It’s hard to imagine a stage show without the stage, but that’s what the City of Farmington Hills Youth Theatre program will do this fall.
Cultural Arts Supervisor Rachel Timlin said there was some initial hesitance over offering a virtual fall production. Spring shows “Mamma Mia!” and “James and the Giant Peach, Jr.” were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You want to see kids on stage,” she said. “You want to see them in person, that’s the essence of theatre.”
However, going online also opens up a world of resources for young thespians, Timlin said. Starting this month, kids will be able to sign up for workshops on topics like mastering the monologue, singing with character, puppetry, sketch comedy, and scriptwriting.
Director Kim Gearns said the Farmington Hills Youth Theatre program has always had an educational component, teaching not only stagecraft but life skills.
“We’ve identified over 30 (workshops) we can offer this fall,” she said, each 3-4 weeks in length with sessions running an hour or two. Kids will receive supplies, and some of the workshops end with a performance. “Every one of our workshops has a detailed syllabus, session by session.”
Class sizes will be limited, as will spots in the Youth Theatre’s production of “The Show Must Go Online!,” open to youth in grades K-8. Auditions happen September 8-9, 6-7:30 p.m.
Written specifically for online performances, the story opens as a a frazzled drama teacher sends a video message to her students from her home office, announcing that their production of “Brushes with Greatness: The Dental Hygiene Musical” has been canceled. She accidentally leaves the camera running as she receives a phone call from the principal, who tells her that, without the musical, the drama program will be shut down.
“Doing a musical online has a set of challenges that nobody has been able to totally fix yet, but we’re excited to give it a try,” Gearns said. “It’s a totally different way of thinking.”
For instance, all of the parts will be recorded and edited together for the final production. “Blocking” or setting up movements on stage, will focus on choosing a background and knowing where the other actors will be on the screen. Kids will also put together their own costumes, which will be very simple, Gearns said.
The Zoom videoconferencing platform allows breakout rooms, so actors will rehearse music, movement, and their characters in small groups, moving from room to room.
“They’ll be constantly involved, there will be no sitting around,” Gearns said.
She also believes some of what the youth theatre program is doing now will carry forward post-COVID. “The ability to video sessions and play them back, we think we’ll be able to use that to give them feedback.”
Limited participation is among the challenges of online theatre, and the workshops may help fill the gap. Timlin said youth theatre productions typically involve 200 or so performers, and the cast of “The Show Must Go Online!” will be limited to 40 – and interest is already strong.
“Forty-eight hours after we released information for the show, we had 16 or 17 kids sign up for auditions,” she said. “That’s typical of a normal show, we were pleasantly surprised.”
With Farmington Public Schools and other districts moving online, Timlin said, “It feels like a lot of the arts have been pushed to the side. So many kids who are involved in our youth theatre program formed this tight-knit community. This is keeping them connected.”
For more information about auditions, workshops, and the Farmington Hills Youth Theatre, visit fhgov.com/youththeatre.