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In May of this year, Acting Up! and Teatriukas  ( teamed together to present a project Labas! early years arts festival in Vilnius, Dubinigiai and Moletai regions in Lithuania. This was the second edition of the festival which we ran in children’s homes and non-theatrical venues in Vilnius in 2015. It is mainly funded by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture. (Lietuvos Kulturos Taryba)

The festival is designed to be an encounter of cultures, both from the host country and from the international participants. This is what makes it unique. All audiences are aged 0-6 years with carers/families. Participants in this second edition were from Austria (Theater Nuu), Croatia (Mala Scena and Puna Kuca), Italy (Graziano Venturuzzo), Germany (Barbara Koelling from Helios Theatre), UK / Peru (Jose Navarro) and Egypt (Mostafa Abd El Ghany). Along with Ireland (Acting Up!) and Lithuania (Teatriukas).

The cultural programme involved performances for almost 1000 children and workshops for teachers, actors and parents because Labas! seeks also to develop an effective early years arts model of practice in Lithuania. Twenty five preschool teachers and professional artists from state kindergartens, private creches, international preschools and independent theatre companies came together under the expert guidance of Barbara Koelling from Helios Theatre in Hamm to engage in discussion and creative development. We will continue to provide professional development opportunities as part of the festival programme in the future.

We are always questioning the impact of our project and watching its spiderweb effect on the community in Vilnius in particular. One interesting discussion this year was the definition of the term “Spektaklis” or “performance”. Lithuanian audiences are extremely prepared for an intellectual message and a fine-tuned show from a distance. Even for early years. What happens when the purpose of the performance is to engage in laughter? As in Graziano’s case. Or to introduce music, colour and a flavour of Peru  as in Jose Navarro’s case? Can we open our definition of Spektaklis to include such cultural challenges? What if we find ourselves moving to the beat of Mostafa’s drum from Egypt and losing our fear of his “otherness?” In Labas! performances, most of our artists perform very close to the little ones in the audience. How does this change the experience of being prepared for a show on a stage some distance away? It is very interesting to provide a safe environment such as Labas! to find answers to these proposals.

In Vilnius, Labas! has also provided an opportunity for the host organisation, Teatriukas, to fulfil some of its own dreams. This year, for the first time, their performance of Zalia Gyva took place as part of Labas! in Gediminas Castle in the centre of the city – a landmark location which has never hosted a performance before. Zalia Gyva tells the story of Vilnius legends through the ages for kids from 5 yrs of age. History informs identity and this is certainly the case for Lithuanian citizens. This piece is an essential experience for young audiences living in the modern world that is Vilnius today.

A festival project like Labas!, although it enjoys sponsorship of artists from cultural institutions in some cases, faces the challenge of having only two organisers who work on other projects also. For this reason, we keep our mission small scale but far-reaching! The genuine exchange of cultures is achieved through an intensive programme of hospitality for the artists , many of whom are in Lithuania for the first time. Teatriukas hosted an evening in the sun on their farmstead outside Dubinigiai village where the Labas! team was introduced to the wood sauna traditional to Lithuanian country life. We were also kindly sponsored by the Irish and Croatian Embassies of Vilnius to host a networking event for artists and teachers and other interested cultural partners for the future. Without the development of an understanding of what a holistic early years arts programme looks like, the festival remains a once-off event. It is essential to the Labas! project to develop a network that can input into the future of the event. We are already in planning for 2017!!!

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