COVID-19 health regulations that closed down theatre venues and limited the size of public gatherings meant parents weren’t scrambling to buy their ArtSpring tickets this month. But for students taking theatre, dance and music electives as well as the dedicated kids enrolled in the Gulf Islands School of Performing Arts, the show still had to go on . . . online.
Students in the senior music composition class normally spend the first half of their semester brainstorming and coming up with ideas, with the second half used to narrow down ideas and get ready to perform at ArtSpring.
“So that’s when the pandemic hit, was around that time,” said GISS music teacher Michelle Footz.
Transitioning to online assignments and recording compositions remotely has been an entirely new experience for many involved, including Footz.
“Some students had definitely had experience and gear at home for recording on their computers, but now everyone had to learn that,” Footz explained. “Whereas some students only had experience performing live before, everyone had to learn some recording basics. The curriculum I had initially planned for the class had to shift, so I had to change and learn new things.”
Students developed production skills working with a digital-audio workstations, either using the technology they had at home or were able to borrow from school once the facilities reopened.
“Of course we never expected the pandemic was going to come,” said student Shoko Kawamura. “At first I started recording songs on my own which was pretty difficult, because I’ve never done it before. But when I started doing it I thought, “Oh, this is really interesting. Let’s try this thing.’ . . . It turned out pretty great so I’m glad I got to learn a new thing.”
Recording was also a new experience for Teike Peters.
“The last three months kind of forced me to do it, but I’m thankful for it because I probably wouldn’t have tried it otherwise and it just kind of gave me a new perspective, which is really nice,” Peters said.
GISPA adapted its end-of-year plans by transforming a performance of The Little Mermaid into a radio play. Around spring break, the students had most of their script ready and ideas on how it would work on stage. One of their devices in place was a radio used for moments of exposition.
“When we realized it wasn’t going to be possible to do a theatre show in a physical place we decided turning it into a radio show made the most sense thematically with what we already had,” said student Amelia McCluskey. “We explain so many things to the audience through our visual components, particularly in GISPA, and we often say ‘show me don’t tell me.’ But with this we had to find the balance in not saying point blank what’s happening and still letting the audience or the listener’s mind do that creative work,” McCluskey said.
“I think a lot of that storytelling in the past, the metaphor and symbolism has been woven into what you see on stage. So to have to be exclusively an audio story means we had to make it really clear,” added Calla Adubofour-poku.
GISS dance teacher Sonia Langer said being alone can be particularly hard for dancers, as their artwork is largely based on relationships and teamwork. Her students endured the isolation period by continuing to dance at home.
Homework tasks included clearing a space to practise and filmthemselves doing a warm-up workout at home. A second task for the dancers was to learn a piece of choreography by one of the popular teachers from Vancouver’s Harbour Dance Centre.
Instead of the year-end performance where dance students would normally choreograph dance pieces and appear in their own and others‘ works, their major assignment became the Covid Solo. Each student needed to create, perform and film a solo dance piece. The teens asked of themselves: “What emerges from isolation? What is born in silence?” to inspire those creations.
“The Covid Solos are deeply meaningful and echo the tumultuous, somber and wistful emotions of the period of isolation, and reflect the experience of learning in a self-reliant and self-motivated manner,” Langer said. “The creativity of these dancers is to be commended in their heartfelt and emergent works of solo art.”
This semester for Second Story Theatre unusually featured a mixed company grades 9-12 acting class. The elective attracted students of many different levels of experience and expectation. They addressed the COVID challenge by taking their source material — a short story called Kafka and the Travelling Doll — and breaking it into “webisodes” of two to 10 minutes. Students produced their pieces in a variety of mediums from live action to puppetry and stop-action animation, and incorporated Minecraft and other video games for world-building.
“We realized that we got the opportunity to make something from our houses and using what was at hand, which I think is at the centre of the theatre we make in person — we just use what’s there, and that becomes something because whatever anyone brings is exactly what we need,” Adubofour-poku said.
Students in all streams noted some things were more difficult to accomplish without live practice and performance, including the collaboration between composer and performers that normally gets worked out in class. The impact to the group experience was more pronounced in some other classes that Footz teaches, such as choir and the Salt Spring Middle School band program.
In those cases Footz made guide tracks for each of the individual parts. Students used those along with the metronome to record their instrument. They sent those back to her to be melded into a virtual ensemble.
“I think the learning is with an ensemble there are certain things you just can’t learn individually, in terms of blend, balance, tuning, timing,” Footz said. “You learn those skills by being together, and I think the feeling of playing and singing together, you can’t produce that on a computer screen. So I think although there’s lots we can do with technology, there’s certain elements you just cannot replace.”
“We’re always playing with and off the audience in a live production, and without that it was really hard to reconcile that this take is the take that we’re using so you’d just have to give it all for a little while and then stop. And sometimes we’d even record lines without someone responding back to you, which was even harder because then you’re just playing off yourself which can very easily become self-indulgent,” Adubofour-poku said.
Grade 10 student Owen Goertz was responsible for recording much of the music produced for GISPA’s production.
“Probably one of the hardest things was we didn’t have a lot of music written by the time the quarantine hit,” he said. “It was very hard to work together to create something awesome. This was more like a lot of solo pieces.”
Goertz and others have found value in the new tool, as well as the challenges in creating a product that will stick around for much longer than the initial performance.
“Having a permanent product as opposed to a shared experience that is really quite fleeting means we have to have that eye for perfectionism in the process,” McCluskey said. “I have personally learned so much about the musicality of dialogue and making all the beats work in this process because we were actually listening to it over and over again.”
Composition students like Samantha Shoore found the recording process made them more concerned with perfectionism.
“It’s definitely changed the way I look at pieces and being more attentive to detail,” agreed Aramis St-Gelais, who said recording allows musicians to analyze where their playing might go off and to correct the composition flaws.
While not all performing arts streams will be looking to recording as a permanent shift, some may embrace more productive use of technology in their toolkits.
“I think what has happened is going to change art for a long time to come,” St-Gelais said. “It’s going to change the work that’s been created in the past and how we see it, and I think the work of tomorrow is going to have a radically different sound and feeling to what is happening today and yesterday. And so I would keep my ears open and stay tuned to hear what the generation to come are going to create.”
To view the Covid Solos dance pieces, email firstname.lastname@example.org for a link to the unlisted YouTube playlist. Composition class recordings have likewise compiled on YouTube playlist. Look for GISS Music posters around town to get connected to a QR code that can be scanned with a phone or device. The Second Story Theatre program is publicly available on their YouTube account.
The GISPA Arts Instagram page contains a link tree to all the many platforms where The Little Mermaid radio play can be accessed for free. The program is donating any proceeds it accrues from Spotify and Apple Music streaming to two charities associated with the Black Lives Matter movement: Colour of Change and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.