A few of the tasks in StageOne Family Theatre’s tech rehearsals felt like business as usual: checking on costumes, running through scenes, working out the lighting.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has touched all things in 2020, including the theater’s latest project.
“Traditionally, you’re gearing up for an opening night… to have an audience come in,” StageOne producing artistic director Andrew Harris said.
But StageOne isn’t getting ready for audiences, though.
In fact, the auditorium seats will stay empty on the day of the show, or rather, day of filming.
“We’re gearing up for camera crews to come in, which is a new way of producing theater, but certainly one that’s appropriate, relevant to the times that we’re living in,” Harris said.
When it became clear that kids couldn’t gather in theaters due to the coronavirus, the Louisville-based children’s theater company pivoted to delivering theater to the kids wherever they are by video.
“Theater for Everywhere” is a trio of 30- to 40-minute original plays that will be virtual to accommodate kids learning from home, available to Jefferson County Public Schools beginning Friday. In this partnership with JCPS, the plays are accompanied by pre- and post-show curriculum materials, developed to further break down the issues raised by the plays. Schools outside of JCPS or homeschool groups can purchase the plays for their students.
This isn’t about making a movie, Harris said. It’s about trying to capture a theater experience through a different medium.
“We tend to be passive viewers of film and television, because the camera tells us what to look at, it chooses our point of view,” he said. “The live theater experience though, as an audience, you have to engage. You have to pay attention.”
JCPS superintendent Marty Polio said, in a release, that students and their families “are grateful” for the virtual theater offerings.
“These unique times require unique strategies for bringing the arts to our students” Pollio said.
Three plays focused on kids’ emotional, social needs
Art has the power to explain complex concepts for kids as they see themselves reflected in the characters working through things like cultural differences and constructive communication skills, according to director LaShondra Hood.
“It’s an easier way to digest some of these harder pills to swallow,” Hood said. “It’s a harder lesson to talk about it, but if we have a space where we’re just teaching through an art form, I think it lends itself to accept this lesson or receive this lesson in an easier way.”
The play she’s been directing is called “Reframe,” for third to fifth graders.
The two central characters are Amira, a young Black girl who shows up on school picture day with a new hairstyle, and Jesse, a white Jewish classmate. They end up in an argument after Jesse makes a joke about Amira’s hair, and Amira then makes fun of Jesse’s yarmulke.
“I didn’t know what it was,” Amira says in a scene of the play, referencing Jesse’s yarmulke. “What you said made me feel sad.”
“It’s just hair. Who cares?” Jesse returns.
“I care,” she says, “It’s not just hair. It’s my hair.”
“It’s from the smaller points of teasing and things like that… and it shows like how the smaller building blocks really amount to the bigger offenses,” explained actor Caisey Cole, who plays Amira.
The title, “Reframe,” draws on the acronym FRAME: freeze, reflect, ask questions, maintain an open mind and expand experiences.
“Reframe” playwright Jada Suzanne Dixon said, as a Black playwright, she didn’t want to “fit in that box” of writing about race and culture.
“But the idea came to me in this kind of overall theme of hair, and the challenges that Black females often face as it comes to their hair, whether it’s because you have a new style,” or people touching it without consent, she said. “I have friends who have various stories, I have stories. And that just seemed to pull me in.”
As the play evolved, it became important not to be “too heavy-handed,” by making one of the characters an overt bully so that “Jesse and Amira get to go on a journey of discovery together,” learning to appreciate and respect each other’s differences.
“To me, that was exciting, because we’re still grappling with that as adults today. We’re still grappling with, how do I approach somebody? And how do I ask this question?”
“Monster of Mine,” a play geared toward kindergarten through second grade students, teaches kids about emotions.
The actors don monster costumes when they experience strong feelings like jealousy and anger, physical manifestations of those emotions. A narrator then helps them learn how to not become that monster.
“As I ruminated on how we experience strong emotions, I realized that it is as though we are taking on this larger-than-life monster alter ego; we can become consumed by the strong emotions that are provoked in us,” playwright Clara Harris said about how the idea to have monsters in the play came together. “I wanted a visual representation of the student character climbing into or somehow being enveloped by this uncontrollable monster, because that’s how big feelings can show up, even in adults.”
The plan “The Right Shoes,” by Louisville performer and playwright Keith McGill, is for second to fourth graders and follows three young friends trying to work through their differences and cope with hardships.
McGill enjoys writing theater for kids because it’s a way for him to share his own love for the art form.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to do theater so bad and I would dance around the house and I would watch the Tony’s. And nobody else in my family was really into theatrics very much,” he said. “And so nobody said, ‘Oh my gosh, you want to do theater. Well come over here. So I love being able to bring that to kids, especially little African American boys.”
He thinks virtual work, like “Theater for Everywhere,” is a great way to reach even more young people, and hopes virtual theater will stick around post-COVID.
“It makes it less of what would be considered an elitist art. Art is for people with money. Art is for people with time… Now, art is really for everybody,” he said.
And, as is the case with StageOne’s latest plays, art is for everywhere.