Postcards from a newbie: changing the world with a new collection of souvenirs

14 June 2018

By Julia Roberts

This article was originally published in the September 2017 edition of Scene – Theatre to Change the World.

Don’t be afraid of new beginnings. Don’t shy from new people, new energy, new surroundings. Embrace new chances at happiness. – Billy Chapata, The Vibe Manual

Well, here I am…

When you reach the age of 50, all sorts of strange things happen. If we’re lucky enough to be parents, our offspring often decide (somewhat selfishly in my view) that this is the right time for them to spread their wings and go out and get a life of their own. Professionally, we have reached a stage where we have an established skillset, a reputation and a network of contacts and a just-below-the-surface nagging feeling that there is still a lot we haven’t done, a lot to learn, a lot to see. Emotionally, my experience is that ageing brings a sense of freedom along with a dose of mild panic and it was in this context that a dear friend and longtime ISTA stalwart/celebrity (Dinos Aristodou) suggested that I might enjoy the experience of joining the ISTA artist pool. Thus, I found myself the “newbie” on the team of artists at my first ISTA festival in Munich last year and this, and my subsequent experience of three more ISTA festivals (in Malta, Cornwall, Toulouse), has led me to reflect on the concept of “newness” in relation to ourselves as creative beings.

I’m loving the beautiful views…

How do we find a fresh perspective in our everyday environment and mindset? I have discovered that this is what ISTA festivals offer everyone: teachers, students and artists alike. I don’t believe that the value of this new perspective is any more or less for me as an artist than it is for anyone else. A sense of a bigger picture is always thought-provoking and creatively inspiring, isn’t it? And the ISTA world view, as I have discovered, is VERY wide, bringing together people of all ages and backgrounds with lived experiences of all corners of the globe. For me theatre arts in particular rely on a sense of being part of a whole, being able to be “in” something with a consistent awareness of what lies outside. Being part of an ISTA festival allows us all to experience a new place. Even as a festival host, I imagine that a festival instils a new appreciation of a familiar place, just as inviting a guest into our home is said to make it “warmer”.

As being in a new environment encourages us all to look outside of ourselves with a new perspective and renewed sense of our place in the world, my experience has been that it also inspires us to look internally and examine ourselves as creatives. For me one of the unexpected outcomes of ISTA festivals has been that it has led me to question what I ordinarily do and how I do it. It has tested and strengthened my faith in the creative process of collaboration and devising. As something of a self-confessed control freak, it has been a challenging but positive experience to give over control to the open-ended ISTA process. From day 1 of the festival to the final performance, it will happen, it does happen and it demonstrates of course that there is more than one way to work towards a creative end product. It is worthwhile – for all of us – to experience this. Whether we are 15 or 50 years old.

Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. You need to spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently than you. Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder. – Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist

I’m doing so much stuff…

New surroundings. New “out-of-the-norm” experiences. New colleagues. The more I reflect on my ISTA experiences so far, the more I am struck by the overwhelming sense of newness and, in speaking to those who may be described as ISTA veterans, it is clear that each experience has this quality, as the model is never repeated. Each festival brings opportunities for new collaborations, new relationships and new learning, and it is therefore no surprise to me that the appeal to be part of this is long-lasting. Again, I assert that it is rare and precious to find opportunities to experience The New on so many levels. Our professional and personal development benefits hugely from it. Our creativity thrives on it.

I’m getting to know the locals and collecting souvenirs…

For me, ISTA festivals have been thoroughly energising creatively. I have found myself inspired by and admiring of the creative contributions of artists, teachers and students. Frequently, multi-lingual students who have experience of different cultures and enthusiasm and excitement in learning have given me cause for thought and hope, particularly in this post-Brexit, Trump’d world. And teachers and artists have shared their toolkits of skills generously and thereby replenished my own toolkit.

After an ISTA trip, you come home with a collection of creative techniques to try and ideas to develop, better than any last-minute purchase from Duty Free.

Amongst the ISTA souvenirs that I have gathered so far are ideas for developing powerful choral singing/chanting inspired by Rex Rund, the use of apps (such as IMIX and DAW) for theatre tech inspired by Daniel Sarstedt and tips for writing the perfect monologue inspired by Emmy Abrahamson. At each festival, my notebooks are replenished with new warm up exercises and rejuvenated versions of old ones. And now I find myself randomly collecting and mentally filing away ideas in my new virtual “potential ISTA material” folder. Unlike other travel memorabilia, I am determined that my ISTA souvenirs won’t gather dust.
ISTA aspires to work with young people to engage with and change the world responsibly and such an aspiration requires energy from all of us. Even my basic scientific knowledge informs me that energy requires food and through ISTA, I have found that my creativity is fed and thereby more creative energy is generated. I have been motivated to develop my ISTA experiences in my other work, most of which is not within school settings or even with young people and therefore I am minded to conclude again that labels to differentiate settings and participant groups have limited significance in the context of creativity. Seeing my work in this way, with a new energy and liberation is the best ISTA souvenir of all.

Wishing you were here…

In whatever role you come to an ISTA festival, my advice would be to challenge yourself to extend your role. For myself, I go with the proud label of “artist” but I now know that ISTA provides an opportunity for me to teach others (and that experience gives me a valuable reminder of the fact that my creative skills are valued and respected) and to learn from others, including students whom I have generally found to be genuinely interesting young people with interesting lives, very different from my own. My conclusion is that in relation to ISTA, the notion of labels, of formal roles and boundaries thinking is best left at home for a few days (along with the pile of books you haven’t yet read, the “to do” list that taunts you like a workplace bully and that nagging sense of self-doubt that creeps into your stomach when you venture out of familiar territory). Labels are for every day. Labels can be useful shorthand but they can also be limiting and misleading. At an ISTA festival we can all allow ourselves to be teachers, learners AND artists, performers, directors AND audience. In fact, it’s expected – subtly – that we experience all of these roles. This may sound like some kind of hippy educational utopia but from my (admittedly limited) experience, I would argue that this is just the established ISTA way.

To future ISTA newbies with whatever label you may arrive with, I say be prepared to be surprised by what you know AND by what you don’t know. You might also be surprised by how much fun you can have whilst working hard. And be prepared to come home with your suitcase and your soul filled up.

Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving. – Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky