40 years of the International Schools Theatre Association

10 December 2018

By Sally Robertson, Executive Director of ISTA

[noun] An account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
Anyone you speak to who tells you about ISTA will have a different story. A story that is dependent on their role – whether they are a parent, head teacher, ISTA artist, student or staff member. It will be a story spanning several decades or more, or a story of a single ISTA event. It will depend on location, where the storyteller lives and where they have travelled to. And it will depend on impact – how ISTA has increased their confidence, developed a passion for theatre, introduced them to cultures new, broadened their understanding of ‘international mindedness’, or simply introduced them to a new, life long friend.

This is my story. A story that began on the stage at Vienna International School in 1987. Through a conversation with then, head of English, Iain Stirling, about how I could re-train to become a Theatre teacher. Iain told me of Patricia Zich and an organisation called The International Schools Theatre Association. Iain suggested we attend ISTA’s annual Stratford Conference to meet Pat and other ISTA folks and take it from there. And the rest, they say, is history. From a house parent at the Berkshire Ensemble for Theatre Arts in Willamstown, USA (a forerunner and sister programme of ISTA), to administrator of ISTA’s summer programme in Lancashire; from my first festival in Brussels as an ISTA artist to a member of the then Executive Council; from a theatre teacher at Danube International School to coordinator of ISTA programmes in Asia; from an author of ISTA publications to now Executive Director. A role I have held for 17 years.

ISTA’s story began in 1978 when a few theatre teachers from international schools in Europe met and decided it would be cool to bring their students together to work collaboratively through theatre. At that time more so than now, international schools often existed as ivory towers and theatre teachers were often working alone in a department of one. So the desire for connection and collaboration was driven by need. That first (pre) festival took place in Zurich and was followed one year later by a high school festival at the American School in London. And so ISTA was born. Pat drove the organisation in those early years with a ferocity, passion and commitment that was unparalleled. She was supported by a handful of keen individuals, Mike Pasternak and Ted Miltenberger to mention just two. And during those formative years Pat carried out her ISTA work whilst continuing to teach theatre at the American School in London.

In 1982 we became a non-profit organisation (or registered charity in the UK) and membership was opened up to international schools. 1985 saw the first appointment of an ISTA president given to Ted Miltenberger. This era of ISTA was marked more than ever in subsequent decades by a long-term commitment to voluntary work. Ted and a few others literally gave decades of their lives to help shape ISTA and without this gift we would not be where we are today. 1989 saw membership exceed 50 schools and we reached 100 member schools in 2003. Backtracking to 1986 saw ISTA branch out to a more diverse range of events, including the introduction of middle school festivals and TaPS (Theatre arts programme symposia – focussing on students taking the IB DP Theatre course).

During this time ISTA operated primarily in Europe and it wasn’t until my move to Hong Kong in 1997 that we considered engaging schools in Asia Pacific with events based in the region. The presidency was handed over, in time, to Dinos Aristidou, Mike Pasternak and David Lightbody with Ted continuing to play a key role in the organisation. I took over from Pat in 2002 and in my first year as CEO we had 85 member schools and I produced 11 events. I remember feeling terrified, not only of taking over from a complete tour de force or ‘legend’ but also faced with producing as many as 11 events professionally, seamlessly and in a timely manner. As we begin our 40th year we have a staff of 8, with a further 7 freelance consultants on board; a membership of 238 schools; and this year we are producing 86 events.

[noun] A significant stage or event in the development of something.
By the Millennium our TaPS events were becoming more widespread and more and more member schools were asking ISTA for support in the delivery of this programme. It was clear by this time that we had turned TaPS from a ‘festival with an IB flavour’ into a bespoke event for students and teachers. Teachers came along as chaperones and so we also started to provide workshops and more extensive training for them while their students were in ensembles. But this gave rise to a challenge.

The IB at the time were providing their own workshops and schools were reluctant to endorse a training that was not accredited. Mike Pasternak and I had many late night discussions at the time about the inequity of training across the world – something that was arguably more likely to happen in a subject like Theatre. There was also some concern about the perceived ‘low’ grades in DP Theatre. All of these ingredients combined led us to approaching the IB to have a conversation. To cut a long story short I was eventually invited to an IB Americas workshop provider meeting in Florida where I first met Ralph Cline and Anthony Tait and where, in front of all the other workshop providers in the region, I presented ISTA’s case.

Somewhat surprisingly I have to say, the other workshop providers were gracious enough to let ISTA into the field and allow us to take over the training, globally, for DP Theatre teachers. We rose to this challenge with everything we could muster. We centrally trained a group of ISTA/IB teachers and examiners, crafted training weekends that also included master classes and theatre performances; eventually rolled out our training in all three IB regions and we continue to this day to provide outstanding professional development and learning for DP Theatre teachers. To say ISTA is the global provider of IB DP Theatre training continues to give us all immense pride and we not only take this work very seriously but love every minute of it. Seeing teachers empowered to begin teaching the course, witness teachers who gain clarity on the assessment procedures and create networks amongst themselves from workshops for continued support; to helping teachers develop as practitioners whether it be in a world theatre tradition or in the process of devising.

Another milestone was in 2009 when we finally, after years of working from home, felt it was time to move into an office. I had met Jo Parish in 2001 and lured her into the ISTA fold as part time bookkeeper but by 2009 we were ready for Jo to go full time and we took the brave step of renting an office in the Cornish town of Helston where ISTA had been based since 2002. I must admit to our humble selves this felt very grown up. And it was absolutely the right move enabling a larger cohort of staff to eventually work together in one space and giving ISTA a new identity in a way, from the operational side of things. We kept the office in Cornwall until 2013 when I moved with my family to Australia and we felt that it was time to embrace a virtual office. We wanted to bring the best individuals on board as we could and we couldn’t afford appealing relocation packages. We also felt some of the strongest potential staff were not based in Helston but dotted around the world.

And so now we have a smaller base still in Cornwall – our HQ, where Jo is based and the rest of us work from our homes in Perth, Cheshire, Cornwall, Singapore, Brussels and London.

In 2012 the stars aligned (which they often do in ISTA) for us to approach Professor Jonothan Neelands to become ISTA’s first patron. I still recall sitting rather nervously at Exeter service station in the UK waiting for our eagerly anticipated first meeting but from the moment we met we got along like a house on fire. Since then Jonothan has not only endorsed ISTA with his support but he has done so in a practical and very involved way. We have been privileged to grow and develop as an organisation from his wisdom and experience and he continues to attend events regularly working with students, teachers and artists.

[verb] Develop gradually.
It’s incredible to sit here as we turn 40 and to reflect on our growth or ‘ever-evolving’ state. A member of our board of trustees mentioned this at a recent meeting and made me realise that ISTA, as a dynamic and learning organisation will always be in this state. As we successfully achieve one element from our strategic plan or as a response to an aspect of our operations that isn’t working so we move onto tackling something else. Looking at ISTA from this perspective rather than from a finite point of view is both helpful and healthy.

Outside of the milestones recounted above there have been many other moments to celebrate along the way. Our branding which started with Pat’s ‘maskers’ logo from her Tehran days; through to our colour wheel launched in 2007; to our newly launched branding last year reflects the growth, maturity and sophistication of our community – while still retaining a sense of fun and play.

We have produced publications – firstly a newsletter that Pat wrote and edited; to the introduction of our quarterly journal Scene (which we will move to an online platform in 2019); from Pat’s Teaching Ensemble Technique in Theatre to our much anticipated 40th celebratory publication The ISTA Method Book which will be launched next year. We also produce a Behind the Scenes booklet along with Scene which celebrates the stories and people that make up our world. Not to mention the many resources that regularly come out of our events, such as master class resource packs from TaPS and IB workshops, inspiration packs from festivals and other teaching resources that are produced alongside our professional development and learning workshops and events.

Our first website was built in 2009 and it was like evolving from ape to man overnight. In the beginning Pat communicated primarily via fax and posted letters! I can still remember waking up in Hong Kong one morning to one of Pat’s famous faxes which stretched out the length of our living room carpet. Email communication was slowly introduced and now we have Google hangouts or Skype to meet ‘virtually’ with colleagues and teachers. Not to mention Trello, Basecamp and other online platforms. August 2017 saw the culmination of three years work with marketing and communication consultant Tommy Tonkins and this again, lifted ISTA’s work to a new realm.

Following 9/11 we entered an era where schools, for several years, were reluctant to send students overseas and so we introduced our Artist in Residence programme. Rather than schools travelling to ISTA, we travelled into schools and while international travel is now very much at the heart of all we do, we still deliver a thriving AiR programme today which meets the needs of international school teachers to provide their students with access to a range of outstanding international artists and the experiences and skills that they can share with young people.

ISTA began and very much remains today an organisation run by teachers for teachers. We have always listened well and responded to the needs of our member schools and introduced new programmes of work accordingly. We are increasingly producing ‘in-house’ events tailored to the needs of an individual school. This year sees an in-house event in Zurich for the entire year 6 cohort, a theatre festival to help create cohesion in a single year group while addressing issues of ‘bullying and bystanders’; along with a pilot CAS project in Hong Kong looking at developing creativity in individuals and across a whole year group. We have introduced working with primary school children both in selected cities (primary school festivals for schools in Singapore is now a thriving work stream) as well as with our more typical international model. We have decided to focus attention on developing certain city ‘hubs’ providing international theatre experiences in one city. This has worked beautifully in Singapore and we’re now rolling this model out to other cities (Hong Kong) as well as regions (Geneva, Zurich and Lausanne in Switzerland). We are now looking at upping our professional development and learning offer by introducing regular 1-day and 3-day Studios for teachers globally. And one of the most exciting initiatives in recent years has been the introduction of our Connect festivals, tying into the service learning departments of international schools and working with both international and local young people who meet and work collaboratively on an equal footing through theatre.

[noun] The action of working with someone to produce something.
Collaboration is at the heart of everything we do. Whether it describes the process young people work through at an event, or the nature of how colleagues work together as a staff team; to the process that defines the working relationship of our board of trustees, or the way our teams of ISTA artists work together. In today’s world with the pressures of social media and technology we believe this face to face engagement within the context of educational theatre is essential in helping to develop young people to become masters of their own destiny as committed 21st century citizens capable of engaging with and changing the world responsibly. Which leads me onto the mission that drives our community and the raison d’etre of ISTA:

ISTA believes that the future of our world depends on confident, internationally minded, collaborative and culturally literate young people who are empowered to engage with and change the world responsibly. We believe that this is achieved through the ISTA experience.

Educators play a key role in the fulfilment of our mission. We therefore offer educators worldwide the opportunity to come together to develop themselves, their pedagogy and their skills, equipping and empowering them to bring about this change through theatre.

ISTA brings together young people, artists and teachers from different countries in different settings to experience, create and learn about theatre.

We passionately value diversity and collaboration, celebration and play, friendship and collegiality.

Which leads onto our robust, challenging and unique pedagogy that states the ISTA experience is a unique, immersive experience which:

– places children and young people in an environment in which international mindedness and cultural literacy can flourish through the interactions between people, place and perspective;

– brings children and young people together in a spirit of collaboration regardless of age, nationality and experience;

– immerses children and young people in an experience where they can make theatre, learn about theatre and learn through theatre;

– empowers young people by building their self-confidence and their ability to make empathic connections and form friendships with other young people.

Through the ISTA experience children and young people develop intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically. They are better able to understand who they are, how they fit into the world and what they could do and be in the future.

[noun] The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.
And so this brings to me to the end of this part of my ISTA story. We are taking this year to celebrate in many ways our achievements in the last 40 years. And we have so much to celebrate. A self-funding international arts organisation that has survived and thrived over 4 decades. The, literally, thousands of young people who have been touched by the ISTA experience and who remember it, sometimes 30 years on, as a life-changing and pivotal school experience that helped define and change them and that helped shape them into the adults they have become. Teachers cite involvement in ISTA as, often, the single most important factor in developing themselves as practitioners and in helping to create networks of support, affirmation and friendship.

It is an inspiring story indeed shaped by many people over time and I look forward to the next chapter with excitement, pride and gratitude.