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When the Show Must Go On Online for Theater Students

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Virtual International Thespian Festival opening ceremony virtual choir. (V-ITF/YouTube)

After roles as a gravedigger in a grunge rock musical adaptation of Hamlet and the Wicked Witch’s second-in-command in The Wiz, this spring, due to the spread of COVID-19, high school junior Jack Tatara found himself trying out a brand-new role: quarantined theater kid. When school closed and the theater program moved online, Tatara performed in their Zoom-based radio play of “The Twilight Zone.” He enjoyed performing from his bedroom so much, he’s considering joining the school’s summer program, which is now going online as well. 

In years past, Winston Prep in New York City, which serves students with learning disabilities and challenges like dyslexia, ADHD and Nonverbal Learning Disorder, offered the Summer Theater, Arts and Music Program, or Stamp, for students to hone their performing skills, socialize and have fun outside the classroom environment. But this year, due to coronavirus restrictions, Stamp is trying to recreate itself online. 

Summer online offerings include work on acting and music skills, and a performance of some kind. Rachel McAlinn, Winston Prep’s theater teacher, said that even though this year Stamp can’t happen in person, students still need the support the arts program provides: keeping up social skills and fostering an important sense of community. 

“A lot of these kids would not be grouped together academically in school, based on their learning profiles,” McAlinn said. “But we’re all together in the theater program. We consider ourselves a family.” 

Like summer stock and Shakespeare in the Park, summer theater programs for students have a long tradition. For young performers, summer programs are often the place where they can hone their skills in a focused environment, build community with like-minded kids and have fun—not to mention have the opportunity to put on a high-quality performance. While most professional theaters have discontinued public performances until 2021, and most school districts remain closed due to the spread of the coronavirus, many educational theater programs are turning to online programs to keep students engaged over the summer. Legacy arts institutions and local groups alike are remaking the summer theater program for students from their homes—performing “radio plays,” providing online singing and dancing classes, and learning new skills like acting for the camera—all to keep theater alive for their students. 


At the same time, educational theater programs are straining to keep their organizations alive. Many of these programs are self-sustaining, raising money through box office sales and program advertising from big summer performances that won’t be happening. Without those sales, and without enrollment fees from students, programs are hoping they can hang on long enough to reopen safely next summer. Though arts programs are almost always in jeopardy, the pressures of closures from COVID-19, mixed with economic distress, make this summer especially consequential. 

Summer theater moves online

When the University of North Carolina School of the Arts Summer Intensive closed due to COVID-19, the faculty and staff quickly processed their initial shock and sprang into action. In summers past, UNCSA provided serious theater students with the kind of immersive training that prepares future regional professionals and Broadway stars. Ranging in age from fourteen to nineteen, students accepted into the prestigious program participated in four weeks of intense training, with days of acting, singing and dancing often running from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m., and ending with a big performance. 

This summer, drama program director Kelly Maxner and the faculty decided to innovate quickly, offering a scaled-back online program with fewer students, more teachers, and slashing the attendance cost in half. With a curriculum based on what they learned teaching performance online during the spring semester to UNCSA undergrads, the online classes in singing, dancing and acting for high schoolers will be less focused on a final performance and more on boosting specific skills, like acting for the camera. They’ve also added a master class in art for social change—how artists behave as citizens, taking a specific look at current events and how artists adapt and express themselves. 

“We recognize strongly that we can’t do what we did before,” Maxner said. “But what we’ve done is distilled the curriculum, the essentials of the training. We decided what was essential and important—not just for the arts training but for the whole experience of the intensive.” 

The High School Summer Immersion program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, in Cincinnati, Ohio, is running through all of June and a part of July, and includes a high school musical theater workshop, a ballet camp for elementary kids, and private music lessons. Enrollment in the summer program has remained high, even after the summer’s classes moved online. The High School Immersion Musical Theatre Workshop, for example, filled up in just a few days—a testament to how much kids want to keep performing even though the environment won’t be the same, said Anne Cushing-Reid, Director of Preparatory and Community Engagement. 

The Conservatory’s focus has been on making students feel as if they were present on campus  “These aren’t your typical online classes,” Cushing-Reid wrote in an email. “They’re designed to get students out of their seats and onto their at-home ‘dance floors’ or ‘music studios’—whether that is their living room, driveway or bedroom.”

Students in the musical theater workshop will also get a chance to work with more guest faculty through Zoom than had they met in person. Successful alumnus from Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theater are able to join online meetings more easily, “expanding students’ networks and imparting expert knowledge from the performing arts industry,” Cushing-Reid said. 

Different challenges, new benefits

Even smaller, regional programs are finding creative ways to engage young performers. The nonprofit Mudlark Theatre in Evanston, Illinois, is hoping to be able to open for summer camps, according to state guidelines, by late June or early July. In the meantime, Mudlark has been providing experiences for students online, including parodies of the news and a character-based role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, to keep students performing even if it’s not exactly theater.

Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation All-City Summer Musical production of Les Misérables. (Courtesy of EVSC)

The All-City Summer Musical in Evansville, Indiana, a showcase of the best high school talent in the city, has been a big summer box-office draw in an area that boasts a strong performing tradition for more than thirty years, including when I attended this program as a high schooler many years ago. When performances of Sweeney Todd, set for mid-July, were cancelled, all but two of the students decided to stay on for an online experience—even when director Robert Hunt and producer Tiffany Schriber Ball weren’t exactly sure what that would look like. 

Based loosely on what they’d seen Broadway performers put together online, Schriber Ball and Hunt quickly decided that the performers would work on musical theatre scenes and song selections, and the orchestra would work on the Sweeney Todd Suite, all on Zoom. They enlisted the help of a local university technical director to teach the backstage crew—the students who usually build the sets, and run lights and sound—how to design a set. Using both set-design software and old-fashioned popsicle sticks and glue to create models, students are gaining a new skill they wouldn’t have a chance to learn during a “normal” summer production. 

Early rehearsals have shown the social aspect of doing theater together—one of its biggest draws—is still lively, even online. Students are hanging around in “meetings,” even during the scheduled breaks, to joke around and talk. “One of the cast traditions is playing frisbee during breaks,” Hunt said. “And I was so thrilled to see they were playing ‘virtual’ frisbee with each other, saying ‘here, it’s coming for you!’” 

Uncertain what the future brings, the show goes on 

Even one of the country’s largest high school theater gatherings and competitions, the International Thespian Festival, held for the past 25 summers at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, is going virtual this year. The Educational Theatre Association, with chapters in 45 states and serving more than 130,000 theatre educators and students, is hosting the virtual event. It will include both pre-recorded performances of school productions that happened before schools closed, as well as an online showcase and some live-streaming events. 


The professional group is providing guidance for schools and programs as summer programs move online and re-invent a theatrical experience for students, even as the future for performances is uncertain. 

Jim Palmarini, the Educational Theatre Association’s educational policy director, said their “Recommendations for Reopening Theatre Programs” guide was issued in June, acknowledging that ultimately each state’s and district’s requirements will be different. “The guide is seeking to address the middle ground of how each theatre program can safely reopen in the fall,” he said. “While performance remains central to school theatre programs, we know that producing live shows will be a challenge for many schools this upcoming school year. Because of that, we’re putting a lot of emphasis on the creative ways that schools can move their performances to an online format. Things are changing so fast that it is hard to say which school will be to do live performances, and which will not.”

The loss of public performances is bigger than dashed dreams of stardom. After spring shows were cancelled, and summer programs moved online, many programs lost a season’s worth of box office revenue to help mount the next show. A recent CDC study showing that aerosol droplets transmitted by singing could pose a serious risk not just to singers standing close together, but to the audience as well, may mean performances are postponed for much longer. And providing summer online experiences also reveal big gaps in student equity, since not everybody has a computer at home, or a decent internet connection. Schools and programs want to know: when will it be safe to perform in person again? 

School theaters are also worried about looming state budget cuts, due to lost tax revenue affected by the pandemic, for which the arts are usually first on the chopping block. 

But for some programs, lost revenue and public performances have to be set aside: for students, the show must go on. For the past ninety-two summers, some of the country’s most accomplished high school actors, singers, dancers and musicians arrive at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in the woods of northern Michigan for a remote, focused six-week summer arts program to hone their skills. This summer’s online program, which will feature acting and musical theater classes and some kind of recorded end-of-season performance, won’t look the same. But the distance, said theater arts summer program director Bill Church, will make hearts grow fonder—not just for theater kids, but the educators who teach them. 

“When we get to invite people back, it’s going to be ridiculous,” Church said. “The celebration and the joy—I don’t think anyone will ever take theater or rehearsal for granted ever again.” 


Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Jack Tatara's name. We regret this error. 

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