English language student theatre flourishing in Slovenia

English Student Theatre

When you hear the word musical, usually the first thing that comes to mind are grand productions in London, New York, Hamburg or Vienna. Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera – shows that combine singing, dancing and acting. All of this, combined with youthful charm, energy and verve, can also be found at an otherwise average Slovenian grammar school. Metka Filipich of Radio Slovenia International has the story.

In Maribor’s druga gimnazija, a group of young artists and mentors came together to form the English Student Theatre or EST. Not only have they performed countless shows on the stage of their own amphitheatre, but also on TV and other grand stages in and around Slovenia.

The commotion here is quite normal considering that this is a typical grammar school. However this is not the lunch break, it is Friday evening 6 p.m. and even though the school should be deserted by now, there are about 70 Students aged 14 to 25, hurrying through the corridors and classrooms, getting ready to go on stage and sing, dance and act their souls out – they are preparing to do the musical “Feel the Beat”. The young artists of the English Student Theatre have done numerous shows on the stage of their own amphitheatre, but have also performed on TV and on stages in and around Slovenia. Musicals have a long tradition at this school, ever since Professor Emil Pečnik, an English-Teacher and subsequently Musical-director came up with a new way of teaching English; and how that came to be, he can best explain himself:

“It all began 20 years ago when I founded the English Student Theatre. I wanted to create a different way of teaching English, as an alternative to the normal classes and I wanted to introduce musicals to the young audience. At that time there were very few Musical-Productions in Slovenia, even at the professional theatres. I knew my students and their talents and I thought it would be good thing for them. So we combined learning English, singing, dancing and acting and the kids loved it from the beginning.”

The shows are frequently visited by school classes from all around Slovenia and many a young student discovered their love for musicals at these shows. One of them is the 16 year old Anja Štruc who is now the lead female role named Jenny, a young rebel fighting for her right to dance. Anja explains how she came to the EST:

“When I was 7 years old my parents took me to II. Gimnazija Maribor and that is when I fell in love with musicals. Then I was determined to become a part of this group EST. When I got the chance I just went to the audition and I got lucky.”

The show has started and the actors have taken the stage; among them is 20 year old Polona Drozg playing the role of Stacy, one of 3 “Divas” who tell the story of a boy who brings joy back to the little town of Shandon. Polona confidently takes the stage and performs. After all, she is a veteran:

“I remember when I first saw EST on TV, I remember saying to my mom: one day I will be a part of this group. And when I was old enough to join I went to an audition and I was accepted.”

One of the tasks the team of mentors have taken upon themselves is to discover and nurture the young talents, as professor Pečnik tells me:

“If there was no EST, many a young student and their parents would know nothing of their talent. And there is a lot of talent out there, you just need to discover it.”

After nearly 20 years, countless performances and now more than 1000 EST members, some of whom have become big names on Slovenia’s stages, there are still things to do. Professor Pečnik describes what is yet to come:

“Our plans for the future, well: This past year was the first season of our current show “Feel the Beat”. It will run until 2009, however not here at the amphitheatre at II. Gimnazija. In January next year we will move to the stage of the national theatre because our school will be renovated. For the reopening in fall 2009 and the 20th anniversary of EST we are planning a gala-evening with all the current and former members of the group and we will prepare a collage the musicals we have performed over the years. So as you can see we have enough work for the next couple of years.”