The London International Festival of Theatre offers a chance for children to work on long-term projects, says Reva Klein
A lot of theatres commit hit and run on young audiences. They can't help it; they offer a single workshop before or after a performance. Themes are explored, energy is expended, light is shed. A good time is had by all and then everyone goes home again.
At LIFT, the London International Festival of Theatre, things are different. Young people are offered more than a one-off experience. In the words of education officer Tony Fegan, "Our work is about creating continuing relationships between international artists and young people. Instead of workshops, we provide long-term training programmes."
So, in the festival brochure, there is no separate section listing schools workshops or education-related events. Work for young people, says LIFT co-director Rose Fenton, "is totally integrated into the fabric of the festival".
The biennial festival, now in its ninth year, has been running ever-more ambitious projects since 1991, including one last year. For this year's festival, which begins on June 3, three artistic ventures involving young people will be part of the programme.
One of the most far-reaching in terms of air miles as well as aspiration is Project Phakama, bringing together LIFT Education, Lewisham Youth Theatre and Sibikwa Community Theatre Project in Johannesburg. Phakama means "rise up" in Xhosa, which is as suitable an image for a festival called LIFT as it is for a project that has brought together young people from two poor communities on opposite sides of the world.
The three-year arts exchange programme (1996 to 1998) has several strands to it. It has allowed a cross-fertilisation of ideas on arts education between the four-strong LIFT education team and 14 South African teachers, community theatre workers and others.
While LIFT was in South Africa last summer working with the educationists, members of the black Sibikwa Youth Theatre, alongside white and Indian children from local schools, were brought together for workshops exploring their views on the new South Africa. The end result was a gloriously multicultural performance called Open the Gates, a pyrotechnic extravaganza performed by 65 young people for an audience of parents, British Council officials and local government officers.
The next strand takes place during the festival, when 12 young people from Sibikwa Youth Theatre will work with members of the Lewisham Youth Theatre on Izimbadada: If I Were in Your Shoes, culminating in a performance on June 25 at the Albany Theatre in Deptford. The two companies will perform the piece again in Pietersburg, South Africa, in September.
A very different arts project takes place on June 21 and 22, involving 200 young people aged eight to 20 from Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hounslow, nine London artists and four from India. Utshob is a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, exploring what the notion of freedom means to young people - white and Asian - today.
The first phase took place between January and June 1996, when British Asian artists, including writer and poet Shamim Azad and photographer Akkas Miah, did residencies in schools in Tower Hamlets, following training programmes between the artists and teachers in three schools, one secondary and two primaries.
Focusing on ideas of celebration and procession, work concentrated on print making, 3D photographic sculpture, dance, drama and tabla music and culminated in performances and exhibitions at the schools. Then, LIFT brought over artists from the subcontinent, including a musician, actor, and composer to work with the British Asian artists and the students, teachers and production team.
You can see what they came up with on June 21 and 22 at Trinity Buoy Wharf near the East India Dock, which is being transformed into a massive batik-festooned installation, where a traditional Indian "mela"-style celebration will take place.
On June 21 and 22, a dozen young dancers will be performing at the ICA. Invisible Room is a collaboration between Japan's top choreographer, Saburo Teshigawara and BTec students from City and Islington College as well as young people from The Place's Youth Dance Workshop and the Weekend Arts College.
Over a year, they have worked on the piece, first with Teshigawara and then with Clare Connor, a dance teacher at Newham Sixth Form College, who had the challenging task of keeping the project suffused with Teshigawara's spirit. She has managed this by means of videos sent back and forth from Tokyo - and a special coach trip to Paris to watch Teshigawara perform.
It was expensive. Fegan reckons about pound;3,000 was spent on each student for the project. Japanese designer Issey Miyake had a hand in financing part of the expenses, contributing pound;30,000 towards Teshigawara's involvement in LIFT. The best part is that it doesn't stop with the festival. Teshigawara has been so taken with working with young people here that he has set up a studio to develop the first youth dance in Japan. Fegan says, "London has provided him with inspiration as an artist and a model to use in Japan."
LIFT 97 is still a week away and the team is already thinking of the next festival in 1999. Fegan wants to focus on a project to "reawaken the artist in teachers. We have seen it happening with teachers like Clare Connor and we want to look at how to engage more teachers in the process." As Teshigawara says, "We have to have a special tool to exchange energy and ideas . . . an exchange of understanding, almost like breathing."
Lift information: 0171 336 0508