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It goes without saying: the past few months seem to have turned the world on its head. The Coronavirus pandemic has forced schools around the world to implement strict safety measures or even move towards online learning. Countries have different lockdown rules in place, and lives have been put on hold. Thus, it is no surprise that Theatre found itself standing on thin ice. 

At the beginning of the summer of 2020, Hong Kong was extremely lucky to have a window of relative safety, as local COVID-19 cases were null and the city was able to, guided by careful sanitation and distancing guidelines, return to business as usual. It was during this time that Week 1 of our ISTA Academy was able to take place. 

ISTA Summer Academy 2020

The World Is Listening...

We knew that running the Academy would be far from easy. How could we maintain ISTA’s spirit of joy, unity and transformation despite the tense and restrictive environment? This question was daunting, but we decided to trust that magic would emerge out of our creative problem solving. And so the experiment began. 


Although there were no local Coronavirus transmissions at the time, making sure that everyone felt safe was the Academy’s priority. Therefore, adhering to the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) guidelines were a must. During registration, the number of students allowed to sign up was reduced, ensuring 2 metres of physical distance was possible whilst using the HKA facilities. During the event, social distancing was also implemented during breaks and lunch times. Furthermore, masks were worn properly throughout the week and sanitation took place every time we entered the space, went out for breaks, and whenever resources were shared. During the final sharing, whatever the students were doing, we ensured none of them touched each other, and the sharing of props were kept to a minimum.


Getting Creative

We faced a choice: let restrictions act as heavy weights that drag us back, or take them on board and make them part of the magic. We thought the second option sounded like more fun, so here’s a few things we did: 


"Why so far?" – A drill where, upon spotting a lack of adequate social distance, the phrase “Why so far?” would be called out. Everyone in the space would then be expected to reply “Far away!” while simultaneously distancing themselves from each other. Although this phrase makes no sense, it turned a mundane rule into a funny, catchy game that not only allowed us to ensure safety, but also helped build ensemble, becoming a sort of catch phrase during the week. Even the students began to use it! 

Music to the rescue  –  We often rely on physical theatre to build ensemble and trust (the classic Trust Falls) but in the end, what really brings connection is that sense of everyone contributing to something larger than themselves. In comes music. Picture 15 students standing 2 metres away from each other, singing an original song composed with their words in unison, about the things they care about…they don’t seem that distant from each other anymore. Their voices become one, and so does the ensemble. 

Buying into it  – Imagine we’re not wearing masks, imagine you wake up in the middle of a dangerous forest, imagine you are an angry gorilla, or an old man… if you believe it, then everything is possible. Powerful storytelling, transforming the space with lights, creating different atmospheres using sound… These strategies helped ignite the imagination and restrictions became a thing of the past. 


Tech magic – Video projections of students telling their stories without a mask on were used as an alternative to convey powerful stories with a full face of emotion. Towards the end of the sharing, the ensemble sat down facing the screen where their own maskless faces were projected. Not only was this moment theatrically beautiful, but it also empowered the performers as they witnessed the impact of their own performance. 


(Don’t) stick to the plan – We observed the importance of flexibility, as it was impossible to know how things would unpack. In fact, it was uncertain whether we would finish the week. So we came in with a theme –creative problem solving– and a rough plan, but every day we would adapt based on the group and the changing restrictions. 

Where do we go from here? 

Although this ISTA Academy was extremely different and remarkably unpredictable in comparison to everything we had done in the past, students were still transformed by the experience and walked out proud, happy, and inspired after their culminating sharing. In fact, most of us forgot we were even wearing masks! Even if our second week was canceled due to the rising number of local Coronavirus cases, the first week was as powerful as any other pre-Covid ISTA experience.

So we have to keep going. We have to keep finding ways, not to replicate previous models, but to re-imagine how we might bring transformative experiences to our ensembles. The ISTA spirit has always been about creating a feeling of togetherness, community, and trust. The magic of ISTA festivals relies on the optimism and creativity of our artists, and artists work best when given constraints. So when we look into the future and wonder how on earth we are going to run ISTA festivals, why not move forward with the firm belief that magic will emerge out of our creative solutions? 


As for now, we close our Summer Academy with a big THANK YOU to the team who made this extraordinary

–in the most literal sense– event possible: 


Artistic Director and Ensemble Leader: Juliette O'Brien 

Musical Director and Academy Representative: Anne Drouet 

Guest Ensemble Leader: Mirko Jeck (ISTA alumnus) 

Intern Ensemble Leader: Valeria Riquelme (ISTA alumna) 

Intern Ensemble Leader (Music): Mathea Sobejana (ISTA alumna) 

Picture credits: Mariella Candela Amitai

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