Before 2020, the chances of hearing the phrase “Zoom play” over the course of an average conversation were slim to none. But as COVID shut down live onstage performance as we know it, artists and arts organizations were tasked with thinking creatively — and quickly — about how to sustain their craft and livelihoods. For many, ranging from international professional theater companies to regional independent artists, video became the most useful, and COVID-safe, tool.
Add to those ranks the second graders at Duke School, who — split between four pods during the 2020-21 school year — fully adapted their annual theater business project to a video format, with multiple theatrical productions made and filmed in-person and one created for and performed entirely on Zoom, the video conferencing platform that became a popular communication vehicle early in the pandemic.
For the second-grade teaching team, made up of Tery Gunter, Cynthia Coward, Dan Heuser, and Dawn Amin-Arsala, adapting the project — which engages the students in every aspect of play production, from creating and naming a theater business to auditioning and performing to budgeting and marketing — required a combination of weighing which aspects could remain the same as in previous years and which would have to change.
As with all project work at Duke School, the theater business project takes an interdisciplinary approach to help students think through, as Tery said, “what it takes to run a business.” The teachers led students through exercises to “reawaken” their existing knowledge about the topic: getting them to think about “their world, their local community.” In previous years, this would typically involve a field trip to the Carolina Theatre to see a performance geared toward younger audiences. Within the constraints of this past year, students thought more creatively about how performance and the concept of an audience have shown up in their life. Of course, there’s seeing a production of The Nutcracker — but what about watching or playing in a baseball game? Gathering with family for movie night?
Sharing these anecdotal experiences prepared students to study existing plays, seeing how authors from around the world spin everyday events into fables and fairytales and trying the stories on for size to practice dramatic expression and read-aloud techniques. Student favorites, year after year, include The Three Little Pigs and Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock.
One of Dan and Cynthia’s pods ended up choosing The Lion and the Mouse, and thus began the task of adapting a production entirely to Zoom — or, as Dan described it, “the technological leap.” Puzzling through this leap for the first time, students and teachers were on the same level, so, as Cynthia said, “it wasn’t just the teachers coming up with ideas.” What did this look like when it came to the performance? Against a virtual rainforest backdrop, the student-actors would pass an object from one Zoom “window” to another; in one scene, a student playing a hunter literally throws the net down onto the computer camera lens, creating an immersive effect. Students and teachers alike came away from the experience focused on the advantages of virtual performance. For Cynthia, who began teaching at Duke School this past school year, there was, advantageously, no preexisting idea of what the play “should” look like. “I think that’s probably a good thing,” she reflected, “because I was like, ‘Okay, let’s try it!’ It really opened my mind to the possibilities.”
On-campus, as teachers and students figured out how to block onstage actions and rehearse while abiding by COVID safety protocols, new in-person partnerships bolstered the overall production experience. Embedded in Tery’s pod, Duke School’s Lower School Art Teacher Marki Watson offered expertise in set design. Collaborating with Marki, Tery said, meant she could “integrate a lot of her art lessons” into the theater business project in a more authentic way than usual because Marki “was seeing [in real-time, firsthand] what we were doing in all our subjects, and we could ping-pong different ideas.”
While none of the plays were performed and seen “live,” each was filmed — by retired Duke School teacher Candy Thompson — and distributed widely to students’ family members. Ticket fees collected were donated to the local literacy nonprofit Book Harvest. The video format also provided the benefit of expanded accessibility beyond the performance. Instead of having guest experts come to class in-person, the second graders Zoomed with far-flung theater workers living through the professional realities students were studying and simulating.
Perhaps this has been the biggest benefit of performing artists pivoting to video formats: increasing public access to artwork that would previously have limited audiences. For the Duke School second grade, non-local friends and family members could finally see, and share, the students’ efforts to create truly original theatrical performances. After all, running a business successfully takes a little creativity under constraint.