Interview by BA Ciccolella. Photos courtesy of Nicole Harp, Clayton Singleton, and Norfolk Public Schools.
Last July, two local Norfolk high school Fine Arts teachers, Ms. Nicole Harp of Granby and Mr. Clayton Singleton of Lake Taylor, answered an open call to artists from the Neon District Public Art Committee. Their newly completed piece, Black Lives More Than Matter, the mural on the rear of O.J. Wholesale, also home to Black-owned business Furious Styles on the second floor, is a reflection of the current cultural climate. It is also their first large project collaboration together.
Harp and Singleton are professional artists with extensive resumes, and both show an obvious passion for their creative callings. Spotlight News was lucky enough to sit down with them for an interview where we discussed (among other things) their projects (past, present, and future), their collaboration, and their ideas on how art can be used for communication and activism.
You can reach Nicole and Clayton online using the following links:
Words by Louise Casini Hollis. Images by Louise Casini Hollis and family.
We raised Monarchs! No, not the kind that graduate from ODU, but Monarch butterflies. Our butterfly adventures began in 2004 when my daughter was 3 and I saw a suggestion on a parenting blog that raising butterflies was, “a great thing to do with your kids.” It sounded like a really cool opportunity (I never got to raise butterflies when I was a child), and it might earn me a bit of “Earth Mother cred”, a quality I severely lack. Never mind that she was only 3 – she’d still get into it!
So we ordered some Painted Lady caterpillars, and watched them grow, form their chrysalises, hatch, and then we released them in the backyard. It was a nice science experiment for the whole family and our eldest cat, Kokopelli, was fascinated by them. His fascination inspired my first children’s book, Kokopelli and the Butterfly, which led to other children’s stories about Koko’s adventures. And thankfully, our daughter was intrigued.
Side-note: When my husband Brian and I were first married, I planted a little herb garden of basil, cilantro and sage on our apartment balcony. He loves to cook, so it was my way of showing my appreciation and encouraging his culinary talent. (I’m no fool!) Well, he thought it was such a great idea that he took over and cultivated a garden Julia Child would envy. A few years later we moved into our house and he tried to grow one of his favorite herbs: fennel. Well, novice gardeners that we were, we were appalled when large green hookah-smoking caterpillars colonized our beautiful fennel and ate it down to the nub. Those hookah smokers turned out to be Swallowtail caterpillars.
Well, that was a disappointment! Fast-forward to the next year when I decided to beautify our yard, and bought some Lantana and Hyssop. I had seen Hummingbirds and butterflies feasting on those plants when we were out-and-about and wanted to attract them to our yard. Well, it worked and we had some very happy hummingbirds and butterflies visit us. Brian was pleased too, and found watching the bees and butterflies after a long day at work very relaxing. So what happened? He started buying more plants. And MORE plants! He went plant crazy! And as a result, his green thumb has turned our yard into a pollinator sanctuary. “It’s really relaxing to just sit and watch the bees after a long day of work. And I like helping our pollinators,” he’ll tell you. Now he plants fennel for the giant hookah smoking caterpillars, and has added Cinderella Swamp Milkweed for the Monarchs.
Back to 2020: We ordered our Painted Ladies and some Ladybugs in June, and then late July Brian and our daughter noticed some caterpillars were happily gorging themselves on the milkweed. We’d already seen several Monarchs, but it was exciting to find 8 caterpillars on our milkweed!
And then Hurricane Isaias came to town. Part of our “battening down the hatches” meant we got out the caterpillar habitat and brought our daughter’s precious Monarch caterpillars inside to make sure they didn’t get blown away. (They are under investigation as a possible endangered species, after all.) After Isaias blew through, I said we needed to let them back out. “Oh please Mommy,” my daughter begged, “can’t we raise the Monarchs?”
“No, they’re wild animals. We shouldn’t,” and I took the caterpillars out and released them back onto the milkweed. This was Mom Fail #1.
That night I saw a post on the Wild Birds group I follow on Facebook saying, “leave caterpillars on plants. It takes between 3,000-6,000 caterpillars to feed baby Carolina Chickadees.” I panicked. The next morning we checked the milkweed and there were only 2 caterpillars.
What had I done!?! My daughter’s beloved caterpillars could be in the belly of a baby bird! Little did I know that birds are actually not a problem for Monarch caterpillars. The Milkweed they eat acts as a toxin, so most birds tend to leave the caterpillars alone – Orioles and Grosbeaks are the only birds that have been observed to eat Monarch butterflies. According to Monarch Joint Venture, wasps, ants and spiders are dangerous to Monarch eggs and caterpillars, so one of those was probably the culprit. Nonetheless, before she could get upset, I said, “Hey Honey, if you really want to raise the caterpillars, let’s do it!”
“Yeah Mommy! Thank you!” (Hey, and I got some Mom cred as well!)
“Well, this will be an adventure,” I thought. We loaded up the caterpillars and some milkweed and brought them inside, put them in the caterpillar habitat and hung it high up because our Delilah cat has bad manners when it comes to caterpillars. They make her CRAZY. She glowers at them. She HATES bugs in her house. She jumps and has tried to climb a habitat once. In short, she’s a cat.
Let’s just say it was a long 2 weeks for Delilah.
Meanwhile our excited daughter became a Butterfly Expert Extraordinaire or B.E.E. She googled and researched and found out everything she could about Monarch Butterflies. She found that the different stages of caterpillar’s development are labeled as “instars”.
Watching the instars, it quickly became quite clear to me that Eric Carle’s children’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar wasn’t the fanciful tale I had romanticized it as, but rather a factual documentation of the destructive carnage just one caterpillar’s appetite could inflict. Milkweed was being ingested at an alarming rate – in just hours it was stripped bare to the stem. These caterpillars grew and Grew and GREW (and then grew some more). My husband and I took to pleading with them, “Please go into your chrysalis! We’re running out of milkweed!” But they just kept eating and creating loads of frass. What is frass you ask? It’s the fancy name for insect poop. And no, they do not have the training or dignity of cats. There’s no covering up their frass. (Score one for Delilah cat.)
So, our sunroom was slowly becoming filled with gigantic green worms and their refuse. Oh butterflies, you are so charming. And our little B.E.E. does love you so.
So onward we went. They were fascinating little guys. The first time we saw one make his chrysalis was amazing. Brian took a video of it! Our little B.E.E. went to work researching every aspect of the butterfly’s life cycle and existence. She found that caterpillars actually shed their skins and then reconfigure themselves with enzymes called caspases over a 10-14 day period. How fascinating… and disturbing!
Our B.E.E. also found that once butterflies emerge from their chrysalises, they hang from them for a while. While they are hanging, they pump fluid from their abdomen throughout their wings to strengthen them. They need at least an hour to do this, but we found if we give them at least three hours after emerging their wings will be stiffer and they are more confident to fly. We learned this when we tried to release one just an hour after it had emerged, but her wings seemed flimsy, so we put her back into the enclosure for another couple of hours. She was nice and strong when we released her later.
She you say? Yes, you can tell if a Monarch butterfly is male or female by its markings. The females have thicker black lines than the males. Males have thinner lines and two small dots on their lower wings.
One morning we had the awesome opportunity to watch a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. I told our B.E.E. to quickly run upstairs and grab my phone so I could film it, and then I went and stood at the foot of the stairs and yelled at her to hurry up. We both missed it! It was that fast. Somehow I imagined it would take time to arrive much like a chick pecking away at its shell, but nope! Butterflies are efficient. So that was Mom Fail #2.
Mom Fail #3 occurred when we found a chrysalis in the wild, on our very own milkweed. “How exciting!” I thought. “We can study it in the wild and it will be a mini-science lesson.” (I could feel that Earth Mother Energy rising!) Our little B.E.E. had read about how you can move a chrysalis if a caterpillar makes it in an unfortunate spot, but I insisted that we had already sponsored enough caterpillars, and we should leave this one in its natural habitat. So we left it out there, all green and glowing.
The next day we went to check on our wild charge, and found what could best be described as “there appears to have been a struggle.” The milkweed was tramped. There was no sign whatsoever of the chrysalis. We searched the ground and all around. Nothing. There were some tears shed by our B.E.E., and I relinquished my hopes of ever having any Earth Mother credentials. In all, we raised and hatched 7 butterflies: Flutterby Girl, Crinkle Wing, Flutterby Boy, Prince Butterfly, Queen Butterfly, King Butterfly, and Princess Butterfly. “Crinkle Wing”, as you may have guessed, came out with its wings crinkled and was never able to fully extend them. We put Crinkle Wing on the Butterfly bush flower that overhangs our porch to give it a fighting chance.
But STOP THE PRESSES! (Yes, I literally wrote that to our illustrious editor B.A.!) As I was talking with her about this story our B.E.E. came running in the house shouting, “We found more caterpillars!” And found some they did indeed: we wound up raising 39 Monarch Butterflies to adulthood and 1 very grumpy Swallowtail.
In addition to more Monarch caterpillars, our B.E.E. had found a Swallowtail caterpillar on our Rue plant and puzzled over it, because they are slightly different from the Monarchs. Swallowtail caterpillars have dots and stripes. Frankly, after all this caterpillar observation, I’ve learned that a lot of caterpillars look exactly like what I’d draw as a cartoon version of a caterpillar.
Swallowtails have a whole different disposition from Monarchs. Apparently when “angered” they unfurl their orange horns and waggle them at you and release a foul stench. Our B.E.E. got our Swallowtail to do this while “petting” him. This delighted her to no end and caused the phrase, “don’t anger the Swallowtail” to enter our vocabulary. He took a while to make his chrysalis, and I’m thoroughly convinced that he finally made it because he was fed up with hanging out in the butterfly enclosure and being “petted”. He just grumpily said, “Well fine,” and shed himself into a chrysalis to be done with us.
In all, it was an exciting time. We helped the creatures in our garden. We helped out our environment. And we did it as a family. Will we do it next year? Of course. But first we plant more milkweed!
William & Mary’s Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance opens “Citizen: An American Lyric”, their first virtual performance of the Fall 2020 season September 17-20.
Written by Claudia Rankin, the piece is based on a series of essays exploring the daily slights of racism on both a personal and national level. Hailed as an always relevant and engaging piece, the department has chosen it as an answer to the student body’s call for a diverse season.
The piece will be presented entirely online, as an edited feature film that ticket holders can access On-Demand for the performance weekend.
Despite distancing restrictions and the inability to perform for a live audience, Director Alise Larder feels that this new format is an opportunity to find new audiences and redefine what theatre can be.
“Going digital allows me to shoot ‘Citizen’ as a short film. It will be shot on location on and around campus,” said Alise Larder, guest director for “Citizen”, “The digital platform completely opened a new creative box for me. My hope is that it will feel more intimate and tangible.”
Larder added that she feels the digital platform will allow the performances to be more accessible to viewers in and out of the Williamsburg area. All performances will be available for viewing at home, at the viewer’s leisure.
Adaptability is the key for Larder, who begins filming this week.
“Acting as a film director will be a first for me. I am thrilled and excited to see what happens. I have a vision for Citizen, however, as we all know things happen…some good and some bad,” she said, “I am a roll with the punches kind of woman so adjusting my scope could turn this project into something even better than I had planned.”
Citizen begins streaming September 17-20. Digital Tickets are $7, and can be purchased online at wm.edu/boxoffice, by phone at 757-221-2674, or in person at the Kimball Theatre, 428 Duke of Gloucester Street, Tuesday-Friday from 2-6pm.
Courtesy of Jessi DiPette, William and Mary Theatre
WILLIAMSBURG, VA – August 18, 2020 –William & Mary’s Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance is not letting COVID-19 prevent them from creating theatre. The department will move forward with a fully digital Fall season that allows both the community and students to partake in the arts, even as theatres across the state remain closed.
The new season will feature two virtual plays, Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments and Citizen: An America Lyric, as well as two virtual dance concerts, all of which will either be live-streamed or edited into films.
Despite distancing restrictions and the inability to perform for a live audience, the directors feel that this new format is an opportunity to find new audiences and redefine what theatre can be.
“Going digital allows me to shoot Citizen as a short film. It will be shot on location on and around campus,” said Alise Larder, guest director for Citizen, “The digital platform completely opened a new creative box for me. My hope is that it will feel more intimate and tangible.”
Larder added that she feels the digital platform will allow the performances to be more accessible to viewers in and out of the Williamsburg area. All performances will be available for viewing at home, at the viewer’s leisure.
In addition to adapting the season to COVID-19 restrictions and the possibility of the actors being off-campus, the department has answered the student body’s call for a diverse season.
“This season is different from past seasons of William & Mary Theatre in that it centers BIPOC writers and artists for the first time in 53 years of institutional desegregation,” said director and professor Omiyęmi Artisia Green, who also acts as program director for Africana Studies at W&M.
Green also noted the department’s work with outside professionals. Four of the six resident directors are collaborating with alumni guest artists to direct the second show of the season, Hand’s Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments.
One of these alumni directors is Keaton Hillman, a 2016 graduate of the theatre program now working professionally in Richmond.
“I think getting to work with a guest artist is exciting because it’s an opportunity to form a connection with someone who is working in the industry outside of the bubble of The College,” said Hillman. “I was in their shoes not long ago, so in the creation of this piece, I hope it will seem more like working with a peer.”
While the department has long held a policy of color-blind casting, the Fall 2020 season goes a step further by featuring plays that challenge perspectives on race and showcase the talents of black actors.
“As a theatre artist and patron of theatre, I have always been drawn to pieces that speak directly to the moment we are living in. I specifically love hearing the stories of underrepresented and marginalized people and digging deeper into the significance of telling those particular stories and reflecting on their significance to our own lives,” said Hillman. “I think Hands Up does exactly that.”
The Fall directors all agree that the upcoming season is innovative and relevant, and hope that both the community and the students can learn from the performances and the process.
“I hope the students are reminded of their resilience and inherent creativity,” said Green. “For as we often say in this tradition, ‘The show must go on.’”
The Fall 2020 season for the William & Mary Theatre and Dance department is:
“Citizen” by Claudia Rankin, adapted for stage by Stephen Sachs. Directed by Alise Larder. Streaming September 17-20
“Reaching Out & Leaning In: Explorations Through Dance I” Streaming Oct 1-4
The New Black Fest’s “Hands Up”. Directed by Amanda L. Andrei, S. Lewis Feemster, Omiyemi (Artisia) Green, Keaton Hillman, Claire Pamment, and Elizabeth Wiley Streaming Oct 29-Nov 1
“Reaching Out & Leaning In: Explorations Through Dance II” Streaming Nov 5-8
Each performance will be streamed online. Digital Tickets are available for all performances online at wm.edu/boxoffice, by phone at 757-221-2674, or in person at the Kimball Theatre, 428 Duke of Gloucester Street, Tuesday-Friday from 2-6pm.
Words by Louise Casini Hollis. Photos courtesy of Sally Shedd.
As colleges across the nation prepare to go back to school, some subjects will have to adjust more than others, including the performing arts. In the not too distant past, the performing arts evolved to utilize radio and television, but live entertainment – performers sharing the stage and performance space with an audience – has continued to be a special communal experience. Human beings need the connection of shared experiences, and the presence of community. Dr. Sally Shedd, Professor of Theatre at Virginia Wesleyan University, is no exception. Sally is looking forward to the Fall semester and returning to teaching her classes in-person, in the moment. “As a theatre person, of course I believe in the synchronous experience” observes Sally. “People who are drawn to theatre tend to love interaction. That’s not a big stretch that I would value that, right?” she laughs.
Virginia Wesleyan’s community has been gathering to share stories for over 50 years. The first theatre production at Virginia Wesleyan, Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, was presented by the Virginia Wesleyan Drama Society, a student organization, in the dining hall in May of 1969. It was directed by Dolly West, a French instructor. The theatre department was founded a few years later. Professor Emeritus, Rick Hite directed the department’s first production Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, in 1969. The department has grown substantially over the years. In 2005 a second full time faculty member, Dr. Travis Malone, was added and in the Spring of 2019 it took a giant leap forward as their main stage productions moved to the University’s new performance space, the Susan S. Goode Fine and Performing Arts Center. Productions at VWU typically have around 50 students involved volunteering in some capacity, and students may earn community service hours for their participation. “We are very proud to have all kinds of students on our campus involved in theatre productions and that’s really the beauty of a liberal arts college is that you are reaching out – that a bio major has these experiences too. We welcome them. And that’s a real strength – we like that,” adds Sally.
Originally from Ozark, Arkansas, Sally grew up performing whenever her Mother, an elementary public school music teacher, needed an extra hand. “I played Mickey Mouse in a mouse suit, pageants at church – all of that,” she reminisces fondly. “I think that eventually I was drawn to theatre in part because it was mine. And I just really love working with other people to create something.” Sally went on to earn B.A.s in Music Performance and Speech & Theatre from Arkansas Tech University; an M.A. in Drama from the University of Arkansas; and finally to the University of Kansas for her PhD in Theatre. “I am forever thankful to the University of Kansas for everything they did for me to nurture me and mentor me so I’m very active with them still,” Sally shared. “They will always be in my heart.”
When she began applying for jobs, she followed the advice of her mentor who told her, “There are some things worth more than money.” So when Sally interviewed at Wesleyan, she was sold because, “it just felt like family. It felt like home. And I’ve never looked back.” Now 21 years later, she is looking forward to the start of a new, albeit different, school year.
Sally was teaching 3 classes this Spring when VWU made the difficult decision to go remote for the rest of the semester over Spring Break. She found that synchronous learning worked best for her classes. “Remember, this isn’t the same as teaching an on-line class,” observes Sally. “This is suddenly – you’ve designed a face-to-face course, that you really didn’t think of as face-to-face – it’s just a course – then about mid-way through you’re having to deliver the rest of the content and fulfill the requirements remotely. Which is not the same thing as building an on-line course.” In her script analysis class, Page to Stage, Sally met with her students via Google meet once a week and then allowed them to use the second class period time for individual work. “I purposefully gave that class more discretion with how they spent their time” explained Sally. “Many of the students in that class went home to full time jobs, to deliver child care for siblings – remember the schools had been shut down – and I wanted them to have the ability to do the work when it best suited their schedules. Also, there’s an equity issue. Let’s say a household is sharing one computer: their siblings need it in the daytime, or their parents working from home. So I really wanted to give that class a lot of leeway for how their requirements got filled,” she added.
For her Advanced Acting class, she went synchronous twice a week. Sally adapted the class by having students upload their performances and allowing them to substitute some type of recorded solo performance for a two-person scene if they had not already performed a scene before mid-term. She found that for some of her students, recording their performances, “added a quality of rehearsal, and I think some of them greatly benefitted from seeing themselves perform,” so she will have a component of students recording themselves in the future.
Sally also team-taught a Batten Honors class, The Artist and Society. Her portion of the class was to introduce students to a hands-on experience of performing. Sally said she had to rework her lesson slightly, “but you do what you’ve got to do, the work goes on. And I will say that class was lovely,” continued Sally. “They completely rose to the occasion. We did this weird little warm-up exercise that we did together every day. Twenty eight people hootin’ and hollering with delays. We added ‘jazz hands’ at the end just so we would all visually know when we got to the end because there’s such a lag time. But it was raucous, and joyous. I will say it was challenging delivering it remotely. But, you know, theatre artists are entrepreneurial. That is what we do. We always do that, even when there’s not a pandemic, and we have to do it even more so when we’re offered these challenges to, ‘How is the work going to go on?’ Well, it’s going to go on. And it may be better. It will be different. Maybe better. Really it gets us to embrace the parts of us that are creative problem solvers,” observed Sally. The class, “finished strong,” she concluded. “I was very proud of them and I hope they were proud of me cause we did that together.”
As successful as her on-line classes were this Spring, Sally is looking forward to getting back to the classroom this fall. “I love to teach. I love my students – I do,” she shared. “It sounds hokey, but I really, really do.” Virginia Wesleyan’s faculty was asked for feedback regarding their preferred mode of teaching: on-line or in-person. Accommodations will be made for faculty and students who wish to remain remote. Sally intends to teach in-person. “I’m all for the mask, but I’m acknowledging that it’s going to be different. We’re also going to have access to some face shields, so if they stand far enough away, the actors could take off the mask and we could see the expression on their faces with the face shield,” she adds.
Virginia Wesleyan will also adjust their schedule by starting on Monday, August 24th and will be forgoing Fall break. Students will then move out at Thanksgiving Break and have their last week and a half of classes and final exams delivered online. They also have contingency plans: “If any faulty member or student gets sick, we have to be prepared to deliver the rest of the content for the semester to that student if they are well enough to continue. If they just need to be distanced through technology, and they’re not too ill to continue the course, I want to continue providing it for them.” The same remote contingency plan is in place for faculty if they get sick and must deliver the rest of their courses online.
Social distancing has also been carefully calculated by the University and class sizes have been capped to make sure students may safely social distance. Cleaning protocols have also been put in place. “That’s our current plan for now but as you know, if the pandemic’s taught us nothing, it’s that everything is flexible,” said Sally.
Although there will be accommodations, Sally and Dr. Travis Malone have assured their students, “We’re doing productions at Wesleyan next year!”
“They may be remote. They may be outside. But nothing will stop us from doing it,” assured Sally. Travis will be directing the Fall show. They were not too far into planning this year’s season when the pandemic hit, Sally shared, so, “as a department we’ve gotten to think this through as the pandemic has sort of unfolded. Travis has a background in film and video production, so I believe the main stage show is probably going to be a filmed performance of perhaps a devised work that the students are creating.” Having a filmed final performance will also free up a time slot in the Goode Fine and Performing Arts Center allowing students to hold their One Act directing projects in that space if conditions are favorable for gathering there. “The Goode seats 50 with social distancing and the One Act casts are traditionally very small,” adds Sally. “So they could be offered inside, or it could be done outside, socially distanced.”
Sally is scheduled to direct a musical in the Goode in April of 2021 and says that she will “move forward with the idea that we’re going to be able to stage a musical. If it should become evident that we can’t, I will have a backup plan. I’ll probably have 2 or 3 back up plans,” she laughs, “because that’s how I roll. But we will be doing something.”
Whatever form the Spring semester takes, Sally is confident she and her students will conquer it together. “I’m really proud that our department is very supportive and lovely to each other,” she beams. Working at a small college like Virginia Wesleyan allows her to foster close bonds with her students. “When you are at a small enough place you notice everything – even when they get a haircut. You notice when their diction gets better on a piece. You notice when, ‘Oh my God this work on this monologue is the most honest straightforward work I’ve ever seen you do! I feel like you’re really opening up! This is amazing!’ You know that because you have seen their previous work, and there’s just no substitute for that. I really love being on that journey with them. There’s something that is such a gift, to see them – to witness that, and maybe share that with them,” she concludes. Thankfully, Sally and the rest of the Virginia Wesleyan community will soon resume their journey together, strengthening their bonds and sharing their stories.
Interview by Moriah Joy. Images courtesy of @GSArts.net
This week Spotlight Saturday sat down with Deborah Thorpe, who serves as the Assistant Director and Foundation Director for The Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk. We discussed what makes The Governor’s School for the Arts such a unique program and how they have managed to continue their educational programs in the face of COVID-19.
What is your mission statement, and how do you decide on a program that fulfills your mission statement? The Governor’s School for the Arts is a center for innovation that develops excellence, nurtures creativity, inspires artistic vision and builds communities with a passion for the arts.”
That’s the mission of the school, it’s a high school for the fine and performing arts and we host six different departments. We train students in Dance, Visual Arts, Musical Theatre, Theatre and Film, under that umbrella is also Technical Theatre, Vocal Music, which is based in classical opera but they also do choral work, and Instrumental Music, which does classical and jazz and composition. There’s a lot of components to the school and it’s a super fun place. We serve eight different school divisions so our students come from as far West as Franklin to as far East as Virginia Beach. The school started in 1987 so we’re in our 32nd year and I’ve been there since the beginning. It’s unbelievable. I’ve really dedicated my life to this school. It defines me and I love that.
What makes your work unique to our community, and why is that important We started in 1985 and 1986 with two summer pilot programs. This was a mandate by the State Department of Education [because] they were very interested in programs for gifted students in various forms of giftedness whether that be academic or whether it be arts. Then they started looking at our area for the arts because some of the major arts organizations were landing in Hampton Roads like the Virginia Opera, Virginia Stage Company, the Virginia Symphony, and the Chrysler Museum. There was that fabric already becoming established and nurtured and maintained in this area. This is why they chose this area for a gifted arts high school. We’ve actually partnered with all of those major institutions and many of our instructors come from those major institutions as well.
The school was set-up in 85 and 86, there was this pilot summer program and we were all over downtown Norfolk because that was also the most central location so students were traveling far from Franklin, Suffolk, Isle of Wight, and Virginia Beach so everybody kind meets in the middle and that seemed to work well. We were housed on the campus of Old Dominion University for those two summers and it was a great success. We had a lot of students and a lot of interests. We performed on the streets, we performed at Waterside, we performed everywhere, it was really fun. We were ahead of our time.
The State Department of education wanted to continue the school as a full time program in the fall of 1987. I was teaching at ODU at the time and did these two summer programs and was on the steering committee that helped form and shape the school. When the decision came to start the school in 1987 I was asked if I wanted to become a full time member and I said yes. I was super excited about it and helped grow the school ever since. It’s grown tremendously. I don’t know the exact number of students we started out with but it was about the 250 range and now we have about 380 with eventually getting to a goal of 400.
We had been housed from 1987 to 2014 all over the city of Norfolk. We were spread out seven miles in various spaces that could accommodate and we kept changing spaces as we grew and as these spaces changed. We started out on the campus of ODU and Norfolk State University in the beginning and the old Virginia Ballet building, that’s where our dance department was housed. I was chair of [the dance department] for 23 years that’s where I started out. Buses would drop the kids off at ODU at NSU and at Virginia Ballet Theater and then within the campus of ODU and NSU they would have to go from place to place there as well. It was crazy because Monday, Wednesday, Friday they were on one campus and then Tuesday, Thursday they were on another campus. Dance was lucky that we were in the same place five days a week. But it was a logistical nightmare. For 25 years we did it this way. But it was also great.
Part one of the goals of the school was to help teach kids some form of independence as young people, and this enabled that to a degree where they were dropped off on a college campus or in a city facility and they were asked to conduct themselves as young professionals. Now we have thousands of alumni, we try to stay in contact with as many of them as we can and they said it was such an amazing experience for them as a young person to be given this freedom and this independence and to be able to participate in this kind of school was really exhilarating and empowering to them. It was very different from their academic schools. For many of them they called their teachers by their first names. The teachers are artist mentors, it still is that kind of relationship. So it’s really unique in that way and really special. Special for the kids and also the teachers.
How have you/ your staff been handling COVID/ what have you been doing since the shutdown? Well it’s been a challenge like everybody. We had about a week to figure it out and our faculty was amazing. They figured out Zoom and we conducted classes immediately on Zoom. All six of our departments were engaging the students as soon as we closed. The goal was how do we keep the students engaged, how do we keep them learning so that they won’t fall behind. That was the goal. Every department created various classes and I’ll give you an example of some of the classes. Instrumental music set up a practice room situation so they could link into the practice room up to three times a day. Because as you may or may not know, practicing is integral to the training of a musician. It’s something we offer as a part of our curriculum is practice hours while they’re at the governor’s school. One of our priorities was making sure they had time to practice and sometimes it’s hard to have self motivation.
Again, part of our mission is to encourage and train kids how to be self-motivated. They have to self-govern a lot in our school because they’re given a lot of responsibility as young people to be where they have to be when they’re supposed to be there. Practice rooms were set up and I would pop on periodically and would see 40, 50 kids on there. The sound was muted but they could see their friends were on there and their teachers were on there practicing. JoAnn Falletta, who is the music director for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, was on there many times. Other professional musicians were given the invite and they popped on. It was cool for kids to see that training and practice doesn’t only happen when you’re a young artist but it continues your whole life if you’re going into this field. That was a really cool way to demonstrate that and to give the kids motivation to keep their practicing up. So that’s one example.
We taught dance classes on Zoom. I tried to watch several of them as we were going along. In the dance classes, they were live with some of the kids set up in their bedrooms and some of them were lucky that they had a little bigger space but we made it work for everybody no matter what space they were in. We considered that while we were getting ourselves organized, that was part of what we were trying to figure out. Who needed connectivity and how did we need to help them get connectivity? Who needed computers, we lent kids computers if they didn’t have a laptop or an iPad or something. Who needed help paying for upgraded Wi-Fi, we helped them with that. So we spent that first week just sending out surveys to the kids about what their needs were so that we could help them continue their learning.
We have kids from all over the place and all different kinds of situations and we certainly weren’t going to take anything for granted. When they’re in the school building it’s very different because we supply everything for them. Because they come from 8 different school divisions, that was a factor. Some school divisions provided things for the students and some didn’t. So we needed to find out how we could help them and of course we did what we could. Faculty members drove computers out to kids homes. Actually, one of our faculty members needed help and I went to the building, got a computer and drove it to her house. Everybody was on board to make this environment as positive and as engaging as we possibly could.
Back to the dancers, they actually taught a variety of dance classes in these very small spaces and it worked. They were able to give the kids corrections, some teachers specified that they only wanted ten kids at a time so that way they could really look and see to really help them. Some teachers did larger classes and it became a little bit of a different experience yet even in those classes where there were 25 kids in a class, that teacher was scrolling through the pages and really trying to look and see and give students corrections. That was really cool.
Then the other really cool thing we did throughout the whole school was masterclasses with professionals in the field who were colleagues to our staff and also alumni who work in the field. During a normal school year it’s hard to connect with alumni because they’re working and they’re busy. We try to, we’ve got grants to bring alumni in and do residencies and that kind of thing but while everyone was home the alumni were available and super willing to help us. So we had masterclasses in all kinds of arts disciplines. We had people from around the world teaching our kids. We had a dancer who’s in Israel, one in Germany, one in LA, and across the country. They all got online and talked to our kids about their journey, what they’re doing now, how GSA helped prepare them, tricks of the trade, how to navigate the business. They all shared emails and links with them and the kids made these really amazing connections with alumni. Some of these alumni were in their 30’s and 40’s, who graduated in the 80’s and 90’s and that was just amazing. If there was a silver lining to this that was a way to do that.
We worked hard and the kids worked hard. I really feel like we did an excellent job of keeping them engaged and learning. Then we also did some recordings, because some of the students had to babysit their siblings at home, some parents were still working and they all of a sudden became in charge of homeschooling and babysitting where that wasn’t a thing before. For many of the parents, childcare wasn’t available to them anymore. We did a lot of recordings as well, many departments would post like a daily video or daily class that was recorded. We had someone in the music department, they had a link to music you may have never heard before and the kids could listen to that. We had some of our faculty actually make recordings of some classes that we put on our youtube channel, that way the kids could access them at any time. If they couldn’t make a class at two in the afternoon, maybe they could take a ballet class at eight at night just to keep themselves motivated and learning. I think we did a really good job and by ‘we’ I mean the faculty and staff. They did it all and they were amazing.
What advice do you have to artists trying to work on their craft? Well, I can only speak to the kids and the school. There’s a lot of voices and materials out there that they can glean from and remember that we’re all in this together and everybody wants to help each other, especially the young people.
Where are you in your planning for next year? We are part of the public school system so we are waiting for direction from our school districts and once we get some guidance then we have to figure out how that’s going to look for an arts school.
What are you, personally, most looking forward to after the shutdown? Just being back in that building with those students. I miss them terribly. We all miss them terribly. The energy that’s in our building, I mean it’s 380 teenagers who are passionate about learning. It’s a truly exciting place to be. They keep me young, I’ve been doing this for 32 years and I want to keep going. I miss seeing how they work and learning from them and learning from the other faculty. The whole scenario is really exciting and special.
Is there a specific upcoming project you would like people to know about? Our graduation is Monday and it’s a Zoom/ recorded graduation that will be live on our Youtube channel. If anybody wants to tune in it’s on Monday June 15th at 7pm on the GSA Youtube channel. For the first time in 32 years, anybody will be able to attend. We usually do it at a theatre and it’s a performance based graduation, so we’ve been limited to family because we typically have a theatre that’s 600 or 800 seats and that’s it. We’ve never streamed it before. The performances the kids have worked on will be recorded but they’ll be shown and we’ll have live speeches. One senior from every department speaks and we have scholarship awards. We have wonderful beautiful donors who are passionate and want to give scholarships to seniors and so we have scholarships that will be awarded live. The governor has recorded a special welcome. We wanted to have him speak live but of course he’s very busy so we’re thankful that he took the time for a recording. And then after that everyone is taking a break, everyone needs to rest, the students and the teachers and so they take the summer off.