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A virtual take on a total art form

Kids in Newport’s Online Summer Drama Club will learn all about theater -- and put on a play -- via computer.


Two years ago, Jennifer Hamilton began providing after-school theater classes to kids at the Newport Performing Arts Center. She even persuaded the bus company to create a new stop for the pint-sized performers. She also started School’s Out, Theatre’s In for days when schools are not in session, and this year had planned a two-week summer camp. That, of course, had to be canceled because of COVID-19.

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Jennifer Hamilton says teaching theater to children “creates cooperation, support, just like a team sport.”

Instead, Hamilton is hosting the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts’ Online Summer Drama Club. Beginning July 6, students entering third through eighth grade will meet twice weekly for eight weeks in virtual classes, culminating Aug. 28 with a day of performances. Registration is still open, with a fee of $80.

Hamilton has a BA in theater from Sterling College in Kansas and a master’s in theater from the University of Kansas. She serves on the board for the American Association of Community Theatre and has been instrumental in developing and running the group’s national Youth Theatre conferences. We talked with her about what both she and kids get out of theater and how a virtual theater class is going to work.

What inspired you to go into children’s theater?

Hamilton:  I’d gone to college and studied theater and speech. Eight or nine years later, I decided to go back to grad school. Halfway through, a job opened up for the education director at the Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy, which has a children’s theater department. I thought, these jobs are far and few between; I need to take this. I fell in love. It’s such a reward to see kids put on a show, having a blast at camp. When I started, the camp had 30 kids. When I left 12 years later, we had over 300 students enrolling.

Why theater for children?

Theater is a total art form. We can teach them about props and scenery, and painting and acting. It encompasses all areas. It creates such an incredible atmosphere of working together as a group. It creates cooperation, support, just like a team sport. You feel you are all on the same page working toward a goal together. It’s a lot of fun for them. It also encourages responsibility and accountability. When they have to learn lines, they are accountable to fellow actors. It helps kids get out of their comfort zone. They get up and speak in front of people, and it teaches them how to speak to a group.

How do the classes work when they are hosted in person?

The kids sign up. I meet them at the bus and our class goes from 3:45 to 5:15. They work on scenes. I’ve had an improv class for older kids. I pick short productions. We have a “share day” at the very end. We try to emphasize the process, not the product.

How will it work virtually?

We will use Google Meet. Every Monday, the whole group will meet for an hour. After meeting for a half-hour, we will have a Q&A with different theater professionals.  One of the things I had started halfway through my career at Topeka is we would do set design. Matt Hamel was just 8 or 9 when he joined me. He’s now a professional set designer in New York City. He’s going to be one of the people that does a Q&A. There are seven professionals — the last one is a surprise. We also have a Broadway actor, another who specializes in props, and someone else will talk about costume design. We just covered everything. After the group meets on Monday, they split up by age group and meet Tuesday through Thursday.

How is the virtual experience different?

It’s going to be really different. Theater practitioners are suffering all over the world. The audience is the last cast member. Actors feed off the audience response and reactions. Theater is very visceral. It is having that live audience that really is part of what theater is.

Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon

How will you make up for that?

They are going to have each other. Yes, it will be virtual, but we will be able to respond to each other. They will have to adjust their performance to being without a live audience.  We’ll just have to do what we can, and this is what we can do at this point. Luckily, so many publishing houses have come out with scripts specifically designed to be performed in a virtual setting and written that way.


This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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