The Yak Pack Theatre Project
In the summer of 2018 The Yak Pack Theatre Project performed the original fairy tale 'Jambhala' throughout the Spiti Valley, bringing Theatre-in-Education and rural touring theatre to one of the remotest parts of the Indian Himalayas.
The Yak Pack Theatre Project ran for 4 weeks in India, with the following aims:
- To bring exciting and engaging live theatre to school children and families living in this isolated and impoverished 'tribal' area. We held 13 performances - in schools, monasteries, old peoples homes, village temples and party halls, and gathering places. We performed for 1850 people, reaching 1 in 10 of the people who live in the Spiti Valley. We estimate that more than a third of all Spitian school children saw the show.
- To share a sensory and interactive performance which celebrates and explores the joys and issues common to rural societies all over the world. Using a cast of adults, children and a local narrator, the show connects with its audience across divisions of age, background and language.
- To offer teachers formal and informal training to bring more drama into their curriculum, and support the movement away from rote learning towards more modern education styles.
- To establish cross-cultural links between schools and organisations in the UK and in Spiti, and leave a legacy of enthusiasm for theatre, and the tools to use it in the classroom.
The play: 'Jambhala'
Jambhala is the story of one boys quest to find wealth.
Disillusioned by his simple life in a rural village, he leaves to seek his fortune in the big city.
It's an original fairy tale which explores themes common to rural societies all over the world, whether that's a village in Dorset or one high in the Himalayas. We hope to highlight our common concerns and joys, wherever we come from.
As we follow the adventures of 'Boy', this coming of age tale reminds us all of the timeless nature of growing up, with the contradictions and decisions that all young people and their families must face.
'Jambhala' means 'wealth' in Hindi, and the story invites our audience to reflect on the many meanings of wealth: money, knowledge, spirituality, community and home. What type of wealth would you choose?
The performance is interactive, multi-sensory and light-hearted, appealing to all ages and backgrounds.
We perform all the music live on stage, enhancing the live theatre experience. We enjoy blurring the boundaries between audience and actors, between stage and seating, so there are opportunities for audience members to have small parts in the play if they wish, as well as sound effects provided by the audience. Our multi-generational cast includes 5 young performers who effortlessly bridge the cultural divide and have a special connection with the children in the audience. The cast also included a Spitian actor/translator who made sure everyone understood the dialogue.
Although our primary wish is to entertain, sharing the concept of Theatre-in-Education is the driving force at the heart of the Project.
A performance of 'Jambhala' can be used as inspiration for inspiring and engaging lessons, long after we have gone. We provide all teachers and educators with examples and structured ideas for lessons based around English language, creative writing, art, drama, music, dance, and even engineering. The activities take the enthusiasm and imaginative energy produced by watching live performance, and channel it into great learning. We hope, a spark of creativity in a world of rote-learning.
Week one - Manali
Everything began on Monday 23rd July, when the Yak Pack met in Chandigagh to travel together up to Manali, in the foothills of the Himalayas. We were based in Manali, at 2000m above sea level, for a week, acclimatising to both altitude and life in India, and preparing for the first show on 27th July.
Top of the list was buying and making the props and costumes which we hadn't brought with us. We had to find obscure props that were just impossible to explain - how do you tell a stall holder you are looking for a baking tray that makes just the 'boinnnnng' when you hit someone on the head with it? You can't....you can only test every baking tray on the stall for yourself. We prowled the markets of Manali in search of a drum, getting a backdrop made, sourcing long (yet collapsible) poles, buying school resources to take to Spiti. Great fun but very challenging and time-consuming!
We started rehearsals in Manali earlier than we planned, just to give us a few more days to refresh the lines. Rehearsals soon expanded to include Nitin, who helped us work out which lines to translate, and worked solidly through a chai-fuelled afternoon to have the new script ready. He performed as our translator for our first show, in Manali.
[Click the pic to watch a clip from Day Star School in Manali]
Landslides caused by monsoon rain blocked the roads and prevented us from travelling to our first show - due to be at Handimachal Day Care Centre in Kullu an hour away. In a last minute change of plan, the show was moved to Day Star School in Manali just down the road. Although a mainstream school, Day Star has a brilliant special education centre within the school, and strong links with Handimachal.
"the benefits of education in theatre arts are clear...
emphasis on creativitity, critical thinking and collaborative skills
especially apply to all fields in the 21st century workforce"
The American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE)
With a successful opening performance for 350 children under our belts, translated script provided by Nitin, and props and costumes all sourced and tested, we left Manali for the Spiti Valley on Sunday 29th July.
Week two - arrival in Spiti
After all the planning, it was wonderful to meet the team in Spiti.
- A Spitian man, Kaku, joined our cast as a Narrator/Translator. He's currently at uni in Chandigagh and home for his summer holidays - the Yak Pack Project was his holiday job. Having Kaku in the cast enabled us to overcome the language barrier and bring 'Jambhala' to remote schools and villages which are rarely visited by the international teaching community and volunteers.
- Rana and Shalu welcomed us into the Old Monk Hotel with open arms. Its a small family-run hotel and we had half the rooms! They even let us use their dining hall for rehearsals, which was perfect.
- Lotey at Spiti Holiday Adventure was our logisitcs man. He arranged guides, yaks, donkeys, transport and homestays for us. He also helped to spread the word to the remote villages that we were coming!
- Ishita at Spiti Ecosphere helped to set up performances for hard to reach audiences - women from the Spiti valley nunneries, people with disabilities and the older generation in particular.
We dashed about between rehearsals having meetings with everyone to get things finalised for the coming tour weeks. We phoned schools, made posters, hired halls, discussed yak and donkey requirements, sent invitations to children with disabilities, delivered leaflets and posters to remote villages, tested bubble mixture and met all the local kids.
Although the tour - and where we are performing when - has been well planned in advance, we quickly learnt that being flexible and ready for changes was the key to success.
Within a few days of arriving in Kaza the first week of the tour (focus on schools) had completely changed. Two schools decided to change their term dates and close early for their holidays. We jiggled and juggled our rehearsal timetable, moved a couple of show dates, and squeezed everyone in. Another school announced that the roof had blown off their hall. We sweet talked officials, hired a hall. A third school decided to close early. More squeezing.
The second week of the tour (focus on villages) had its own challenges. Through word of mouth, extremely well honed in such a rural area, everyone in each village is looking forward to our arrival and knows when to expect us, we won't know where the performances will be held until we arrive. We will have to adapt the show to the spaces we are given!
[Click the pic to watch a clip from Munsel-Ling School in Kaza]
Another big challenge this week was getting acclimatised life at 4000m above sea level. We all suffered from breathlessness and fatigue, chapped lips and the odd nosebleed. You are aware of the altitude with every step.
Week three - schools tour
Parents in Spiti can send their children to one of the big schools where they'll get the best education Spiti has to offer, but where most need to be boarders as their villages are too far away for a daily school run. Or they can attend their tiny village school with just a couple of their peers. Or they can become a monk or nun around age 6 and be educated in the nunnery or monastery where they live.
What a hard choice for such young children and their families.
[Click the pic to watch a clip from Serkong School in Tabo]
This first week of our performance programme took us to all 5 large primary schools in Spiti, all of which have boarders as well as day students.
We performed for about 1000 school children in these five schools, and for many it was a totally new experience. They loved the interactive element of our performance and joined in with great enthusiasm. Teachers especially liked our own children being in the performance as they provided a role model for their students, and helped the teachers imagine that their school could perform plays too.
"Contrary to rote education, Theatre in education presents a different approach for discussions, contributions and creativity through performance"
Our performances enriched the curriculum, and supported the future of drama in these schools through the distribution of activity packs and creative resources, and provided informal teacher training after each show. We wanted to demonstrate how creative activity is an important part of a modern education system.
We finished the week with a delightful show organised by Ecopshere, at Spiti Old Age Home, where about 25 retired nuns live. Before the show, we popped up to Ki Monastery and invited the student monks to join us too, and the headteacher sent about 40 youngsters down the hill to enjoy the performance with us.
[Click the pic to watch a clip from Ki Old Age Home]
Week four - village tour
Yaks and donkeys took our trekking theatre company from village to village in some of the highest inhabited places on earth, for the final part of the project.
Here, the tiny village schools were closed for the summer, and everyone was be working hard in their family fields to bring in the pea harvest. We performed 'Jambhala' in a different village at the end of each working day, bringing the local families an international artistic experience designed to reflect a deep appreciation of their unique place in the world.
Kibber was our first stop - at 4250m we stayed the night to start our acclimatisation for a step up in altitude. Every family owns a few animals - sheep, cows, goats, yaks - and in the morning we watched the daily trek up to the pastures with village goatherds, ladies with baskets following behind to pick up the precious dung for fuel.
We had our first village show in Langza, with snow capped mountains all around and not another village in sight. We performed in the village temple, the Lang, highest point of the village. It was dark and dusty, but came to life with the 50 or so laughing chattering villagers who crammed inside, passing us solar lamps to hang from the sooty beams.
The next morning we met our yaks and donkeys, and walked to our next destination, the village of Hikkim. Yaks are gentle giants, scared of everything - umbrellas, tarpaulins, fast movements, loud noise. It poured with rain throughout our walk to Hikkim, which since Spiti is a desert, we were totally unprepared for, except of course, for English stoicism towards Weather. Hikkim has the worlds highest post office at 4440m, so we sent postcards to the few peoples whose addresses we remembered to bring (whoops). The evening show was in the Lang again, but this time as part of a Horse Festival. There were about 80 people up at the Lang when we arrived, praying to a local deity, drinking tea and chang (local barley beer), and getting in a party mood! The horses were ridden at breakneck speed by local youths around the village boundary to bring good luck. Our performance fitted very naturally into the days festivities.
[Click the pic to watch a clip from Hikkim Village]
The next day, thankfully sunny, we trekked up a performance at Komik Monastery, more than 4500m above sea level. For a while, Komik claimed to be the highest motorable village with electricity in the world. It felt a huge honour to be asked to perform in the Monastery itself. We had a crazy mixture of audience - the villagers of course, but also monks, construction workers and tourists who had come to take photos of the 'highest village' sign. We could all feel the change to a higher altitude here. Benny, who had suffered mild altitude sickness since Langza, descended to Kaza for the night and Ollie took his place as lead, with the rest of the cast re-jigging their parts as needed.
We walked for 7 hours to get to Demul Village. The day started with climbing up to a pass at 4,700m, which we thought was the hard bit! Unfortunately the path didn't just descend the other side, but continued over a high plateau for 3 hours, then over another even higher pass, before a steep descent to Demul. Thank goodness we had the yaks, which totally saved us as Pete and Ollie both suffered altitude sickness as we ascended even higher and needed to ride almost all day. The Himalayas all around were stark and black against the blue sky, what a stunning and unforgiving landscape. Demul village was utterly charming and we were welcomed by the headman who had arranged for us to perform in the party hall. Izzy took the lead role this time, and the show went on!
Walking to our final destination, Lalung, took 5 hours, mostly steeply downhill to a valley floor, then following one of the fierce melt-water rivers upstream to the village. We arrived to discover that the pea lorry had arrived so that the villagers could weigh and load their peas, and get paid. Peas are the main cash crop of the Spiti Valley so this was a hugely important day. The weighing and loading continued into the night with every soul helping out, so the village asked us to do the performance in the morning. It was a lovely start to the day, with everyone happy that the harvest was in.
[Click the pic to watch a clip from the week in villages]
We returned to Kaza for a final performance at the weekend, during the Ladarcha trading fair, which draws many of the rural communities into the main town.
With the help of Ishita at Ecosphere, we had planned for this show to be for families of children with special needs, but we ended up inviting lots of other groups too, who between them were harder to reach as audience members. Lots of nuns came from 2 different monasteries, and a group of student monks came from the teaching monastery in Kaza. We also had an after school club attending, with children whose parents worked. Everyone had recovered from the effects of altitude so we had a full cast again, and it was a very successful performance and a great way to end.
[Click the pic to watch a clip from the last show]
The final day of the Yak Pack Theatre Project - Sunday 19th August - was spent at Spiti Childrens Room, where we donated the props and costumes we didn't need to bring home. We chose the Children's Room because its mission is very similar to our own - to provide creative and imaginative learning opportunities to children that don't have any.
As with all creative projects, some things went brilliantly, some things just didn't, and some things took on a life of their own in a whole new direction!
If you've read this far, you'll know that the Project was overwhelmingly a success.
The schools tour was very successful and every single school we went to has invited us back. Its really wonderful to feel you have made such an impact. We had to be surprisingly adaptable in terms of when we performed - we really didn't anticipate 3 schools changing their term dates with just a few days notice, a roof blowing off another school, and another becoming unreachable due to landslides!
For the Project to have even more impact in the big schools, the teacher training could be formal rather than informal and possibly include in-class activities led by us - there is a mountain to climb in terms of creative education and actual classroom demonstrations might be more relatable.
During our week in the villages, altitude sickness made life difficult for some members of the team. Thanks to Pete's careful play-writing, the cast knowing the play inside-out, and the kids under-studying each other, we could still perform every show. Careful acclimatisation was built into the Project, but the potential for health challenges were always there - after all, we were a UK cast who live at sea level, performing at 4500m in India.
Performing in remote villages without having had much contact in advance was surprisingly easy. Everyone was expecting us, and although we didn't know where we were going to perform, they did. All that was required was our flexibility and ability to adapt to anything! The village grapevine is an awesome thing.
A frustrating limitation to the Project was contacting children with disabilities for their show at the very end of the Project. We managed to hand deliver invitations, but only to those who happened to be on the list we were given, and as there's no phone signal outside Kaza they couldn't contact us back very easily to arrange transport. In the end, the final show was a huge success because we were able to contact other hard-to-reach groups as well, but we felt a little sad that despite our best efforts we were unable to reach some of the people we wanted to.
Financially, the Project budget was spot on. We are left with £302 out of the £7100 that we raised. This is all going towards a documentary about the Project, currently being made by LiMETOOLS, a Bournemouth-based production company. Of course, a documentary costs considerably more than £302, and we are incredibly grateful to LiMETOOLS for their sponsorship. When finished, we will use the documentary to share the work we have done, and to raise awareness of the Project.
We must confess, even before we left Spiti, a return visit was feeling rather inevitable. It feels like we've uncovered the tip of an iceberg.
Every school we went to has asked us to come back, every village,
the local state education department, and even the King.
The conversations were 'when you come back, can you do...' rather than 'if'.
We have come away with lots of ideas for new plays
about subjects that Spitian people want us to address,
ideas for over-coming the barriers to attendance faced by people with disabilities,
ideas for workshops in village schools and plans for better teacher training.
So many ideas!
Watch this space...