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Virtual theater class reignites performance passion

Emily Lytle * Delaware
elytle@doverpost.com
Dover Post

For one group at Caesar Rodney High, the theater was much more than a place to perform and learn. It gave a sense of community, a refuge from all the stressors and pressures of high school.

When they found out they wouldn’t be returning to school, or performing the play “Oz” after all they had been rehearsing, it hit hard, and their teacher noticed.

“I knew I had to do something because the very first Zoom session we had, there wasn’t a smile on the screen,” said John Muller, director of theatre and reading specialist. He recalled thinking, “We have to start a project, we have to work on something because I need these smiles back.”

That’s when he came up with an idea. His wife had sent him a video of the cast of TV show “The Nanny” doing a table reading of the first episode via Zoom. 

“The actors had all aged and changed, but their enthusiasm for bringing this to their fans - those all experiencing what my students and I were experiencing - just to brighten their day, to give them hope and joy through the arts - was uplifting,” Muller wrote in an article on a special website celebrating Delaware graduates.

He thought his theater students could do the same thing with their remaining performances. They were immediately on board.

“It was a bit exciting. It seemed fun to do,” said student Michael Covey. Others like David Ransdell said they were glad to keep going. “I was relieved that we were still going to put it on,” he said.

Now Muller's advanced theater class has been rehearsing via Zoom and adapting “Oz." They received permission from the playwrights and publishers to do a table reading and stream a recording for a limited time.

Student directors Haydee Byars-Weiser and Jazz Petersen explained that the actors must tell the story while reading from a script. The students have been slightly rewording the play to make it flow.

“We’ve been making some changes to the exposition lines that [one of the actors], David, has to say to make it flow better,” Petersen said.

Instead of physically moving props, shining lights or directing actors, the tech members read the stage directions and blocking to explain how the actors would move onstage.

Trinity Denby was originally in charge of lights. “I can’t do lights on a stage, so now I’m reading cues on stage,” she said. “I explain more of the setting and the background, and it helps the story make more sense.”

The students hope to post the finished product on a password-protected website for a week and plan to have it up before Friday, May 29. Before publishing, they will send it to the playwright for critiques.

More than a creative outlet, this has visibly brought joy to the students. Fiona Mitchell said she was a little nervous when they first started, but she soon felt like she was in class again.

“We can come here and feel safe after everything that’s going on,” she said. “We come here and we’re home, and I think it’s really special.” She said she learned how much she relied on her friends, and many of her classmates agreed that the Zoom rehearsals have helped them feel closer despite physical distance.

“We’ve been working together a long time and we’ve known each other for years,” said Byars-Weiser. “It’s a great way for us to connect on a deeper level.” She said this class stands out from the rest and her co-director agreed. “I don’t have another class like this,” Petersen said. “I look forward to seeing my people every time.”

Muller said he will certainly take some of the lessons he has learned about theater and teaching with him.

“I think I realized I’m a better teacher than I thought I was because I was able to figure it out, and that’s just going to make me stronger in the future as an educator,” he said. “You can throw something at me, and I’m going to be able to make it work.”