Below are the organizations featured in this article. However, there are many other performing arts organizations in the area that are now offering virtual classes, including Moving Architects for dance, and Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn for theater.
Essex Youth Theater
Vanguard Theater Company
By GWEN OREL
They say the show must go on.
And it is.
At least, theater and dance classes are continuing in Montclair.
Sure, kids cannot throw an imaginary ball across the room: Some theater games have to change.
But others are being transformed.
And while everyone looks forward to the day when they can gather together again to rehearse and perform a real show, virtual theater classes are going better than many could have predicted.
Unlike music classes, which have been taught remotely for a while, teaching acting or dance online is a pretty new concept.
Everyone is figuring it out as they go along, but so far, so good.
‘ALL ABOUT FACIAL EXPRESSIONS’
Janet Sales, artistic director of Essex Youth Theater since 1992, is in the process of
reinventing how online classes can work for theater. When she went looking for examples, she mostly found lectures. So she has had to improvise (a popular word for theater).
EYT is offering 12 classes, with about 190 students ranging in age from 5 to 12.
Right now, rehearsals are “all about facial expressions. ‘Why am I saying this line? What am I thinking?’ It’s not ‘Enter from Stage Right, here are your dance moves,’” she said.
Students have their scripts at home, and some music tracks have been emailed. Because of internet delay, people cannot sing together yet.
EYT had been rehearsing for half a semester already when the lockdown order came. Sales would have had to do it differently if it were online from the beginning.
With the smaller children, parents have been a huge help, nudging them to say their lines, she added.
Mostly, she is trying to keep it fun. “This is obviously unsettling for everybody. This is a fun thing to do before we can meet in person again,” Sales said. She’s been pleasantly surprised at the level of excitement from kids and their parents.
Olivia Pearce, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Glenfield Middle School, and Lizzie Biebel, 11, a fifth-grader at St. Cassian, are in the Creative Dramatics class, which creates its own script for a final show.
The theater games are now verbal ones, where kids type into the chat part of Zoom, rather than a role-playing “You’re out” game called Goblin Land.
But it’s still a lot of fun.
“We still have those moments where we all burst out laughing at someone’s line. Even though we can’t see each other in person, it’s still fun,” Biebel said.
“I love Essex Youth Theater. I’m very happy that we get to continue doing it,” Pearce said. This year will be her last, as next year she will be too old for the program, so she’s particularly glad to be able to continue. While she likes performing, to get into a show at Glenfield you have to sing, she said. At EYT, she does not have to sing: “It’s really special to me.”
Sales said: “One parent told me her daughter cried when she found out school had to close, and this is her favorite thing every week. Hearing those kinds of comments is so meaningful. When they are adults they might look back and say, ‘We lived through this experience.’”
MADLOM, the Montclair Academy of Dance and Laboratory of Music, Inc., went virtual as soon as the lockdown happened.
The school offers classes in acting, drumming and dance. It’s not the same as being in the classroom with students, said artistic director and curriculum director Maya Workman, who co-founded the company with husband Reggie Workman in 1998.
But in some ways, it’s better.
“The kids are more focused,” Workman said. One difference is that classes are slower, as
each student now has a chance to perform individually rather than in unison.
The theater students are developing a new show about dreaming, Workman said.
The school offers 11 classes, for about 100 children ages 3 to 17.
Some of the social aspect is gone: “When they come to class, they say hello and have fun before we start,” she said. “I allow them to talk or be silly. Here, this is not happening, so we right away get into the material.”
Like Sales, she praised parents for helping with technology, especially pointing the phone or computer so Workman can see a whole body.
“My corrections are more intense. If I’m looking at a plié sideways, you cannot bend your back, you have to stay upright,” Workman said. She cannot correct the children physically, but she can see them better.
The students cannot of course perform duets, trios, or quartets. Instead they are individually working on dances inspired by visual art, including Picasso and Kandinsky, Workman said.
“When we come together, we will put it together as a puzzle, or a mosaic,” she said. There will be a show at some point, she said.
Giving feedback is hard, however, said drum teacher M’Ten Halsey. It’s hard for him to understand whether the children really have something down, or have it down just a little bit. He tries to create a drum circle atmosphere by playing while students are muted, letting the kids play along.
“Being able to play with peers doesn’t work online,” Halsey said. “But they love it, and are learning still, and growing as musicians. Being able to continue the lessons and continue the music is also bringing a sense of normalcy to children’s lives. Some of these kids have been taking (lessons) as long as 10 years. Without being able to take online they might lose the sense of familiarity and normalcy. It’s a big plus for their minds.”
That’s definitely true for 13-year-old Mazy King Parker, 13, of Bloomfield, who is taking three classes at MADLOM.
Without her dance class, she says, “I’d feel no hope. It’s a big part of my life that would be cut off. Now I know that I can keep going.” And it gives her something to hold onto, and community, she said.
Taking a class on Zoom, she said, is “just as good if not better.”
If she cannot make a particular Zoom meeting, her teacher will work with her privately. Five minutes before class, she moves the couches in her living room to set herself up for online. While she cannot see herself in the mirror, she can see Workman, who is hosting the call and teaching.
“I need to see that screen more than I need to see myself,” Parker said. She does miss physical adjustments, but appreciates that Workman trusts her. “For me it means commitment, that Maya is committed enough to let us do this,” she said. “What might seem like a barrier doesn’t have to be.
“I’m struggling with work and other extracurricular activities, so it’s a good time to put on my ballet slippers and leotard and get away from all that and attend a Zoom call.”
MAYBE THE FUTURE?
Vanguard Theater Project starts its online classes next week. Unlike those at Essex Youth Theater, these classes are all just beginning.
Janeece Freeman Clark, who founded the school in 2015 and is its artistic director, said that next week will be a free week where students can try out a class that interests them.
After that, the school will run a four-week-long session.
“COVID happened when we were doing our ‘Broadway Buddy program,’ where we pair people for a one-on-one mentorship. It’s still happening virtually,” Freeman Clark said.
Some Broadway artists are going to be teaching classes. The classes primarily focus on technique, such as a class on acting for the camera, creating a solo show, or auditioning for college programs.
There is also a Disney dance class, where younger students can learn combinations, and a “Broadway Fam Jam,” where families can learn combinations together, Freeman Clark said.
Because of the limitations of Zoom, each class will be limited to eight students.
Like Workman, Freeman Clark finds some advantages to teaching virtually: Instead of being stuck behind a piano, now when a student sings along to a recording, she sees everything, the tension in the jaw, the frowns. “It’s freeing in some ways,” she said.
Right now, Vanguard cannot rehearse plays, like Elizabeth Swados’ “Runaways,” a show Vanguard presented in 2019 in a partnership with Covenant House, a nonprofit agency that provides services to homeless and runaway youth.
But Freeman Clark hopes virtual teaching will be a part of the curriculum going forward.
“I hope we will see people taking classes on virtual Vanguard that wouldn’t be able to take class with us, because they don’t live in the area,” she said.
“I hope that will remain when life gets back to normal.”