Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and Florida Studio Theatre are bringing free arts programming to Sarasota County School students.
In a typical year, thousands of students from all over south Florida visit Sarasota County on field trips to experience the world of live theater.
However, because of COVID-19, students this year won’t be able to enjoy a live show or back stage tour, but two local theaters are teaming up to make sure students are still exposed to the magic of theater.
Florida Studio Theatre and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall are offering recordings of two plays to classrooms throughout southern Florida free of charge.
Van Wezel’s Education Director Kelli Maldonado said that though the pandemic made it difficult to offer services, there was a continued, if not greater need for theater learning activities.
“Teachers can log on and watch them whenever they want and in as many installments as they want, which gives them great flexibility,” Maldonado said. “I think that removal of barriers, whatever that may be for each teacher, is what we’re trying to do.”
Teachers have the option of “Chicken Dance,” a one-act musical about rock ’n’ rolling chickens ideal for pre-kindergarten through second grade students, or “Anne of Green Gables,” a musical adaptation Lucy Maud Montgomery’s work, ideal for students in third through sixth grade.
Teachers also will have access to supplementary lessons and activities that explore other aspects of the theater.
Because it wasn’t safe for the Van Wezel to bring in a touring company or FST to bring in its normal troupe of 12 actors, the performances were done by a company in New York. However, teachers can still participate in Zoom conversations with original cast members of the plays on select days.
FST’s Director of Children’s Theater Caroline Kaiser said not only is the program beneficial for students, but it also is great support for teachers.
“We wanted to make the lives of teachers and students more fun and easier this year,” Kaiser said. “We’re trying to streamline the process for teachers so that they know how much we value them and we know that they value the arts as well.”
Aside from the plays, each theater is offering other opportunities to allow students to engage with theater in a new way.
FST will offer its Write A Play program free of charge to schools in Sarasota County thanks to a grant from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.
The program allows two actors, the limit FST could safely allow back on stage, to Zoom into individual classrooms and create and perform plays live on stage with students’ ideas. After the Zoom, students are encouraged to write their own short plays in class.
The Van Wezel offers lessons that tie pillars of theater, such as drama, visual arts and movement, into other subject areas such as math, science and language arts. The theater artists are able to Zoom into classrooms to interact with students on campus and at home.
“It’s a way for us to really serve increased geographical barriers,” Maldonado said. “So they’re getting their experience to create art, participating in the school performances and then watching, reflecting and understanding the importance of art.”
Although it has been difficult to coordinate, Kaiser said “it’s just the tip of iceberg” compared to what teachers have gone through. She said not only is it important to support teachers, but also arts education throughout the state.
“We know across our industry that if you’re not exposed to live theater by fourth grade, you will likely never think it is something that you can one be a part of or two, attend as an adult,” Kaiser said. “Early exposure to the arts is essential to who we become. It becomes a part of who you are.”