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Pandemic Theatre: How to Program for Your Drama Department During COVID-19

By Tina Cocumelli

Considering the state of things, it's entirely likely that theatre makers will continue to face the challenge of how to produce at a safe physical distance well into 2021. That means more online casting sessions, rehearsals, and performances...but it doesn't have to mean falling back on the same short-term creative solutions we chose at the start of this pandemic!

We've been at this a while now and we've seen what works well, what doesn't, and where there's room for artistic innovation and problem solving. The technology is in place (thank goodness!). Now let's use everything we've learned to look at how theatre educators can reimagine programming in the time of COVID.

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realigning with your goals

We all want to put on a great show. For good reason! The production experience teaches student not only about performance and tech, but also about collaboration, creativity, and so much more. It brings the school community together, can create much-needed revenue for your department, and provides a tangible sense of accomplishment for you as a theatre teacher. 

Everything about how we're doing our jobs right now may be different, but these goals don't have to change. At the end of the day it's about the students. This experience may be confusing and frustrating at times (okay, a lot of the time!), but it's also a fantastic opportunity to lead by example and nurture young people's creative curiosity, which is a key component in developing a growth mindset.

While we're in this situation, let's make the most of the situation and the technology available to us!

 

Online Productions

The safest possible plan for 2021 is to produce your shows in an online environment like On The Stage, which combines all the tools and functionality you need to create, promote, sell tickets, and stream your performance in one easy package.

But what scripts lend themselves to remote production? Clearly, non-musical content is more manageable and results in the best audience experience. Yet, there's more to programming for online production than just skipping the big production numbers!

 

Cast size

Technically speaking, there's no reason why you couldn't do an online show that involves many students. Be sure to think things through and plan carefully before committing to such an endeavor, though. It might get difficult to manage rehearsals efficiently. You'll also need to be very intentional about who appears onscreen when so that your audience doesn't get confused.

The easier option is to produce smaller shows with fewer students. One upside of streaming, though, is that your creative choices aren't restricted by the availability of your physical space. And your audience isn't traveling to the theater, so there is the option of accommodating a larger group of students by producing a series of works over the course of the semester.

 

Format

Many well-known and very rewarding theatrical experiences already follow a narrative structure that lends itself to online rehearsal and performance. Take, for example, plays that have been created through interviews, like Anna Deveare Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles and Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project.

Both are very relevant, topical scripts that address current issues we struggle with as a nation. And thanks to their built-in format of interwoven monologues, they make it easy for performers to deliver great work without getting tangled up in awkward choreography to make it appear that they're in scene together.

Other tried and true scripts structured similarly are Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology and Tom Andolora’s adaptation, The Spoon River Project. You can even create original works along these lines, or use the opportunity to collaborate with your students on a piece of devised theatre. 

While we're on the subject of devised works, you might also consider curating an evening of existing monologues around a common theme. Students enjoy creating shows around ideas like "the role I’ll never get to play," which allows them to choose monologues or solo musical numbers that fall outside traditional casting, whether based on gender, age, type, or even vocal range. 

Or, students could create a variety show and perform at a distance. This project could include researching famous variety shows, writing sketches for the show, choreographing dance numbers, recording solo and/or duet musical pieces. There's plenty of historical content from which to draw inspiration...but given the fact that you're already working in the online medium, why not take the opportunity to explore the relationship between those older forms and the contemporary performance pieces young people are producing prolifically and with such creativity for social media?

 

Traditionally Staged Productions

If your school is providing instruction onsite and students are permitted to rehearse in person, you'll have more leeway in some regards but less in others. Your creative options will feel more familiar, for instance, but there will almost certainly be tighter restrictions around cast sizes. You may also have to make due with a smaller crew or without an orchestra for musicals. 

Because each school's safety plan will be different according to local governmental regulations around social distancing, you will know best what programming options make sense for your season. But keep in mind that today's rules may not apply next week or next month! For this reason it is highly recommended that you choose a script that can be reconfigured for online production on short notice if such a need arises.

 

Other Options

In addition to or instead of directing a production, you might also consider using your distance learning and rehearsal time to explore other theatre-related projects, such as:

  • In-depth play reading and analysis
  • Scriptwriting (plays, sketches, tv and film scripts, episodic tv writing, etc.)
  • Reading and preparing a script for production, including design elements, etc.


These activities make for valuable learning in and of themselves. You can also use them to scaffold the teaching over the course of your year to create meaningful opportunities for education even in this time of disjointed and often less-than-satisfying "classroom" experiences. 

 

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Learn more about On The Stage's all-in-one platform for promotion, ticketing, audience engagement, and more...including complete online production and streaming services! 

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Tags: school theatre, production, streaming, how-to

Tina Cocumelli

Tina Cocumelli

Tina Cocumelli is a native of Los Angeles, California, who has spent over four decades creating K-12 theatre curriculum. She has produced and directed over 300 plays and musicals with students of all ages. Tina is a graduate of the UCLA School of Theatre, Film, and Television, and also holds a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology from Point Loma University. Reach out and say hello at tina@onthestage.com.