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Kids Under Pressure: Taking the virtual stage

Published: Mar. 23, 2021 at 10:58 PM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - You’ve heard the saying, “the show must go on.” However, the shows at Memorial High School in Eau Claire could not go on during the COVID-19 pandemic. News of the shutdown came just as Memorial’s Spring Play Festival was kicking off on Friday, March 13, 2020.

“There were 48 kids involved in that festival. 10 different one act plays. It was meant to be an entire weekend event, and we got one performance in,” said MHS Theater Director & teacher Amber Dernbach.

One performance of then junior Liam Hunt’s original play Students Not Survivors, which is about school shootings. One year later, new plans to showcase Hunt’s work before he goes off to college.

“This year we’re hoping to film a full production,” said MHS senior Liam Hunt.

“He has rewritten it so it can be filmed. It will be a different piece, but it will still happen,” said Dernbach.

Memorial High School Theater Director and teacher Amber Dernbach says adaptation became the new mantra for her and her students during the pandemic.

“In theater it’s a lot of working on your craft constantly, so I was really looking forward to doing that my senior year. I’m still doing it, just in a different setting,” said MHS senior Faith Olotu.

That new setting is a computer screen, which was an adjustment for seniors Liam Hunt and Faith Olotu who are used to performing in front of an in-person audience.

“I lost motivation, especially in the beginning of the school year. I felt very dormant creatively, and I’m a very creative person. That’s my outlet, and I felt kind of lost in the beginning of the year,” said Olotu.

“It has been very difficult to stay motivated and to stay focused on my projects,” said Hunt.

While not the same as being on stage in a packed theater, students in acting and directing classes are still completing projects.

Dernbach asked her students, “So far, what has it been like for you studying acting and performing using Microsoft Teams?”

“It’s just been very different. When acting in person, there were a lot of things that I automatically thought about for acting like physical things when you’re talking to someone you can turn and talk to them, but with a camera you’re always talking to everybody,” said one student.

Students aren’t the only ones adapting. Dernbach is learning how to instruct through squares on a screen.

“When we perform for each other on Teams, what I do is I pin the two students who are acting together and everybody else turns their cameras off so we’re not taking screen space,” she said.

While there are some challenges.

“Feeling comfortable with who you’re with and being able to trust the person you’re on stage with, if you’ve never met that person before, the only way you’re meeting them is on screen, it takes more planning,” said Dernbach.

There are also some new opportunities.

“There’s a lot of cool things you can do with a virtual theater. I see it less as a limitation, and more as another path, another opportunity,” said one student.

All came to the consensus, something is better than nothing.

“At the beginning of the year, I didn’t sign up for documentary theater. I was really concerned actually as to how it would work in a virtual setting, but after talking to my teacher, and I ended up joining. It was the best decision I made this year. Yeah,” said Olotu.

In a typical year, the Documentary Theater class would create an original production on a community issue.

This school year, the class is still tackling an important topic - the pandemic, just in a new way.

The “People of the Pandemic” website is up and running with photos, videos and stories, with the hope of going beyond the daily case counts.

“For a lot of people, they just see that number and think of it as a number, but what our project is hoping to do is put a face to it. Put a story to it,” said Documentary Theater student Faith Olotu.

In Documentary Theater and other classes at Memorial High School, adaptation is at the forefront.

“They’re still meeting the acting standards. They’re still learning how to direct other people. I think what they’ve learned is their art form is adaptable. Really what they need is themselves,” said teacher Amber Dernbach.

While classes are continuing, and students are doing a lot through the computer -- some normal events are being modified or won’t be happening at all. An improv show will be streamed on Old Abe TV and there will be no Fine Arts Night this school year.

The students are filming Liam Hunt’s play, Students Not Survivors, on May 22 and 23. The production will take the place of the traditional spring play. It will be available for public viewing on YouTube after it is edited.

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