Usually, this program meets about six hours a day every week day for five weeks. I've been teaching/directing it for a few years now, so I feel like I finally got into the rhythm of it - what's the educator lingo about it? Forming, storming, norming, performing? It's silly but it's true. Week 1 is nervous and quiet. Week 2 is loud and chaotic. Week 3 we start to make the art happen. Week 4 we polish. Week 5 we rehearse. Week 6 is when we take the student-created show on the road: they have a 30-45 minute piece, entirely in their voice, and they climb onto a school bus and we drive them to a Community Learning Center, or Boys and Girls Club, or Senior Center. They play games with kids before they perform, or they have extended talkbacks and mingle with seniors afterwards. It's a beautiful program, and it's entirely free. (You can learn more about it here.)
Usually, I recruit for this program directly to students. I don't mess with brochures that appeal to parents, or web advertising - although those are valid ways to get people to notice your program. Instead, I have a network of loving and supportive teachers who allow me and other teachers into their classroom to play games and talk about storytelling and what it means to use your voice. I hook kids that are self-motivated, self-taught, looking for an outlet or an escape that doesn't cost their family anything. The drawback is a lot of independent students who may have financial difficulties at home have a LOT of other things to focus on - jobs and families. But there are a few kids who are willing to dedicate their time to creating a tiny artist community of peers, and creating something new that has never been in the world before they got together. It very much feels like assembling the Avengers. The bar to pass is about bravery and motivation, not tuition. I love that.
Usually, this all goes pretty well. Recruitment has been down the past few years (more due, I think, to increasing income inequality and housing/food instability than anything we're doing as a theater - recruitment is down in arts programs everywhere) but I wind up with a small but mighty group that put in a lot of work, and play, and support, and love.
COVID-19 shut schools down before I could get to my recruitment workshops. I tried recruiting online, but teachers were already struggling to reach their students with the sudden shut down - how was I supposed to rely on overworked, underpaid, totally stressed out network of public school teachers to spread the word in a time of crisis? (Some of them totally did!! I made recruitment videos - BAD ONES, from my living room, with a 14 year old camera - and they shared them as wide as they could. I am so grateful.)
Since I started as the Education Manager at Next Act, I had been attempting to build an alumni community. This is difficult, as teenagers generally change physical addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses as soon as they graduate high school. I was creating newsletters. (Not a whole lot of enthusiasm about that.) I set up an instagram for the program. (I think like 9 kids follow it? I am very bad at instagram.) I was attempting to plan reunions. Harumph.
I decided I had to rely on this shaky, brand new alumni network for all my recruitment efforts. I opened the program up this year to ALL alumni, no matter their age. I e-mailed and posted and even texted, facebook messaged, and had the marketing department send physical postcards. I created an alumni zoom reunion in May. Please, please, please just show up. Please?
SO MANY DID.
Okay, not SO many. 15- 20ish. I think that's a great number.
We chatted and played games. When I let them know that Next Actors can't meet in person this year, the responses flooded the room - "But we have to do SOMETHING!", "My school figured out how to do scenes through zoom.", "Have you heard this musical podcast?" etc. I didn't even have to ask my follow up question, which was going to be - how do you think we should move ahead with the program online? They jumped on it. Turns out, recruiting incredibly motivated self-taught learners has its benefits.
SO, I just got through my first week of teaching this newfangled online program. I did a lot of prep work, researching online tools that would be helpful (like Flip Grid) and researching online tools I don't want to use at all (like Google Classroom - great for school teachers, not for me.) I watched webinars about how to move theater games into zoom chats. I spoke for hours with other teachers. I took copious notes. I got over mourning the loss of real theater (theater, by definition, requires live actors, not a screen) and started getting interested in camera techniques and the new tools available to us in this brave new world. I broke down my program into pillars, which I've never done before or really thought about, and I figured out how to move all of those pillars online.
Physical - in person, we would warm up every day. Online, I e-mail them workout videos and encourage them to start a Yoga with Adriene program. I started a google chart where they can share what they're up to, if that kind of visibility is motivating.
Emotional - I made sure they all had notebooks at home (and even delivered one to a student's house when they indicated they didn't have one) and I send them daily journal prompts, each one intended to focus on yourself and your feelings.
Social - we use Flip Grid to check in with each other daily. It has been absolutely the highlight of the program, for me. I ask them to do things like show off a brand new skill, or talk about their favorite movies. (We also zoom chat for two hours together on Mondays- at the request of the students, zoom chats are at this low frequency because "zoom is exhausting." I tend to agree.)
Creative - I assign them creative writing assignments about once every two to three days, about our feelings and opinions but also about how to turn those into art. We use a Google Drive to share.
So far, I have had about ten students keeping up with daily participation, and one or two who will catch up with the work every three days or so. (Like I said. Jobs. Families. Etc.)
Most of my job has become e-mailing or texting students from a Google Voice account things like "Hi, we haven't heard from you in a few days, just checking in!" which is a little exhausting. But it's worth it - they are using these tools to create an artist community, just like they would in person. They are being brave and vulnerable, they are sharing their voices and personalities, and they are supporting each other and holding each other accountable for getting their work done. It is beautiful.
What surprised me was how emotionally difficult this is for me. I always miss my students. I thought seeing them online would alleviate some of that, but it, in fact, made it worse. The other day, I ran out of Flip Grid videos to watch and I burst into sobs that completely caught me off guard. I wish I could support them immediately, in the moment, and let them know how much I marvel at their bravery and willingness to be vulnerable. (I have to trust that they just KNOW this. They are alumni, after all.)
I have often thought of my job as "providing a vessel" for students to fill. This online vessel has no walls. It is weirdly shaped, invades all our homes, is and is completely voluntary. (A room is voluntary, but not in the ways our online tools are.)
I do a lot of "holding" - holding council, holding or directing focus, holding feelings, holding space and time and sometimes chaos and sometimes silence. All of that is impossible to do when you're teaching mostly through e-mail and Google Drive. All the "holding" is done by a computer, and I can't react in real time, no matter how many hours I sit by the screen. I have already had to gently correct / re-direct behavior... through text and e-mail, where so much can be lost in translation. (They can't see that my eyes are kind while I address them. They can't hear my calm teacher tone.) I can't read their feelings when they're not "on" to the class. I can't help them if they don't, in writing, tell me that they're struggling.
It's not that I assumed online teaching would be easy. But there's no way of knowing the particular WAYS in which it will be difficult until you just do it. Thankfully, my students are not only supportive and kind to each other, but they have an acute awareness that everything is weird for everyone right now, including teachers.