W&M Theatre and Dance Opens Digital Fall Season with “Citizen: An American Lyric”

Words and Image courtesy of W&M Theatre.

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. 

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Spotlight: The Attucks Theater

Words by Penny Neef.
Images as credited. Feature image by Mike Penello.

In the early 20th century, segregation was a fact of life for African Americans in the South. It became a matter of law in 1926.

In 1919, a group of African Americans from Norfolk and Portsmouth met to develop a cultural/business center in Norfolk where the black community “could be treated with dignity and respect.”

The “Twin Cities Amusement Corporation” envisioned something like a modern-day town center. The businessmen obtained funding from black owned financial institutions in Hampton Roads. Twin Cities designed and built a movie theater/ retail/ office complex at the corner of Church Street and Virginia Beach Boulevard in Norfolk.

A black and white portrait of Harvey Johnson. He is older, wearing glasses, and looking at the camera with a serious but kind expression.
Photo courtesy of the family of Harvey Johnson

The businessmen chose 25-year-old architect Harvey Johnson to design a 600-seat “state of the art” theater with balconies and an orchestra pit. The Attucks Theatre is the only surviving theater in the United States that was designed, financed and built by African Americans.

The Attucks was named after Crispus Attucks, a stevedore of African and Native American descent. He was the first patriot killed in the Revolutionary War at the Boston Massacre of 1770. The theatre featured a stage curtain with a dramatic depiction of the death of Crispus Attucks.

A photo of the restored fire curtain, painted with a beautiful picture of a revolutionary war battle.
Photo by Scott Wertz.

The Attucks was an immediate success. It was known as the “Apollo Theatre of the South.” Legendary performers Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole, and B.B. King performed at the Attucks. Opera star Marian Anderson and blues icon Bessie Smith graced the stage. Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, Norfolk’s own Gary U.S. Bonds and Portsmouth’s own Ruth Brown made appearances. Great black comedians Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and Slappy White brought down the house. Friday nights were reserved for local talent to be booed off the stage or to be cheered to greater glory.

The Attucks also served as a stage for local events, from church services to poetry readings to graduation ceremonies. After 34 years of being the “cultural heart and soul of Church Street’s African American community”, the Attucks lowered its curtains as an entertainment venue.

A photo of the restored fire curtain, painted with a beautiful picture of a revolutionary war battle.
Photo by Scott Wertz.

By 1952, the theater was a furniture store, Stark & Legum. Most of the surrounding retail and offices were demolished. In 1982, a group of citizens worked to add the theatre to the National Register of Historic Places. The Crispus Attucks Cultural Center was formed to raise the millions of dollars it would take to restore the Attucks Theatre.

The Attucks Theatre reopened in 2004. It is a gem of theater, carefully restored to its former glory. The original fire curtain, depicting the dramatic death of Crispus Attucks, has been meticulously restored. The stained-glass skylight, plaster ornamentation and other ornate features of the Attucks make it unique.

There is not a bad seat in the house. Legends like Wynton Marsalis and Preservation Hall Jazz Band are back on the stage. Leslie Jones from Saturday Night Live appeared last year in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Attucks Theatre. The Attucks also hosts cutting edge performances like the world premiere of the opera “Kept: A Ghost Story”.

 “Norfolk is proud to celebrate the rich history of this landmark theatre and the cultural impact it has had on the city for the last 100 years,” said Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander. 

WHRO and the City of Norfolk produced a documentary to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Attucks Theatre. You can learn more about the Attucks Theatre and its history here.

It’s pretty quiet at the Attucks today, just like every other entertainment venue. The ghosts have the place to themselves. The hundreds of performers who were on stage at the Attucks decorated the walls of the dressing rooms and hallways with their signatures, an old theater tradition. Many of those have been preserved and are on display on the second floor. I’d like to think Dizzy Gillespie or Bessie Smith stop by once in a while, especially now that the theatre is quiet. Might be some great shows going on that we can’t witness right now. Who knows?

Act II: Returning to the Classroom

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.”

Sally and Khari Johnson who played Prospera in The Tempest ,Fall 2018, hugging.
Sally and Khari Johnson who played Prospera in The Tempest ,Fall 2018.

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.”

Sally and Pierrette Swan during Tempest rehearsals. They are on a platform looking at a script, the background is a black curtain.
Sally and Pierrette Swan during Tempest rehearsals.

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.”  

Dr. Sally Shedd, Dr. Travis Malone, and student Abby Horgan in Legally Blonde- they are onstage in costumes with a blue background.
Dr. Sally Shedd, Dr. Travis Malone, and student Abby Horgan in Legally Blonde at the Susan S. Goode Fine and Performing Arts Center.

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.

You can check out the VW Theatre Department here.

Spotlight Saturdays -Sponsored by the Sandler Center Foundation

Virginia Musical Theatre

Interview by Rebecca Edwards.
Images courtesy of Virginia Musical Theatre

This week, Spotlight Saturdays spoke with Mark Hudgins, Executive Director of Virginia Musical Theatre (VMT). VMT was founded in 1991 by Jeff Meredith to provide a “musical only” theatre format to the Hampton Roads area. 

 What makes your work unique to our community, and why is that important?
VMT is the official Musical Theatre Company of Virginia Beach. We are the only company that presents full seasons of nothing but musicals. We are fortunate that we are able to bring talent straight from New York to grace our stage and provide a richer experience. Musicals tend to bring in bigger audiences and we have shown there is a market for it here in Hampton Roads.

Ursula steals the voice of Ariel in the Little Mermaid.

 What education programs are offered?
We offer an internship program with the Governor’s School for the Arts. Chip Gallagher is the Artistic Director of VMT and the chair of the Musical Theatre Department at the Governor’s School for the Arts. Through his dual responsibilities he creates a bridge that offers opportunities for the students to learn all positions with a production both on and off stage working with professionals.

How have you/your staff been handling COVID / what have you been doing since the shutdown?
We are a small organization. We have a staff of 2 full-time, 5 part-time, and 144 subcontractors. Of the entire staff, everyone but myself have been furloughed during this time. We have no clue when we will be able to return to production. I’m hoping for Phase 4 to hit around October/November. That would allow us to host a 50% capacity. Right now, the actors union and the musicians union have very stringent standards that prevent their members from participating in anything for a while. This may or may not affect our return. No matter what, we will still provide high standard performances with amazing talent on our stage as soon as it is safe to do so. Since the shut down I continue to ask myself, “What shows can we perform that will provide a safe space with social distance for our actors while entertaining our audiences? How can we provide a safe space for our audiences to attend the performances?” I know the actors and everyone in the arts is chomping at the bit to return just as much if not more than the audience wants us to return.
What have you learned from the way the production of the world tour of ‘Phantom of the Opera” is handling the pandemic as it continues to perform for audiences in Seoul?
I wasn’t aware there were any productions still performing. I would definitely be interested in looking into this and learning more and if there’s anything we can apply to our situation here.

Tracy Turnblad in her bed during their performance of Hairspray

What are some passion projects that you hope to work on while we are “paused”?
I haven’t been able to work on anything specific. I continue to tread water and dream about our future seasons and look forward to post-COVID conditions. I’m looking for anything to bring people back faster when it’s safe to do so. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the Public Domain that we can use to lessen our financial burden upon our return. That doesn’t mean we won’t have a season. We will just have to find things that are real crowd pleasers.

What are you personally most looking forward to after the shutdown?
I’m looking for normal. I detest the phrase “New Normal.” I’m just looking for normal. Normal will be when people are free to get on a stage and express their creativity with an audience to enjoy it. Of course, we could film something and share a taped performance, but nothing compares to the live performances of theatre. The instant feedback the cast and crew receive from people in their seats watching a performance is not something that can be recreated with a recorded performance. There is something magical when you feel the joy of an audience enjoying a performance.

Dr. Jekyll singing at the camera during Jekyll and Hyde

Is there an upcoming project you would like people to know about?
Once we have reached and maintained Phase 4, we will be presenting “Mama Mia.” We have dates throughout the year already booked with The Sandler Center that we can step in and bring this production to our community.

Is there anything else you would like to talk about?
The hardest thing throughout this entire event has been being deemed unnecessary. I hope that people realize that the arts are an important part of society and acknowledge what a drag real life would be without it. Keep in mind the artists, tech people and everyone in the arts. Please be patient as we continue to tread water until we can get in front of people. Don’t forget us. We are just as anxious to be on that stage as you are to have us there. I’m worried people will forget we exist. I want to remind them that we have a vibrant cultural life here in Hampton Roads that is alive. We are not gone – just resting. We are not dead. We will be back! 

Where can people find you for partnering and donations?
Virginia Musical Theatre is still accepting donations to help keep them moving forward after this pandemic. More information and online donation opportunities can be found at www.vmtheatre.org or by contacting their office:
Virginia Musical Theatre
265 Kings Grant Rd #100
Virginia Beach, VA 23452
Phone: 757-340-5446
All gifts are tax deductible.

Op-Ed: Generic’s A Chorus (on)Line Offering

A look at what local theaters can learn from our first local, online, full-length, fully produced “pandemic performance.

Words by BA Ciccolella.
Images courtesy of Generic Theater.

The Generic Theater, known in Hampton Roads for dabbling in more experimental than traditional work, has put together the largest local pandemic experiment by not cancelling their production of A Chorus Line (originally slated to open at the end of June), but moving the entire production online. After a few day’s delay due to technical/ rendering issues, their film became available last night, and anyone who wants to see the show can purchase a 24 hour pass to view the show on Vimeo on Demand. 

Backstage shot of filming of A Chorus Line with the cameras in the foreground and the actors on a lit stage in the background.

The production, rather than being performed live each night this week, has been filmed in advance and edited together, with film production credited to Loud Cat Creative. Though everyone involved in the production obviously put their heart and soul into their art, the stream itself does have some technical difficulties that can make watching a challenge. For a first area offering of a fully realized production during the current pandemic, however, it is, in my opinion, difficult to ask for anything more out of Generic’s production, which was originally conceived, designed, and cast to be performed live, with a live audience in the space. Any criticism contained here is meant solely for the consideration of all area theaters to consider and learn from as they move to digital offerings for the fall, and is not intended to be a slight on the cast or crew.

And let’s talk about the cast- the 24 member ensemble had a lot to overcome in their process. The entirety of their early rehearsals were done digitally- so all of their songs, dances, character work, etc. were learned entirely digitally, as Spotlight covered in our May 1 offering, so I won’t do much more than reiterate here how challenging that change in process is to artists who are used to feeding off the energy of people in the same room. I am immensely proud of the cast and crew for being able to remain safe, rehearse only virtually (as frustrating as that must have been), then take those digital meetings, and put them together for a fully choreographed show. Every single cast member looks like they are having fun, which makes the show quite enjoyable to watch, and also makes me wish I could be live in the audience with them for the experience.

A compilation of shots of various cast members dancing, solo and in groups.

The choreography team, Amy Harbin, Coral Mapp, and Lucas Hallauer, did a great job of both working within the talent pool of those cast, and pushing everyone so that any member of the cast looked like they could have made it on the final line. Standouts on the dance end were Lucas Hallauer, who played Larry, (the choreographer for the “show within a show” being cast during the action of the plot), who’s dancing is simply entrancing to watch whenever he is on screen, and yet still somehow magically manages to blend in with the line at the end, and Jillian Schwab Lorello, who plays Cassie. Cassie is an amazing dancer who didn’t make it trying to “be a star”, and now she wants back on the line- we get to see her stand out and eventually work to blend in, all while dealing with the plot drama of a potentially unhealthy past relationship with the director, and Lorello handles the whole thing with ease. Two other standout featured dancers include Arianna Jeanette Hall, who plays Val (Dance 10, Looks 3) and Derrion La’Zachan Hawkins, both of whom steal the stage with their solos, and bring an energy with them that you would normally think was drawn from the audience around them. 

When it comes to acting, the ensemble holds their own with each other, but I would be remiss not to mention TréVeon Porchia, playing Paul, for his monologue, which happens towards the end of the show. He is alone with the director (who we have not seen up to this point) and the audience is let in to some very intimate moments of his life which Porchia handled with a grace and sensitivity that I haven’t seen onstage in a while. Those familiar with what happens next in the show will understand why this monologue is particularly heart wrenching. I won’t be the one to spoil it for the rest of you. 

Technically, had the show happened with a live audience, I have no doubt it would have been beautiful. The added challenges of filming, however, bring certain theatrical technical elements up short while watching the stream. Lighting, for example, by Alex Mason, looked darker on film than I’m certain it would have looked live in the space, simply because the translation of theatrical lighting to digital film production is difficult (and can be quite expensive). Katelyn Jackson’s costumes were amazingly 70’s, though many of the smaller details on the costuming that would read well in person were lost on film. 

I have to assume that any camera focus issues I was seeing (some shots were focused sharper than others within the same scene), were the fault of my streaming speed/ ability at home (my neighborhood is part of the “Cox Communications only” zone). It did seem to me, in some scenes, that they had a “cut happy” editor, and I found myself wishing at times that they would just stay in their closer shot and let the actor’s work speak for itself, especially during monologues. I would also be remiss to not put a trigger warning for jump cuts in for anyone who studied film, though I would at the same time like to remind everyone that the Generic Theater is just that, a theater, not a film production studio, so things like that can, and in my opinion, should be forgiven.  

Sound is the biggest issue that I have with the stream, and probably the biggest challenge that the Generic had to overcome. Since the American Choral Directors Association’s guidance came out regarding the dangers of singing indoors, (you can get the basics here if you don’t want to slog through the 2-½ hour webinar that they offered on the topic back on May 5), trying to mix together that many voices, and different recorded takes (for most of the show it appears that the cast is lip-syncing with themselves), seemed to be their biggest challenge. The sound on the stream varies widely in volume and quality, so I suggest you keep your remote handy to make adjustments as needed. Unfortunately, for persons like myself who have auditory processing challenges when it comes to watching TV/ videos, or occasionally need hearing assistance equipment when attending a live show, there is no captioning available for the stream, and since the entirety of the show is filmed in wide shots, there isn’t much ability to lip read. (Editor’s note: For those who aren’t used to film lingo, a wide shot shows whole bodies or nearly a whole bodies with lots of background visible, medium shots show upper bodies with not a lot of background shown, think newscasters, and closeups are shots of an actor’s face where you can see a lot of expression. There. Finally used the video production portion of my degree. My college professors will be happy.) Captioning can be an extra expense depending on whether the platform you are using to host has the ability to do it within their upload, but it is one of the things that theaters in the Hampton Roads area should include in their discussions of future digital offerings.

I would also be remiss in the middle of this pandemic if I didn’t mention that, although many of the shots do not use the whole cast, and social distancing is very apparent in those scenes, scenes that involve the entire cast do not appear to be blocked with the 6 foot to 10 foot of space recommended for non-singing performers/ those doing any form of exercise indoors (though it is possible the perceived closeness could be a trick of filming), and that the majority of the show is filmed inside Little Hall. These continued updates from both the CDC and the state of Virginia will be key for all Hampton Roads performing artists, technicians, and arts organizations to keep on top of as guidance changes keep coming through regularly while scientists do the hard work of learning more and more about the pandemic daily. Theaters wishing to offer digital performances or other digital content should make certain that in their digital offerings, social distancing is very apparent. As artists, we all should be conscious about setting a good example for our community, so that those of us who make our living in the performing arts can get back to work and our careers sooner rather than later- local professionals are already looking at being out of work until at least early 2021. 

The actors of a chorus line standing shoulder to shoulder on the line with their headshots in front of their faces.

For this writer, though it is nice to see actors on a stage again, I think I have discovered that filmed theater just doesn’t quite “do it” for me. I majored in communications with a concentration in video production, but then I made my career for these last few decades in live performing arts for a reason. There really isn’t a great way to capture the experience of seeing a show live without having the performers and the audience in the same room. (And yes, I saw Hamilton both on stage and on Disney+. They were two completely different experiences. My opinion here stands regardless of how much money you have to throw at your production values.)

All in all, the Generic took a risk by moving their show online, and from an artistic standpoint, though the project may be a little rough, the love for the craft and effort put forth by their staff and volunteers are evident in the final project. Had the Generic Theater been able to safely host an audience in their space to see A Chorus Line in a more traditional manner, the show would have been a successful and enjoyable night of theater for everyone, that much is evident to me through any technical difficulties present in their video. If you are really looking to scratch a theater-going itch, this stream may do it for you. I suggest you give it a shot yourself, and figure out if streamed theater works for you!  

You can find A Chorus Line by The Generic Theater here. Purchases of the stream have been extended through the 14th due to technical difficulties surrounding the release!

Socially Distanced Summer Camp – Spotlight Productions

Words by Rebecca Edwards.
Images courtesy of Spotlight Productions.

Summer. A time when most parents are looking for something to keep their kids busy. Many different camps are typically offered, and it provides a chance for the kids to do something they enjoy while providing parents with a much-needed chance to recharge without the kiddos around. Most kids have been attending the same camps since they were younger and look forward to it each year. This year, things are different. Because of the pandemic, all overnight camps and most, if not all, in person camps have been cancelled. This leaves a huge void. 

Stepping into the void is Spotlight Productions. (Editor’s note: no relation.) Spotlight Productions is a company that was formed by Missy Sullivan and Penny Baumgartner in the late 90’s. Their focus is the performing arts. This is their 24th season. According to their website, “Spotlight Productions believes every child has a natural talent. It is our mission to develop that talent, self-confidence, and self-esteem in a non-stressful environment.” This year instead of offering a traditional camp for youth and teens they are offering a week of Zoom-like classes for people to attend.

The staff of Spotlight Productions in matching shirts by a lake

These cousins invest many hours developing concepts, selecting productions, acquiring rights, obtaining rehearsal/performance spaces, and finding a staff to bring their vision to life each year. They had the summer planned with two outstanding productions. No sooner did they announce their summer spectacles than everything was shut down. Missy and Penny went into brainstorm mode. Missy said, “We wanted to be able to offer SOMETHING. We wanted to still give kids a creative outlet while allowing these kids to see each other. Of course we would love to be face to face, but the reality is that we can’t provide an absolutely safe place for a face to face camp without compromising the size of the camp.” Their brainstorm ranged from not having a camp at all this year to hosting various Master Classes. The duo wasn’t sure if they could pull it off. Their effort has spawned Virtual Camp 2020. As we chatted in our own Zoom meeting, I could see and hear the excitement for this year’s offerings.

Spotlight breaks their camps down by ages. They offer a youth camp for children ages 8-12 and a teen camp for kids ages 13-18. Both camps will have virtual classes July 13-17, 2020. 

A variety of kids lounging on platforms during their production of Damn Yankees
From Damn Yankees

The Youth Camp will be mostly live zoom like meetings from 9am – 12 noon. They will be working together to learn several scenes from School House Rock Live that will be recorded and edited together to create a video that the participants will have access to so that they are able to share with their family and friends.

The Teen Camp will have different electives that will cover topics like auditions, make-up, dance, and many other things that will help build confidence and experience. Some sessions will be live, and others will be recorded and shared with each group. As a group, the participants will be creating a production of “Raise You Up” from Kinky Boots. Similar to the Youth Camp, this performance will be recorded and edited together to create a video. Each participant in the Teen Camp will leave the camp with a reel for their resume and experience with taped auditions that will help carry them into the future.

A blackbox rehearsal of Damn Yankees. Kids are all over the platforms while a camp counselor supervises
From Damn Yankees

In addition to their usual camp offerings, they have also managed to snag some amazing people to host Virtual Master Classes. These classes are for anyone ages 13 and older whether or not you attend the camp. You do not have to attend the camp to participate in the Master Classes. These classes will be held July 13-16, 2020 from 5-6pm and 7-8pm with a total of 8 Master Classes being offered. These classes will be hosted by Broadway Professionals as well as local talent and past participants of the Spotlight Production Company. 

Tuition for these camps is as follows:
Youth Camp is $75 for the week
Teen Camp is $100 for the week.

Cost of the Master Classes are:
$20/class for a non-camper
$10/class for a camper

Bundle: purchase the whole week and get one class free:
 $140 for the full list of Master Classes for a non-camper
$70 for the full list of Master Classes for a camper

These prices are a steal for the opportunities provided. Something to keep in mind, this virtual camp isn’t limited by location or number of participants. It is open to anyone, anywhere! If online isn’t your thing and you’re looking for a camp next year, keep Spotlight Productions in mind. They are looking to the future and will have yet another incredible season coming soon. You can find a complete listing of their camp offerings on their website.

Script Club – by LTN and PCT

Words by Nina Martin.
Image courtesy of BA Ciccolella.

What do you do when you can’t safely bring the community performances? You bring them the scripts!

It all started with some Little Theatre of Norfolk board members sitting around the LTN Green Room talking about community involvement. To perform a play, you need people. You need actors, you need a production team, and you need an audience. And certain plays require specific skills or actors to produce properly (your humble author has been DYING to put up a production of Allegiance). How could they get more people interested in a wider range of pieces so we could present a broader range of material. The answer: Script Club. People love book clubs, why not have one for scripts? Minimal commitment, broader reach. The idea was born and slowly started to be brainstormed in the free time around putting up the current season.

Enter COVID-19.

Suddenly, all the shows stopped. Everyone went into crisis mode. COVID hit everyone hard, but the Arts and Entertainment sector had its unique challenges . Theater is dependent upon groups of people, on stage and in the audience. Within a matter of days, one couldn’t even enter the venue except to quickly check the mail and make sure the trash was put out. Shows were cancelled, patrons were contacted, tickets were refunded or, generously, converted to donations or complementary tickets to whatever the next show might be. And most of it was done remotely from volunteers’ homes. Theater leaders started watching endless webinars about sanitization, the Small Business Administration, licensing law, and the difference between “streaming” and “broadcast.” They stayed up late worrying about the future of their theaters and their patrons. They had late night chats and Zoom meetings drinking wine, comforting each other, and mourning. But then, they got back to art.

Theater was not defeated by the fall of Rome, nor the Black Death, and it will not be defeated now. Theater folk are nothing if not creative. How do you continue to bring the arts to the community when you can’t be within six feet of the community? You see what you can do over the internet as far as performances… and Script Clubs!

Little Theatre of Norfolk partnered with the Peninsula Community Theatre to get Script Club off the ground. The idea was to offer at least three plays at first, with as much variety as possible, but titles that were somewhat known in order deliver a strong start to the concept. The first offerings were Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The initial response was very promising.

Each selection is approached organically. The facilitator chooses the dates, times, and what will be discussed at each meeting. Some divide the discussions up by act. Some by topics. Some by characters. And the facilitators adapt according to what the participants want and need. Some run more like a class, others more like a traditional book club. The response thus far has been very promising.

There are many new faces in attendance, some from as far away as the West Coast. The theatres are able to have conversations with the community about what they want to see and learn about. In return, the presenters are able to introduce a work to the public before investing in staging a production.

Script Club has just finished Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers and will soon be reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Another Shakespeare will be announced shortly, and there are several other facilitators working on new selections. If you would like to attend Script Club, check out the LTN and PCT websites, or their facebook pages. New plays are announced at least a week in advance, and links are provided to sources for each script. If you would like to suggest a play, or lead a discussion yourself, please submit a proposal here.

Little Theater of Norfolk’s website and Facebook page.
Peninsula Community Theater’s website and Facebook page.

Spotlight Saturdays – Sponsored by the Sandler Center Foundation

Virginia Arts Festival

Interview by Denise Bishop.
Images courtesy of Virginia Arts Festival.

This week, Spotlight Saturdays met with Robert W. Cross, Executive Director and Perry Artistic Director of the Virginia Arts Festival. In its 24th year, the Virginia Arts Festival brings world-renowned performers to Hampton Roads for a festival of music, theatre, and dance performances and arts education activities each year in April and May.

What is your mission statement, and how do you decide on a program that fulfills your mission statement? 
The mission of the Virginia Arts Festival is to bring world-class performing arts to our citizens and visitors, impact the lives of students through outstanding educational programs, commission new works of national and international significance, and make a tangible difference in Hampton Roads through regional partnerships and cultural tourism.

For programming, we have three or four big areas of focus. One is trying to bring in the really great, big artists from around the world to come to Hampton Roads, creating an opportunity for people who live here to see the best of the best. Also, when it makes sense, we want to showcase local arts organizations and partner with them.  As you know we work with the symphony (Virginia Symphony Orchestra) a lot, the stage company (Virginia Stage Company), the opera (Virginia Opera). We work with a lot of the attractions and museums. Next, almost every artist that comes to the Festival does a workshop, master class, or student matinee. The fourth piece, which is one of the reasons we were formed, is to try to drive tourism in the shoulder season. Trying to create events that will drive people to come out of their homes and visit Hampton Roads in the spring.

Wynton Marsalis plays the trumpet
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra featuring Wynton Marsalis

What or who inspires and influences your work? 
I’m a classical musician [Robert W. Cross is also Principal Percussionist with the VSO], so a large percentage of what the[Virginia Arts] Festival does is classical music. There are certain orchestras that influence me; Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra are the orchestras I grew up with.  For me as a percussionist: the people who were my mentors: John Lindberg [former Principal Timpanist with the VSO] was my teacher when I was a kid, Vic Firth [founder of Vic Firth Company, which makes percussion sticks and mallets] was my teacher when I was away at school, and my colleagues that I’ve been able to work with over the 30 years of my playing career.   

What education programs are offered? 
There are three different levels of engagement for our education programs. First, we offer student matinees where we bus students to the venues to see a performance. Even though these students may not take music or dance classes, they can see great artists and experience that in a real concert setting. Second, we have in-school experiences (lecture-demonstrations or mini-performances), which are a little more in depth, where our artists will go into the schools to work with students.  That might be a little more targeted — they might be doing it for, let’s say it’s Chanticleer, and they’re going in and working with all the vocal students. Or Amani Winds are working with the band students. Or going into a school like Booker T [Washington High School, in Norfolk] that has a dance class, so a student taking dance as an elective gets to work with a young professional dancer or dance instructor. And third, we offer even more in depth master class programs for students who are serious about their craft, whether it’s instrumentalists, singers, or dancers, to work side by side with a really gifted artist such as a workshop for Governor’s School students with a dance master from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

What makes your work unique to our community, and why is that important?
There are several other really fantastic performing arts organizations in the community, but I think we’re probably the only one that has a true tourism part of their mission statement and economic development. We really put a lot of thought into how to move the needle for tourism.  And also for economic development, companies use the Festival as a tool when they’re recruiting people to move here. And when an economic development officer goes out to recruit businesses to move to Hampton Roads, the Festival will be in their packets of amenities in the region.

How have you and your staff been handling COVID? What have you been doing during the shutdown? 
COVID came at a really inopportune time for us. Things got shut down around March 12th or 13th, and we were scheduled to start in the middle of April. We had 55 public performances to cancel, and I believe 75 education events scheduled in April and May. It’s a lot harder to unwind the Festival than it is to schedule it. The staff was as busy or busier than we would have been if the Festival was going on because you have to cancel concerts, unravel travel, production, be in touch with ticket-buyers, the halls, our donors, corporate sponsors. Just about this week are we starting to get on the other side.  About half everything we had programmed we were able to reschedule for 2022 or 2023, and then the other half just didn’t make sense to reschedule. They were either time-sensitive or they aren’t available. Now, we’re focusing on: how do we restart? We really are committed to helping the cities reopen when we can, even though it will be outside the Festival period. We’re working particularly with Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, and Norfolk on how we can create some concerts and activities as soon as it’s safe to do it again. They just need to get people out going to the restaurants, going to the shops. So, now we feel like we’re in a holding pattern – trying to make good plans and know when we need to activate them. 

How are you helping your staff and artists during this time?
We’re trying to keep morale up because everybody deals with this in a different way, whether you’ve got children or elderly parents. We’re trying to make people feel taken care of, that they still have a job, that they’re safe. For artists, we’ve worked as hard as we could to get as many artists as we could rescheduled because they all need the income. Especially some of the  smaller chamber ensembles or dance groups who have no money coming in.

What’s the biggest change to educational programs?
Right now, we’re working with artists that we have relationships with that have content available online. A lot of the dance companies in particular have been putting out a lot of classes and masterclasses, and we’re sharing that with our schoolteachers and our audience base who are hopefully sharing that with their kids. And then, we’re in the planning phase of figuring out how to deliver content to students this fall. Hopefully, they’ll go back to school in the fall, but I can’t imagine they’ll have much bandwidth for field trips and artists coming to their schools, so how can we deliver content, even when schools start back, especially for the first half of the year.

Mandolin Orange
Mandolin Orange

What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve learned during this time? 
I would say the most encouraging thing is that donors and corporate sponsors that have the ability have really stepped up to help us and other arts organizations through this. There’s so much demand on social services for obvious reasons, but I think people have worked hard to make sure that the performing arts organizations are going to be able to get through this period and be there when we get on the other side of it.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
I think the biggest challenge is uncertainty, in terms of not knowing when we can start back. (Laughing) We’re already rescheduling some things we rescheduled. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and with other big catastrophes, you always feel like you have a beginning, an end, and a recovery. I don’t feel like we’re in recovery yet.

What are some passion projects that you hope to work on while we are “paused”? 
Well, for me, since the orchestra is closed down too, it’s actually been enjoyable to practice when I don’t have any concerts. I’m probably in better shape right now than I am during the season because in the season we could have three different programs in a given week. So, between rehearsals and performances, there’s no time to practice. It’s really fun to walk into practice and say, “What do I want to play today?” I can play scales or I can play all the stuff I haven’t played for 15 years, so that’s kinda fun. Not that I can’t wait to be on stage again actually playing for the public, but it is fun to have a little bit of bandwidth to be in shape and just play for pure enjoyment.

What advice do you have to artists trying to work on their craft? 
We work with a lot of chamber music groups and soloists, and my advice right now as a musician, assuming this could easily go on for another 3 or 6 months or a year, is be creative about how you can deliver content. If we can’t gather for concerts with audiences, you’re going to have to figure out a way to find something that’s engaging. It’s tough – I’ve seen some really, really good stuff out there, but it’s just not the same as being in a concert hall. It can be great playing, but coming through TV speakers or an iPad, it’s just not the same. And for students, this is a gift: they have time right now.  If they’ve got a good teacher, they can get a good lesson online through Zoom. And for people who are serious musicians, in their teens or college age, there is no reason in the world you’re not practicing 4-6 hours a day right now.

What do you need during this time? 
I’d say it’s probably financial, though I’m more worried about next year. This year, we were close enough to the end of the fiscal year and people have stepped up to help us, so we will probably have a small loss but it really won’t be catastrophic. I think next year is going to be even more challenging, financially. Even if we can do concerts, what is the comfort level of the public going to be? Typically in Chrysler Hall we might hope to have 2000 people or in Sandler 1100 people, but if we have to safe-distance, we might only put 500 people in Chrysler Hall or 400 people in Sandler Center. For those that have the ability to help the arts organizations financially, I think that’s going to be the greatest need for the next year. Being very conscious of the need that social services are going to have for the short term and long term, don’t forget the arts organizations because you want them to be there when we get on the other side. We want the opera to be there, the symphony and the stage company.

In what ways are you being proactive for re-opening? 
Our goal is that next April and May we can have something that resembles a normal Festival, but I’m telling the staff to be prepared that we can’t, and if we can’t, then how can we deliver content? Let’s say we had Candadian Brass coming, if they can’t play a concert at Sandler Center or Chrysler Hall, do we still bring them in and tape it and stream the concert? How do we present the arts to people if they can’t gather?

Where are you in your planning for next year? What’s your plan for subscribers or members if you know that already? 
We’re full speed ahead in planning for next year. I’m probably 75% through booking next year’s Festival because I’ve had the time to do it and artists are hungry to work. So for us the question will be: when do we feel comfortable announcing it? We typically announce the season in mid- October. Are we going to feel comfortable doing it then, or are we going to wait a little bit?

Jason Isabel and the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Williamsburg Live 2021 headliner

What do you hope to return to? What do you hope the future of the arts looks like? 
Well, I love what we do, so my hope is that, whether it’s 6 months from now or a year from now, that we’re back to where we were before. To me there’s nothing more exciting than being in the Sandler Center or Chrysler Hall or the Ferguson Center with a full house seeing Joshua Bell or Alvin Ailey or Kristin Chenoweth. The act of experiencing the arts with people is really, really powerful. I want to figure out how to remain relevant and healthy as an organization until we get back to that point, but I want to get back to that point where we can do it again.

What conversations do we need to be having right now? Are you seeing those happening? 
I think that we’ve all got to be talking to our elected officials. I know they’re dealing with incredibly important issues in terms of schools, social services that are immediate needs. But let’s not lose sight of how important the arts are in Hampton Roads. It’s a big part of our economy in terms of tourism and in terms of quality of life for everybody. I think we’ve got to be sensitive to what’s going on, but we can’t disappear because there are so many things pressing on the needs. If we do disappear, there are plenty of things that are going to fill the vacuum. In my circle of colleagues, we’re talking with our elected officials on a regular basis.

What are you, personally, most looking forward to after the shutdown? 
Being in a concert hall for a live performance. That’s the first thing I’m looking forward to. The second is going to a good restaurant and having a good meal and a good bottle of wine with friends. It’s a close second. As much as [my wife] Debbie’s been doing some great cooking, I miss my friends.

Is there a specific upcoming project you would like people to know about? 
Sure! One of the things that was supposed to happen in the Festival is a Michaelangelo exhibit at MacArthur Center for three weeks during the spring. It’s these beautiful images, facsimiles from the Sistine Chapel. So, we have the exhibit; it’s in crates at MacArthur Center, and we’re hoping to open it for three weeks in August. MacArthur Center is reopened, so the plan is it gets installed the first week of August and will open either the second or third week of August for three weeks. We’re really excited about it! It’s really beautiful. It will give people a chance to get out. We’re working really closely with other museums on understanding how to operate a museum safely in terms of one-way paths, everything’s touchless. And I think regardless of what your religion is, it’s a little timely to go see something so beautiful. You can go there for a few minutes and maybe just contemplate it. So I’m looking forward to that.

Anything else you want to talk about? 
We’re very grateful for the way the community has stepped up, for us specifically, and for all the arts organizations, helping us through this difficult time. We want them to know that we’re doing everything we can to make good decisions and be there on the other side of this pandemic.

Where can people find you (for classes, donations, etc)?
Visit our webpage! Our team has done a really good job with what we call the Virtual Festival. We’re putting out a weekly e-blast of what’s going on during the Festival. We’re in the last month of our fiscal year, so we’ve got a pretty active campaign right now to close out the Annual Fund. Events that have been rescheduled are already on the website calendar. We’re also sharing information on social media. (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @VaArtsFest,  YouTube: @VaArtsFestival)

The Art of Interacting Online

Virginia Stage Company

Words by Louise Casini Hollis.
Images courtesy of Virginia Stage Company

It may appear that the world has shut down, but the teaching artists of Hampton Roads have taken this opportunity to flourish online with a multitude of opportunities for students to stay connected during the pandemic. In an ongoing series, Spotlight HR is talking to artists and arts organizations around Hampton Roads about their experiences in engaging with students online.

Virginia Stage Company has been a leader in on-line programming for the Hampton Roads community during the pandemic. Through their virtual events ranging from monologue workshops and industry seminars, to Ryan Clemmens’ performance of Meet Mark Twain! via Facebook Live, VSC has consistently helped the theatre community to thrive during quarantine.  

Patrick Mullins, Director of Public Works at Virginia Stage Company believes the Hampton Roads theatre community’s resilience is due to its, “Can-do attitude. I watch folks just step up and make things happen you know, whether it’s an audacious production, or audacious style – people aren’t afraid.  I think that’s characteristic of this area in general is that we have kind of a resilient can-do attitude that people kind of aren’t afraid to take off a big bite of something. I’m excited to see what happens as all of those things unite into something bigger.”

Making something bigger is what Patrick does best. He was the driving force behind the Midsummer Fantasy Festival which was produced in conjunction with Fest Events. 

A shot looking down on a large crowd in Town POint PArk one of the evenings of the Midsummer Festival.

These immersive theatrical productions, such as Moon Take Thy Flight an adaptation of A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream and The Tempest (both presented in Town Point park); and Miss Kitty’s House of Cosmic Love at The Hermitage Museum and Gardens collaborated with the Hampton Roads arts community to bring actors, musicians and visual artists together. Part of Patrick’s drive comes out of his background as an educator. “To me directing and teaching are a lot alike because really it’s about collaboration,” shares Patrick, “And it’s about two-way learning. I have some skills and some tools that I’ve acquired and other people have their own experiences that they’re experts in and so we come together to make something bigger than us.”

As a child, Patrick got involved in theatre though his church and toured with a Christian drama group playing notable biblical characters such as David the King and the apostle Paul. He went on to Pensacola Christian College to major in education with an emphasis in theatre and music and a vocal minor. He then taught high school for 7 years in the Atlanta area. His love of learning led him to an internship at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta before earning his MFA in Acting from the University of South Carolina. “But I was directing in the background of all that, and so I made most of my career out of being a director and teacher.”

Patrick’s current focus is to bring summer educational opportunities to the students of Hampton Roads. He is collaborating with Ryan Clemmens, VSC’s Lead Theatre Artist, and Laura Agudelo, Grassfield High School’s teacher of the year in 2018 to create their Virtual Summer Camp.  The VSC team decided to move their summer programs on-line after consulting parents about the best practices to deliver courses during the pandemic. Out of these conversations came course offerings including Virtual Stage Summer Theatre Camp, ‘The Show Must Go Online!’ Theatre Camp, Professional Actor’s Bootcamp and ‘On Camera’ Camp: Writing and Performing for the Camera. They will also hold a 6 week course for adults and are creating some workshops for students who cannot commit to a week of classes or would just like to hone a particular skill.

The stage company's house, empty with the curtain down.

“I’m really proud of the curriculum we’ve put together and the way it kind of oscillates and takes a four hour block every day and really uses it well and divides students up,” notes Patrick. “No camp is larger than 12 students and so there are break-out sessions with 6 students and so everybody gets individualized time – maybe more so than they would in a real time camp with 25 or 30  kids.”  

Connecting on-line is nothing new for Patrick. “I’m fairly techie,” he confides, “I kind of came of age with digital communication so that’s not foreign to me.” This comfort level served him well when, as an Acting Instructor at ODU, his classes were suddenly taken on-line due to COVID-19. “The acting class I was teaching over there this semester happened to be Acting I, and so I did one more big assignment and very much simplified that flow,” Patrick shared. “In that particular situation, it’s less about practices and more about dealing with a diverse set of student needs. There was a lot of just checking in with folks and meeting people where they were,” he continued. “There is a sacredness to a digital interaction,” observed Patrick. “When you’re sitting in your own home and you’re in this close-up conversation with someone else in their own home there’s a built-in intimacy there. And I have found that in working with students of all ages that some folks that maybe brought a physical stiffness or plasticity to what they did were suddenly more physically relaxed when performing in their own home…That being said, the monologues I got from them were some of the best – I was really impressed with how they just kind of gangbusters went after it and took ownership of it. I had worked with those students for a little more than half a semester in a classroom, so to see them be more comfortable in their own homes and take bigger physical and vocal risks than they normally did in the classroom was really fascinating.”

Patrick recently explored the digital production medium when he directed MK and Olivier by playwright Alexis Roblan, broadcast via Zoom for Exquisite Corpse, a Brooklyn based theatre company as a part of their “Site” Specific Festival. “There were two actors who are quarantined together, and while they had scenes together, a lot of her dialogue was directly to the camera. In working on that, there’s a little bit of her registering the audience but that is about looking at little squares in the Zoom screen and or the text chat that is flying by which is a whole different level of technical – that’s not the way we teach actors to register feedback,” explained Patrick. 

Patrick went on to explain how directing and teaching on-line are different than when you are sharing the same space with actors, in that the, “exchange from the actor is different because the things you’re used to relying on in real time – people’s breath, people’s chuckle, their laugh, their whatever – is not [physically] there.  There’s a kinesthetic difference. So how do we take that energy and that control of our own authentic experience and manipulation of our experience and then how do we help folks take that and then transfer it to real space? I think these are two ways of working on the same problem. Or the same challenge.  And that’s what we do in an acting class anyway, right? We work at it from an intellectual point of view, from a psychological analysis point of view, from a physical point of view, from a vocal point of view, from an impulse point of view and then we marry all those things together. And I really just think this digital space gives us one more way of attacking this conversation.”

A photo of the Around the World in 80 Days set from the Virginia Stage Company. Lots of clock pieces, a blue false proscenium with a gold curtain.
Image pulled from Facebook, Easter Egg- your editor was the Assistant Technical Director for this set, from VSC’s performance of Around the World in 80 Days.

Patrick and his team are eager to begin exploring this conversation with their summer camp students and help them deepen their digital savvy. “A lot of our young people are already acting out and writing and scripting their own Lego stop-action movies and all sorts of things,” observes Patrick. By meeting students where they are skill wise and on-line, Patrick believes, “this is teaching us to be better partners and friends to those we already serve, and giving us the opportunity to leverage technology in reaching folks we didn’t before. I’m hopeful that our new realities in a post-quarantine world will allow us to have even more specific impact in the lives of students as they build not just their theatre skills, but their abilities to be empathetic humans working toward a better world.”  

 “All people have a right to theatre,” is Patrick’s mantra. Fortunately he and the staff of Virginia Stage Company are able to fulfill this vision by making theatre accessible to the Hampton Roads community through virtual means.

Virtual Summer Camp
Virginia Stage Company
Virtual Stage – Ongoing classes and special workshop events

Spotlight Saturdays – Sponsored by Sandler Center Foundation

The Sandler Center Foundation

Interview by BA Ciccolella
Images courtesy of the Sandler Center Foundation.

Each week, Spotlight shines on one of our local arts companies, as a reminder of their importance of their work to our local community.  This week, because we feel like you should know a little about the companies that sponsor your media, we sat down with Lisa Baehre, the Executive Director of the Sandler Center Foundation.

For those who need the background, the city of Virginia Beach owns the Sandler Center’s building, the company Spectra operates the building (editor’s note: full disclosure- when I have a stagehand gig there, that’s who writes my check), and the Sandler Foundation enhances the building, a large scale example of symbiotic cooperation. Right now Spectra and the Sandler Center Foundation are working very closely together to get everyone through COVID-19.

About you and your company:

What is your mission statement, and how do you decide on a program that fulfills your mission statement?
In a nutshell, our goal is to educate, enrich, and inspire through the arts, and work to instill an appreciation of the arts in the next generation through underwriting world class performances, supporting local arts organizations, and acting as a connector to the community within our region. That all boils down to educate, enrich, and inspire. Our job- we basically pay for the things that don’t make money at the Sandler Center. We have 3 pillars of service. Pillar one is education, pillar 2 is community outreach, and Pillar 3 is performance, underwriting and grants. Our main historical job was to do a lot of K-8 outreach as it relates to the performing arts. 

What or who inspires/ influences your work?
There are several that I could say, and I couldn’t pick out any one of them because of the way that they inspire me. On some level it’s watching the artists interact with the community and the beauty of the art that they are sharing, whether they are a musician, an actor/actress, or they are doing dance, whatever their medium. I’m not that person- I played flute/ piccolo/ bari sax, I sang, and was good enough to take that into college but not to take that on to a professional level. Seeing people who have invested the time and energy and dedication to their art form is incredibly inspiring to me because I know how much time it took.

The second is being around people that support the arts community. I give this speech periodically about how we tell our kids to become well rounded and to be artists and to learn to do things because it will enrich themselves, and get them into college, and then the moment that we spend years and years developing this in kids, and they say “Hey, mom/dad/parent figure, I want to pursue a career in the arts,” we tell them “Nope, you’re never going to make any money. I don’t want you to go into this area, you need a real job.” One of the things that I like to point out to people is that there are so many people who weren’t going to be the performer, per se, but they can still show their love of the arts through lots of different areas. Like me, my background is in labor and employment relations and fundraising- that’s what I studied in college, but I was able to tie it back to my love for the arts, and now I run the Foundation. It’s inspiring for me to see people looking at how they can be a part of the art world and do it in whatever way that may be, whether they are a stagehand, or they are creating sets, or they are on the business aspect, or the finance side. 

The Sandler Center House, packed with students for a matinee

The third area is, of course, the audiences. There is nothing like watching the kids come into the Sandler Center and seeing thousands and thousands of little kids, especially, in our case, from underserved communities. The energy that they bring to that space- I wish we could bottle it.

Their enthusiasm and the excitement, and just seeing their faces- these are kids that sometimes have never left their neighborhood, whether that’s a low income neighborhood in one of our cities or they are living in the middle of rural somewhere and they can’t even see their neighbors. That kind of excitement and energy coming into the building, and then getting to see and experience all those other things I just explained is truly inspiring. 

Tell me about your education programs? 
What’s important is that they are all aligned with the SOL’s. We are providing critical arts education that wouldn’t be able to happen in the schools without our support. We just completed a study about a year ago with Purdue University. We can’t really talk much about this, we’ve only gotten the preliminary results back, but the impact of the performing arts on children’s literacy is profound. It’s not just, “we’re exposing kids to the arts”, but we are exposing kids to the arts so that they can do better in school, and how are we making a difference in their ability to comprehend things. We really look at a lot of different levels of how we bring kids in from an education standpoint.

A collage of students learning about STEAM related topics.

What makes your work unique to our community, and why is that important?
I always view us as the community’s living room. We end up with a lot of the social challenges that face our community in lots of different ways, and we have to figure out a way that is a great equalizer for that. A quick example- if we change the time of our student matines, which typically happen in the morning, we impact those kids that are on free and reduced lunch, and might be having breakfast and lunch in school- they don’t get a chance to eat. So they come to the Sandler Center, and they may not have had breakfast, so they are going to act out, and they’re going to be upset, and they’re not going to absorb anything. We see a lot of things that you wouldn’t expect. 

COVID-19 Response:

How have you/ your staff been handling COVID/ what have you been doing since the shutdown? 
About three years ago the Foundation was set up to operate entirely in the virtual space/ cloud. So, long before COVID, I wanted people to have the ability to work anywhere at any time and be able to do their jobs. I’ve never believed that you have to be in an office to be able to do your job. (In some cases, you absolutely do, the stuff that we do, not really). I wanted that flexibility for us, so the transition to a work environment where we weren’t going into the office every day was pretty seamless. I shut the student matinees down on March 13 and we had our first teams video conference on the 16th, so the following Monday. 

I think the bigger challenge has been how do you manage and work with a team that needs to reinvent itself. How do you take an organization that completely supports a bricks and mortar building, and reinvent it in the virtual space? We have done that, we are continuing to do that, and we will continue to even broaden that moving forward. We created the Virtual Stage, we had that up and running in two weeks, long before most of the other arts organizations on the national level had anything like that out. That was a monumental undertaking- I think I worked 90 hour work weeks almost six weeks in a row, but we did it, and we’ll continue to do it. We knew that we needed to stay relevant, and we want to be a positive force for people at this time. 

What adjustments has the virus caused to your schedule?
There are no boundaries- no boundaries whatsoever. Working remotely is great on a lot of levels, and I really enjoy it, but we’ve had to as a staff and a team, as a response to the community, recognize that people connect with us at all times of the day or night. We get questions on the virtual stage that come across at 3am, and how do we respond to those in a timely manner? Then, how do we as a team manage our own mental health? We’ve come up with a way to do that and I won’t say we totally solved it, but I would boil it down to there are no boundaries, and so we have to figure out how to create what those boundaries become. 

What’s the biggest change to educational programs? 
We can’t have them. The schools have told us that they won’t be doing field trips in the fall, and that means the 20,000+ kids that go through the student matinees won’t be doing that this fall. The likelihood that we are able to do it in the spring is maybe 50/50, because schools typically book their field trips in November. In theory if there’s a vaccine, and that doesn’t come around until January, that means the schools have already said “sorry, we can’t do field trips”.

We are working now with artists and content providers to provide digital SOL aligned arts programming. It’s not easy because everyone’s basically inventing it from scratch, including us. We’re working with the school districts to say “What do you need, and how can we make this happen?” Knowing that you can’t bring them into the Sandler Center and see that excitement in their face, what can we do to make that happen remotely in the short term and then bring them back once it is safe to do so. It’s completely changed everything we do.

A collage of students waiting to get to their seats in the Sandler Center, including a photo of the school busses.

What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve learned during this time?
That peoples’ resilience is so inspiring and profound. I’ve watched some of my staff members do things I had no idea they were capable of. We have a really strong work team, and watching how others have coped with really difficult stuff in this time period- not everybody has- but some of those people who have just taken on this stress and said, “You know what, you’re not gonna win, COVID. I’m going to be here on the other side of this,” it just brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced? 
I’m a planner, so people that know me well know that I have plans A-F, and then various iterations and they stretch 2, 5, 10 years out. When COVID first hit I was happy that I could plan 2 days out, I would say now I can plan about 2 weeks out, and I’m starting to look at longer term stuff. The ability to plan and respond is very much real-time and it changes almost daily, sometimes hourly, on what we can do. That’s probably the greatest challenge- I’ve got plans, I’ve got tons of them, it’s just what can I actually do, given what’s happening in our environment right now. 

What are some passion projects that you hope to work on while we are “paused”?
Without giving too many details, we are exploring heavily augmented reality. It is a blast! I’m getting to do some passion projects right now because they are relevant, whereas before it was “We have a theater, why do we need augmented reality?” Well, now we don’t!

What advice do you have to artists trying to work on their craft?
The advice i’ve been giving to people is “stay relevant, whatever that may mean”. For us it’s our YNot wednesdays- we can’t have the live performances, but we are hosting virtual performances. They aren’t making money, but every week we do a meet and greet in advance so that people have a chance to connect with the artist, and they are gaining online exposure. The artists are developing an online repertoire of their work. 

To me it’s “keep doing things”. Keep putting the energy into it. Don’t give up on what you are doing. Think of how you can stay relevant in this time. [This meme (below or above- insert image)] spurred a conversation via text at like 11 at night about how we need to convert ourselves to “essential” during this time- and we’ve been trying to do that ever since. 

What do you need during this time?
Money. I mean, who doesn’t. It’s hard right now, there’s been a 73% drop in fundraising nationwide- to everything, not just the arts, and the little money that is going out is going to COVID direct support, foodbanks, that kind of fallout. I don’t begrudge any cent of that- I think that’s exactly where it needs to be going right now. However, my concern is, as I think all artists right now are thinking, how do we sustain through this time period and then come out on the other side? Especially versus people saying, you know what, maybe now’s that time I go pursue that nursing degree, or into the more hard sciences or lucrative fields because they just need to survive. I know money sounds like such an easy thing, but it’s not right now. We need to support our arts organizations. It costs a lot of money to keep the Virtual Stage running, because it’s so labor intensive, and to create new content. I have to pay people with the inability to plan and know when we’re going to come out of this. 

The more altruistic thing is love. We need people to say what you are doing matters, what you are doing is helpful, what you are doing is inspiring, because at the end of the day, there is no money there for us, and there’s no money for the artists, so you have to do it out of love or it doesn’t really happen. 

The logo for the Virtual Stage.

Looking to the Future:

In what ways are you being proactive for re-opening?
I believe very strongly you shouldn’t do something just to do it, I’d rather do something that’s sustainable and long term, so everything we are putting into place and we’re investing our energies in right now is with an eye towards the future. I mentioned the augmented reality- I don’t want that to disappear at the point that we can reopen. Everything that we are developing now, I see a role for it in the future, it just may take on a different role. Perhaps for schools out in rural areas where it takes them an hour and a half to get to us, so they are losing three hours of their day just in travel time, and the trip doesn’t make sense for the school- what if what we’re developing can continue and reach those schools? Right now it’s with an eye towards COVID, to me it’s also “ok, how can we use that in the future.”

Where are you in your planning for next year? What’s your plan for subscribers or members if you know that already? 
We’re doing continuity planning on David’s side of the house (editor’s note: for those who don’t know, David Semon is General Manager of the Sandler Center), planning what it looks like in terms of having PPE available, how do you seat patrons, how to protect the performers, do you put giant plastic screens on the stage, air filtration systems. There’s that very practical side of things, and that planning is happening. 

There was a New York Times article within the last few days that basically said we can plan all this, but until people really feel safe, and really feel safe, they’re not going to come back. That’s been our feeling all along. 

Yes we’re planning things, and yes we’re rescheduling our artists, but I was speaking with someone this morning who was saying we’ve already rescheduled one round, now we’re starting rescheduling second rounds, and as you know in the theater world, there’s only so far you can push out before you run into another season that you already planned six months ago, and we are running into that right now- it’s going to be an interesting logistical nightmare, how we go about doing that.

What do you hope to return to? What do you hope the future of the arts looks like? Are there specific changes you would like to see when we come back?
I really hope that this forces artists and organizations to collaborate more. I love how we are collaborating directly with the Sandler Center- we did before, but we are doing it on extreme fronts these days. We have staff overlapping, they are involved in our daily meeting, we are involved in theirs, and I hope that kind of collaboration continues. Regardless of when we come back and how we come back, there are limited resources, and we will all have to share in those in some way shape or form, and there will probably be even fewer resources to start when we come back. So I hope that collaboration continues, and I really have enjoyed that a lot.

What conversations do we need to be having right now? Are you seeing those happening?
This is a different platform of mine, but in general, the face of the arts have been changing for a long time (pre-COVID). Our subscribers are primarily “of a certain age”, and that demographic is shifting. The conversation I had, probably two years ago, about whether we ever expand the building at the Sandler Center is “how do you design a performing arts venue for a generation that doesn’t see walls?” That is a conversation that pre-dates COVID, and COVID has sped it up, because all of a sudden we can’t have walls, and we need to attract new audiences, and how are we doing it? 

I’m not seeing that yet, I’m seeing a lot of survival mode, but I hope that in the coming months and years we start taking a look at how we really answer that question, because it’s coming, in my mind, and it’s already here in a lot of ways. We love our artform, we love our craft, and we love our venues, but that’s not what succeeding generations are seeing the world like. 

What are you, personally, most looking forward to after the shutdown?
I love beach volleyball. I love the social interaction that happens during beach volleyball, and then afterwards we go to some bars along the oceanfront that have live music, and we drink and eat because we’ve just burned a thousand calories playing beach volleyball and I love it. I can’t wait to do that- and it’s hot and sticky, and that time of year, and I’m really going to miss that this summer.

Is there a specific upcoming project you would like people to know about?
Join the virtual stage! (Links are provided below.)
If you miss and love the arts, that’s what we are finding has been a great connector for people, and what I wish is that more people would share what they are seeing on the Virtual stage- that’s really what we intended it to be. So watch for that, we have Music Mondays, Ynot Wednesdays, Family Fridays, we have all kinds of stuff that goes on there, it’s a pretty active page, and it’s fun! 

Where can people find you (for classes, donations, etc)? 
Join Virtual Stage Coastal Virginia Facebook Group.
The content from the Virtual Stage can also be found on the Sandler Center Foundation website.
Ynot Wednesday concerts can be viewed live at 6pm on Wednesdays through June via Facebook Live or for those without facebook, Ynot Wednesday concerts can also be streaming live on the Sandler Center YouTube Channel.
You can also check out the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts website.