Much love, From a festival kid

21 September 2022

by Vicki Close


After many hours of rehearsal and many, many kilometres on a bus travelling through forests, rock fields and farmland, via highways, side roads and down the main streets of small town Ontario, we had finally arrived in the big city. The Big Smoke. We were on stage at the Provincials. Our audience was made up from people from across the entire province and we had stories to tell of people they had never met and of the small towns that to many of them were only dots on a map.

Sears Drama Festival Logo

“The circus is the master of the grand illusion
The stripes on the zebra too
Even the sawdust must be imagined
I keep looking for some in my shoe”

Circus Gothic by Jan Kudelka

But before we begin, let’s get on the bus:

While working with festival hosts these past few months on how the story inquiry aspects of their festivals will facilitate learning through theatre I became aware of this growing feeling. It is part excitement, part familiarity, part longing, part memory, part anticipation … The best way I can describe it is – it feels like coming home. I’ve realised that the seeds of my love for all things ISTA were planted long ago, halfway around the world, by my high-school drama teacher.

My rural high school only had one general drama class at the time and everything I learned about ensemble, performance, story making, and the power of theatre was learned in our after-school drama club. We loved the community, we loved the creativity and we loved performing but it was no secret that one of the best parts of being involved in the drama club meant that we got to travel to festivals!

Our teacher chose texts and starting points that told stories of those who came before us, those who are overlooked and even those who lived in places we had never been. It was through theatre that we learned the intricacies of the story behind Last Duel Park near our school (spoiler alert, it was a love triangle gone bad). It was through theatre that we learned about the people behind the flashing lights and ratling rides of the midway that came through town each year. We created stories based on the poetry of early settlers in our region and the work of Canadian artists. We told stories of young people who defied the conventions of their communities, and explored what could happen when the pendulum of educational philosophies swings too far and too fast. One year the club grappled with challenging poetic text while learning about the atrocities of war and struggling to find the stories of a community that vanished. Years later, I found myself standing on the open field where that community used to be. My drama teacher was determined to show us a world bigger than the one we knew and to help us appreciate where we came from, who we were and who we could be.

Unlike the ISTA model, the festivals I grew up with were competitive. Our teacher managed to successfully and skillfully downplay the competition aspect and replace it with a sense of the importance of sharing our stories. If we told them convincingly enough, we would have the opportunity to tell them again, to new audiences in new places – while seeing more stories from more small towns in our vast province. Every piece of work we saw became inspiration for our own work. It was a ritual for us and for generations of drama clubs after us to stop the bus at a Tim Horton’s Coffee Shop on the way home and after taking over most of the tables and settling in with hot chocolate and Timbits the air became filled with chatter:

How did they…. That moment when….. Was that a true story…. I need to learn more about….
When I was talking to a student from…. I didn’t understand when….. That reminded me of…
I wonder if next time we tried…. What did it mean when…. Did you notice…. Do you think they meant to….

We loved travelling.  We loved seeing other schools perform and we LOVED talking about it afterwards.

“Twenty-eight clowns

Twenty-eight suitcases

Twenty-eight clown suitcases…

…the bus was packed

And we were all ready to chase the circus”

Circus Gothic by Jan Kudelka

I imagine our teenage excitement about getting on a bus and driving 6 hours to Bradford for a festival was akin to students from Prague boarding the train to attend a festival in Budapest, or students from Lagos preparing to travel to a festival in Istanbul. What would the other kids be like? What was life like where they lived? Would they be like us? What stories were they going to tell – both in the performance space and outside of it?

While our club produced traditional musicals and scripted plays, when it came to the festival, we were asked to take everything we thought we knew about what a play was, investigate it, tear it up, mix it up, throw bits away and find the best way to tell this story. Our teacher challenged us to do more than break the fourth wall – she wanted us to blow up the walls of the space and explode the audience’s perception of what theatre is. Those long bus journeys through the Ontario landscape were often spent sitting amongst or on top of bits of wood, hinged panels, rolled up fabric, spooled ropes and wooden ladders. With these things a complete circus could be created on stage: The Big Top, the high wire, the roust-abouts’ trailers and yes, even an elephant.

So you can see how conversations with ISTA festival hosts around the globe have evoked this feeling of home for me. Those seeds planted by my drama teacher so many years ago took root in a very different type of theatre festival, yet they have grown, matured and ripened through my connection with ISTA. I am still a festival kid, but now I get to meet people and hear stories from all over the world.

To all of those educators who are rounding up your groups and getting them ready to get on the bus, train or plane to get them to a festival – I know it is hectic, and may feel like a circus at times – but keep planting those seeds – you never know how they will grow how or where they will take your young people.

We can’t wait to meet you. We can’t wait to hear your stories. We can’t wait to blow up the theatre walls with you.

Much love, from a festival kid.


The stories of the Royal Brothers Circus made it to the Big Smoke, but the real moment of magic happened on the sidewalk on a quiet street in suburban Toronto. At the end of the festival, we had been invited to the home of the real-life owner of the circus featured in our play where he told us more stories about life on the road in a travelling circus. As he waved good bye from the porch, the drama club spontaneously broke into the final choral sequence of the show:

“The tent is arrayed 

With magic, majestic fantastic….

I see sawdust

I see stardust

I see glitter. “ 

Circus Gothic  by Jan Kudelka

At the last stop on their journey the festival kids had brought his story home.  

Script excerpts from: 

Kudelka, Jan. Circus Gothic. Playwrights Canada, 1982. 

Image credits