“The aim of art, the aim of a life,

 can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility

to be found in every man/woman and in the world.

It cannot, under any circumstances,

be to reduce or suppress that freedom,  even temporarily.”

Albert Camus

Philosopher, author, journalist, part of the French resistance movement in the Second World War and Nobel Prize winner. (1913-1960)

What do we expect of a youth exchange programme? Friends, fun, family even? TCFT seems to have satisfied at least this description.  Learning, widening horizons, new ideas, certainly. Providing a tolerant and kind environment that accepts difference, by most. Travel, new cultures and countries, food and people. Art?

Photograph by  Robert Golden

Photograph by Robert Golden

TCFT, a long term programme of work which grew from its first small steps in Srebrenica in 2008, is a process of experimentation.  We have extended what typically constitutes a youth exchange programme, by including the classical and contemporary arts, music, poetry, theatre, visual arts, dance and Parkour, film and photography and through the art forms looked for a world we would like to live in.

Within this reasonably safe environment is an open space to discuss racism, the migration crisis, democracy and other forms that may rescue our broken society, LGBTQI issues, anything else anyone wants to raise including our own personal problems. These topics are taken up in varying degrees of enthusiasm, and sometimes not, except for the latter, which always fills the void. Ourselves.  This is always taken seriously, perhaps too much so, but there has been a 7% increase in mental illness amongst young people in the UK alone, in the last three years.  The lifetime of TCFT. It has been noticeable.

Photograph by  Robert Golden

Photograph by Robert Golden

Scheduling is always challenging and challenged, too much, too little. Too many choices, not enough of anything, more, less, differently, no elders, more elders, no lead artists, fewer of them, more….more time, less time, no warm up, definitely warm ups! More food!

We did generally agree on the floating umbrella words of FREEDOM (2015) and TRUTH (2016), given to us by Vaclav Havel’s quote “When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete”.

When in April 2017 we came to COMPLETE – TOGETHERNESS, translated into UNIONE in Italy, a few came a bit unstuck.

Putting 120 people and all the others drawn to our energy and quest for freedom into the same small space, producing a list of opportunities, trying to squeeze a too large number of humans into too small a town, feeding everyone with today’s allergies and digestions, equals a major challenge. 

Then adding between 3 and 30 refugees from West Africa, a couple of high schools, visits to other organisations, Rondine, Teatro Povero, Montelaterone home of the Schabernacks, a whole community, more refugees, the gracious company ABOCA, Glyndebourne Education and Youth Opera visiting, an access project led by Culturing from Siena, and more and more……..

The Youth Forum!!! 

Let people decide what they want to do in advance.  A comprehensive registration form sent to all participants and most of them returned. Certain countries didn’t quite get to do this. We apologize that we can’t produce all our material in the languages in which all our 8 countries live and work.  We don’t as yet have that capacity, if this was your reason.

But we learnt about most of your food allergies, your health, your emergency numbers – vital it proved on this occasion – and what you were interested in.  The choices were gone through painstakingly and listed against the various trips, visits, Youth Forum and other interests.  The names were listed on our walls and boards in the Info-point or Sala Mostre and printed out with changes on a regular basis.

The afternoon freedom-to-create-space was explained and reiterated during the weeks we were in Sarteano.  Quite often this was announced at warm up time, 09.30, many chose not to be there, information and news were missed.  If you want to know what’s going on, turn up.

Photograph by  Robert Golden

Photograph by Robert Golden

As the social life, late nights, exhaustion from creating, tough workshops and training continued, so the lists began to disintegrate.  Difficult to manage and explain to our host organisations; change the numbers for lunch, dinner, beds, expectations, speakers etc.,

We are all immensely grateful for your care and kindness, our wonderful Italian hosts and production team.


Eilis Davis

Diverse City

“Projects like TCFT are rare, it takes everyone to a place that is slightly outside the comfort zone and we are experiencing it all with people we don’t meet in our ordinary lives, it stretches us in a great way, we are more curious and we learn more.

Often disabled people and non disabled people don’t get to share important experiences like travelling together because we are taught through experience that we have to live separate lives; separate schools, separate seats in the theatre, separate train carriages… This project has given back to us the lost time and it allows us to re-evaluate how we want the world to look and how we engage with people in our local communities”

Photograph by  Robert Golden

Photograph by Robert Golden


Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.” Jacob Bronowski,

(Polish British mathematician, historian of science, theatre author, poet and inventor 1908 – 1974)

Perhaps the challenge and innovation of TCFT has always been balancing the freedom with the responsibility, the scheduling with the abandon of norms, the professional demands of the lead artists (starting on time, not turning up smelling of last night’s alcohol please!) with the relaxed environment which aims to encourage that creative space in the brain we often don’t have time for or can’t find amid the fear and excitement of choice.

The first few days are scary for everyone. The new participants of course as well as the artists who might never have experienced such an environment, panic a bit until they perhaps realize that freedom extends to all and has alarming yet beneficial consequences in our brains, something Laura Fatini commented on in Bournemouth. 

The offer to young people, an opportunity to run their own workshops, is genuine but with this comes the responsibility of booking the space, asking for help from organisers or lead artists and delivering something of value to their colleagues.  We know sometimes this doesn’t happen, reasons abound, but we are all part of this experiment and to a certain extent all responsible for each other to make sure things happen.  Sometimes circumstances overtake the possibilities on offer, sometimes they just slip away. Whose to blame? Freedom always must come with responsibility.

Dissent is powerful and necessary to grow and avoid the stifling that comes with oppression. But are we all oppressed to the point that we have to blame someone or something if our environment doesn’t please us? If our choices are not being listened to or our need for help or attention overrides the needs of others or our own abilities, do we use our resistance to create conflict or can we make it useful? I quoted the great Helen Bamber during the project, “Save your anger for your real enemies!”

In TCFT we insist that trust and respect is extended to all, no matter their difference.  There is a communal eye most of the time, and excellent pastoral carers aware of who might need support and are ready to listen. Of course there are always opportunities to indulge in those taboos that society inflicts on us, or we have to control within ourselves. 

Photograph by  Robert Golden

Photograph by Robert Golden

Most people seem to stay relatively capable and coherent and don’t seem to be a danger to others or themselves.  Most people did good work, although much of it didn’t reach the artistic heights that, with all the universities restrictions, we managed to achieve in Bournemouth.  That balance is tricky.

Those very few people who wanted to foment (provoke, encourage) dissatisfaction, and let us speak of it openly, perhaps see TCFT as being run by an establishment that should be attacked, brought down, led in a different direction.  Perhaps there is something in this.  Renewal is a good thing as long as it will benefit the majority and there is a clear idea of what will take its place.  We all have much to learn.

Disrespect should not have a place at this table, particularly towards those who worked far harder than any of us to ensure there were beds, food, transport and space.  I apologize on behalf of all of us for those moments of arrogance from a few young and older attendees.

There is now time to reflect on what we think we have achieved to date and where it might lead.  There are many inspiring young people who continue to develop ideas, open up opportunities and make pledges to each other. There are many young artists and facilitators wanting to continue to develop their work or change direction. There is an ever growing international network which has the possibility of becoming something really useful. Professional artists are now finding new collaborations across cultures. We embrace our relevant elders and the artists/facilitators at the core and beginning of our process alongside those who have just contributed with such heart in Italy.

Opera Circus is not going to be applying to Erasmus + for another grant, at least for the moment.  To do it properly takes months.  At the heart of this decision is the need to know what we are going to do. Where is the need? Who needs TCFT? Why? What? and How? We have never written an application without integrity and don’t intend to start now.

Those who would like to see the work turn in a different direction are free to explore this; those who would like to repeat the experiences of the last 3 years in some way are also welcome to try.  There is talk of smaller versions of TCFT happening in Srebrenica BiH, maybe Portugal, perhaps Cluj, Romania and Croydon, London and we will design something for Bridport, Dorset in October and next February at half terms hopefully in conjunction with SLYNCS from Blackburn.

The other big question is whether we will be able to apply at all for any EU funding next year. Which of our many partners and associate partners who still belong to the European Union will have the courage to apply and invite us to become a partner in a new creative project that satisfies both the art and activism essential for us to have any future to speak of?

One person, with a few exceptionally talented generous young volunteers, can no longer manage this massive project of 12 partners in 7 different countries with 84 registered Erasmus + people and usually another 30 or 40 tagging along.  There were plans to raise enough funding during these 24 months in order to work with a Project Manager for at least 6 months in advance of each residency.  Each residency takes up to at least 12 months to organize from the first discussion and meeting to the last flight taking off.

The work is deep, obsessive and often tedious and discussions are long.  More money would probably cut this length of time down but due to illnesses, family tragedies and failed funding applications this hasn’t been possible.  Life doesn’t go away just because you want to run the perfect Erasmus programme.

Some partners haven’t been able to participate fully.  You always don’t know when a project is going to fit alongside your own projects.  An organisation may sign up to a partnership with space to take part fully and then suddenly masses of work comes in.   Other partners have chosen to interpret the aims and objectives in their own way.

Erasmus + applications are exceedingly long and boring to read and sometimes partners might skip this bit and still sign up.  The project then may come as a bit of a surprise and with some the word YOUTH exchange might get forgotten.

Photograph by  Robert Golden

Photograph by Robert Golden

So the next period of time for Opera Circus is going to be completing the long official evaluation process and financial reporting of 24 months work, yes, only 24 months.  Then some much needed space for clear thinking. 

Robert Golden has begun the editing process of the documentary which will briefly show the origins of TCFT from 2008 to date, the work in Sarteano and then a few thoughts about the future.  All our sponsors, funders, partners and supporters will be thanked properly in the credits of this film.  We are working to subtitle the film in Italian.

With Opera Circus working in Matera in 2019 and Timisoara in 2021 and possibilities for an Opera Circus new opera production performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2019, time is needed to work out how it will all fit. 

The Research work with Bournemouth University is invaluable and precious. There is hope that this may grow into a funded Phd at BU amongst other exciting explorations. Links with other universities are already being established to share research.  What has been the Impact of 9 years of a slowly developing process? Why, in the main, does it work?

TCFT can continue in many forms. Small residencies, visits, exchanges.

You don’t need a massive Erasmus + grant to achieve many things. You may have taken what you needed and can walk away satisfied. You may want to take a part of it and create something of your own, or with others. You may want to get deeply involved, what would that mean?  You may do nothing at all.

Photograph by  Robert Golden

Photograph by Robert Golden

The list of the learning from all is endless.  To name everyone would mean including nearly 1000 names.  To thank everyone would create the same challenge.  We have all been useful, some much more so than others. 

The time has come to make more choices. What will you do?

Tina Ellen Lee                                                                

Artistic Director Opera Circus

Lead Organiser TCFT Erasmus + 2015-2017

NB:- This is not the official evaluation which will be written and shared after all the feedback has been received at the end of May.

Photographs by Robert Golden