All the Drama Fit for a Llama at DramaFest 2013

drama llama

logo created by tom gordon smith, dramafest legend

The Dalhousie Arts Centre is abuzz with a beautiful raucous conglomeration of additional theatre kids as Theatre Nova Scotia’s High School Drama Festival (DramaFest) kicked off its 41st year yesterday. Three hundred students from Grades 10, 11 and 12 from 23 different high schools across the province are taking part in the three day non-competitive festival, which runs until Saturday, taking master classes and workshops with members of the professional theatre community and university instructors, playing many rounds of Improv games with a slew of impassioned volunteers and taking part in some of the 21 student performances that are taking place in the Dalhousie Sir James Dunn Theatre and Studio 1. It is beautiful to see so many young people eager to play, daring to step out of their comfort zones, wanting to learn and to share the art they have created, and most of all it is inspiring and exciting to see so many young people so passionate and stoked about the theatre all in the same room!

The ambiance at DramaFest is similar to summer camp, with cheers and inside joke games that have attained mythic status over the festival’s four decade history. It is a labour of love for Theatre Nova Scotia, The Educational Drama Association of Nova Scotia and the Dalhousie Theatre Department coordinated by Alexis Milligan and Jeff Schwager, who all collaborate with a fantastic production team, to make the Festival such a great success. It is not just the students who get the opportunity to learn more about the crafts they are interested in; their drama teachers also attend workshops with professionals to continue to be able to bring the best drama curriculums possible back into our schools. DramaFest is a place where both the students and the teachers learn a lot through play.

Last evening I was treated to four wonderful student productions. One of the biggest challenges that playwrights in the theatre face is writing plays for the teenage demographic, especially ones that are “issue-based.” It was interesting to see that of the four student productions I saw, three were collective creations written by the students directed by their drama teachers and all three of them centred on the issue of bullying. It is empowering to know that young people see theatre as having the potential to instigate social change. It is also likely that by delving into these issues and playing different characters in various scenarios that the students involved are finding greater empathy, understanding of the complexities of these issues and growing in their convictions and sense of self, which is an invaluable opportunity at any age.

Cole Harbour High School’s A Collective On Healthy Relationships brought us into the hallways of High School where everyone was glued to a cell phone and, while students wove in and out of each other’s lives, they were always connected to everyone (and even those they didn’t know) through this often precarious contraption in their pockets. There was a consistent feeling of motion that worked really well, everything always seemed to be flux- the way things often feel in High School, where everything can change in an instant, but switch back just as quickly. The dialogue was realistic and one really got the sense that they were seeing snapshots of various moments in a typical day at a typical school. It was well acted, well directed, and carefully considered.

Dartmouth High’s Don’t Say That is a strong example of theatre for young audiences written by young people often being stronger than theatre for young audiences written by adults. This was a beautifully multidisciplinary collective featuring a rock band, dancing, singing and gymnastics, as well as a very smart and very funny commentary on bullying that tackles the issue from many different perspectives. It is beautifully Brechtian in its ability to inspire its audience to think about the issues through a lot of silliness, some really powerful physicality and some poignant poetry. This collective is made up of very strong performers and the reaction from the audience of their peers last evening was both electric and exciting. There’s a lot of bright sparks here. I hope to hear much more from this group in the future.

Charles P. Allen High School’s Drugs, Thugs and Intimate Hugs pushed the consequences of bullying and other issues facing high school students to the utmost extreme. Although the consequences of this play were much more dire than the first two, the spirit of this show was rooted the most in an ambiance of fun. At times it almost seemed like a satire of the chaos that “typical adults” worry contemporary high schools will ultimately dissolve into- which I think is a really cool idea. The colorful characters in this play, with great nicknames, had awesome, realistic dialogue and lots of opportunities for silliness. It was also great to see how clearly these students were able to navigate around a lot of character arcs, which were tightly woven together.

Auburn Drive High School gave us something completely different last night, an adaptation of two stories for very young children by Marcus Pfister and Ruth Galloway, The Rainbow Fish and the Tickly Octopus. Directed by Melanie Kennedy and featuring a recording by the Auburn Drive High Film and Video Class and props by the Grade 12 Art Class, this puppet show was a beautiful and magical multi-disciplinary puppet show experiment in black light. It was beautifully polished, visually gorgeous and, although completely invisible, the students shone with meticulous timing as the play’s essential puppeteers. This show was created for elementary school students and it is perfectly suited for that demographic. I’d love to see this project tour to students at least from Primary-Grade Four across the province. So cool.

As someone who grew up as a student at Neptune Theatre School and taught there for quite a few years, it is no surprise to me that teenagers make incredible works of theatre. I have been lucky enough to keep being able to witness that for most of my life. This was my first glimpse into the world of Nova Scotia’s drama teachers, however, and I am so overjoyed, impressed and in awe of what I have seen. How fortunate these students are to have such cool teachers working at their schools who have the passion, the care and the expertise to help guide their creativity and facilitate a space for theatre not just to grow, but also to thrive. Drama Teachers are awesome. They’re changing lives.

I’m already late for Day Two of DramaFest, so I am going to stop typing and start moving. I can’t wait to connect back for another evening of great student productions, a talent show and a whole afternoon of workshops!

Don’t Stop Believin’.

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