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  • Writer's pictureLouise Casini Hollis

The Art of Interacting Online

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Young Audiences Virginia – Arts for Learning

Words by Louise Casini Hollis Images courtesy of Young Audiences Virginia

It may appear that the world has shut down, but the teaching artists of Hampton Roads have taken this opportunity to flourish online with a multitude of opportunities for students to stay connected during the pandemic. In an ongoing series, Spotlight HR is talking to artists and arts organizations around Hampton Roads about their experiences in engaging with students online.

Aaron Kirkpatrick, Artistic and Education Manager for Arts For Learning, the Virginia chapter of Young Audiences, has been busier than ever. Originally from Virginia Beach, Aaron received his BFA in Acting from the University of Central Florida. He then moved to New York where he worked as an actor, playwright and producer. Next, he began teaching at the University of Indiana while working on his MFA in Acting. After grad school, Aaron made his way to Philadelphia and continued to teach, working with the Philadelphia Shakespeare theatre doing residencies in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware along with some commercial and film work. He then made his way to Los Angeles where he pursued some opportunities in comedy. Finally he and his wife, Erica, moved back to Virginia Beach last summer to be closer to family when they found out they were expecting their first child, Katie. Now, he is thrilled to be back in the area creating unique opportunities for the artists and students of Hampton Roads.

Arts For Learning (A4L), is a non-profit arts organization that specializes in arts integrated programs combining the standards of learning with arts disciplines that go in the form of assembly performances, workshops, and residencies,” shares Aaron. They also provide programs for community centers in Hampton Roads. Nationwide, Young Audiences serves over 5 million children in over 7,000 schools and community centers a year. Locally, A4L has been serving the children of Virginia for 65 years and boasts a roster of over 130 artists, with a majority of them are right here in Hampton Roads.

Because so much of Arts For Learning’s programming is delivered to students at school, the staff reacted immediately to the crisis by creating the Take Ten video series featuring local artists. The Take Ten video series was developed to provide not only jobs for artists but also to, “create some programming that could be accessible for families, the teachers – anyone who wants to continue to have arts content that’s tied into the Standards of Learning,” explained Aaron. “We didn’t want to see anything stop,” Aaron explained. “So we made the shift, like so many other people are doing. Kind of the comforting thing, if there is anything comforting about what’s going on now, is that we’re all in the same position. We’re not the only people doing this – making this shift – and it’s cool to see everybody’s different approach to it.”

As their title indicates, Take Ten’s segments are each 10 minutes. The videos were delivered through Facebook Live on Arts For Learning’s Facebook page at 2pm through the month of May. These videos are available to view on Arts For Learning’s website and their You Tube channel through the end of June.

Aaron Kirkpatrick and Aisha Noel set up for a Take 10 segment by placing microphones and lights in their space.

Aaron Kirkpatrick and Aisha Noel set up for a Take 10 segment.

Arts For Learning’s next online initiative involves award-winning magician and juggler Harold Wood, whose educational programs encourage students to be responsible and to have flexible, positive attitudes, which are very important skills for anyone stuck in quarantine. A4L will be experimenting using Zoom as the platform for delivery so that the program can involve students. Performances are scheduled to begin June 23rd. “We are still working out how to encourage the viewer to interact with the performance without interruption,” said Aaron. To achieve this, Aaron will act as the moderator to bridge a real time alliance between the actor and audience. “I don’t want the student to be a passive viewer, and I don’t want the performer to stop performing to read a chat window,” Aaron added.

While Aaron is excited about all the options online programming creates, he knows that they cannot replace the value of in-person instruction. A4L is still planning on having their annual theatre and visual arts camps at the Suffolk Center. Right now the dates for these programs are being negotiated, so please check the Suffolk Center for Performing Arts’ website for current information.

A4L is not Aaron’s only experience with online teaching. He is also an Adjunct Instructor of Acting at ODU. Aaron consciously shifted gears in his approach mid-semester when in-person classes were suspended. “I felt like there was no way for me to assess the access that all the students had now that their lives had changed. Many of them had gone home or maybe even potentially changed time zones; did or did not have access to WiFi and devices,” Aaron explained. Not wanting his student’s successes to be dependent on privilege, Aaron’s mode of instruction shifted to an asynchronous learning model, meaning that successful completion of the material is not dependent on participating at a fixed time or location. Students then had a week to record and submit their assignments, which included Uta Hagen’s destination exercises; writing and performing monologues; and even some lip synching performances. Aaron fondly says, “the lip sync assignment was hands-down the most successful thing that we did because the enthusiasm and creativity that we got from those videos was just fantastic. Some of the stuff – the finished product was just beautiful and uplifting.”

“I’ve heard conversations about, ‘Well students who may be nervous to stand up in front of people or communicate in that way might have more freedom and creativity when dealing with the devices, you know when you’re acting with your phone as opposed to a partner’,” continued Aaron. “And I didn’t see anything to suggest that’s the case. I also think that maybe potentially the point of an acting class for somebody who’s not pursuing a career is to address and conquer those kinds of fears and help kind of redefine yourself and where your comfort zones exist. So I didn’t want to shy away from that. And I wonder what I can do, looking to next semester – I want more real-time interactive kind of on the spot type assignments.”

Aaron says that if they continue to work virtually next semester he will look into using a video conferencing platform such as Zoom and other video conferencing platforms because, “I don’t know how much they’ll get out of it compared to a regular classroom meeting if it’s all on your own island of creativity. I don’t really want it to be that way.” Aaron is also exploring how A4L can expand their outreach using these tools, but notes that to be effective, “it needs to be hyper-interactive. I don’t think a passive video lecture [will do]. I think the participant needs to be very involved.” Aaron wants to create something akin to a “choose your own adventure,” story which has been utilized by streaming platforms like Netflix and employ technology to create synchronous learning experiences that allow students to respond in real time to the content.

“I think everybody is being innovative and creative and using what they have,” adds Aaron, “but the teacher in me – the artist – wants to also say that these are inferior options. The things that I think make what we do really special, at the heart of it, is being in the same space with people.” But until we can all gather again, Aaron is glad that he and the Arts For Learning team can deliver valuable programming to the students of Hampton Roads through digital means.

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