Performing Arts

Lights, Camera, Virtual Theater | Comstock’s magazine

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With five minutes to spare before showtime, the audience for a
performance of William Shakespeare’s “Pericles: Prince of Tyre”
chats idly. But, in true pandemic fashion, they do so in a chat
window to the side of the welcome marquee on laptop screens.

The Performing Arts Corps of the Sacramento-based Northern
California School of the Arts performs the play on Zoom in early
December. It’s not quite a film, and it’s not quite theater. The
performance is streamed live, but the actors are weaving
cinematic elements into the experience using camera tricks. Zoom
theater is an emerging
that is a byproduct of the pandemic. 

Over the course of about two hours, the 13 youth performers use
their homes as a stage for the play. They integrate everyday
objects as props, costumes and settings. One actor dumps a glass
of water on her head and survives a shipwreck in a bedroom
closet, a tinfoil crown passes magically from one Zoom square to
another, webcams are upended, lights flicker, and a performer
runs screaming through the house with their camera.

A New Way to Help Students

“Pericles: Prince of Tyre” was the first production by the
Performing Arts Corps at the new NorCal School of the Arts, which
launched in July 2020 (the nonprofit originally started as Nu Art
Education in 2018) after lockdown restrictions began in the U.S.
The Corps is a 9-month theater and film after-school training
program for students in grades 6-12. The program includes
classes, performance opportunities, college counseling and a
leadership institute. 

Some of these actors have never met in real life and live
hundreds of miles apart — one of the benefits of virtual
programming. Enrollment in the Corps will remain geographically
open until students can safely convene in person again,
eventually. “Due to the virtual nature of things right now we
have a student who is enrolled in The Corps program from Seattle
and another from Minneapolis,” says Michele Hillen-Noufer, NorCal
School of the Arts executive director.

Tori Johnson, NorCal School of the Arts’ program director,
reiterates the advantages of virtual programming. “We have
(teaching artists) who would be living in New York right now
auditioning for Broadway shows, we have people who are living in
LA and making a career being an artist there,” she says. “They’re
really at the top of their craft. They’re all trained in acting
from accredited universities, and these students are getting the
cutting edge of what theater can do.”

The Corps is just one prong of the NorCal School for the Arts
programming. In September, the organization received a $135,000
grant for an outreach program providing integrated theater arts
and social-emotional learning professional development support
for teachers at Title 1 schools in the Sacramento area. The grant
came from the $89 million federal
Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds
City of Sacramento received in April.

Social-emotional learning is the way children and adults learn to
understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for
others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible
decisions, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social,
and Emotional Learning, and the National Education Association
has said that social-emotional learning is critical during the
pandemic crisis. The services provided by NorCal School of the
Arts aim to support teachers and students in building community
and improving mental health in unprecedented times. 

“So much of theater already addresses social-emotional learning,
where it’s building the relationship, it’s collaborating with
others,” says Hillen-Noufer.

Building Virtual Connections 

NorCal School of the Arts’ social-emotional learning and theater
integrated curriculum was developed in a collaboration between
staff at NorCal School of the Arts and the Sacramento City
Unified School District’s social-emotional learning office. 

“When a teacher engages in social-emotional learning (exercises)
with the students — whether it’s a brain break, where they do
deep breathing, where they create an atmosphere, where they’re
building community, and they’re building relationships with
students — the student’s brain can relax, and the child will be
in a position where they can be in the most optimal learning
environment,” says Hillen-Noufer.

The outreach program includes 70 teachers and reaches 1,700
students in the Sacramento area from Edward Kemble, William Land,
Parkway, John Cabrillo, Leataata Floyd, Ethel Phillips and other
elementary schools. 

Due to the pandemic, the outreach sessions are facilitated on
Zoom. “I’m helping public school teachers create a more
interactive teaching style over Zoom,” Johnson says. “To teach
acting through Zoom, you have to be creative, you have to make it
interactive. So I’m using some of the tools that I learned (from
theater) to pass on to school teachers.”

The pandemic has had tangible effects on children, adolescents
and teenagers. According to a
Harris Poll survey
of 1,500 adolescents conducted in May
2020, 64 percent of teenagers believe that the experience of
COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on their generation’s mental
health and 7 in 10 teens have experienced struggles with mental
health during the crisis. Further, 55 percent of teens say
they’ve experienced anxiety, 45 percent excessive stress and 43
percent depression.  

“(We’re) making sure that (the Corps students) feel heard, they
feel taken care of, they feel that they have a network. That’s
mostly what I have been focusing on — especially of late — is to
make sure that (the network) is not just there, but it’s there
and with great quality for them,” says Johnson.

Back in the performance of “Pericles: Prince of Tyre,” this
sentiment is echoed as the post-show Q&A session with the
cast wraps up. The performers become emotional as 7th grader
Leonardo Lopez sums it all up: “This is an experience I will
never forget because it’s on Zoom and I’ve never done anything
like this. … I will hold on to this experience as tightly as I

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