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How TDF Is Getting Students to Turn on Their Cameras

By: Elyse Orecchio
Date: Apr 28, 2021

How TDF's Introduction to Theatre program went virtual to help students and teachers during a tumultuous year

During a typical academic year, TDF's free Introduction to Theatre program connects thousands of students throughout the tristate area to the magic of live performance. But when theatres and schools closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 health crisis, TDF staffers knew the show had to go on… just not as planned.

"The first thing we did was ask teachers what they needed," recalls Ginger Bartkoski Meagher, TDF's Director of Education Programs. Responses came flooding in: They needed access to free streaming theatre. They needed high-energy teaching artists to engage their disconnected students. Most importantly, they needed help supporting their pupils during a traumatic time.

"Students needed to be able to express themselves and talk," says Meagher. "We wanted a very intentional space for students to discuss emotional and complicated ideas through a creative lens" as they navigated a global pandemic and a social justice reckoning.

Thankfully, TDF teaching artists are adept at improvising. "That's what scrappy theatre-makers do," Meagher says. "They take what they have and figure it out." Without in-person shows or classes, teaching artists had to find innovative virtual ways to bring the transformative power of the performing arts into the classroom.

"Zoom is your new stage and you are going to be the pioneers of what is possible there," explained TDF teaching artist Eric Wallach to his Introduction to Theatre students at Mount Vernon's Denzel Washington School of the Arts. In collaboration with the classroom teacher, Wallach helped students develop the virtual revue A Night with Nina Simone featuring dance, music and spoken-word performances inspired by the legendary singer-songwriter and civil rights activist. Students were encouraged to do everything both on camera and behind the screens, including lighting and sound design.

"Nina Simone was a mentor for these students who wanted—no, demanded to bring their politics to their art form," says Wallach. "Many wanted to confront the reality around them, challenge it and inspire us to move forward."

Eleventh grader Justyce, who wrote and performed the poem "Black Is Unique" to an instrumental version of Nina Simone's "Take Care of Business," appreciated the chance to show off her art as well as her activism. "I want people to know what goes on in our generation today," she says. "I'm proud of the way I was able to deliver my message and connect with my audience."

Justyce's classmate Malachi noted that there are upsides to performing on Zoom: "The fear of being on a stage in front of people that I know isn't there, which gives me more confidence," he says. The format also allowed him to seamlessly switch instruments midway on "Blue Skies," which he played on alto saxophone and flute. "I was able to double the fun," he says.

Of course, not all Introduction to Theatre participants come from a performing background. For many, the program is their first experience with live theatre. That's why, for the students at New Jersey's North Plainfield High School, teaching artist Stephen DiMenna opted to stream Lincoln Center Theater's production of Dominique Morisseau's Pipeline about the school-to-prison pipeline and facilitate a post-show Zoom discussion.

During the conversation, one student hesitantly unmuted herself and said, "Not to make it about race, but..."

"Yes, yes, please do!" DiMenna encouraged. "It's about race."

The play's themes resonated deeply with tenth grader Ah'mari. "As someone of color, you're automatically seen as a threat if you come out as aggressive, which is why I try to stay quiet," she says. "Watching this helps people understand what people of color go through in school or just anywhere."

"A lot of things like this are considered controversial for other classes, but here you can bring up topics like that," says ninth grader Kayla. "I'm glad we can because then you get a real discussion."

Currently, DiMenna's North Plainfield students are working on writing and performing a "missing" scene from Pipeline. This creative exercise is strengthening their understanding of and appreciation for theatre—as audience members and potential artists.

At Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, TDF teaching artist Kate Bell streamed Heidi Schreck's politically charged What the Constitution Means to Me and then asked students to devise personal pieces that touched on constitutional amendments—in other words, to talk about what the Constitution means to them.

The resulting Zoom pieces ranged from hilarious to heartbreaking, and Bell encouraged students to leave supportive comments in the chat as they watched their peers. She notes that it's hard "asking young people to be really vulnerable, especially right now, especially on Zoom. I've learned that you just have to do it with a lot of honor and respect and praise." Thankfully, students were happy to cheer on their peers. Comments in the chat box included "Benjamin is really putting his soul into those tableaux" and "James needs a hug."

Students and teachers at all the schools agreed that Introduction to Theatre was the one Zoom class during which all cameras stayed on. That connection is crucial during this era of isolation. "It's hard to be a young person right now," says Jo Ann Cimato, who teaches theatre at Manhattan's Beacon High School. "The rage they feel is real. It is justifiable, it is understandable." Cimato says collaborating with TDF teaching artist Stephen DiMenna has been invaluable during this challenging time. Recently, DiMenna had students create group dances via Zoom. Afterward, they talked about the importance of communication and feeling free to let go, especially now.

Before the pandemic, Introduction to Theatre served 10,000 students annually in 150 schools. Amazingly, even without in-person performances this past academic year, the course engaged more than 6,000 students in 70 schools, all via Zoom. And while Cimato, like most teachers, is "desperate to get students back into real time and space," she admits she will retain "some of the tools that video conferencing has given us for our storytelling."

TDF's Meagher agrees. "It's exciting that there are these tools that are accessible and democratic—it's a new opportunity," she says, noting that even when in-person theatre resumes, TDF will offer virtual education programs for schools outside the tristate area. "We know digital theatre isn't going away."


Elyse Orecchio is TDF's Online Presence Manager. Follow her on Instagram and on Twitter at @elyseo. Follow TDF on Twitter at @TDFNYC.

Top image: a student from Mount Vernon's Denzel Washington School of the Arts performing on Zoom as part of TDF's Introduction to Theatre program. Image courtesy of the school.

Elyse Orecchio is TDF's Digital Content Manager. Follow her on Instagram at @elyseo. Follow TDF on Instagram at @TDFNYC.