Weston Keifer is the technical director of the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas Texas. Through his work at the center he developed BackStage Spotlight, a technical theatre education program. His program has been able to give technical students elevated training in all the elements of stagecraft. He lives north of Dallas with his beautiful wife, four-year-old son, and has a daughter on the way.
Preparing for the New Norm
Often administrators don’t see the full value of theatre programs; due to the changes in the world it is now more important than ever for us to prepare and adapt to show the full worth of these programs. Theatre teachers have always been able to think outside the box, and it is time to put our skills to the test to make sure theatre arts can stay relevant, avoid budget cuts, and continue to open the eyes of our students.
Things to Consider
Rest assured we are all currently in the same boat. You are not alone. Teachers and professional artists are all having to figure out how to keep going, and how we move beyond these uncertain times. I too have been figuring out how to do my work from home. As a theatre professional, with no shows to work on, I had to adjust what I was doing. I have never been the kind of person to make social media content, but I had to immediately figure out how to do so without all the resources I have available to me at my venues. I had to figure out how to conduct productive meetings with my staff virtually and come up with a game plan to keep them focused on necessary projects. This, as you can expect, was a huge challenge. Knowing that without shows to work on we would have down time, I took advantage of that time to do some research and found many online training courses. I and my staff were able to update certifications, and gain knowledge in certain areas we had not previously had time to focus on due to our busy show schedule. While this worked out in the short term, I have had to continue working to figure out plans for the long term. I can only imagine what theatre teachers had to overcome as you transitioned to at-home e-learning, but you did it. It may not have been exactly what you hoped to accomplish, but you did it. Remember that as you move forward into the fall. You can do this.
So, what now? I know all teachers realize they need to be prepared, and many of them use their summer break to do this, however, this summer is different. We have all been thrown for a loop, and we need to be more prepared than ever. Many school districts in my area are looking into a hybrid model of in person as well as at home instruction. I believe there is a high probability this will become a national model in most areas. Begin by figuring out what you have the capacity to do, and what you are hoping to accomplish. Make a loose game plan, but remember to be flexible, and expect that game plan to change. Remember that you may have to teach classes both in person and virtually. You’ve got the in-person side down, so focus on the virtual side. If you can, I recommend recording some content for virtual classes now. Doing this now gives you time to get it right. You will have the time to get the subject matter and the flow of the classes perfectly paced. If you can make a few classes now, when fall begins, you will be that much more ahead. If you don’t want to record classes, and feel more comfortable going live, there is still plenty you can do to prepare.
Beyond preparing the content of your theatre classes, there is a need to figure out how you will be accomplishing performances. Will you stream them, or have distanced shows? How many students can occupy classrooms or shop spaces with distancing in mind? Be sure you have a plan for opening your venue for shows and events. Many school administrators are trying to figure out how to do academic instruction via various models, so it is up to you to formulate your venue’s plan. There are many resources to help you with these types of plans. Harvard A.R.T., USITT, ESA, as well as others are working on re-opening plans and guidelines. EDTA will even be producing a primer that will cover a lot of these processes. Inform yourself and make a plan that best suits your venue.
When you feel you are starting to get a handle on all of this, it is time to work with your administrators to make sure your program can move forward. This is where a lot of the “outside of the box” thinking will come into play. How can your students continue to gain experience? Perhaps some of your tech students want to be stage managers. You may come up with a plan for how those students can manage school virtual meetings for staff and administrators who are on campus. They can work the “waiting room” allowing the invited participants of the virtual meeting in, they could be in control of muting and un-muting the microphone feeds. Ideas like these can be brought to your administrators and can not only help your students to continue to learn through creative opportunities, but help your program stay relevant as well.
Theatre is more than a job or a career. Theatre is a calling. We are in a new world. And while it seems crazy and uncertain right now, remember that you can do this, and there is a whole community here to back you up. Dust off the rolodex, little black book, or contact list in your phone and contact old friends and colleagues. See what they are planning for their own students and spaces. Collaborate, utilize your resources, and start planning so you can advocate for your program.
Recommended Actions You Can Take
-Come up with a re-opening plan for your venue
-Plan for hybrid teaching
-Work with your administrators on new ways to work with students
-Utilize resources to make this easier on you
-You are your biggest advocate