Theater in the Age of Remote Learning
The Zoom screen pops up, revealing Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts theater teacher and director Melissa Diaz. Ms. Diaz is well known for her ability to draw out the confidence of any scholar new to the stage, but her normal exuberance takes on a slightly serious tone as she lets an SA HSLA scholar enter the call from the “Zoom waitroom.”
“Whenever you’re ready, state your name, grade, and the monologue you’ll be performing,” says Ms. Diaz. “Treat this audition exactly the same as if you were on stage.” Eager for their chance to prove their acting chops and be cast by Ms. Diaz in the upcoming fall play, Almost, Maine, the scholar takes a deep breath behind the computer screen before launching into character. This is theater in the age of remote learning.
When SA closed its classroom doors in March and cancelled SA HSLA’s spring show, Ms. Diaz and senior theater teacher Courtney Edwards made a decision that — against all odds, remote or hybrid — a fall play performance was not a matter of if but how.
SA HSLA’s theater program has never shied away from a challenge, tackling Broadway plays such as In the Heights and Cinderella. Bringing John Cariani’s Almost, Maine to life reconnects Ms. Diaz to her first encounter with SA HSLA, and it’s an opportunity to prove once again that the connections formed in the theater program at SA HSLA cannot be undermined, even when performing virtually.
“When I did my demo lesson at SA HSLA in April of 2018, I selected a monologue from Almost, Maine without knowing that the scholars had just done a scene study on it and loved it. At that moment, we knew we were destined to perform it at some point. By last winter, we were 99% sure it would be the fall play. Once we realized we’d maybe start the school year hybrid or fully remote, I started researching how we could pull off the performance virtually. Over the summer, I tried to figure out if we could film it on location or pre-record it and perform on stage like with Hamilton,” says Ms. Diaz, who is in her second year of teaching theater at SA HSLA. “Ultimately, we’re performing Almost, Maine because we want to, versus adjusting the production choice because of COVID.”
“Just like the characters in Almost, Maine, we’re taking our energies and meeting each other in an unprecedented time to create art.”
The vision for the performance, which will be pre-recorded and shared school-wide on December 5, is to create the world of the play virtually, while focusing on the intimacy of the characters’ stories. Composed of nine vignettes that explore love, loss, and intimacy, Almost, Maine is a timely performance that invites its audience to experience the ways in which people share their lives and connect with one another, whether close together or far apart. Utilizing around 25 scholars from SA HSLA’s tech crew, film department, and art department, Ms. Diaz hopes to film scenes either on location or at scholars’ homes with the use of special visual effects and Almost, Maine’s original score for transitions between scenes.
In doing this, Ms. Diaz is committed to crafting a theatrical experience for scholars that is as close as can be to an in-person experience. This commitment was evident again during the cast’s first table read, where Ms. Diaz told her actors, “Theater is not new for most of us in the room, but virtual theater is. We’ll be learning together in real time, and we’re going to learn our characters in a completely different way.” The gallery of excited faces inside the little boxes on Zoom broke into smiles. “Just like the characters in Almost, Maine, we’re taking our energies and meeting each other in an unprecedented time to create art.”
Through the occasional WiFi issues and awkwardly frozen screens, the first read-through revealed the human connections among Almost, Maine’s characters, heightened by the energy of SA HSLA scholars who are prepared to bring the mythical residents of Almost to audiences soon. With the play cast and rehearsals under way, Ms. Diaz is redefining not only the ways in which SA HSLA’s scholars perform, but also how we, the audience, engage with theater.
Check back soon for more behind-the-scenes updates on how this production will come to life and mark your calendar to watch Almost, Maine on December 5!