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More than meetings: Virtual dance and theater classes provide connection for students

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Lillian Carlson is trying to be upbeat about her senior year at Washburn High School, even though the past month has been filled with disappointments. In addition to virtual classes, unknown status of prom and graduation and missing her friends, she was set to play a leading role in Next to Normal, the school’s now-canceled spring musical.

“I was mad, I’m not going to lie. You finally get to the end of your high school career, and you get to your final moment,” she says. “It’s disappointing more than anything, but I’m trying to be positive as much as I can.”

Carlson is one of thousands of students across Minnesota who are taking virtual classes at home, with most activities canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. One consistent thing she says she looks forward to weekly is virtual classes by Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Spotlight Education program.

Spotlight is about giving theater kids a place to participate and be who they want to be and continue learning,” she says. “It’s nice to have something to look forward to, which I think a lot of us look forward to.”

The Spotlight team canceled masterclasses typically hosted live in the Trust’s event center in the Hennepin Theatre District and went digital as soon as social distancing measures were enacted. And they started big — with a live masterclass featuring Hamilton touring cast member Tyler McKenzie.

Online virtual streaming masterclasses can help students stay connected“We know that a lot of students right now are not able to visit their dance studios or go to their voice lessons or do after school programs,” says McKenzie, “and what we’re doing is using the internet to provide outreach and give some tools to further some training while people are practicing social distancing.”

McKenzie led students through a warmup, and then taught them a dance routine, streaming from his apartment in New York. He paused along the way to watch students perform and give them feedback in real time.

Ben Davis, a freshman at Hill-Murray School, says the live feedback helped him feel like was able to keep in touch with people.

“It’s been so helpful, keeping me exercising, keeping my mind working and keeping it off the stressors and the coronavirus,” says Davis.

Students can sign up for live-streamed masterclasses every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for as long as social distancing measures are in place. And anyone can join in on a new Instagram live series called Spotlight 15, where teaching artists lead 15 minute sessions on topics that range from warming up your body and voice to hat to do if you’re losing your voice.

“We know that, in addition to developing theater skills, Spotlight programs help students build confidence, empathy and a sense of community, and that’s so important right now,” says Ari Koehnen Sweeney, director of education at Hennepin Theatre Trust. “I know the kind of time and energy each of these students pours into their spring musicals that have been canceled. We certainly can’t replace what has been lost, but we can focus on programming that we know helps in those areas of confidence and community.”

Davis, who hadn’t participated in Spotlight Education programs in the past, echoed the sentiment of working on confidence. He has participated in three virtual masterclasses, including on building a confident audition, where he learned to put himself out there more.

“If you’re constantly auditioning, you’re going to become a more confident person. I’ve been getting more confident. It’s been showing me how theater has made me a better person,” says Davis.

Organizers know it’s not everything. A big portion of what Spotlight does is send theater professionals into more than 100 schools across Minnesota, watch rehearsals, tech runs, and performances. They provide constructive critiques of the work, help teach schools how to make the most out of what they have available, and build the students up.

Koehnen Sweeney says that providing opportunities to provide that constructive feedback and support students in new ways is important in this time that these dedicated young people are missing normal life, isolated from friends, and also often worried about family and friends who might be infected with the coronavirus.

Carlson says Spotlight programs have always provided her with that outlet, and she’s grateful for it now.

“It took me a long time to get confident in who I was, but in the Spotlight community, I’m completely different, I’m more extroverted,” she says. “It gives you space to be yourself because everybody’s so inclusive, for me everybody is able to be more who they are, and it’s a place to be a family away from home.”

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