When New York’s Governor Cuomo announced March 12 that Broadway would shut down, shockwaves surged through the local community. SIX was set to open that night; Company 10 days after that. As we scrambled to understand what this intermission would mean for theatre’s epicenter, and with more and more states across the country instituting self-isolation, Tony Award winner Laura Benanti immediately thought of the ripple effect far beyond the Main Stem: students nationwide who would no longer get to play their parts in their spring musicals.
Benanti’s call for videos of youngsters singing their songs evolved into the #SunshineSongs movement and May 2 Sunshine Songs Concert. Meanwhile, educators across the United States have been re-inventing their elementary, middle, high school, and college rehearsals (both in formal school programs and extracurricular venues) to ensure these kids continue to learn from the theatre and—in some cases—perform full productions in new, imaginative ways.
Amarillo Little Theatre in Amarillo, Texas
3rd grade–12th grade
At Amarillo Little Theatre, Academy Director Jason Crespin created three different solutions for the three spring productions. Anne of Green Gables was just two weeks from its March 25 opening night, so Crespin shifted brush-up rehearsals to the digital world as they plan for an online filmed production. “We are exploring the option of filming each scene and editing it together (like a movie) and streaming the performance digitally for our audiences,” he says. Certain businesses in the region, including the Little Theatre, can open at 25 percent; this allows students who feel comfortable to come to the theatre to re-block and record their scenes in accordance with the six-foot social distancing rule. Crespin will also use footage from pre-shutdown rehearsals for big group scenes as well as one-on-one filming for ensemble reaction shots.
Though nothing can replace live theatre, Crespin and his kids have found the limitations of the moment as an opportunity to learn skills usually outside the scope of the program. “A handful of our students are extremely excited about the process of filming scenes and have asked to help with editing,” Crespin says. “This gives them a new aspect of being creative that they wouldn't have been able to get before.” For the remaining two productions, Matilda and Newsies, the Little Theatre has rescheduled to allow for safe in-person rehearsals. In the meantime, students from all of the casts have been able to attend online Q&A sessions with Broadway pros like Anika Larsen, and some students have opted to participate in a new show written specifically for remote rehearsing. Crespin received word of The Show Must Go Online from Beat by Beat publishing company and immediately bought the rights.
“The format allows students to work on scenes by themselves,” Crespin explains. “Students emailed in their first rehearsals of each scene, we gave them each notes about their rehearsal video, the students then took those notes and filmed a final version of their scenes to be used for the show.” Learn more here.
StarStruck Theatre in Stuart, Florida
4th grade–12th grade
Musical theatre writer Bonnie Gleicher was prepping for the world premiere of her musical Gavroche when the shutdown came. The musical tells the Les Misérables story from the perspective of the kids and teen in the original Victor Hugo novel, especially Gavroche and his sisters Eponine and Azelma. While Gleicher awaits the re-opening of the venue, she’s persevered through 35-person Zoom rehearsals. Though there is a slight delay, Gleicher says it's minimal and the work on general character development, emotion through song, and vocal quality remains valuable. “Our music director is playing the piano from his studio while the 35-person cast is singing, dancing, and doing the blocking in their rooms. There's a cinematic quality to it, as everyone's expressions are so much more up-close on the computer.”
Riverdale Country School in Bronx, New York
Middle School (6th grade–8th grade) and Upper School (9th grade–2th grade)
As the dance program director for the Middle and Upper Schools at Riverdale, Stephanie Simpson continues to focus on a dance curriculum—even if plans for the May day concert remain up in the air. “I am continuing to teach them the Elements of Dance: space, time, effort, relationship, body, and movements,” she says. “We start each class with a warmup and then I introduce the concept/theme for the class and we explore it through improvisation.”
Using Zoom breakout rooms, students can collaborate in smaller groups. Seventh graders learning to choreograph have been dancing on tape at home and submitting their videos to the class for group discussions and feedback sessions. Upper School students continue to learn anatomy as well as technique, flexibility, strength, coordination, and combination work. There is the possibility that Simpson will follow the example set by pros, who have made compilation dance videos (such as this), to produce a video dance concert—but for now, teaching foundational technique and theory prevails.
Riverdale Y in Bronx, New York
7th grade–12th grade
Program directors like Laurie Walton of the Riverdale Y turned the usual classes and rehearsal times into a combination of small group rehearsals for reconfigured productions, skills-based workshops, and mini presentations. Working with 38 youngsters, Walton hosts a three-to-four-hour session each Sunday, each with its own goal.
Her kids were a week away from performing Rent (in two separate casts). In the beginning of quarantine, Walton powered through Zoom rehearsals despite the time lag for music; soon she recognized the opportunity for deeper character work. She assigned every student to write a monologue as their character, which they presented as solo performances the following week.
Another week, inspired by Broadway Backwards, Walton presented Rising Stars Reversed and had "each of the kids prepare a song of something they would never normally get to perform, and they performed those on Sunday,” she says. Walton has been watching Broadway closely to see how else her program can emulate successful endeavors—considering a pre-recorded streaming concert like what had been done for Jason Robert Brown at SubCulture.
In the meantime, she’s still brainstorming ideas to make Rent eventually happen in person. “We have this outside deck at the Y that's like a hundred feet long,” she says. Could re-blocking for social-distancing allow them to perform and stream a live stage performance? Too soon to tell.
But arts education is just as much about process as it is product—if not more. And Walton has received notes from parents to that effect. “This is very clearly demonstrating to the parents that the program is about so much more than [the show].”
9th grade–12th grade
Oregon Thespians, the Oregon chapter of the International Thespians Society, united the teens of 20 Oregon high schools for Friday Night Spotlights. Students performed a mix of solo and duet musical performances, as well as monologues and scenes live from their own homes. Uniquely, the broadcast also highlighted the work of technical theatre students in lighting design, make-up design, stage management, and more. Watch it here.
Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, Connecticut
9th grade–12th grade
Still, numerous arts educators continue to meet with their students without the product of a performance attached. “To me, it seems like a good time to take a step away from what we were specifically working on to just take general care of our students,” says Sara Avery, Chair of Performing Arts and Productions at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. Her high schoolers were readying for The Sound of Music to open March 26, which continues to be on hold while waiting for signal from Connecticut’s Governor Ned Lamont. Rather than rehearse on a nebulous timeline, Avery focuses on the act of gathering. “This is about showing our kids that we still show up. No matter what,” she says. The teens have answered that call. “These kids show up without fail to our weekly meetings, sometimes dressed in a themed costume with cute backgrounds to show their enthusiasm.” Avery has also put out a call to industry pros to come in and do a guest Q&A; their first was Laura Michelle Kelly.
Pace University, Musical Theatre BFA Program in New York City
Pace University artist-in-residence (and Tony Award winner) Victoria Clark has also discovered valuable layers to the creative process as a consequence of the forced remote learning. The students in Pace’s musical theatre program have been developing the original musical Newton’s Cradle—which debuted at NYMF in 2016—directed by Clark. Given the lag time on platforms like Zoom, as well as general screen time overload and stay-at-home stress, Clark made the executive decision to focus on text only and eliminate song work. “I have to say I have never spent 30 hours in any musical rehearsal process (as an actor or director) working solely on text,” Clark says. “It was a luxury, and the surprise gift that the COVID situation gave us!”
“While that may sound limiting, we're fortunate to have a show with more than enough textual depth to keep us busy,” says Pace student EmmaLee Kidwell. With nightly Zoom rehearsals, the 16-person class of performers, stage managers, assistants, and even a student dramaturg presented a full online reading of the work at the end of April.
“Watching the students unwrap this piece from a text-based perspective has been truly inspiring to me—they made so many exciting discoveries and bold choices,” says Clark. “We tried to create an environment where these rehearsals would be as fun and as accessible as possible. The growth in their acting work as they came to understand the show and their characters more fully has been beautiful to see.”
And the process managed to grant necessary insight for Newton’s Cradle writers Heath and Kim Saunders. “[The students] asked questions and continued to push for answers in a way that was very useful for us in understanding how to increase the clarity of our show,” Saunders says.
New York University in New York City
Students at NYU have also able to work towards a new type of performance. Tisch Drama consists of multiple professional training studios, each with its own approach to creating work and developing technique. Across these studios, 62 projects were in rehearsal. All will result in a final performance, some live streamed to the public (such as The Clouds through May 9), others targeted to audiences of faculty or family and friends.
While directing Aristophanes’ The Clouds, Professor Orlando Pabotoy has done his best to help each student create a working rehearsal space at home. “We would find tape around our homes to mark positions as roughly as possible. We use green screens to project images of locations and other things. We also use the mail and delivery services to get items to students that are spread out across the country,” he says. “We’ve used almost every means of communicating and delivering.”
Though the process and product are world apart from what had been planned, Pabotoy and his students recognize the new lessons learned—similar to their Pace peers. “Text work, music production, projections, shots—it's a lot of muscles that I have not worked or exercised in that particular way. However, this is exactly why I am so excited about this process,” adds NYU student Tuanminh Albert Do.
Director Billy Griffin Jr., of the Meisner Studio, has also used the digital medium to his advantage for his production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. With nine actors playing 81 roles, students can use multiple devices and camera angles so their characters can travel or double. “We've also been making use of the virtual background feature to help place certain characters (all of the gods in the play for instance, have been using the same image of clouds behind them),” he says. Not to mention the presence of a virtual Greek chorus adds texture to previous solo scenes.
Pabotoy recommends a few guidelines for success in these remote rehearsals: build on the best thing that worked from the previous session, set and send out clear expectations ahead of each session, learn new software to make class smoother, build in time for breaks from the screen, and don’t forget to play.
Lessons Across the Board
Every educator has acknowledged the extreme challenge of teaching in this moment, and the disappointment that accompanies the indefinite postponement or cancellation of the performances for which their students had worked so hard—especially their graduating seniors.
At the same time, all have expressed the surprising silver linings of enduring and overcoming these obstacles.
“Our WiFi signals are cutting out, people can't get into the Zoom room, some of us can't raise our voices in our homes, but at the end of the day it's not about those things, it's about getting to gather to do what we do best: tell stories,” says Clark. “Sometimes we stand up and do 10 jumping jacks. Sometimes we take a break at 7 PM so that the New Yorkers can hang out their windows and thank the front line health care heroes and other essential workers. We begin rehearsal with everyone holding up their number on a scale of 1-10 to share how we are doing. This ongoing change in our lives is not a linear experience.”
“This is an opportunity for us to be even more creative and that in these times this is where the Arts are most needed for ourselves and our communities,” says Simpson. Avery adds, “This has given them perspective, I think, and that’s a priceless gift.”
“I think,” Kidwell adds for the students in the room, “that the moments of human connection and joy far outweigh the tough moments.”