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  • Writer's pictureMoriah Joy

Spotlight Saturdays – Sponsored by Sandler Center Foundation

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Governor’s School for the Arts

Interview by Moriah Joy. Images courtesy of

This week Spotlight Saturday sat down with Deborah Thorpe, who serves as the Assistant Director and Foundation Director for The Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk. We discussed what makes The Governor’s School for the Arts such a unique program and how they have managed to continue their educational programs in the face of COVID-19.

What is your mission statement, and how do you decide on a program that fulfills your mission statement? The Governor’s School for the Arts is a center for innovation that develops excellence, nurtures creativity, inspires artistic vision and builds communities with a passion for the arts.”

That’s the mission of the school, it’s a high school for the fine and performing arts and we host six different departments. We train students in Dance, Visual Arts, Musical Theatre, Theatre and Film, under that umbrella is also Technical Theatre, Vocal Music, which is based in classical opera but they also do choral work, and Instrumental Music, which does classical and jazz and composition. There’s a lot of components to the school and it’s a super fun place. We serve eight different school divisions so our students come from as far West as Franklin to as far East as Virginia Beach. The school started in 1987 so we’re in our 32nd year and I’ve been there since the beginning. It’s unbelievable. I’ve really dedicated my life to this school. It defines me and I love that.

What makes your work unique to our community, and why is that important We started in 1985 and 1986 with two summer pilot programs. This was a mandate by the State Department of Education [because] they were very interested in programs for gifted students in various forms of giftedness whether that be academic or whether it be arts. Then they started looking at our area for the arts because some of the major arts organizations were landing in Hampton Roads like the Virginia Opera, Virginia Stage Company, the Virginia Symphony, and the Chrysler Museum. There was that fabric already becoming established and nurtured and maintained in this area. This is why they chose this area for a gifted arts high school. We’ve actually partnered with all of those major institutions and many of our instructors come from those major institutions as well. 

The school was set-up in 85 and 86, there was this pilot summer program and we were all over downtown Norfolk because that was also the most central location so students were traveling far from Franklin, Suffolk, Isle of Wight, and Virginia Beach so everybody kind meets in the middle and that seemed to work well. We were housed on the campus of Old Dominion University for those two summers and it was a great success. We had a lot of students and a lot of interests. We performed on the streets, we performed at Waterside, we performed everywhere, it was really fun. We were ahead of our time.

The State Department of education wanted to continue the school as a full time program in the fall of 1987. I was teaching at ODU at the time and did these two summer programs and was on the steering committee that helped form and shape the school. When the decision came to start the school in 1987 I was asked if I wanted to become a full time member and I said yes. I was super excited about it and helped grow the school ever since. It’s grown tremendously. I don’t know the exact number of students we started out with but it was about the 250 range and now we have about 380 with eventually getting to a goal of 400.

We had been housed from 1987 to 2014 all over the city of Norfolk. We were spread out seven miles in various spaces that could accommodate and we kept changing spaces as we grew and as these spaces changed. We started out on the campus of ODU and Norfolk State University in the beginning and the old Virginia Ballet building, that’s where our dance department was housed. I was chair of [the dance department] for 23 years that’s where I started out. Buses would drop the kids off at ODU at NSU and at Virginia Ballet Theater and then within the campus of ODU and NSU they would have to go from place to place there as well. It was crazy because Monday, Wednesday, Friday they were on one campus and then Tuesday, Thursday they were on another campus. Dance was lucky that we were in the same place five days a week. But it was a logistical nightmare. For 25 years we did it this way. But it was also great.

Part one of the goals of the school was to help teach kids some form of independence as young people, and this enabled that to a degree where they were dropped off on a college campus or in a city facility and they were asked to conduct themselves as young professionals. Now we have thousands of alumni, we try to stay in contact with as many of them as we can and they said it was such an amazing experience for them as a young person to be given this freedom and this independence and to be able to participate in this kind of school was really exhilarating and empowering to them. It was very different from their academic schools. For many of them they called their teachers by their first names. The teachers are artist mentors, it still is that kind of relationship. So it’s really unique in that way and really special. Special for the kids and also the teachers.

How have you/ your staff been handling COVID/ what have you been doing since the shutdown?  Well it’s been a challenge like everybody. We had about a week to figure it out and our faculty was amazing. They figured out Zoom and we conducted classes immediately on Zoom. All six of our departments were engaging the students as soon as we closed. The goal was how do we keep the students engaged, how do we keep them learning so that they won’t fall behind. That was the goal. Every department created various classes and I’ll give you an example of some of the classes. Instrumental music set up a practice room situation so they could link into the practice room up to three times a day. Because as you may or may not know, practicing is integral to the training of a musician. It’s something we offer as a part of our curriculum is practice hours while they’re at the governor’s school. One of our priorities was making sure they had time to practice and sometimes it’s hard to have self motivation. 

Again, part of our mission is to encourage and train kids how to be self-motivated. They have to self-govern a lot in our school because they’re given a lot of responsibility as young people to be where they have to be when they’re supposed to be there. Practice rooms were set up and I would pop on periodically and would see 40, 50 kids on there. The sound was muted but they could see their friends were on there and their teachers were on there practicing. JoAnn Falletta, who is the music director for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, was on there many times. Other professional musicians were given the invite and they popped on. It was cool for kids to see that training and practice doesn’t only happen when you’re a young artist but it continues your whole life if you’re going into this field. That was a really cool way to demonstrate that and to give the kids motivation to keep their practicing up. So that’s one example.

We taught dance classes on Zoom. I tried to watch several of them as we were going along. In the dance classes, they were live with some of the kids set up in their bedrooms and some of them were lucky that they had a little bigger space but we made it work for everybody no matter what space they were in. We considered that while we were getting ourselves organized, that was part of what we were trying to figure out. Who needed connectivity and how did we need to help them get connectivity? Who needed computers, we lent kids computers if they didn’t have a laptop or an iPad or something. Who needed help paying for upgraded Wi-Fi, we helped them with that. So we spent that first week just sending out surveys to the kids about what their needs were so that we could help them continue their learning.

We have kids from all over the place and all different kinds of situations and we certainly weren’t going to take anything for granted. When they’re in the school building it’s very different because we supply everything for them. Because they come from 8 different school divisions, that was a factor. Some school divisions provided things for the students and some didn’t. So we needed to find out how we could help them and of course we did what we could. Faculty members drove computers out to kids homes. Actually, one of our faculty members needed help and I went to the building, got a computer and drove it to her house. Everybody was on board to make this environment as positive and as engaging as we possibly could.

Back to the dancers, they actually taught a variety of dance classes in these very small spaces and it worked. They were able to give the kids corrections, some teachers specified that they only wanted ten kids at a time so that way they could really look and see to really help them. Some teachers did larger classes and it became a little bit of a different experience yet even in those classes where there were 25 kids in a class, that teacher was scrolling through the pages and really trying to look and see and give students corrections. That was really cool.

Then the other really cool thing we did throughout the whole school was masterclasses with professionals in the field who were colleagues to our staff and also alumni who work in the field. During a normal school year it’s hard to connect with alumni because they’re working and they’re busy. We try to, we’ve got grants to bring alumni in and do residencies and that kind of thing but while everyone was home the alumni were available and super willing to help us. So we had masterclasses in all kinds of arts disciplines. We had people from around the world teaching our kids. We had a dancer who’s in Israel, one in Germany, one in LA, and across the country. They all got online and talked to our kids about their journey, what they’re doing now, how GSA helped prepare them, tricks of the trade, how to navigate the business. They all shared emails and links with them and the kids made these really amazing connections with alumni. Some of these alumni were in their 30’s and 40’s, who graduated in the 80’s and 90’s and that was just amazing. If there was a silver lining to this that was a way to do that.

We worked hard and the kids worked hard. I really feel like we did an excellent job of keeping them engaged and learning. Then we also did some recordings, because some of the students had to babysit their siblings at home, some parents were still working and they all of a sudden became in charge of homeschooling and babysitting where that wasn’t a thing before. For many of the parents, childcare wasn’t available to them anymore. We did a lot of recordings as well, many departments would post like a daily video or daily class that was recorded. We had someone in the music department, they had a link to music you may have never heard before and the kids could listen to that. We had some of our faculty actually make recordings of some classes that we put on our youtube channel, that way the kids could access them at any time. If they couldn’t make a class at two in the afternoon, maybe they could take a ballet class at eight at night just to keep themselves motivated and learning. I think we did a really good job and by ‘we’ I mean the faculty and staff. They did it all and they were amazing.

What advice do you have to artists trying to work on their craft? Well, I can only speak to the kids and the school. There’s a lot of voices and materials out there that they can glean from and remember that we’re all in this together and everybody wants to help each other, especially the young people. 

Where are you in your planning for next year?  We are part of the public school system so we are waiting for direction from our school districts and once we get some guidance then we have to figure out how that’s going to look for an arts school.

What are you, personally, most looking forward to after the shutdown? Just being back in that building with those students. I miss them terribly. We all miss them terribly. The energy that’s in our building, I mean it’s 380 teenagers who are passionate about learning. It’s a truly exciting place to be. They keep me young, I’ve been doing this for 32 years and I want to keep going. I miss seeing how they work and learning from them and learning from the other faculty. The whole scenario is really exciting and special. 

Is there a specific upcoming project you would like people to know about? Our graduation is Monday and it’s a Zoom/ recorded graduation that will be live on our Youtube channel. If anybody wants to tune in it’s on Monday June 15th at 7pm on the GSA Youtube channel. For the first time in 32 years, anybody will be able to attend. We usually do it at a theatre and it’s a performance based graduation, so we’ve been limited to family because we typically have a theatre that’s 600 or 800 seats and that’s it. We’ve never streamed it before. The performances the kids have worked on will be recorded but they’ll be shown and we’ll have live speeches. One senior from every department speaks and we have scholarship awards. We have wonderful beautiful donors who are passionate and want to give scholarships to seniors and so we have scholarships that will be awarded live. The governor has recorded a special welcome. We wanted to have him speak live but of course he’s very busy so we’re thankful that he took the time for a recording. And then after that everyone is taking a break, everyone needs to rest, the students and the teachers and so they take the summer off. 

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