Last March, Cassidy Rice was sitting in the Arvada West High School auditorium when she heard the news. Schools would be closing due to COVID-19, and Newsies, the school’s musical in which she was cast, would not be performed. The news came just a week out from opening night.
“It was really hard, but it was better that they announced it while we were at the school instead of home, so we could all say good-bye,” Rice remembers. An eighth-grader at the time, it would have been Rice’s first experience in a high school production, alongside older students.
Like so many other theater productions, choir performances, art shows, and concerts across the country last spring, Rice’s show did not go on. In the months that followed, though, arts organizations across the state came up with ways to pivot, change, and develop new opportunities for kids to interact with the arts while keeping COVID-19 safety precautions in mind. The results show that the creativity of arts organizations extend far beyond their performances.
Virtual Arts Education
As of October, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) had furloughed about half of its 300 employees and their theaters were still closed to spectators. DCPA artistic director Chris Coleman spends more time fundraising than directing plays these days, but Coleman was pleased at how seamlessly DCPA’s education programs carried on. For the summer, all in-person classes were converted to online, enrolling 500 individuals for youth and adult classes.
“We had to think about things like, ‘How do you direct a scene where not everyone is in the same room?’ I think people were surprised it worked as well as it did,” Coleman says.
Lisa Leafgreen, education director at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, says the center’s dance and youth symphony classes transitioned online very quickly. For visual arts, Arvada Center Education Staff assembled packets of supplies for each student, then had families pick them up to use during online class sessions.
The center’s online classes reached students outside Arvada, too. “We had students sign up from Guatemala; Severance, Colorado; and Estes Park,” Leafgreen says. “It really broke down geographical and access barriers.” The classes went so well, she says, that the center plans to explore more virtual or hybrid options even after the threat of the coronavirus has passed.
For many kids who gravitate toward the arts, it’s more than just a fun hobby; they find a community in which they feel they can be themselves. After large gatherings were shut down, “we got a letter from a mom saying that her daughter was in a dark place, and a [theater] camp would save her life,” says Carrie Colton, program director for Rocky Mountain Theatre for Kids and Actor’s Academy for the Performing Arts. “We felt if we could find a safe way to gather, we needed to offer it.”
Also an assistant professor of theater at Metro State University, Colton says she was fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues who think like scientists and were continually sending articles on the latest COVID-19 studies. It gave her confidence to shift some theater camps outdoors safely, while still offering virtual options.
The biggest challenge, Colton says, was finding outdoor spaces in Denver and Boulder that would accommodate camps. In Boulder, a family with a daughter in the program offered their spacious farm property. In Denver, they held theater camps at Bear Creek Park, a public park near South Sheridan Boulevard and West Kenyon Avenue.
Colton determined that the format worked best with less than 20 kids at a time, so they broke casts into smaller groups, coordinating separate practices and separate performances. Costuming was minimal, often using what students could bring from home. Students wore masks when they couldn’t be distanced. They danced to recorded songs, relying on body language to convey the message and limit singing. When songs were performed, vocalists spread out more than six feet apart.
Colton says the outdoor theater experience allowed the kids to be more creative, and she hopes to continue the option. “I had students writing, coming up with their own fairy tale creatures, and coming up with their own songs,” Colton says. “Students had more ownership this way than when they [followed] a script exactly.” At the Denver park, they were even able to use different parts of the park for various scenes, including the nearby creek.
As other theater programs look at how they can gather, Colton suggests teachers think about adapting with safety constraints in mind. “Don’t plan to open [in-person] if you plan on doing theater the way it was done before,” advises Colton. “Find a creative way to include masks. Actors can’t touch, but what can you do instead?”
Prior to COVID-19, the Denver Children’s Choir (DCC) served a diverse population by offering choir classes in various Denver neighborhood schools. They’re now conducting all their classes through live Zoom sessions, in conjunction with the software, My Choral Coach, “which allows kids to record themselves singing while listening to an accompaniment of the song and site reading the music,” explains Aimee Palczak, development associate at DCC.
DCC also wanted to ensure that online classes would not affect their diversity outreach—they strive to make music education affordable and accessible for children of all racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic areas. Palczak reports they’re doing well: Choir enrollment currently consists of 54 percent children of color, and 46 percent who receive some sort of financial aid.
In the midst of the virus, DCC added Enrichment Electives to their programming, in which they partnered with local musicians for classes on Mexican music culture, spirituals, and many other themes. “Our incredibly talented music staff really stepped up to create some truly wonderful and thoughtful content for a wide range of audiences,” says Palczak, adding that they plan to continue the electives after the pandemic threat subsides.
Upcoming Arts Offerings
The Arvada Center plans to reopen its theater season in February 2021, as long as they can do so safely. They’re planning a reduced schedule of two musicals and two plays. In addition, they’ve assembled an innovation task force “to talk about ways we can pivot safely,” says Leafgreen.
The Center’s task force developed the Front Porch Series last summer, during which local musical acts performed outdoors on a plaza while the audience enjoyed food and beverages. They are also producing two radio plays (audio-based theater) this fall, hosted on Vimeo with captions. “I think people are sick of looking at screens,” says Leafgreen. “This allows us to go back to the time when families would gather around the radio. You can get back to theater, but in your imagination.”
A conservative estimate for Broadway theater to return to the DCPA is summer 2021, with other productions opening in November 2021, says Coleman. “I tend to be a purist when it comes to live theater, but…our CEO told us the story of when her grandma was dying and she couldn’t go to church, it was so important that she could listen to it on the radio,” Coleman says. “And that was like a lightbulb moment for me. We are not trying to replicate the theater experience, but we can provide a link to the experience.”
The DCPA strives to do this by generating more online content, including a once-per-month artist series and short weekly videos featuring clips from past performances, with behind-the-scenes interviews.
Even after the DCPA opens, patrons who are not ready to come back will have another option. Coleman says they are experimenting with streaming and capturing full-length live performances for people to watch from home.
When it comes to the arts in Colorado schools, not all are making the same decisions in how they’re moving forward—some programs are fully online while others are in-person. At Cassidy Rice’s high school, she’s currently receiving in-person band and choir instruction. For band, “if we are practicing longer, we move into the auditorium and sometimes outside,” she says. While Colorado band competitions will not be happening this fall, Rice and her classmates will enter a virtual competition in which they will compete against bands from other states.
For choir, “If we sing longer than 40 minutes, we move into the pre-function space where we can spread apart,” she says. Masks are required while singing, and her fall and holiday choir performances will be virtual. “I love making music in person, and getting energy from physically being there,” Rice says. “It’s really nice to be back, even if socially distanced, and everyone is doing a great job.”
Lydia Ruger is an Arvada-based freelance writer, mom, and author.