By DANNY HUGHES
It’s yet another day of quarantine due to COVID-19. All time seems to blend together at this point, but it was just a few weeks ago I was watching as my theatre colleagues and former students announced their live performances were postponed...then cancelled. I reminisced to the days when I ran a school theatre program, and realized that the day schools closed in Maryland, March 16, would likely have been the opening night of our Spring Musical.
Even through all the cancellations and uncertainty, I’ve noticed something incredible! All of those creative people forced to adjust and reschedule didn’t just accept that their shows were cancelled and stop creating. They created collaborative spaces online.
I’ve watched complete strangers meet up to read Shakespeare plays together over Zoom. I’ve seen completely new designed-for-online plays written and distributed for performances free of charge. I’ve even participated in the collaboration by connecting with a former student of mine to create character images for a Dungeons and Dragons Improv show.
In short, the show goes on. It seems that the argument that theatre must be experienced physically and in the moment might need a bit of an adjustment in this technical age.
It’s true that something magical happens when a room full of strangers comes together to share in an artistic experience. However, I believe the real magic comes from the people who create those experiences, the performers, technicians, designers, directors, and everyone responsible for creating this magic.
We can still share that magic from anywhere in the world with artists around the world. Perhaps more importantly, we can still teach others to create that magic in the world that will follow.
An interactive, online textbook for high school learners has the ability to completely change the way we teach Theatre. What better way could there be to teach the most collaborative art form than by creating a textbook through authentic collaboration of artists in the entertainment industry and performing arts? My vision is to create a living, breathing online text to teach theatre that has the ability to change as frequently as the art form and industry. My vision of this interactive, online textbook will benefit students in three ways: Authentic Connections to the Entertainment Industry, Student Buy-in, and Access.
Authentic Connections to the Entertainment Industry
When I taught high school theatre, I would watch as my students fell in love with the art form...and as their parents panicked about their futures. Not everyone can be on Broadway or a big shot in Hollywood, so what does a career in the arts actually mean?
An online interactive text would answer this question better than any individual high school teacher could by showing exactly what a students’ career could be. Up-to-date videos could show the creation of a set as well as what the lives and schedules are like for touring actors. Students and parents could step into the theatre industry to see various career options such as prop shops, side shows, and stage manager booths, all in one resource.
Obviously, now might be one of the most difficult times to try to encourage parent buy-in for a career in the entertainment industry, but “theatre people” are resilient, and they’ll get through this with grace, aplomb, and probably some confetti cannons. I entirely believe that, even in these times, providing a resource created collaboratively by this resilient crew would help students and parents visualize realistic career paths in theatre.
You’ll always have students who love theatre entirely, but I always wanted to reach the students who were just there to try it out. High school theater textbooks are, in my experience, tone deaf in one of two directions: either they think high school students are half their age or double it. For a student just trying theatre, an art form based on experience, nothing kills their curiosity faster than “open the textbook to page 67.”
But what if they could actually contribute to the textbook? What if their original script could be published as a resource for other high school students all over the world to perform? Or what if their pantomime was filmed and used as an example? Perhaps their make-up design for the Big Bad Wolf makes it to the World Wide Web, instead of just Mr. Hughes’ third period?
That student might not go on to work professionally in theatre, but their work will live on in the text. They’ll be a part of something bigger than themselves, which will stick with them, and further fuel their lifelong appreciation of theatre.
Not every school system or student has the resources to experience a professional, live production. Only a few students have the means to receive private coaching and training in singing, acting, and dance. However, with an online interactive textbook, more students could come closer to these experiences. Students interested in singing could watch breakdown tutorials, while a teacher could assign the class to watch videos of professional live productions. Even in areas where there are no easily accessible theatre experiences, students could engage fully with the art form.
Interactive textbooks have already started to enhance core subjects in school, but too often, subjects like Theatre are forgotten. Through this idea, we could reach more students more authentically and to help them realize an appreciation for the performing arts they may not have otherwise experienced.
So, what are we waiting for? For now, the lights might be off on stages around the country, but there are new, digital spotlights being lit daily. The show must go on.
My Theatre teacher taught me that “inspire” comes from the Latin “inspirit” which means to “fill or imbue with spirit, or breath.” He said our job as performers and artists was to “breathe life into a lifeless text.”
So, I’m calling for theatre teachers, actors, directors, technicians, scenic artists, props masters, voice over actors, cameramen, foley artists, clowns, comedians, writers, producers, community theaters, critics, make-up artists, stage managers, soundboard ops, light designers, choreographers, fight choreographers, costumers, puppeteers, musicians, choral directors, amateurs, professionals, and any in between or beyond to join me the creation of an online interactive Theatre textbook.
Together, let’s breathe some life into the Theatre textbooks of yesteryear and inspire the creators our world will need tomorrow.
Danny Hughes is an English and Theatre teacher currently working at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore, MD. He is also one of the co-hosts and creators of the Baltimore Improv Group’s Gettin’ Biggie with It podcast and works professionally as a voice over artist. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Educational Technology through Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. To find out more, visit dannyhughesvo.com.