Words by Louise Casini Hollis. Images as credited. Featured Image courtesy of Centerstage.
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.
“The slower-paced, easy-going ‘spend time with your families’ idea portrayed throughout the quarantine has NOT been my experience,” laughs Rebecca Lowe, owner and founder of Centerstage Academy in Yorktown. “But it’s worth it to help families/students maintain a sense of normalcy with their routines, keep their progress on track, and give them a creative outlet to express themselves!”
Rebecca founded Centerstage in 1995 “I didn’t intend to start a performing arts studio,” She confesses, “The idea kind of crept in slowly without warning.” Lowe taught piano during her college years at William and Mary while earning a degree in Sociology and minor in Music. She continued to teach private piano lessons after graduating and found that, “my schedule was quickly maxed out, teaching Monday through Saturday, and I wanted to find a way to be able to reach more families and students.” Now, 25 years later, Centerstage Academy has grown into a center for classes that includes a variety of musical instruments, as well as dance and theatre.
To reach their students, Centerstage is utilizing Zoom and supplemental videos through YouTube. As are many arts educators, they deal with lag times and audio glitches. “But we’re continuing to adapt!” Lowe proudly states. “We have to concentrate on skills that can be taught effectively through virtual means…Students are becoming more independent, taking more responsibility, and listening more attentively. Parents of younger students are more involved since they are generally present to help with the technology aspect.” To keep her singers motivated, voice teacher Rita Leonardi has reached out to performers like Dot Kelly, Miss Virginia 2019, to virtually meet with her students, so that they may offer encouragement and share their success stories. “My students can invite friends and family to join our Zoom meetings which encourages social/emotional well-being for all of us,” writes Leonardi. “It has been such a wonderful and memorable time.”
Rebecca Lowe works virtually with student Alyssa Wilkerson. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Lowe.
Rebecca personally teaches 28 piano students and has found, “I’ve easily tripled the amount of time in lesson preparation and follow-up, and that’s just as a teacher… my director duties have tripled as well.” Heading a faculty of 10, Rebecca works to ensure that all of the classes are running smoothly. “The switch from in-person to virtual lessons has not been easy,” she shared, “more from the technology perspective and timing crunch (we only missed one day of lessons before [we were] up and running with online private lessons). Our private lessons’ goals and objectives have remained the same,” she continued, “even if delivery and formatting is a bit different and supplemented with video demonstrations, etc.” Lowe plans to host smaller instrumental and voice recitals in the summer so that her students have the chance to demonstrate their skills.
Centerstage typically has around 250 students enrolled, but the number has been cut in half by the pandemic. “Of course, it goes without saying that this puts a tremendous amount of financial stress on us…and we haven’t seen any government relief funds yet, despite applying for anything and everything almost immediately,” said Lowe. The biggest casualty of going to online teaching has been their group theatre classes. “We’ve had to suspend most for the remainder of the [school] year,” Lowe shared. “They were designed for group interaction and it’s hard to achieve that effectively via Zoom.” However, they began a new session of their “Joy of Acting” classes specifically designed for children on the Autism spectrum in May. “The students in these classes depend on one another greatly for social interaction and friendship, especially during such an anxious time of uncertainty,“ observes Lowe. “They are delighted to be able to maintain the structure and routine of their weekly meetings.”
Ever creative, Lowe and her faculty have been busy working to fill the gap of their other cancelled theatre classes by creating online opportunities which, “include a masterclass from Williamsburg native turned NYC performer, Alexx Stachowiak; a ‘Theatre History’ around-the-world adventure and ‘Beginning Playwriting’ class by Dani Doster; and private acting coaching from Cory Steiger.”
Voice teacher Rita Leonardi teachers student Hayley Shields through Zoom. Photo courtesy of Rita Leonardi.
Part of Centerstage’s normal programming includes 3-5 children’s productions throughout the year, but they had already decided to slow down this year and do two productions so they could focus on honing their students’ performance skills. Their spring production of The Wizard of Oz had its first rehearsal before quarantine, but then they quickly had to move the process online. Currently, the young actors are memorizing their lines, songs and choreography. The rehearsal process is augmented by group Zoom rehearsals with their director Cory Steiger. “[He] has been amazing at keeping the students motivated and on task,” notes Rebecca, and she is optimistically planning for the show’s opening in August.
The most important thing Rebecca and her faculty have learned from this experience? “People (especially kids) are adaptable, and things that matter (family, artistic expression, staying connected) will always find a way to thrive. We still crave the in-person contact and live performances that this quarantine has limited – and I doubt we’ll take them for granted moving forward! This [experience] has definitely opened our eyes about what is possible through virtual means. I’m optimistic we will continue to pursue them and expand upon them beyond the quarantine.”