Blog: A reflection for students during COVID-19

Ari Koehnen Sweeney and Vanessa Agnes with 2019 Triple Threat Broadway Experience winners on a Sun Country flight to New York

Ari Koehnen Sweeney (center, front) and Spotlight Education manager Vanessa Agnes with 2019 Triple Threat Broadway Experience winners on a Sun Country flight to New York

By Ari Koehnen Sweeney, Director of Education, Hennepin Theatre Trust

All the world’s a stage has never been truer than now amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. I have seen living rooms become recording studios, garages transform into dance floors, and even utility closets give way to monologue coaching. Technology has allowed us all to create our own stages and, though we are at a distance, we are still creating magic together.

Spotlight Education has been proud to continue our programming online. We are offering students the opportunity to engage with artists, both locally and nationally, remaining committed to their musical theater craft and development. Many of these students worked tirelessly on shows they never saw open; we have been witness to them pulling together, participating regularly and even offering up suggestions for content and the chance to collaborate in a new era of artistic education.

Online virtual streaming masterclasses can help students stay connected

Students engage in a virtual dance masterclass with Hamilton touring cast member Tyler McKenzie.

I was sorry to become yet another person sharing one more experience that evaporated for our high schoolers when we announced the Spotlight Showcase cancellation. This was a difficult decision, not only because Showcase is typically the culmination of the hard work put into the craft all year, but also because it brings together students from across the state in Minnesota’s largest celebration of high school musical theater. A highlight of this event is engaging with high school seniors. Though I am certainly not qualified to give a commencement speech, I will share a few things I would normally share during Spotlight Showcase week.

To the class of 2020, I would simply say — I’m sorry. I can guess you never imagined your senior year would end this way. As one of many people who has built a career on supporting students’ growth and potential, I can say I never would have imagined it either. I can’t tell you that this doesn’t suck because it does. I can honestly say that 11 years after my high school graduation I cannot remember a single moment of it — because it doesn’t hold a candle to the experiences I have had since then. I still wish that you would have had the opportunity to determine that for yourselves.

Then, in the midst of grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, our community experienced new heartache, first, with the senseless killing of George Floyd, then the peaceful protests and the intense rioting. In one way or another, regardless of your location, I imagine all of you have been shaken by the state of our nation.

I also know that if you spend this time only feeling sorry for the things you have lost, you will miss out on unexpected greatness. Go try, make do, fail at something new. Go be your brilliant self, and go be a creator of good. Be a voice for change.

Art can heal and open doors for conversation and understanding, in many ways it serves as a bridge — it connects us. I encourage you all to take the space you need to process these times of change we are living in. There is work to be done. I need to do it; Hennepin Theatre Trust needs to do it; I ask that you examine how you take on the work as well.

A motto that a previous Spotlight leader shared with me is “respect what was, appreciate what is and be most excited about what could be.” I find myself deeply connected to this thought. When I think about the Spotlight community, I am energized by the growth of this program and the journey it has taken to get us here. I am giving respect and grace to our current situation but with that, I am most energized about what’s to come. Spotlight Education honors and supports. It also serves as a bridge, a link, a connector to aid in bringing programs together.

I believe in the strength of storytelling and the resilience of this art form. Sharing stories is at the center of everything we do as a collective humanity. History has proven to us countless times that nothing can ever change that. I also believe that we will create together again. Though the landscape might look different, we will design something new — together. Perhaps we already are.

To our hurting community, I share my empathy and my hope. Shakespeare wrote some of the most amazing words during the plague. We are already seeing how artists provide sparks of light towards better days and new narratives of reflection. I implore you that in the moments when you feel that you can — may your heart lead you to create as well. I thank you for sparks of light you have given to me. I have never been more honored to serve such an amazing community. Take a bow — you deserve it.


Thanks to our supporters, we are able to instill confidence and community connection in more than 6,000 students statewide through our arts education programs, elevate and financially support the creative works of local artists and provide meaningful arts and cultural experiences to the more than 600,000 people we bring to the Hennepin Theatre District annually. When you make a gift to Hennepin Theatre Trust, you are enabling cultural and economic vitality to flourish statewide. Please support the arts by giving a donation.