Donny Covington is the Director of the Technical Theatre Magnet at Richardson High School, in Richardson, Texas. Donny graduated from University of Dallas with a B.A. in Drama in 2010. He has worked with theater companies all over Dallas since 2008 including: The Dallas Theater Center, The Dallas Shakespeare Festival, Kitchen Dog Theater, The Contemporary Theater of Dallas, Lyric Stage, Upstart Productions, and The Richardson Theatre Center. He joined Nouveau 47 Theatre during its first season in the historic Margo Jones Theater in Fair Park and went on to serve as Artistic Director as well as President of the Board of the Margo Jones Partnership. His credits include acting, directing, and technical direction. Additionally, Donny spent two years working for the scenic department of Freeman Audio Visual, one of the leading AV companies in the country. Donny joined the team at Richardson High School in 2013 and has overseen exponential growth in the enrollment and retention numbers in the Tech Theater Magnet.
An Investment Year
It is late November. You’re halfway through third period. You just got the kids who were throwing paper at each other to sit down. You gave away the last of your spare pencils two periods ago, and three kids are all clamoring for writing utensils so they can start the quiz that was supposed to happen at the beginning of class. Your coffee got spilled at some point during first period and now the lack of caffeine is starting to get to you. You’re mentally planning the tick list for today’s after school work call, and, just as you’re about to call for quiet, you hear the unmistakable sound of a bag being ripped open and the clatter of chips across the floor. Flames…flames on your face.
Then suddenly, your principal is there, and in their hands is a button. A big red button. A pause button. You press the button.
We have been given this button. Whether we wished for it or no. Whether we were dreading this coming year or looking forward to it. Whether you are a solo operation running a full department on your own, or a full-fledged department with multiple instructors and a proper budget. No matter your current status, you have been given a pause button in the form of a school year that isn’t going to be like anything any of us have dealt with in living memory.
This coming school year is going to be hard. It’s going to be different. It will be filled with brand new challenges and obstacles. It will also be missing some key things. It will not involve a heavy emphasis on putting on multiple live productions at full capacity throughout the year. It will not involve as many late nights and weekends of rehearsals, construction, tech work, dress rehearsals, and all the trappings that go with major performances.
The question that hangs before us: what to do with the time and resources that have been handed to us so suddenly?
My advice, use this time to invest and grow.
Do not approach this year with an eye toward trying to make it as ‘normal’ as possible. Our production cycles have been thoroughly disrupted, our student engagement will be completely different, our communities will continue to deal with the fallout of a situation that has put so much of our lives effectively on hold.
This is an opportunity to invest in your programs, invest in your students, and invest in yourselves.
What might this look like?
Invest in your programs and infrastructure.
Take the money and support that you would have traditionally put toward your productions and spend it on that equipment or upgrades you’ve always wanted but could never quite afford; get those sewing machines you’ve been desperately needing; buy new toolsets for your shop classes so kids don’t have to share the same three tired drills; update your script libraries; restock on fabric and supplies; replace those lights that have been in need of retiring since forever.
Invest in your students.
Use this time to implement the departmental changes that you’ve been putting off for fear of disrupting the normal flow of your students’ time with you. Have you been wanting to change up the order in which things are taught? Is there a new major project or area of focus that you’ve been wanting to introduce but just couldn’t quite figure out how to integrate it without disrupting student learning? Now that we’re effectively operating in an environment of disruption, this is quite possibly the most perfect time to try those things out. Most importantly, spend quality time with your students beyond normal instruction. Given that we will very likely be spending the majority of the year online, set aside time to meet digitally with every one of your students individually. Talk and engage with the students who would normally spend the year sitting quietly and trying to avoid attention at all costs. Be personable and sincere with the class clowns who disrupt as a way of distracting from how hard they’re struggling with the material or life. Be there for your students in new and engaging ways.
Invest in yourselves.
Use this time to proactively assess where you have been and where you can go as an educator. What are the things that you feel are holding you back? What are the aspects of your work that you relish the most? What are the expectations and goals that you can actually spend meaningful time implementing? Build relationships with the other educators and professionals in your area that you haven’t quite had the time to reach out to properly until now.
Personally, I’m going to miss it. The thrill of seeing a show come together, numbers and scenes coalescing, the thrill of the first curtain opening night.
It will return.
Of that much I am certain. When it does there will be an explosion of joy and pent up creative spirit unlike anything that has been seen in recent memory. I relish the thought of it.
What better way to lay the groundwork for that next chapter than by leaping headlong into the silver lining of this whole mess?
For my part I’m going to be hitting three key areas in the coming school year
Infrastructure: Our moving lights are sorely outdated, loud, creaky, and dim. I will be allocating funds we would have spent on productions to start replacing them with modern LED driven fixtures.
Program: In my department we have talked amongst ourselves for a while about implementing new course tracks for our students in the Technical Theater Magnet, to smooth the flow of instruction over the course of their four years with us and to increase their hands on project time that doesn’t just involve “go paint that set piece for the show that opens next week.” Now, we can actually spend time implementing and revising those changes.
Myself: One of the things I’ve struggled with for a long time is creating concrete long-form lesson plans ahead of time. I’ve always prided myself on the ability to quickly create engaging and informative lessons, and at the secondary level this is very helpful given how often our daily routines are disrupted by assemblies, testing, etc. However, it means that when I do have longer stretches of actual instructional time I’m often scrambling to create more robust projects on a much shorter timeline. I’m going to spend as much of my planning time this year as I can actually putting down detailed lessons on paper so that building yearlong curriculum for when we are able to finally return to face-to-face instruction full time can be a reality.
We have been given the unasked for gift of Time. There will be hurting and healing. There will be loss and victories. But, above all, let’s not squander the time we have been given in this moment. Let us rise from the ground stronger than ever, emboldened, empowered, and with a renewed spirit as we forge a new path ahead, as we pause to build a better tomorrow.