WE ARE COMMUNITY. WE CREATE IT TOGETHER.
LABAS! 2020 overcame the challenges and crossed virtual borders to bring children aged 0-6 a week of diverse activity online (and a little in person!) from 20-27 September in Lithuania.
Dalia Mikoliunaite of Teatrukas Theatre in Lithuania and Cliodhna Noonan of Acting Up! Arts in Ireland have been international partners of this early years project event for six years now. They met at Assitej World Congress in Warsaw and have enjoyed an incredible collaboration since then! “Five months ago we were faced with a huge challenge… we secured funding for our annual festival but the pandemic, which we are all so acutely aware of now, looked like it was going to make our dream of a sixth edition impossible. “ says Dalia.
However, we were both of the same opinion – to at least try to bring the programme to fruition and to involve our international guests as we had planned to do. The question was how?
The following points are reflections on the festival and its success and we look forward to continuing our event into the future! Whatever that may hold. Cliodhna and Dalia firmly believe that even if we cannot meet in person, we are indeed a community and we do indeed build it together and share it with our young audiences!!!!
1. The Zoom Question
We made a decision to try to use zoom for one purpose only – to be the portal by which the artist met the kids. Luckily, during the festival week in Lithuania, creches and kindergartens were still open. On account of our long-standing relationship with our participating schools, we were openly welcomed and provided with an audience in a class group. Age appropriate. (In some cases two rooms were participating separately but simultaneously!) We did not open the zoom session to the general public. This meant that on the session screen we had very few windows. And the children could focus on what the artist on the screen was asking them to do. In speaker view.
Long before the week of the festival, we hired a technology co-ordinator. Interestingly, she was a Lithuanian living in Talinn!!!!! But her sole responsibility was to manage the zoom sessions and watch the technology and its behaviour. Cliodhna joined every session as manager of the international artists but with the screen video and sound off. And it seems to have worked a treat!
2. Matching Artists To Technology
Although we had some brilliant examples of how to use zoom for delivery, (Aisling Byrne presented the dilemma of Princess Penelope who was trapped in the screen room and needed the help of the audience to get out the door they could see on screen!!!) we did not always rely on zoom. For the workshops it was brilliant because the screen became the workshop leader in real time. (Thank you Helen Barry and Andra Burca). However, on two occasions during the week, the events on offer were more performance-oriented. In both cases we opted for youtube live sessions which were open to the viewers for a window of time only. Joeri from Belgium provided a beautiful concert of percussion moments and Theaterhaus Ensemble in Germany performed live from their theatre in Frankfurt into the classroom in Lithuania. Both experiences were fantastic and received with much warmth and engagement by the children. Zoom was open for these sessions in order for the artists performing to at least see the audience they were performing for.
Storytime and Visualisation sessions (by Nishna Mehta and Cliodhna Noonan) were pre-recorded and Dalia delivered required materials for the interaction and participation by the live audience. The artists appeared on screen at the end of the session only to say goodbye and thank you!
And on Friday evening, replacing our usual educator training workshop, we asked SVetlana Patafta from Puna Kuca to present and chair a Conversation with professional peers on the topic of inclusion. It is the highest performing event on our Labas! facebook page so far. “We were thrilled to highlight this important topic and to bring it to a festival table!” says Dalia. Svetlana prepared an engaging and thought provoking conversation with Karolyna Zernyte from Lithuania, Sharon Gavrielov from Israel and Jon Dafydd-Kidd from Wales, all involved in IIAN, a network of Assitej International. This was a closed zoom session which was streamed live on the festival facebook page.
3. The Mediator On The Ground
Absolutely central to the success of the week’s events was the role of mediator on the ground. Dalia Mikoliunaite was present at almost every international workshop (Karolina Zernyte assisted with Nishna Mehta’s session and Raminta Sniaukstaite assisted with Helen Barry’s session). This is key to the connection and its artistic relevance to the children watching the screen. “Actually the children were so excited to discover that they were not passive observers but very active participants and that when they engaged with the artist, there was a realtime answer on screen! They behaved exactly as if they were in an arts venue and I was not expecting this!” Dalia Mikoliunaite says. The role of the mediator is to translate the actions spoken by the international artist, welcome everyone into the room as a community for the duration of the session and manage the goodbyes and any questions at the end of the session. “ We were ready for many questions about the technology but in fact, the children engaged with the activity proposed in each case (dance, story and visual art) without any problems. They were happy to wave goodbye when they were finished and they completely understood the situation! In one case, the children ran to the wall to hug the actors goodbye!!!! “ says Cliodhna. By far the best outcome of the interactions with the schools through the technology that they now have, was the educators’ awareness that the screen can actually be a more engaging experience for everyone. This was the first time the big screens had been used to deliver workshops for most classes. We hope more will follow and that children learn to manage their own engagement with technology as active decision makers and not just passive observers” says Helen Barry from Ireland – who led a play dough making session with the preschool children in Anyksciai – a smaller town about 2 hours outside Vilnius.
We are very lucky to now have a team of experienced and flexible small-scale artists who understand the festival profile and the work we are doing together. “For this edition”, says Cliodhna, “we had a quick look at who had been active during the various lockdowns and who had tried zoom … or youtube live…” It is the fear of not knowing how it will be that sometimes prevents us from trying. Artists who had tried were invited to give this international experience a go. We cannot speak for them of course, but it is clear that it is hardest for the artists to engage with the virtual experience for only one reason … the lack of human feedback for them. Bearing this in mind, my role as observer on screen from Ireland was to take screenshots for these artists to show them the moments when they were all doing exactly the same thing across many kilometres… To document the evidence that children can and will engage meaningfully with your proposals as artists and to leave the sound on in some cases so that they could hear the excitement in Lithuania. “We tried to stay online for some time after the physical session had finished to share the wonderful energy that was created on the ground and to allay any fears. “ says Cliodhna. Although it is absolutely a struggle for an artist not to have an audience to physically feel feedback from, we are very happy with their courage and their belief and trust in our system. We can categorically say that children in Lithuania attended an international festival this week in Vilnius, Anyksciai, Zagare and Druskininkai. An unprecedented geographical reach. We concluded the festival with an open zoom session where all the artists could chat to each other and share their experiences, including the Lithuanian theatre companies on the ground who had also provided workshops and performances in the local programme.
A Final Reflection
It took a team of four to six people to bring each international event to the children. A zoom co- ordinator, an observer manager, a mediator and technician on the ground, a school educator and an audience of children! Once these elements were in place, a festival progressed day by day and a first time experience for everyone was delivered and enjoyed!!!! We strongly recommend trying for those artists who are comfortable to share their proposals via the technology available to us. As we all face an uncertain future, we must remember why we do what we do … we want to reach the children. As a community of Labas! artists we feel strongly that this is what we did.
WE ARE COMMUNITY. WE CREATE IT TOGETHER!