Every year, Peace Corps holds a huge event called the Thai Youth Theater (TYT) Festival. Volunteers organize theater clubs at their schools months before to diligently practice a skit in English. Then, in the middle of February, all the volunteers who have groups come together at a central location to participate in the festival. The students attend fun drama workshops and perform the plays in front of each other. In other words, it’s an ABSOLUTE BLAST with some of the most amazing people and empowering/uplifting experiences!!!!!!!! This year there were 13 different groups with skits such as Snow White, the Ugly Duckling, and some Thai fables. I was fortunate enough to bring a group of 11 students to perform Footloose (click to watch it on Youtube)….We BROUGHT. THE.HOUSE. DOWN! But in order to really understand Footloose, you need to be informed of the whole back-story behind the skit. It will be rather long explanation, so brace yourself. In fact, I divided it in half: 1) Leading up to the skit and performing it , and 2) After the performance.
How we choose Footloose
At the TYT Festival, everyone was asking me how I decided on Footloose. My reply, I didn’t….the kids decided. In fact, for a long time I didn’t think I would be able to attend due to the fact that I didn’t have a set group of students. Right before the application was due, however, the head high school English teacher called saying she was interested and would organize volunteers. HOORAY! Now just what skit are we going to perform, I asked myself. Since it is always more fun doing a skit you want, I prepared a list of 13 possible skit ideas I thought do-able to have the students vote on their favorites. I presented these options with a short explanation for each and the head English teacher translated. The list included everything from Sleeping Beauty to Little Red Riding Hood to Spider Man to a Thai fable. There were seven students present. Their vote results: Harry Potter 2, Titanic 1, Cinderella 2, Footloose ALL 7….WHAT?! I was certainly surprised at the results. What Thai voluntarily chooses Footloose, knowing nothing about the play except a two-sentence summary and the fact that they are going to have to dance!? Plus, Footloose was more of an afterthought, being one of the last options added to my list. I had remembered during my high school sophomore year at the state Thespian Festival (a yearly statewide high school drama festival comparable to TYT) a high school performed Footloose and I had really enjoyed it. Coincidently, my mom had sent me the new, $32011 remake DVD as part of a birthday care package in May. Perfect! We were able to watch it the next day.
The changes I saw in the students leading up to the festival
From the beginning, I wanted Footloose to be spectacular. Some of my best high school memories come from being on stage with my friends. I wanted to replicate those experiences for my students. (Also if I was going to dedicate as much time as I expected to this skit, it had better be amazing!) When I first handed out the script I had written, an 11th grader objected saying, “Oh! There is no way we can memorize this! We are just going to have to read it.” My response, “Oh yes you are going to have these lines memorized! Last year there were 5th graders who had their scripts memorized. No way are we going to be outdone by fifth graders!” I mean, come on. There was still about 2 1/2 months to go. We began meeting 4 times a week (Mon, Tues, Thurs, & Fri) during the lunch hour from 12:30-1. This was serious. I wanted my students to be the best they could be, and I think they could tell that I really cared despite the language barrier.
One interesting dynamic of our group was age range of the students. We had three 7th graders, two 8th graders, two 9th graders, two 10th graders and two 11th graders who didn’t really know each other before they were put in this group. One 8th grader confided afterwards that the first day when she was looking around at all the older students she thought to herself, “What do I have to offer?” Well, the truth is a lot. Everyone has something to offer. As practices went on, I began to see them getting closer and closer. Same as my high school experiences — theater brings people together no matter what differences they have. Something about working really hard together to achieve a common goal brings out the best in people. The head English teacher whom I was working with even commented on this growing relationship – as if it was surprising to her. Then one day, about the end of January, my students began bringing their lunches to the classroom we practiced in and eating together! (They wanted to begin practices earlier.) You have no idea how proud this made me feel. Having lunches together continued throughout the remainder of the practices. They were becoming best friends.
I taught the choreography to the final song the first Sunday in February. In my show choir alumni opinion, it was not that hard (a lot of box steps, spins and toe-heels). But for some of my students, who normally don’t get the opportunity to dance, I think it blew their minds a little bit. They were determined to get it down however…meaning practices afterschool and on weekends. A bit tiring…no, actually really tiring on my part, but it made me smile on the inside. This is how I remember spending a lot of my afterschool and weekend time in high school. If my students wanted to put in the time to make it perfect, I was not going to stop them. [Note: My students were the ones that requested I choreograph partners for this song and that it be guy-girl. I was surprised. This is not normal Thai shyness.]
As the festival got nearer and nearer, the students’ enthusiasm in Footloose grew and grew. Towards the end, the students were practicing on their own without me, filling in for people who were gone, and giving each other suggestions. If this TYT process was a race, at the beginning I was pushing them, but by the final practices they were running really fast on their own. By the end it wasn’t me trying, it was all them. Footloose was good, and the kids knew it. They had something to be proud of.
Proud moments at the festival
By the time it got to the festival, everyone was excited. Footloose was good, and my students knew it. Now it came time for Amy’s worries to escalate. Was the festival going to be everything I had hyped it up to be? Would everyone appreciate all the hard work and long hours my students and I had put into Footloose? After a huge dress rehearsal, the TYT committee members picked our show to go first. “What! I hate going first!” was my reaction. I was freaking out, but all the kids were fine. “Hey Amy, we got this,” they seemed to say “You have been a great director and we’ve practiced a ton”….I didn’t even need to worry. The show was a jaw-dropper. One other PCV said she could just see the inspiration on her kids faces as they watched us…maybe that’s why the committee put us in the first spot. After the show, I was overflowing with pride. They nailed it. Way to go. In my counterpart’s opinion, we were the best skit. It seemed that the only outlet for all the joy bubbling up inside me was to give everyone hugs. I didn’t even care that I was in Thailand (where they don’t typically hug). Throughout the whole festival my kids were all smiles. They loved it.
What really made me happy was on Saturday night, there was an activity where all 200 hundred people attending were in a big circle. The person in the center of the circle had to dance and everyone else had to follow. My kids, voluntarily, were some of the first people in the center of the circle! (You have to remember, Thai students are typically VERY shy.) Theater is a confidence builder!