated and deconstructed the moment all drama teachers experience, where a group go off in an unexpected direction that appears totally at odds with the direction other groups have taken. For inexperienced (and experienced) teachers this can be a moment of real significance both for the drama itself and for group dynamics. During this workshop, it gave rise to some heated discussions from committed participants but as Michael says, “You can’t expect to create tension in your dramas, if you do not allow tension in your discussions”. By the end of the workshop, participants had not only felt tension from within – and without – the drama but also now understood how to manage similar scenarios in their own classrooms.
The afternoons at the festival were dedicated to children and young people performing their theatre for each other, workshop participants, and those who came to watch from the University of Prague. At first when Michael had said he watched 3 Children’s Theatre performances each afternoon, we thought he meant theatre made by adults for children from the way he spoke of the performances, but in fact it was all made by those as young as 6 and up to 16 years old. “The opportunity to see so many children as makers of theatre for theatre audiences – they were not family and friends – was such an amazing experience. Their understanding of their own theatre making was then deepened as, together with their co-performers, they were given the opportunity to explain their processes and decisions through facilitated discussion groups. The level of analysis and the ability to critically articulate their own performance and that of others was quite extraordinary”.
It was not only the children who joined discussion groups after the three performances. There was an adult discussion group who had similar discussions with the directors/leaders of these children’s theatre groups. Michael had attended both discussion groups and found the analysis and discussions almost as interesting as the performances themselves. “It reminds me of the concept ‘Verbal Arts’: the ability to articulate your ideas verbally. I think that this is where most working class people tend to fall down in society, as the ability to eloquently speak on a matter for a long period of time on a single thought is a real skill. In the Czech Republic the way in which they develop ‘Verbal Arts’ is through their drama and theatre. It doesn’t need to be delivered that way but there is a real role for the arts in this, as it provides context to develop this skill.”
We asked Michael what he brought back with him from the experience, “There were many memorable performances and pieces of theatre throughout the week but the one that will probably stay with me the longest was “Chocolate”; watching a young performer play with an audience’s attention as he stood, centre stage, hairdryer in hand, melting a Lindt Chocolate Easter Bunny. It was as risky and playful a moment of theatre equal to any I have seen by professional theatre companies. In discussion groups we discovered that this piece of theatre, which explored difference and racism, started from a moment of play in the rehearsal room; it shows when play is taken seriously where it can lead you.”
Michael’s experience of this conference has started a discussion at changing cultures of where else there are exciting opportunities to develop practice and experience high quality arts for and by young people. Who else is delivering children’s youth theatre conferences like this or perhaps something similar with a seriousness given to practice and reflection?
To find out more about the festival you can visit DENÍK DĚTSKÉ SCÉNY and read the article featuring Michael’s workshops (if you read Czech). If you don’t read Czech then Michael would be happy for you to get in touch to find out more.