“We’re gonna play a game called ‘Good Monologue/Bad Monologue!’” Sharon Miles tells the kids dialing in for “The Art of Acting” via Zoom.
Jazz hands, whoops and fist pumps amp things up with a game-show spirit and dreams of fun and prizes.
Jackson-based actor Sharon Miles’ exuberance bursts off the small screen just like it does off the stage. It’s hard to tear the eyes away or stop the grin that’s coming as, with a showman’s savvy, she opens a segment in New Stage Theatre’s More Than a Building Virtual Summer Camp.
In a pandemic season of closed theaters, New Stage Theatre in Jackson redesigned and rescued its three-week summer day camp, albeit with fewer than half its usual number of participants. Kids valued the connections with instructors and conversations with peers, feedback showed. New Stage’s summer theater camp usually wraps up with a “Broadway Jr.” musical (a shorter, kid-friendly version) that consumes students’ focus. That was not possible during the pandemic, so students explored new theater avenues and focused on building the artist within.
A planned live showcase, in the theater with physical distancing for the audience of family members, had to pivot to the virtual realm, too, as Mississippi’s COVID-19 case numbers surged in mid-July. Instead, showcase finales of each of the six camp tracks were recorded, to be shared with parents and the kids.
Students created 10-minute plays, and local theater pros, fellow virtual campers and former New Stage apprentices from across the country directed and acted in the plays via Zoom, which the theater shared on social media in two installments in early August. They will be available for viewing again this weekend, starting at 9 a.m. Aug. 15 (Part 1) and 9 a.m. Aug. 16 (Part 2), for 24 hours through New Stage Theatre Education Department’s Facebook page.
“Even though I knew the work was good, there was something magic that happened when you put it in the hands of people who are storytellers. … They bring humanity to those characters,” Education Director Miles says. “We’re in a season of encouraging students to use their voice. … We need to encourage those playwrights to write way more often.”
New Stage canceled its two-week summer minicamp, back in spring. Staffers realized that even a scaled-down, in-person version of its longer, more-intense Broadway Jr. Summer Camp was impossible as COVID-19 cases were rising, New Stage Artistic Director Francine Thomas Reynolds says.
“We always had virtual on our minds,” she says, but they’d worried if kids had screen burnout in the wake of online schooling. Turns out, the young people craved the connection. In feedback, students praised the camp’s interactive nature and real-time attention. Some even chimed in from vacation for class.
‘It’s Our Job to Consistently Figure Out the Yes’
In the theater’s Hewes Room, the setup involves a logo backdrop, webcam and laptop for the teacher’s station, another two computers with technicians to handle breakout rooms, page sharing and connectivity issues, a landline and WiFi for the Zoom connection, a backup with a different service provider in case of trouble, and a big screen on the wall with a view of students scattered across four counties. “Scene changes,” as the crew dubbed them, tailored the setup for each instructor.
“I think the season that we’re living in will always hand you a ‘No.’ And, it’s our job to consistently figure out the ‘Yes.’ And the how,” Miles says.
Skills developed through Zoom webinars, weeks of video conferencing and a few virtual classes went to work in the virtual camp for ages 11 through 18, reaching 31 students and incorporating more than 100 hours of instruction by theater pros. Instructors included New Stage veterans Miles, Drew Stark, Yohance Myles and Mandy Kate Myers (with some teaching remotely), as well as the theater’s production team of Bronwyn Teague, Richard Lawrence, Marie Venters, Caleb Blackwell and Alberto Meza. In master classes that followed each of the camp’s six tracks, students could also learn from Randy Redd, Jo Ann Robinson, Reynolds and more.
New Stage’s long-time camp sponsors The Walker Foundation and Feild Co-Operative Association continued their support for the virtual version, providing scholarships to help students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend.
There was plenty of trial, error, testing and troubleshooting. Staffers even tried to “break the internet,” so they could prepare a workaround. Twice, the theater “campus” crashed, knocking New Stage off both landline and WiFi internet. In a quick scramble, they hooked up to a different provider through the box office. “The cool thing is that Zoom automatically assigns a new host,” stage manager Clara Seitz says, “so the meeting will keep going.”
During the four minutes New Stage’s connection was down, a leader among the students stepped up to continue class. All part of the training, Seitz says. “Live theater is about ‘Oops, now what do we do?’”
The setup, with the Zoom class projected on a big screen for instructors, is key in connection. Teachers can see everybody and their energy isn’t focused down toward a computer screen, but up and out to the class. In one fun icebreaker, Yohance Myles led his class grid in a “Brady Bunch” singalong, to the opening theme song of the popular ‘70s sitcom.
Six theater tracks covered acting, camera closeups, making theater, musical theater, dance/movement and play creation. The camp’s virtual nature, while limiting in some respects, opened new horizons in others.
Stark, the New Stage education associate, could pull in clips of dance theater greats such as Martha Graham, Bob Fosse and Arthur Mitchell, for dance/movement students.
Teague led kids in a deep dive into the mechanics behind the magic of live theater in the technical track, as they contemplated costumes, props, lighting and scenic design for Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”
“They spent, like, the first week and a half on script analysis. We really never had the chance to do that before at camp,” Teague says. “It was a great opportunity to get them thinking about the whole process of making a show.”
Play creation was another first-time offering, Miles says, “and some of the work, I’m telling you, is something to see. … It’s not a small feat to take a blank canvas and create a play in three weeks.”
“In this camp, I feel like we really served the students,” Stark says. “The fact that these students are brilliant writers … I never knew that that talent could come out of them.”
“It makes me feel really good about the next generation of artists,” Seitz says.
‘I’m Kind of Camera Shy’
Marshall Robertson of Newton, 15, a New Stage camper in previous years, initially wasn’t sure about signing up this time. “I have to admit, I’m kind of camera shy,” he says via Zoom, but the lineup convinced him to enroll. “It’s well exceeded my expectations. … The quality of education with these classes has been immense to me. It’s been shocking almost … because I didn’t know how much information you could get through in three weeks, over a camera.”
His mom, Amy Robertson, a teacher, was impressed, too, by instructors’ energy and connection, and students’ eagerness to share ideas with each other. “I would try to sneak over his shoulder every now and then and look” as she passed Marshall’s setup in their kitchen.
Robertson discovered new things about Zoom conferencing that she shared with school administration. “I sent a suggestion that says, ‘I, as an instructor, need to learn how to have a better virtual presence, and I think these folks at New Stage could offer that to so many of us as educators who are struggling to figure this out.’”
‘I Really Felt Like I Was Part of the Family’
Camp newcomer Taylor Moore, 17, of Jackson, is also camera-shy, she says, but adapted quickly. “I really felt like I was part of the family after the first day,” she says over Zoom, throwing in a shout-out to Miles while she has the connection. You’re a great teacher, Ma’am.”
There may be a trickle-down effect, too. Taylor says her Power APAC vocal music teacher “wants me to teach her how to do Zoom meetings.”
Theater staff took the experience to heart. “The walkaway is, for us as artists, to always take the time to nurture the artist inside of us, regardless of what your age is,” Miles says. “Whether you’re 12 or you’re 40, there’s a creativity that brings joy and brings curiosity and excitement that nothing else can replace. “We don’t ever want to get so busy that we don’t feed the artist.”
Miles advises embracing the challenges, despite the obstacles. “What we want to do is inspire the next generation of artists … and equip them to know that they can do this, and that all of the things that they need is already within them,” she says.
“We need that reminder, because we’re not on stage, and we’re not producing plays. But that does not diminish the artists that we are, and the art that the world needs from us.”