Let their stories be heard

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Young people from around the world are performing tales about their lives - of friendship, reconciliation, violence and hope. Reva Klein finds out about their journeys

London International Festival of Theatre

Various venues, until June 21

A Palestinian band of travelling players performs a modern folk story from the back of a truck in primary school playgrounds in Southwark, south London. A group of young, unaccompanied refugees from around the world share their stories of journeys from lands far away through songs, poetry and movement. British secondary pupils create whimsical exhibitions for the Natural History Museum about humans' categorisations of other living things and an adventure story about an 11-year-old inheriting a kingdom carries the message that running a country is too important to be left to grown-ups.

What do these productions have in common? They all deal, in different ways, with the concept of the rights of children and young people to have their voices heard. And they are all being presented as part of Lift 2003. The London International Festival of Theatre has made a name for itself over its 22-year history for not only bringing dynamic, stimulating theatre from around the world to London, but for having an unerring knack of reflecting the zeitgeist in its programming. This season's focus on the voice of young people is particularly timely, with the sound of British children's and young people's protest against the war on Iraq still echoing in the nation's consciousness.

While exploring the rights of young people isn't everyone's idea of a fun night out, Lift has approached the theme as a dynamic, colourful, intellectually challenging and ultimately fun journey of discovery.

Running until the end of June, the plays and events reflect the untold realities of young people's lives across the world, including the United Kingdom. At the core of this season is a debate on young people's roles and responsibilities in the arts, in which 30 young people from around the world will take part, together with young Londoners. The participants will present their views through music, dance, poetry and drama, and the invited audience of 300 politicians, policy-makers, teachers and others will have the opportunity to debate the points raised in any medium they choose.

The programming complements the themes of the debate. Inad Theatre group, which is bringing two productions to Lift, is a touring company that visits Palestinian villages in the West Bank in an attempt to bring normality into the abnormal world of Palestinians today. The young performers, all of whom went to school together, have drawn on their own experiences for their material.

Until When? depicts the everyday realities of being young and living under occupation. The Intifada is a rebellion of young people played out on the streets of their cities, towns and villages. Young British audiences will have a chance to discuss the themes of the play in an open forum after each of the performances, which take place tonight and tomorrow.

Inad's modern folk story, Miladeh and Ramadan, which took place this week, tells of the friendship between two Palestinians, a Christian and a Muslim.

It's a story about conciliation and accepting differences across cultural and religious divides. The play was performed in primary school playgrounds in the London borough of Southwark, an area diverse in culture and religion, and presented as it is when toured to villages around the West Bank - from the back of a flat-bed truck that serves as a travelling stage.

Workshops with the children preceded each of the three performances. Inad means "stubborn" in Arabic, an indispensable trait for artists working in a context of endless violence and deprivation.

Another production coming from a rarely heard of group is Strange Familiars, being performed next week by Project Phakama. The performers are participants in an ongoing Lift project; all are young, unaccompanied refugees and asylum seekers, from Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East.

Over the past two years, they have met to share experiences, work together and develop life skills with artist-tutors. Their focus is on exploring what it's like to be in a new place. In Strange Familiars they use various dramatic forms to tell their own stories: of the homes they have left and the journeys they have made.

One of the weirder presentations this season was Museum of Modern Oddities, a performance installation created by 12 and 13-year-olds from Holland Park school, in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, in collaboration with the Australian company of the same name. The students took the audience behind the scenes of the Natural History Museum to show them creations of their own imaginations.

Lift's education director, Tony Fegan, explains: "The young people talked to scientists at the Natural History Museum and discussed whose stories were being told there and why. They asked themselves, 'What will happen to me when I'm no longer of any use?' Then they were given the freedom and responsibility to create this work. The central challenge was, 'Could you tell a made-up story with a straight face that was both credible and preposterous?'"

The result was an array of "exhibits" to challenge, delight and amuse. "It was a fragile piece," says Mr Fegan. "The artists gave the students the space to say what they wanted to, sometimes powerfully, sometimes with linguistic naivety."

If the debate is the heart of the festival, The (Once in a Blue Moon) Ball is the grand finale. For one glorious night on June 20, children between six and 10 from two south London primaries will have the run of the Battersea Arts Centre "in a theatrical context", says Lift's co-director, Rose Fenton, while parents are consigned to a creche. "Artists talked to the children about what they'd expect in a ball, and novel ideas were brought into it." Not giving much away, Ms Fenton promises "it will be beyond just a party".

That children and young people have been involved in the planning or execution of these productions and that they are being connected with the world outside their communities, cities and countries in the process, is the central theme of Lift's uplifting season. If that's not education with a capital E, what is?

Full details of Lift 2003 at www.liftfest.org

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