Performance intersected with technology a little too much this year for most of us, as many of our most personal and professional moments had to happen through a screen.
But for local theater camps, the digital stage spawned a new range of options that had never been available to prospective young thespians.
Marieke Gaboury, director of theater operations at Palo Alto Children’s Theatre, co-taught a timely camp last summer for high school seniors and college freshmen on how to translate theater into a virtual environment. A group of dads asked the theater company to put together a “dads and daughters” improv class. Private studies – one-on-one acting and vocal lessons – have been an unexpected smash and have particularly expanded access for children who had transportation problems when it came to booking in-person lessons. Gaboury said that of all the age groups, it was surprising to note that teens seemed to be experiencing the most Zoom fatigue.
“They’re dying to be in-person and connect with each other,” she said of the fading novelty of new options online. “We are finding that the in-person classes are the rare opportunity to be in proximity to their peers.”
Facing stark cuts, Palo Alto Children’s Theatre has been aware of an inclusive silver lining as its online expansion includes participants and artists who never would have been as accessible in person. In-person programming for January was called off as the pandemic surged last month, but the theater has been preparing for in-person camps later in the winter, spring and summer that follow guidelines for physically active performance activities, which face particular restrictions.
“It’ll be a very different experience,” Gaboury said of a future with smaller casts, smaller audiences and an extreme emphasis on outdoor activities.
A hybrid theater format will keep singing and dancing virtual, while other aspects of preparing a show can be done in person for youth participants.
Gaboury said that structuring an interactive class where children feel seen and heard by the instructors – while not totally distracted by other participants – has taken some trial and error to finesse. When the children collaborate on performances, they record themselves individually, using a pre-recorded track as their cue, and the theater mixes the final product.
Building relationships – virtually
Gary Ferguson, education director for Los Altos Youth Theatre, said running their performances through Twitch, more commonly known as a gaming platform, has provided a handy route to syncing up audio, adding in creative backgrounds and reaching a young audience often already familiar with the service.
“The kids realized that I’m not going to be able to dance fully like I normally do, but I’m responsible for putting on my own costumes, changing my own costumes, changing my backgrounds – the kids loved it,” he recounted of staging “Moana” with a youth cast and “The Drowsy Chaperone” with a group of teens. “The adults may find these platforms challenging – they want to see what they’re expecting to see, the television – but kids love new things, and the little hiccups that we had didn’t concern the kids.”
Los Altos Youth Theatre is pushing out plans for a Rockette boot camp to one of the upcoming school holiday sessions, and preparing a spring musical selection that allows participants to thrive in an online setting: less dancing, no need to budget for lavish costumes and sets, and a chance for young people to delve into the digital production process, Ferguson said.
They’ve been looking for places that a small local theater can shine, in a peculiarly competitive camps season when young people can book online classes with working Broadway performers. Personally connecting students to each other has become a strength of the program, and the dissolution of commute time means students from Oakland public schools joined the youth theater this year.
“The kids get a bigger sense of community,” Ferguson said. “That was something I never thought I’d be able to do. Being able to build these relationships that don’t go to school with you, don’t live on the Peninsula with you, is really exciting, and these kids are now thick as thieves. I don’t ever want to get rid of the online in the future, I just want to add it in.”
San Jose-based Playful People Productions pivoted to exclusively online projects last March and has developed programming for all ages to “play and feel comfortable and nurtured,” according to artistic director Katie D’Arcey.
The amateur theater group is unusual in including opportunities for families to perform together, in addition to age-group-specific activities ranging from musicals to prop workshops and family game nights.
For people who find it overwhelming to see themselves pictured on Zoom day in and day out, radio shows give a chance for Playful Productions participants to speak up without feeling as self-conscious. Reader’s Theater sessions – both for youth and adults – provide a moment to stretch a little, and try out new voices and new skills.
“The teacher who started that one has started to encourage the kids to write their own scenes, so every week the kids would bring back their own scenes and then work on those instead of just the script pieces she would send them,” D’Arcey said. “The kids were given this opportunity to be creative and took it.”
In summer camps and year-round programming, the group sends craft materials and books to participating homes so that as kids do a live online class, they’re talking about books they have in hand, and doing crafts with their bodies as well.
“When kids are just in front of their screens, they can zone out and just aren’t engaged,” D’Arcey said.
She said that though people miss the in-person experience, she doesn’t think remote programming will disappear after the pandemic wanes.
Although her youngest students, in the 5- to 10-year-old range, can struggle, “I think that this format really works for a lot of folks,” D’Arcey observed, particularly for teen participants.
“We’ve actually had three kids come out as transgender since we went into lockdown, and I think they felt that it was an easier way they could express themselves – they could change their name on Zoom, they could keep the camera off until they were feeling accepted – which with us was quickly,” she said. “If someone can feel they can be themselves completely, that is an
Peninsula Youth Theatre executive director Karen Simpson said that while you can’t replicate performing with another actor in person, “I think we’re getting really good at making it more entertaining for our audiences, and also we know how to work with kids to make that more fun and rewarding.”
Like Los Altos Youth Theatre, PYT has turned to gaming software, OBS, to produce its shows this year, and the troupe is planning a full production of “The Little Mermaid” this spring for youth participants, as well as two Stories on Stage shows.
One of PYT’s most successful innovations last year was scriptwriting and performance work for teens, which has been scaling up to directing and scriptwriting debuts at the theater.
“The great thing about virtual programming is that when you are doing a show at a (physical) theater, there is a lot of expense tied into the show,” said Simpson, adding that now the theater is “doing original work, so you can take a risk on something new, and it’s exciting in that way.”
PYT has seen its overall age of participation skew higher, as teens find a creative niche while younger kids – tapped out by online school during the day-to-day – feel finished with screen time before they get to camp. PYT is still hoping to run in-person camps in spring and summer, as outdoor spaces become increasingly accessible with warmer weather. Typically, PYT would already be enrolling for the year by January, but organizers haven’t yet published a camp schedule for the year because they feel a need to respond flexibly to the shelter-in-place orders.
“You have to really pivot on a dime in this environment,” Simpson said.