–by Sarah Abrams– 

In late January, six RIS students embarked on an exciting adventure when they attended our school’s first overseas International School Theatre Association (“ISTA”) festival in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Our students continued to make history as they took part in ISTA’s first-ever festival in Vietnam! Over the last 40 years, ISTA has been connecting students around the world through professional drama training and performing arts experiences, so it was a very special occasion to meet in a new country. Led by ISTA’s wonderful theatre artists from the UK and mainland Europe, students came from Dubai, southern India, mainland China, Hong Kong, and all across Vietnam.

The ISTA artists and young actors rehearsed and performed at the International School of Ho Chi Minh, our gracious hosts for this unique festival. In addition to creating original theatre pieces in their newly formed ensembles over the three-day festival, the students also gained inspiration from their incredible trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The theme of the festival was “GOING UNDERGROUND,” and so the tunnels served as the haunting and awe-inspiring starting point for the creation of their devised theatre work. It was there that the students learned about the Vietnamese people’s determination to survive and the ingenuity of the farmers and locals to create the longest tunnel system in the world. The students learned about the anguish of war and the hardships of living beneath the ground for years, enduring attacks from above. Many of the students crawled into some of the hiding spots in the forest floor and walked through the tunnels, which were dark and damp. This hands-on-learning greatly informed their final performances, which reflected on the struggles of battle, the need to protect family and community, as well as the shared stories and values of those on opposite sides of the conflict.

At the festival, special workshops that included modern dance, Vietnamese drumming, and devised theatre practices, allowed the students to work in bright studio spaces and modern black-box theatres. These workshops, combined with their training in smaller ensembles (groups of theatre artists who practice, create, and perform together) created a rich experience for our students with lasting memories.

We asked some of our students to reflect on what they took away from the festival so we can better appreciate the impact of this work on their development as artists and as global citizens.

CLAUDIA LIU, Grade 12

Quote: “I felt like I belonged. I have never felt so much positivity in one place.”

What was your favorite part of the festival and why?

My favorite parts would be getting to work with new people from all over the world and the foods they provided for us at the festival. Here at RIS, we don’t get as much of an opportunity to bond with people from around the world so this experience was special as it allowed us to come out of our comfort zone and bond with people from a totally different culture. As for the food in Vietnam, it's very high quality and well cooked—the taste, the flavor, everything! Just thinking about it makes me drool!

What did you walk away with? What will you remember most?

I walked away with a new perspective of theater and how to build a connection between the performer and the audience. I think I will remember most how in just a short amount of time we could create a beautiful theater performance.

Would you recommend this festival to others? Who should try it?

Yes, everyone is extremely positive and cheerful, it really lifted my spirits up. People who may feel like they don’t fit in with others at school. It will be a great experience for you to be able to break out of your comfort zone and just be yourself. ISTA will totally open a new door for you, it’ll be a great opportunity for you to come out of your shell and try something new without the fear of being judged.

HANNAH APILUKTOYANUNT, Grade 12

Quote: I felt like it made us bond in a way something else would not have.”

How would you describe the ISTA Festival experience to someone who has never gone?

I think it is a valuable learning experience because not only did we learn and improve our drama and acting skills, we got to learn and experience someone else’s culture and to meet new people.

What was your favorite part about the festival and why?

My favorite part was the bonding between the RIS students! Of course I liked all the new knowledge I gained and even my new friends, but what I felt was most impactful was the fact that the people who went to ISTA together became really close, and I felt like it made us bond in a way something else would not have.

What was something that surprised you about the experience?

The ensembles. I have not done anything like that before. The closest I had was during SEASAC Arts, but that was focused on learning in different workshops and tasters. While ISTA did have workshops, our primary focus was learning and collaborating with each other within our own ensembles.

What did you walk away with? What will you remember most?

What I will remember the most, I think, was just how gung-ho and voluntary everyone was! There would be multiple people wanting to do something at every moment at ISTA, but at RIS I feel like we are more reluctant to get up in front of one another and try new things. It reminded me of the phrase that “If you want something, you must go get it.”

Would you recommend this festival to others? Who should try it?

Yes! I would recommend this festival to other people for a variety of reasons: learning, friendship, and fun. I think that theatre kids, people who want to learn more about different cultures from a unique perspective, as well as people who want to try something outside of their comfort zone are the people who should try it.

TYRA TAN, Grade 12

Quote: “ISTA is a breath of fresh air and a place to call a home that always travels with you.”

What did you walk away with? What will you remember most?

One of the artists from ISTA said that for some of the people you meet at the festival, you will form friendships that will last forever. And that struck me because before I realised it was happening, I had made friends with many people! Even now, I keep in contact with several of them on social media. I made a friend who creates music, just like I do. I befriended the contemporary dance teacher, a teacher from another international school, and my ISTA Artist Ensemble Mentor. I made a friend who, once we started talking, quickly bonded with me and my closest friends—there was an immediate knowing. Because this friend and I speak the same language, it allowed us to be creative together. We collaborated in a group setting and both shared the role of leader. We were like soulmates, like-spirits!

I even got to understand the people who came with me from RIS—my own classmates and our performing art teachers—so much better as we chowed down on dinner and explored the city. The walks around Ho Chi Minh and the traveling together brought us closer, and to me, that is something very precious. I am always going to remember the people who taught me and the people I played with.

ISTA is one of those important and special places where play is essential and play is freedom. I will remember the feelings I got from ISTA: the euphoria, the laughter, overcoming obstacles, etc. I will especially remember the panicked yet determined feeling I got when I entered the Cu Chi Tunnels and successfully got through the end in triumph.

ISTA is a breath of fresh air and a place to call a home that always travels with you.