A kitchen table is not a stage. But, for many area drama students, it’s the only stage they know.
Students enrolled in public school drama classes and youth theater programs are trying to learn theater crafts without stepping foot on a stage, given pandemic-enforced restrictions. They sit at home trying to learn theater vicariously. It’s not easy. And it may not be theater.
Cardboard Playhouse works with students through an online platform to perform variety shows. Kristin Berg and partner Doug Montoya have staged a lot of musicals with their students in past years. “We’ve seen other people do Zoom musicals,” said Berg, “It’s not even live. That’s not theater. That’s film.”
Regardless, Cardboard offers lessons on using cameras and microphones in addition to teaching them to listen and react honestly. Berg said their students have been finding ways to use these new tools to express themselves.
Providing instruction online brings its own challenges. Berg talked about Zoom fatigue for the kids she sees, all of whom attend school through a webcam. Paul Bower of New Mexico Young Actors (NMYA) said, “In person, it’s a lot easier to keep the kids focused.”
Area high schools are also adapting to remote learning. Typically, acting students learn theater by doing it. They practice skills in class exercises. They rehearse and perform in plays. Manzano High School drama teacher Rachel Thompson said, “My Drama I kids are getting a lot more information downloaded to them. It’s less active. We can do elements of performance, but it’s not quite like standing on a stage and learning how to perform.”
Thompson and other drama teachers have been pressing hard to make lemonade from COVID-19 lemons. Some of her students “are trying to learn how to act digitally,” Thompson said. For example, she worked with them on creating a self-taped audition “to get a glimpse of the professional world.” Such auditions are becoming the norm for film and stage.
“There are ways to find enrichment in all things,” she said, but, “nothing will replace being in person with the kids.”
With remote schooling, Jill Novick of Cibola High School pointed to high absenteeism rates for schools generally. “The pandemic has exaggerated attendance issues,” said Novick. “Some students are failing all their classes, mostly boys. Except mine.” She and other drama teachers point to a higher level of engagement in their classes, which helps students succeed.
Ryan Morris at Sandia High School credits the subject matter itself. “Theater is about collaboration, building self-confidence.” Because of his education in theater, he said, “I’ve been trained in building trust and ensemble.”
One seemingly counterintuitive issue for drama students is camera shyness. Teens are hyper-aware of how they look; drama students are no different. Forcing them on camera brings them, literally, face-to-face with their insecurities.
“Kids are terrified to be on screen,” said Morris. “It’s a struggle to get kids to turn their cameras on when someone is five inches away from your face instead of 100 feet away in a theater.”
Rio Rancho High School’s Gael Natal offered a blunter summary: “It’s brutal.”
Circumstances present different issues. Family members in students’ homes might be arguing or noisy while they attend class. Students might feel embarrassed by their home environment. Those students keep cameras off.
“We are guests in their homes,” said Morris. “We have to be aware of that.”
Most high school drama teachers also offer classes in ancillary art forms such as set design and makeup. Natal found tools that she thinks she’ll use after the pandemic to help teach lighting and set design.
The website scenicandlighting.com allows her students to program virtual light boards simultaneously instead of lining up one after another in the light booth in her school. It offers similar assistance for set design. “I’m going to be using that from now on,” she said.
This year schools and youth theater programs have drastically cut back on productions, further limiting learning opportunities for drama students. For NMYA, that also means a significant loss of revenue. In past years they have performed their shows for thousands of children in productions at the KiMo Theatre.
For high schools, contributions from their schools have been trimmed. Since most rely on ticket sales to cover many of their expenses, they are taking an added budgetary hit with fewer productions.
At Cibola students themselves abandoned a show. For a hot minute in October, it looked like schools might be allowed to open. “We were going to do Almost Maine,” said Novick. Her students were excited because they got “to be on stage and rehearsing,” she said. “When that window closed, students voted to kill the production. They all felt, there’s no point.”
Sandia spent a lot of time and money fixing its aging theater so they could stage a musical for the first time in years, announcing they would produce The Addams Family. Once COVID hit, they determined that an online production was unmanageable. Natal generally agrees. “With how things shifted, everything is hard,” she said. She is still trying to sort out productions for this spring.
Arts classes may suffer in a post-pandemic world, according to Morris. “The failure rate for freshmen (generally) is incredible,” he said. “That will have a direct impact on electives. Credit recovery classes that students will have to take will limit attendance in music, drama, dance. Kids often come to school for the creative opportunities and those opportunities will be taken away.”
So, even though drama programs are helping students to succeed academically, those students could go from the stage in their kitchens to no stage at all.