VAFF Review: ‘Curtain Up!’ is a wonderful reminder of the vital importance of the arts

There’s some important context here: I trained as an actor, then director, then slipped into being a drama teacher for stage and screen. In the UK I taught young adults, but my first teaching job when I moved to Vancouver was at a Korean residential school. Here, I was one of a small team who had to teach performance skills to a throng of nine-year-old Korean kids, then direct them in a final performance (first The Wizard Of Oz, then High School Musical) for all their families. It was a wonderful, exhausting time, and there’s nothing to underline the absolute life-changing power of theatre then to watch young actors discover it in real time.

So go and watch ‘Curtain Up!‘, not just because it’s fantastic, but also because you’ll have a precise peek into that exact part of my life.

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Set in the after-school theatre club of New York’s PS 124 school, the documentary starts with auditions and ends – spoiler – with the performance, giving you a lovely set of bookends between which you can meet the kids themselves. And they’re a great bunch – confident, shy, loud, quiet, all joking and supporting each other in a way that seems unique to these kinds of clubs. Held together by the music teacher, the drama teacher and the choreographer, the film follows their rehearsals over only three months to perform a special version of Frozen.

PS 124 is placed in New York’s Chinatown, meaning that the real story is watching these kids wrestle not just with the necessities of the performance, but also with the pressures of their (sometimes highly restrictive) Chinese backgrounds. And as both a parent and drama teacher, it’s heartbreaking to hear some of the negative comments that come from parents – either subtle, insinuating that real jobs are more important, or more direct. “Don’t you want to be a man?” made me want to punch something.

It’s a good thing that the students who form the main bulk of the screentime seem incredibly well-balanced. Even with some of their over-energetic quirks, there’s a maturity and humanity present in them that makes you realise you could use more yourself. There’s more than one occasion where you wish you could drag them away from all the doubt and negativity around them.

However, ‘Curtain Up!‘ doesn’t spend too much of its short runtime focusing only on these parts. Mostly, it’s a glorious celebration, both of the kids themselves, but also of the teachers who show what happens when passion flows. Honestly, as someone who believes arts training should be a mandatory part of school education, it was wonderful to see such dedication.

As the final performance rolls around – with once-critical parents now reaching for their tissues – it all ends on a high, leaving you in the same state. It’s clear that these kids have been changed forever; even if they never set foot on stage again, this experience has given them so many vital skills as they venture into their new schools.

And now, it would be fantastic if the very existence of ‘Curtain Up!‘ prompted more schools to incorporate theatre into their programs. There’s never been a more important time to embolden identities through performance, and there’s plenty more young lives to change.