The joys of youth theater are endless, whether they are experienced in person or in a virtual world. Although the arts community has been hit hard by the pandemic, local arts organizations and community centers throughout the Greater Cleveland area have continued to find innovative ways to offer a hybrid of virtual and in-person classes and productions that engage youth and their families.
“I think everybody recognizes these are unprecedented times,” says Jeannie Fleming-Gifford, executive director of Fairmount Center for the Arts. “What we’ve learned is that the arts are important in our children’s lives, in our families’ lives and in our community. So, with that, I think we are all grateful to be a part of making theater happen, even if it’s not in the traditional way we know and love. We’re just saying, ‘Well, we need to pivot and do things differently, because this is important.’”
About 15 kids in the Fairmount Youth Theatre program, for kids ages 7-14, have been meeting for Saturday morning classes on Zoom to create a debut fall show, “Big Radio Broadcast of 2020,” which will be performed on Zoom. The show will consist largely of short skits and songs, and it will be a non-ticketed performance that will be recorded and shared on Fairmount’s YouTube channel with family and friends after the Nov. 21 performance. An online holiday story-telling production also is planned for December. In-person classes will host a Sharing Day following the completion of each class to showcase what kids learned.
David Malinowski, the Roger and Anne Clapp Chair of Performing Arts at The Fine Arts Association, shares a few of the ways the organization is keeping theater in the hearts and minds of kids across the region.
“The biggest reason is that theater is the chance for the participant to become someone and something other than themselves for a little while, and in a lot of ways, that helps our younger students be able to deal with the new emotions that they are feeling through this time,” Malinowski says. “Kids can use their theater skills in uncertain times like these to deal with emotions like fear and anxiety, or express themThe selves through the characters they’re playing.”
The Fine Arts Association offered virtual classes from March through the summer semester. Starting with the fall semester, patrons could choose whether they wanted classes in-person, virtual or a hybrid of both.
“The popularity seemed to be in-person classes at least for the fall, so that’s why all of our theater classes are in-person,” Malinowski says. “The dance, visual arts and our music lessons are split in that hybrid model with some classes in-person and others virtual. Many of the students had a strong desire to return to in-person classes because they missed the camaraderie and being with friends and teachers. They’re just so excited to be somewhere other than home for a little bit, and to see their teachers in person that they’ve been seeing on a screen for so long,”
Beck Center for the Arts also has offered in-person and online courses in the fall, including theater, music, dance, Creative Arts Therapies and visual arts.
“Theater is one of those areas where we are definitely seeing more students in our in-person classes,” says Sarah Clare, associate director of theater education at Beck Center for the Arts. “Summer camps and classes have been working really well online. We have been able to see a lot of progress online, but I do think that slight difference of being able to look over at their neighbor and say something is huge for students of all ages.”
Beck Center for the Arts recently performed a virtual Youth Theater production of “Zopp,” for which patrons could set their own ticketing price by donation. Written and directed by Russel Stich, the show is a parody on video conference calls like Zoom and WebEx and it was created to reflect what youth theater is like during a pandemic. There were 34 students in the cast.
“The students are doing an amazing job,” Clare says. “They are not only doing the acting side of things — and rocking it that way — but they are becoming prop masters, costumers and make-up artists, lighting designers and technicians, and they are doing all of it from home. I love that aspect of it. We are releasing some beautiful creativity from our students.”
Even as some organizations struggle with continued delays or cancellations of certain aspects of their programs, the arts community has embraced keeping kids — and adults — engaged in theater and arts, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The arts — and theater, specifically — are important during this time because it provides our youth with a healthy way of expressing themselves, communicating, and connecting with other people during a time which many of us feel alone,” Fleming-Gifford says.