We are important to one another: teaching theatre in the new normal

By James Palmarini posted 5 days ago


I am not a teacher. But I have worked with many teachers over the past thirty-plus years, trying to support the heroic efforts they put forth day after day, year after year towards ensuring that every student has an opportunity to do their very best. More specifically I’ve worked with theatre teachers. You know who you are—the old joke “I work part-time, only 14 hours day” is still darkly funny and, I’m sure true for so many of you.

Today things are different. A virus we can’t see or touch has upended everything—for you, me, our family and friends, and of course, students. The New York Times ran a story about a 10-year old homeless girl who was issued an iPad to prepare for New York City’s launch of remote learning. She took it back to the shelter where she and her mother were living and placed it on a tray over her bed, only to discover in the morning that the shelter had no Internet. Heartbreaking. She wanted to learn, to grow, become her best self.

Our theatre kids—cut off from you, their theatre, and their friends right when the school year was wrapping up—they had probably already learned lots of things—how to nail a monologue; sing that song they had  worked on for months; design and build a set for the spring show; or maybe just dance a few simple steps that would have helped them shine in the ensemble. They’re not likely to get the chance to show you or anybody else what they can do, what they learned, at least not in person, any time soon.

Thankfully, the Internet has exploded with theatre instruction and resources for every imaginable aspect of theatre that teachers can use to motivate and engage their students. EdTA’s own efforts to provide online lessons and resources have been heroic in its own right. If you haven’t signed on to Theatre Educator Pro—do it now! Available and free content is being added almost daily.  

So—yes, lots of digital content for teachers to use. But I wanted to know how our theatre educators were doing in the new education normal. I thought reaching out to some of the teachers that I have worked during the past few years would be a good way for them to share their feelings and experiences and maybe help the rest of us better understand you’re all reaching and teaching students under these trying circumstances. Granted, these commentaries focus mostely on online learning and doesn’t address those students who, like the homeless girl in New York, don’t have access to the technology they need. That’s another column I hope to address in a future blog.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

Kate Torcom, Bend, Oregon

We started online teaching last week and have put the focus on creating a community for our students. It was heartbreaking to lose our state festival and potentially the spring musical, so I am doing everything I can to touch base and keep us all together. I hosted an Instagram live event where I taught a dance from our spring show.  I had over 200 students join in and several shared their dance afterwards. Teachers shouldn’t feel daunted by this! I believe that this is a time for heroes and theatrical educators can very much be the guiding light for our students during these dark times. 


David Hastings, Olathe, Kansas

I am looking at more ways to connect students through conversations and activities that they can do while they look at each other online. They need time to just be able to talk like kids. I have always said that the hardest thing for a substitute to do in my classroom is to know when to let things go and when to take action. In an online world, kids need this same space. They need time to say what they are thinking and feeling without the judgment of adults. And sometimes they need the judgment of adults so that they can find the boundaries for themselves. I love the line from Bring It On: “How do you know who you are unless you cross the line?” Kids need space to break the rules, even in a virtual classroom.


Brooke Phillips, Omaha, Nebraska

 For our spring show we decided to record students saying their own parts individually and, with the playwright's permission, editing it together a movie version of the play.  We'll see how it turns out in another month. I do think some students are less motivated.  It’s hard when you are in your PJs or your own room, or you have your siblings or pets around or your video game console.  Students who don't want to be in the course they signed up for don't really stand much of a chance to succeed in an online environment.  There is very little ability to discipline a kid except remove them from a video chat and to have their participation represented on their grade.



Shannon Horn, Goose Creek, South Carolina

Zoom and Google Hangout have been lifesavers for rehearsals and private coaching. But its been difficult not being in the room with the kids.  I have students who need to talk about things as they come up, and our rehearsal and classroom is a safe space.  They can’t always do that at home as siblings and family are around.  I think many administrators have unrealistic expectations of their teachers teaching online. They forget that for some teachers there is one computer—2 if they are lucky—in a house and then the teacher’s kids can’t attend their classes or the significant other can’t work from home if the teacher is teaching 7 hours a day on that one device. Although I feel like we always knew it, I think we have really gained is an understanding of how important we all are to one another. Experiences have been lost.  Shows have been cancelled and, while it is the process and journey that are important, for many students this was their final high school performance. Missing those milestones is a hard lesson.


Ben Stuart, Seattle

For our musical, we’ve been using YouTube for choreography demos and the RehearScore app from MTI for our music.  Our music directors are doing Skype instruction with our leads and our dance captains each have a group from ensemble that they are leading Skype/Google Hangout rehearsals.  Our advanced acting kids were learning pantomime, improv, and stage combat before the school closed, so I’ve asked them all to keep working on their technique and to submit videos.  Our playwriting class is the most natural fit for distance learning as everyone in this class happened to have access to technology and was already writing their plays in Google Docs. This way I can see their writing progress and leave comments in their doc. I miss working with my kids and fear quite a bit of loss of institutional memory for some students.  It means only a handful of kids who got into the musical their freshman or sophomore years will be back next year to carry the banner and lead their peers through the process.


Brian Jennings, Hartford, Connecticut

My team and I have put together a modified curriculum framework so that each of our students will continue to take courses online each week. We are modifying the course work at each level. Our focus, really, is not on the curriculum. It’s just a structure to reach out and maintain contact with the kids, to make sure that they stay in contact with each other and give them a sense of structure and stability in these fluid times. It will not be perfect. But we hope it will be something to help them get through the coming weeks or even months.


Jo Beth Gonzalez, Bowling Green, Ohio

In my first week of teaching from home, I’ve learned Zoom, Screencastify, and Flipgrid. I’ve zoomed with some faculty, posted assignments on Screencastify and Flipgrid. I’m making videos and posting them on Google Classroom. For my 6th graders in Spotlight on Communication, I decided to show them a little part of my home because I live in the woods, and I introduced them to my 3 goldfish via video. Still, what is lost is a depth of lessons. Some students are naturally driven and will delve deeply no matter where and in what format they are learning. But for the majority, they need community for encouragement. Being able to push a group into a collaborative mindset, build upon trust takes time in the classroom; I haven’t yet experienced the degree to which that might be successful online. We’ve all been thrown into this sink-or-swim mode together right now. It will be interesting in a few years to hopefully discover what we are gaining from online education.


Rob Chambers, Phoenix, Arizona

This whole experience has challenged me and all of us to find ways to connect and use technology as a bridge to vulnerability. I cannot help but notice the importance of remaining connected and “a part” of some artistic community that helps people learn how to feel, how to be human. While it may be very different online rather than in a proper theatre, I would rather push for more theatre interactions over any media format as I can during these strange times of quarantine and social distancing rather than throw my hands up and say “theatre can’t be done over a computer.”  It really comes down to the same three basic tenets that I teach in class: connect, breathe and listen.  While these tenets might be experienced differently online, it is better to provide experiences when and where they still can happen rather than not. 


I want to thank all of the educators who responded to my request. From time to time in the coming weeks, I’ll be posting updates from the field from these educators and others that check in. Until then, be well, be safe, and do what you do best, as well as you can.