Children's Theater students adapt to new challenges with a spirit of playby Jan Janes on Nov 16, 2020
Every fall for decades, nearly 4,000 elementary schoolchildren hopped on buses and traveled to Gavilan College to watch theater performances created specifically for them. But a Fall 2020 semester of mostly online classes across the campus posed challenges.
People in the the theater always find a way.
For classes and rehearsals, students must enter the college theater through the stage door.
The theater program is one of a handful that was approved for in-person classes. Large ensembles now meet as groups of 10, and students and faculty adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols.
Three students offered insights about adapting to the current normal of stage performance. Abby Chase and Alex Salcido, who have been acting since age 8, and Autumn Gilbert, who auditioned for her first role at age 13, share their playful approach to story creation.
“This is a huge shift,” said Gilbert. “Theater is an intimate place, with the actors, the lights, the audience.” People on stage can no longer touch or get close to one another, so action scenes must be reimagined. “Staging is weird, we have to stay in our squares, and it’s hard to be filmed.”
Painted behind the theater building and on the stage floor are circles, squares and marks to ensure everyone remains at least six feet apart.
“We miss the live audience,” said Chase. The lead up to opening night with lengthy rehearsals can be exhausting. “Opening night of any show, you get in front of the audience, deliver your best performance, and they give back.”
“Now we have to pull this energy out of somewhere.”
Three video cameras are positioned four rows up in the audience seats, and the actors have moved much of the action to the front of the stage. “Our voices are muffled because of the masks,” sais Gilbert.
The class warms up with stretching exercises, vocal exercises and games.
Brian Carmack, at the back of the stage, leads the students in a brisk early morning workout. A Gavilan alum, he has extensive professional stage experience, recently completed his masters degree and has returned to the college to teach.
“Writing and performing for children is fun,” said Chase. “The kids look up to you, you get to be animated and hear the children’s reactions.” For the first story the ensemble produced, she was a snail with a backpack shell and eye stalks, scooting around stage on a skateboard. “We use imagination. What would a child think up? What will a child find funny?”
The Children’s Theater class frequently draws on and reworks materials from Aesop’s Fables and folktales. This fall’s stories are based on concepts from two books, Coyote and River Maiden.
“I remember being here in third grade,” said Gilbert. “Coming to Gavilan was huge, we were on a college campus, the theater from the outside was ginormous, and the show presented to us, as kids, was just magic.”
Classmates work with Carmack, left, and Theater Director John Lawton-Haehl, right, to build the next script.
“It shows how important these stories are,” said Salcido, “And the lessons kids learn from them. As soon as we think of a lesson, we instantly turn it into a story.”
Salcido, whose mother is a school principal, has worked in classrooms and with the STAR Arts education program.
Salcido reads the script for one of her new characters.
“In Children’s Theater, we aren’t presented with a script,” said Salcido. “We work on it as an ensemble and show it to Dr. John. For this next story, we’ll take aspects of a barebones script and add on to it. Take a one-minute story and build on it with improv.”
“We have a class we can rely on,” said Chase. “We know we can do improve together and create.” Using video, the class has learned to record parts, such as the singing and dancing, separately. “With live theater, we can play off flubs and breaking character.”
“With improv we’re always trying new things and new lines,” said Gilbert. “We would perform the same way for an audience.”
Gilbert, left, and Chase, center, get direction from Lawton-Haehl on the new story.
"Working in the ensemble builds the sense of community and tribe," said Lawton-Haehl, who has been managing the Theater Arts program since 2006. "When you work with scene partners, you make this other, creative family that understands you."
"Collaboration and group dynamics improve. Theater people put that energy out there and get the energy rolling. These students are so energetic!"
In their choreographed version of High Hopes, after the ant moved a rubber tree
plant, students created a stanza to Rocky the ram, who butted a dam.
And a little theater BTS (behind the scenes)...
Brian Carmack choreographed High Hopes for this story, and he videotaped the steps for the Children's Theater students so they could learn them before arriving at the theater to perform. As he was recording his choreography, Carmack turned around to discover behind him his nephews, first and third graders, also following his steps and learning the dance.
People in theater always find a way!