Reinventing Theater

Like theaters all over the country, the Fitzsimmons Black Box Theater has remained dark since March. But the Sonoma Academy theater scene is still vibrant, propelled through the challenges presented by the pandemic by the creativity and passion of our Director of Theater Jen Coté. 
The cast and crew of the fall production have been thinking outside the black box for months now, preparing for a range of safety restrictions, scenarios, and audience configurations as they plan and rehearse for a December show date. What began as a production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has evolved into A Midwinter Night’s Dream. Jen says, “think fur capes and frosty makeup!” The production was always intended to be outdoors in the Jackson Banke Amphitheatre; with luck, the weather will cooperate and we will be able to stage the show with an earlier curtain time. At the very least, the production will be recorded and/or livestreamed, or possibly moved later into the spring. This show will go on!

In the meantime, students have been rehearsing on Zoom, engaging in character work and getting to know one another as a cast. The design team has been working on ideas for sets and costumes, and Jen is working with Megan DeWees ‘19 on choreography plans. Megan, a theater student at New York University, is attending college remotely, so she is available to work with our students on dance and maybe even aerial silk work.

One upside to the pandemic has been the ability to bring more visitors into the classroom. In addition to Broadway actress Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jen has hosted several experts in acting and movement methodologies such as the Alexander Technique and the Meisner Method. “I have always wanted to include instruction in these methods that I’m not well-versed in,” says Jen. “Actors and acting teachers are home, too, and they are looking for ways to engage. It’s kind of a win-win for everyone.” 

Distance learning has also allowed for more cross-disciplinary collaboration between our own staffulty members. Jen has worked with Humanities teachers Rodney Fierce and Brandon Spars. “I came to Rodney’s 90’s class to discuss theater as protest, and he will speak to my students about the history of racism in the theater. We’ll talk about minstrel shows, problematic casting, and the racial stereotypes that persisted in many shows up until very recently,” says Jen. 

Students in the Contemporary Theater course have also been exploring the impact of racism through The Breath Project, a nationwide initiative for actors to address racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Co-Founder Gamal Abdel Chasten spoke with her students about the project; now, they are creating original pieces (8:46 in length) addressing oppression and injustice. A national festival will be streamed the weekend of October 24 and 25. 

Jen has completely revamped her Foundation Arts course to make it more compatible with a Zoom format. The constraints of remote learning have allowed Jen to explore some areas she has always wanted to teach, such as world theater history and the history of puppetry. Some of her new units will likely remain in her classes after distance learning is a distant memory. In addition to a unit on acting for the screen, in which students created their own commercials, Jen also dreamed up a unit on stage makeup. “We ordered makeup kits and worked on effects like gore,” says Jen. “Now, we are working on an old-age project. The students have to make up a character with a full backstory and then create an online dating video for that character.” 

While there is no substitute for the in-person, hands-on work at the heart of theater rehearsals and classes, Jen has been bringing fun and community-building into the Zoom room with improv and games. It’s lucky that improvisation is at the core of the theater--our constantly changing pandemic landscape requires a “yes, and…” mentality and a lot of imagination, qualities that come naturally to Jen and her students. 
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Santa Rosa, CA 95404 
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