For the last few weeks, teachers and parents have debated the wisdom and feasibility of sending children back to school.
But for Fort Wayne Youtheatre, these issues have been already front and center for more than five months.
Planning since February
“We met around the end of February, the executive branch of the board, Murphy, Megan, and myself,” said Todd Espeland, executive director of Youtheatre, referring also to assistant director Christopher Murphy and marketing director and administrator Megan Ebbeskotte.
“We all began constructing a worst-case scenario, planning what we would do budget-wise if we had to cancel all programming through August. It pained us to make that plan, but I’m glad now that we did because we’ve been able to pivot from that plan and revise the plan with a lot more ingenuity. We had the plan together by the first week of March, and of course it was the second week of March that everything came down.”
Winter classes were wrapping up. But Youtheatre had to move its usual end-of-year performance from Homestead High School to a smaller, parents-only performance at Arts United Center.
Youtheatre replaced its spring break camps with online and social media programming. Also, Fort Wayne Youtheatre collaborated with Fort Wayne Dance Collective for a dance camp complete with ample distancing and masks.
Classes and performances
For Youtheatre, planning for the coming season means making adjustments for classes and for performances, including visits to schools around the area.
Youtheatre established a detailed but evolving protocol for how to make its classes as safe as possible.
“Coming up with these procedures has been a slow, deliberate process,” said Murphy, who also serves as director of outreach. “We’re looking at what theaters across the country are doing, and that’s something that artists do anyway so everyone is very generous going back and forth about these plans. Then we started cherry-picking and working with Arts United since we’re housed in their facility and getting guidance from them and aligning our plan with theirs. We keep going through things with our faculty too, coming up with ideas for how we can best proceed.”
Among the measures adopted, beyond the obvious masks and distancing, are hand sanitizing before and after classes and limiting not only class size but parental interaction in the drop off and pick up of students.
Students are required to bring water bottles from home because no water fountains are available. Students are also encouraged to use their home restrooms before coming to class to limit the need for the public ones.
As those plans continue to take shape, Espeland and Murphy have been working on how to proceed with their performance schedule which will kick off with Stuart Little on Oct. 9-11.
“We made a very deliberate decision to not print a season brochure,” Espeland said. “We didn’t want to print 20,000 brochures when we weren’t sure what was going to happen. So we decided to make use of social media and our mailing and email address lists so that we’re sharing the best and most accurate information that we have.
“We had a roundtable discussion with parents and volunteers and went over some key things that would help parents and students trust that we were putting safety of our volunteers, kids, and families first and had some control over what the situation was going to be. Those have been guiding us as we make our plans.”
“Nimble is the word that I keep using,” Murphy added. “If you’d have asked us in February what our season was going to be, it would have been a very different answer. As we look to what shows, we’re considering what provides a safer rehearsal and audition process, something that doesn’t require any significant choral songs. We’re looking at that in the same way we are the class procedures. We have to pivot away from some material that just isn’t going to be possible. We have to be more safety conscious while still providing a positive experience for the participants.”
limiting the audience
Youtheatre typically aims for a higher cast count since performance is part of the learning experience for its students. But this year, numbers will be kept lower. And seating for the performances of Stuart Little will be limited as well.
“We’ll have a performance at the ArtsLab where we can safely seat 50 people,” Espeland said. “Then our Saturday and Sunday performances will be outdoors, Saturday at the Arts United Center plaza and Sunday at the James Cultural Plaza in Dekalb County.”
Meanwhile, new plans are in place for how Youtheatre can continue its outreach into the community.
“We usually have a fall touring show which I’d normally be taking to nursing homes and schools around the area,” Murphy said.
“Most of those are limiting visitors now so we’re going to do a radio play, and we’re partnering with WBOI to record, distribute, and broadcast. We just did a radio play last fall so I was reluctant to go back to the well, but when they approached us about partnering, we knew that was a good way to handle the situation.”
Other plans are in place to allow them to remain “nimble” as the situation changes in the coming months.
While the staff of Youtheatre are optimistic, they realize that things may continue to start and stop for months. To that end, they plan a spring semester from March to May instead of their usual winter semester from January to March. If the schedule becomes popular, Youtheatre may continue it beyond COVID.
They are also ready to switch to digital programming if necessary, adapting to whatever circumstances demand to keep their students safe.
“I really want people to know how seriously we’re taking this,” Murphy said. “All of our decisions are made to keep our community safe and healthy.”
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