Weathering the storm as a teacher is tough. Doing so in the pandemic adds so many more layers of challenge to education. Trying to make theater happen in that situation is a whole different ballgame. It’s been one of the greatest challenges of my teaching career.
In December, our Thespian troupe mounted our first onstage play production live, in front of an audience. The duality of the magical feeling of making student theater happen and the disappointment of not being able to make that magic happen on our home stage was not lost on us. Because of a sudden mold and asbestos abatement (see Shifting Back to Remote and Education’s Worst Nightmare for more details on that), the only way my theater students could present their hard work was in the auditorium of one of our sister schools.
The new venue presented some significant challenges. The first was transportation. After the school day ended, our students had about 15 minutes to pack up, get to our school building and catch a bus across town. There’s a Covid-driven bus driver shortage nationwide and our district is particularly affected by it, so we had no wiggle room – if they weren’t on the bus, they weren’t going to rehearsal. Most of their parents work and were unable to assist. Getting them home presented lots of other challenges since an evening cross-town bus had to be added to the transportation roster, and that wasn’t always consistently manned.
The second set of challenges dealt with the technical obstacles that we had to overcome in our temporary space. The auditorium facility had not been well-maintained over the years, so the stage lighting was extremely limited. We wound up simplifying every aspect of our production design, so that we could put something together, but it was so far from what I was used to presenting. We usually have a couple of weeks in tech rehearsals, spending hours in the theater making preparations. Not so this fall. Everything got done in our three-hour rehearsals during the truncated schedule.
While we were grateful that we had an actual theater to work in, the experience presented yet another series of challenges that our students had to navigate, as if learning remotely in a pandemic wasn’t enough. All I wanted was to provide a connected experience that they could be proud of, free from worry about our show shutting down. It was a bumpy start, but we adapted and figured out how to make the most of the situation. In the end, the kids came through big time, demonstrating their unfailing resilience and delivering a polished presentation (technical and performance) that was always the hallmark of Thespian productions. We revived some of our pre- and post-show traditions, and they had a slice of what we had to abandon two years before.
The company did such a great job that our administration asked us if we would be interested in presenting a highlight version (we’ve named it the “reboot”) when we returned to the building, so that our own students could experience the work we did. Being that the school building where we mounted the production was way across town, between Covid concerns and transportation issues, our audiences were very small. This extra performance opportunity gave us a way to address several things:
- We would get more exposure for our theater program and perhaps encourage students to think about wanting to participate themselves.
- Many of our students have never seen live theater – they don’t really know what it is all about and this would be a great teaching opportunity to introduce them to something wonderful.
- We haven’t done anything on our own stage in two years, so we’d now have a chance to try out the new (2-year-old and never used) light board and start thinking about taking down the set from the spring musical that was lost in 2019.
The pandemic had all but decimated our Thespian program. Where it was once a bustling hive, brimming with students eager to learn and finding things for them to do, now I’m concerned about whether we will have enough kids to fill the roles of the show I’d like to do. We have spent the last two years adapting, reinventing, creating whatever we can, but with all of the turnover and new faces (many who do not speak English), there is a new struggle with relying on the veterans to usher the newbies in and get them acclimated. Our veterans, in a sense, are newbies themselves and every task we now do is like starting from scratch. Remote learning has created a sense of detachment that we have to work that much harder to combat. The kids don’t know each other the way they used to. Our built-in recruitment system has taken a huge hit.
I’m always up for a challenge, but sometimes I wonder just how much personal energy I still have for all of this.
We returned to the school building on the Monday after winter break. All schools returned, but we were coming back to our second first day of school. Similar strains of excitement and anxiety flooded the halls, but it felt very different than the usual return. We all were looking forward to finding a new normal, and we had to slowly re-wire our brains away from our remote habits. The school day is physically and mentally exhausting, especially when you can’t sleep right up to the start of class and work in your pajamas all day. However, Thespians had a mission: we had a show to put up in five days and a theater to prepare.
After school Monday, the crew and I made our way to the auditorium. Being in there felt like home to me; the kids wanted it to feel that way, but few of them had any meaningful past experiences to have that deep connection – only the seniors, and there were just a handful of them left. I was on a mission: get the newbies hooked in as quickly as possible, so they are revved up and ready to learn for the spring show, which would be infinitely more complex than this experience. Maybe they’d enlist a friend and we could start to rebuild.
That morning, I had received several messages from students that they were quarantining. Three of my cast members sent those messages. I felt terrible for them; the idea of missing this opportunity was so sad. But, we were going to move forward nonetheless.
By that afternoon, we had a good start. The construction crew re-created the backdrop frame and I was enjoying the familiar feel of the bustle all around the theater. Screw guns revving, lights illuminating the stage, problems getting solved. The light board was programmed and I had a new board operator who was really eager and interested in the job. This is one of the things I love most: when I show a student how the magic is made, their eyes get wide and utter something like “whoa…” and I know they’re in. Then, they are willing to learn something new. They’ll do the research so I don’t have to. We left that day with a sense of satisfaction of a good afternoon’s work.
On Tuesday, we put the finishing touches on the tech, finishing the backdrop and projection screen, hanging the overhead microphone, playing with the lights. Our actors refreshed their monologues and even did some practicing on the stage with the sound and lights in full operation. For two hours, I was really enjoying myself; I felt the magic brewing. I saw kids starting to take ownership of tasks they knew scant little about, but they engaged me with great questions that let me know they understood what we needed to do. We climbed the scary ladder up to the catwalk over the audience, where I showed them what an ellipsoidal is, how it operates, and that soon, they would be focusing the lights like pros. Some got over their fear of heights to learn that lesson. It was exhilarating to share all of this with them – I don’t think they fully understood how remarkable the moment was and even though I tried to explain it, I just didn’t have the right words. Hopefully, my inflection and over-effusive body language did the trick. After we cleaned up and closed up shop, I sent the kids home and took a deep breath. The flame was reignited. We were all very excited.
Wednesday morning, I was working on figuring out which teachers would bring their students to the assembly on Friday. The plan was to perform during six different periods, having both an in-person and a closed-circuit livestream available for teachers to play for their students in real time. Then, I received another message. It was another cast member saying she might have to quarantine (I now hate that word). My heart sank. Between that and the threat of snow on Friday, I thought it would be more prudent to press pause on the event.
The thing that is so painfully disappointing about this whole thing is the idea that I am getting these kids all excited about an opportunity to shine, only to tell them to wait – again. They have been putting off their high school experience for two years now. How much more will we have to ask them to be patient, have faith, be ready to go at a moment’s notice? I know that this is a good learning experience – life lessons abound. But in the moment, it’s really hard to keep forcing them into situations where they have to adapt. I just want them to enjoy their high school theater experience, without worrying about what impending doom is lurking around the corner.
Bottom line, It’s my job to maintain this theater program, and I do it lovingly and willingly, but I tell you, these past two years have been like slow torture. I have watched the program get chipped away little by little and I admit that sometimes I wonder if I have the strength to build it back up. Nevertheless, as long as I am the captain of this ship, I will continue to patch the holes and move us forward. We have a legacy to uphold. Thespians will rise again.