Festivals unplugged

28 January 2020

Ahead of our 2020–2021 festival launch on Monday 9th March 2020, I wanted to take the time to explain a little bit about how ISTA festivals work. A behind the scenes look, if you like, at festivals and our rationale for designing them in the way that we do. I hope this will answer many of the frequently asked questions, ensuring that on the 9th you can make a fully informed choice for next year’s offers. I’ve broken down the information into ‘Artistic’ and ‘Logistical’.


Global challenge

•  2020–2021 sees the 2nd ISTA global challenge. This year we focused on Identity. Next year we are using Borders, barriers and boundaries as our umbrella theme for all festivals.

•  In our pre-launch festival planning with hosts we start with the cultural excursion. Once this has been determined the hosts create a unique starting point that directly leads out of the excursion and that ties in with our global challenge for the year.

•  ISTA artists, who take on the roles of creative director/creative lead, prepare an ‘inspiration pack’ which at the end of the year is presented on our website as a far-reaching resource for member teachers. In total – 38 festivals, 38 inspiration packs and 38 different ‘ways in’ to exploring Borders, boundaries and barriers.

Ensemble/devising or workshop model

•  Most festivals follow the ensemble/devising model where young people spend 3 days in an ensemble with peers from their own and other schools, creating and exploring, within that ensemble, a particular topic with an ISTA international artist. This leads to a final sharing/performance which is the culminating point of the festival.

•  One or two festivals a year are workshop based. This means that every participant will choose a core workshop to follow during the festival (same group, same leader, same content) as well as a number of taster workshops. At a workshop model festival the closure takes the shape of a sharing rather than a performance.

•  Workshop model festivals are more skill based and less focused on devising. They’ve been super popular in the past, particularly with the middle school age range.

Festival event review

•  For the last three years we have been carrying out a festival event review. 2020–2021 will see some changes to festivals that have come out of the review. Following on from research, the collection of data and a range of pilot festivals, these initiatives will enrich the festival experience for all involved. They include:
» A pre-festival task completed by young people attending the festival. The material collected from this task is weaved into the ensemble process.
» A more streamlined and consistent approach to the ensemble process over the three days.
» Specific tasks that are completed as part of the excursion to engage the young people. The result of this/these tasks will then feed directly into the ensemble process.
» Opportunities for both artists and teachers to ‘unpick’ the unique starting point of the festival.

•Workshops that will continue to be skill based but where the content/material will tie in directly to the starting point.
» Greater clarity on the goals of full group work.
» Greater clarity and transparency on the process leading to the final sharing/performance as well as the goals of the sharing/performance itself.


Dates and venues

• While we would love schools to book festivals based on the global challenge and unique starting point, we know this is unrealistic. Dates and venue are the key deciding factors for our member schools.

• We will publish a calendar on 19th February so you can see what the options are for each age range in each region. This is easier for members than ploughing through individual webpages.

• Before booking please ensure that the dates do not clash with any internal school calendar dates and that you are confident there will not be visa issues down the line for your student group.

• It is impossible for ISTA to plan our festival dates around the calendar of every member school, but we ensure there is plenty of range within each category of festival. For example, spreading middle school festivals in Asia across the year in a number of different locations.

Festival size

• Gone are the days when we used to produce festivals of 180 young people! Most festivals are now around 100 participants in size. We also produce festivals of 80 students.

• We recognise that some of our member schools are too small to host a festival of 100 and this is why we have created Bonsai festivals. These are smaller festivals comprised of 40 or 60 young people.

• All the ingredients of a customary ISTA festival are present at Bonsai festivals – your students will have the same experience.

Group size

• Unlike other school trips (such as a basketball tournament) schools can bring as few or as many students as they like. Again, we know this very much depends on individual school policies and size of community/department.

• You can bring as few as 5 students (we have had fewer but this will be governed by the minimum size required at your school) or as many as 25.

• Importantly, when booking, please try to be as realistic as possible. It’s easier for us to add a few students than to plan a festival with significantly reduced numbers.


• From our earliest days, homestay has been a core component of the ISTA festival experience.

• Where we have member schools who are still willing to offer homestay, we gladly accept. We know this experience:
» Provides a unique opportunity for young people to stay with families, often from a different culture. We also know that from this experience, often lifetime friendships are formed.
» Reduces the cost of the festival, making it more affordable for more families.

• We do acknowledge that many schools have now stopped offering the homestay experience for international trips due to safeguarding issues. As such, we honour this. For these festivals we will (typically) book hotel/hostel type accommodation for visiting schools.
» Young people will stay in shared rooms with peers from their own school.
» Teachers and chaperones will be responsible for supervising students outside of festival times.
» It is often helpful, if budgets allow, to factor in an additional adult for these festivals, so that ‘on call’ time can be shared by more adults.


• Student registration fees will stay the same for 2020–2021. ISTA only considers an increase in student registration fees every two years.

• On the festival webpages you will see a Finance section where any additional costs or surcharges are listed. This includes accommodation where it is not a homestay festival.

• Teachers are requested to pay a nominal registration fee to cover catering and event admin costs.