Performing Arts in a New Light:  Reimagining Student and Audience Experiences Amid the Pandemic

Our Dwight Performing Arts Department learned how to be innovative in a COVID world while still providing students with a collaborative artistic experience, and these changes came with great results!

Last year when schools reopened everywhere, the Dwight Performing Arts team faced a COVID-19 challenge: how to capture performances normally seen on stage and in concert spaces and share them virtually while maximizing the impact of the performance itself for both students and the audience. Being innovative while adhering to health and safety guidelines and still providing students with a social and collaborative experience became the standard ― and a number of benefits emerged for them and our community audience. 

One example was when Middle School students rehearsed three different plays in person and over Zoom in smaller groups by grade level instead of as one with all students across grades 6-8, creating a Bentley House theater festival entitled “Fairy Tales, Folktales & Adventures.” Their performances were filmed in our Performing Arts Center and shared online.

The Mainstage Theater production of the spring musical, which brought Upper School students together via Zoom to rehearse and then outdoors to film their performances in New York City locations, connected live theater to film in a more intentional and interesting way. According to Eric Novod, Head of Performing Arts, “If we were going to be recording live theater performances for a virtual audience, our team wanted to see how we could take advantage of the technology and filming capabilities available and turn the virtual nature of a theater performance into something special and more innovative than it might have been if it was live.” The spring musical certainly did that!

In our music program, the focus shifted from large complete ensembles to smaller groups of musicians who could collaborate in person ― who may not have done so in larger ensembles. This enabled faculty to curate groups differently in a unique, smaller way to create musical combinations that may not have happened otherwise. It also opened the door for a greater focus on original music composition and production, which we saw with the launch of our student-run educational record label, 566 Records.

Also last year, concerts were entirely virtual; Dwight Conservatory students and those in our music classrooms from grade 6-12 recorded their performances at home, which were then combined into one video. Our annual global concert, which has been held at such iconic venues as Carnegie Hall and the Shanghai Concert Hall, was a compilation of video performances by each Dwight School, including a finale of “Listen to the Music,” in which recordings by more than 100 musicians and singers worldwide were edited together by the Dwight School Seoul music faculty ― no small feat ― bringing the best of technology to inspire our global community.

 

What Has Emerged Anew

One of the positive outcomes of recording concerts and plays is that it has allowed more younger students to participate and ease comfortably into the performing arts for the first time, something that may not have happened with larger in-person performances where one might feel hesitant to dive in. According to Mr. Novod, now more Dwight Conservatory students are hooked and look forward to participating in the next showcase. Another positive outcome is that students are thinking about performance in new ways; really taking to heart how to present emotion and meaning through the arts.

When asked what advice he gives to students in a COVID-19 world, Mr. Novod shares: “I tell them to keep in mind that while the usual energy that they get from performing in front of people might not be there when recording a virtual performance, the impact they’re going to have when people watch is very much the same thing. You have to picture your future audience because that’s the key for virtual spectators to have a similar emotional response.” 

For our Dwight actors who miss the live audience response and energy, our faculty, Terrence Christgau and Kim Guzowski, have set up talk-back sessions via Zoom after some virtual productions so that students could hear immediate feedback from their peers, teachers, and community members, even though they’re not talking to someone in the room. 

The virtual nature of things has affected audiences in positive ways, making the performing arts in general more accessible, and enabling more Dwight community members to see a performance. Families and friends who may have missed a concert or show otherwise now have the opportunity to watch the live recording ― and re-watch it as many times as they want. Our recent fall Conservatory and Music Concert, led by faculty member Michael Ferrari and Conservatory Coordinator Emma Mooradian; and our K-5 Winter Music Celebration, “Let’s Join Together,” with Timothy House students and orchestrated by their music teacher, Vita Zambetti are two examples.

A Return to Audiences in the Theater Seats

“This year, we started planning to have performances with live audiences who can experience the art form in person and be impacted by it,” Mr. Novod shares. “We began with Dwight's IB senior director's workshop in our Performing Arts Center and the recent Mainstage Theater production of The Seagull at the Redeemer Church with health and safety protocols in place during rehearsals and performances.”

Both of these in-person events with a limited audience. With so many talented students auditioning for The Seagull, which was an original adaptation of the Chekov classic set in the present day, the play was performed twice by two different casts, enabling more students to participate and experience the energy of performing with a live audience and more families to be present.

 

While the future of COVID-19 is unclear, the Performing Arts Department is certain that the changes that have benefited students and audiences will be helpful in enhancing the overall experience for live performances in the future. The social and emotional power of music and theater is limitless, and being a part of a production and concert brings participants so many benefits. These will never change. Dwight’s talented students will also continue to deliver entertaining and impactful performances ― and their creative sparks of genius will continue to shine no matter the stage or venue!

 

 

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  • Performing Arts