A year of coping and creating for Minnesota students

Coon Rapids high school students rehearse for an outdoor production of Into the Woods, April 2021

Coon Rapids high school students rehearse for an outdoor production of Into the Woods

You can tell high school musical theater students that they can’t meet in in person, but you can’t tell them they can’t create. High schools across Minnesota were preparing for their big spring performances when they were forced to shut down rehearsals in March 2020. Those shutdowns led to a flurry of creativity, problem solving and growth unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Students and educators turned to each other and to Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Spotlight Education programming to get by and to fuel their drive to create. After more than a year of pandemic-related shutdowns, we celebrate their irrepressible energy.

Students adjust

Lauren Manna (right) performes during 2020 Virtually Together

Lauren Manna (right) performs during Virtually Together, 2020

Lauren Manna was a junior at Chanhassen High School when her theater program stopped rehearsals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She found the sudden shutdown to be isolating.

“During the early pandemic stages when we didn’t know how long it was going to last and how safe it would be, I was having a hard time staying in contact with friends.”

Amid many disappointing turns, Manna leaned into Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Spotlight Education programming. She auditioned for the Triple Threat competition, which meant daily meetings that helped create a routine.

“I learned that keeping a routine and having a reason to get out of bed, get out of my pajamas is important,” she says. “Doing it online is just as valuable. I feel like we can’t just throw away this experience because it’s never going to be the same. We’ve all learned to appreciate theater the ways we can, and I feel that’s important.”

Manna also attended Spotlight Education’s Community Conversations to help process the racial unrest that was happening throughout the year.

“I think this entire past year, even before that, it’s been a conversation that’s been present in the theater community,” she says. “I had a chance to express my feelings, but also to listen. I feel like that will help me connect with any cast I’m in, any crew in.”

Teachers meet the moment

Moorhead Voices in the Hall virtual production

Moorhead high school students and alum created and streamed a revue

Teacher Rebecca Meyer-Larson also relied on the Community Conversations program after the murder of George Floyd. The program helped create a safe space to process emotion, to ask questions and to talk about how to improve race issues in the arts.

“Those early conversations we were having surrounding race, as a middle-class white woman in theater, I can’t tell how happy I was to have the Spotlight resources. “

Meyer-Larson has taught at Moorhead High School for 30 years, and she has partnered with Hennepin Theatre Trust for the past decade. She says she saw the magnified importance of theater and support from Spotlight up close during the past year of the pandemic.

“I feel Spotlight has done a great job of meeting students where they are [during this pandemic.]”

Moorhead shifted from hybrid to fully remote learning at the time the fall musical cast list would have been published. And the school building was under construction, leaving them nowhere to perform.

“With important restrictions on singing and social distancing, it didn’t feel like a safe option to do a traditional musical,” she explains. She also couldn’t bear to cancel. So, she shifted to a revue featuring music and poetry, making sure to highlight the voice of every student.

“I wanted the kids to lead what that is,” Meyer-Larson says. “We spent a lot of time masked, six feet apart, talking about the quintessential high school experience. I don’t think I estimated the way they need to talk about what was normal, how good it was for them to be together in some way. Kids sat together and wrote pieces. We documented a lot of their reflections. It felt like sacred space.”

They created a recorded program called “Voices in the Halls,” recorded in locations that felt special to students, like the choir room and even classrooms. The cast, crew and Meyer-Larson created makeshift solutions like a sound studio in a dressing room and having layering individual tracks recorded by the orchestra.

Meyer-Larson says she knows the kids learned resilience and problem solving through the experience, but so did she.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. There’s something vulnerable about not knowing how it’s going to work. People would ask questions, and I would not have the answers. We ask kids to do that all the time, to work on the light crew or to audition. It’s a good reminder of the vulnerability we ask kids to work with.”

Getting comfortable with tech

Green screen set up in a bedroom of a Coon Rapids high school student

Coon Rapids students built makeshift sets in their homes for their 2020 production of “Almost, Maine”

In Coon Rapids, theater director Karla Haij started every rehearsal for their virtual performance of Almost, Maine with a 15-minute check-in.

“They talked about giving each other grace,” she says. “We were intentional about trying not to feel isolated. The isolation of having a scene partner who is not in the room with you is real.”

Students couldn’t be with their scene partners, because they moved production into the students’ homes. Each performer figured out how to set up a makeshift green screen in their homes with PVC pipe and attached lights with clamps.

“I know nothing about tech. I had to learn how to create a Google Meet. We had to rely on each other like we’ve never relied on each other in the past.”

That mentality has stayed with them as they have moved in person for their spring 2021 production. They are in rehearsals for Into the Woods, and they are moving into the woods nearby the school in order to do it safely. It’s presented logistical challenges, down to the level of needing to figure out how to change costumes without a backstage. Haij says the students have stepped up with creative problem solving.

“Every one of them is stepping up and being true leaders however and whenever they’re needed.”

As the students rehearse, they are looking forward to the Trust’s Spotlight Education  production assessment process. Theater professionals will watch rehearsals and performances and provide students with feedback and critique to help them learn and grow.

“The kids look forward to it. They love the idea of getting feedback from someone who is professional. That feedback is priceless and monumental to them.”

Looking forward

Spotlight Showcase Seniors

Students perform during Spotlight Showcase 2019

Chanhassen, Moorhead and Coon Rapids students are all preparing for a highlight of the summer: Spotlight Showcase. The event is a celebration of all the work that they, and thousands of students across Minnesota, put into their theater productions all year.

“My kids crave being around other performers, that chance to watch other people sing and dance and do the thing they love,” says Moorhead’s Meyer-Larson. “Access to shows isn’t the experience for students in Moorhead. We don’t have the historic State, the Orpheum, the Ordway. I’ve fought hard to make sure Moorhead kids have every opportunity, and so much of that has been due to Spotlight.”

This year it is likely to be especially poignant, especially for students like Manna, who is finishing up her senior year. She says theater didn’t just help her cope during the pandemic; it helped her grow.

“It’s been a year of experiments, and that has pushed us forward,” she reflects. “And maybe it’s not going to work the way we thought it would, but despite all odds, we created art. That has been our motivating force this.”

Haij says she is taking away a new attitude from this experience.

“To take risks. To dream big. To put myself out there in water I’ve never been in and navigate and trust that I can navigate. I believe that kids need to be able to create. We all need it. Our souls need it. You gotta just be bold.”

Thanks to our supporters, Spotlight Education programs like Community Conversations, masterclasses and production assessment have been a source of support for students during the pandemic. These programs allow us to instill confidence and community connection in more than 8,000 students statewide, most of whom will go on to attend college or start careers in Minnesota. Your support is more important than ever during these challenging times. Please consider supporting these students by making a gift to Hennepin Theatre Trust.

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