Originally published in Düsseldorf Bild Zeitung newspaper in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Photo credits: International School of Düsseldorf
Special thanks to Frank Tschan, School Director and Theatre Department Head Kate Olson of the International School of Düsseldorf for sharing this piece with us.
The current COVID lockdown hasn’t restricted ISD’s theatre students’ access to visiting artists. In fact, if anything, the students have benefited from an even greater number of workshops this school year, with ‘virtual’ visiting artists from around the globe.
In some schools, music and art are offered as standard classes within the curriculum, while theatre tends to be relegated to an after-school-only activity or outside organisation.
At the International School of Düsseldorf (ISD), however, theatre is offered as a core curriculum subject for grades 6 to 10, and students can choose to take IB Theatre in grades 11 and 12.
For students who are particularly passionate about acting, ISD also offers two performance elective classes: one for middle school students (grades 6 to 8), and one for high school students (grades 9 and 10).
In these classes, students are cast in a play or musical, and spend class time rehearsing and preparing for the show. Each year the school puts on four full-scale productions in its own theatre, which seats 350 people.
In a typical year, students also visit one of three international theatre festivals, not only to see performances but to work with various theatre artists and practitioners. Additionally, two artists-in-residence are usually invited to visit the school to work with the students.
Instead of missing out on those opportunities for learning during lockdown, at the beginning of the year the ISD Theatre department set a goal to bring in a “virtual visiting artist ” to each of its eight theatre classes.
So far this school year, three theatre directors (London, Australia and USA), a Butoh dancer (Germany), a musical composer (UK), a mime (USA), a world-renowned film director (Finland), and a choreographer (Canada), have been invited to share their craft with various theatre classes.
Toronto-based choreographer, Liisa Smith, is the latest in this line up of visiting artists. She is currently working with students in the grade 9 and 10 Theatre Performance Elective class to enhance their physical movement skills.
For the past 4 months, the class has been preparing a performance of Sophocles’ “Antigone”. The young actors have focused on how to create a piece of physical theatre, and how to create a solid performance ensemble, looking to many different physical theatre companies, as well as the work of Stephen Berkoff, for inspiration.
Liisa is working with those students cast in the Chorus (who appear on stage for the duration of the play) to develop a “physical vocabulary” which they will then refer to throughout the show.
The first class began with a physical warm up, followed by an exercise which encouraged the students to respond individually, through movement, to various starting points.
Of her work Liisa says, “I am intrigued by the slightest gesture juxtaposed with grandiose movement. I fuse forms, melting different dance genres with spoken word and original sound scores….I love for art to surprise me, thus I take a great interest in site-specific work.”
Ms Kate Olson, ISD Theatre Department Head, says, “The first workshop with Liisa took place in late February; it was the first time the grade 10 students were able to be together (the grade 9 students joined by Zoom) since mid-December. Naturally, they were delighted to be back in the same space, creating and collaborating together. It felt a little odd at first, to be working with a choreographer over Zoom, but with Liisa projected onto the big screen and the surround sound of the theatre, it quickly became the new normal.”
Says Ms Olson, “There have been many ‘firsts’ in the ISD Theatre department this year. As well as having teachers who are committed to providing the best possible learning experience for our kids, we are also fortunate to have a robust digital infrastructure that allows us to create innovative solutions like these virtually-led workshops.
“If there’s one upside to this somewhat unusual year for our theatre students, it’s that they’ve been able to learn from even more guest artists than usual, and from much further afield. Whenever things return to ‘normal’, even once we resume our trips and our in-person workshops, at ISD we’ll absolutely continue to invite exciting and inspiring virtual guests into our classrooms on a regular basis.”Kate Olson, ISD Theatre Department Head