ISTA Stories: Michael Westberg on the first Connect festival

18 April 2017

Traffic. Trash. Trash pickers. Street kids. Smiles. Inspiration. Connections. For me, ISTA has always been about making connections.

It was an introduction to the world of Jakarta’ s street children that led to my hosting the very first ISTA Connect festival in April of 2014: Hidden worlds. In the previous 25 years I had participated in multiple festivals as a host, visiting teacher, SEL, Rep and AD.

I was keen to initiate something new – something innovative that had never been done at any other festival before. What could I do to make this a completely new experience – one that would have such impact that each participant would experience a transformation that returned them home a different person than they had been when they arrived… ?!

The inspiration for my festival came from the life changing experience I’ d had during a new initiative established at my school (JIS) two years earlier, called Burst the Bubble. On the first non-teaching day back on campus, the entire staff is assigned to different service groups that venture out into the real, yet often hidden, world of Jakarta’ s less fortunate citizens.

I was lucky enough to be sent to KDM (Kampus Diakonia Modern), an organisation that offers a safe haven for street kids providing them with shelter, education and daily meals. Spending the day getting to know those kids changed my life. We had fun playing drama games and other ice-breaker activities. The kids were so hungry for the connection and fun, and like most people who get involved in community service I returned to school with a new sense of purpose and real connection to my local community. It was then that I decided that I wanted to provide the same fulfilling experience for my festival guests, include kids from KDM in each ensemble, and see how the follow up ensemble work would lead to devising the final performance piece.

When I pitched my ideas about community service venues replacing the usual out and about type of activities to Sally, she was over the moon and expressed that ISTA had been hoping to begin this very type of festival model – synchronicity. Since hosting Hidden worlds, the Connect model has become my favourite festival to attend. I’ve been a SEL, AD, Rep and taken kids to other Connect festivals. Each unique festival has continued to blow me away with the impact they have had on the artists, students, teachers and all involved in the festival – indeed, everyone returns home transformed.

The visits and interactions with the local community provide a purposeful, authentic and relevant focus that guide the entire artistic process. When the young artists and artistic staff return to the festival site they arrive energised and keen to explore and share the issues and themes that have surfaced during the excursions. Everyone is replete with concrete ideas to develop during the ensemble sessions. I have observed that the connections made during the community service sessions allow the students to feel empowered to contribute and participate fully to the creative work throughout the weekend.

The resulting final performances are true celebrations that reflect the countless connections, both human and intellectual, that were made during the festival and hopefully continue to be made after everyone returns home. ISTA is truly about making connections.

This article is taken from Scene, our tri-annual printed publication especially for ISTA members. Click here to find out more about becoming a member.