Jennifer Hamilton

When the proscenium arch is a computer monitor

Technology presents challenges for students in an online summer drama club, but the tradeoff is lessons in creativity, self-reliance, and responsibility

I am in the passenger seat of our pickup headed back to the coast from Eugene when I check in with the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts’ Online Summer Drama Club. The oldest group, students entering seventh and eighth grades, is rehearsing 10 Ways to Survive Life in Quarantine. I am listening to an announcer doing commentary on an imaginary sport — and then I am gone. Dropped.

Oh, the joys of life in a virtual world.

As the 19 students in the club are learning, virtual performances come with unique challenges. One is technology. When one actor talks, her voice continues, but the video freezes — blame the dreaded lag time brought on by a poor Wi-Fi connection. Then there’s remembering to stay in the frame; to turn off the camera and mic when your performance is over; and to unmute yourself when it’s showtime.

“The thing that I think is most frustrating is you can be doing your scene and you don’t know you are freezing up on the other end,” said Hazel Fiedler, who performs with the Prime Time Players in 10 Ways to Survive Life in Quarantine. “That’s the most nerve-racking — going live. What if I freeze up? What if my internet goes off in a performance?”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


The arts council formed the eight-week summer drama club when the pandemic forced cancellation of drama summer camp. Since July 6, students have met twice weekly. Monday meetings feature a theater professional and question-and-answer session. The groups meet a second time each week to rehearse, devise props, and create costumes. The club will culminate in an invitation-only day of virtual performances Aug. 28.

The club is divided into three age groups: Act One Players are third- and fourth-graders; Act Two Players are entering fifth and sixth grade, and the Prime Time Players are incoming seventh- and eighth-graders. Classes were open to all students in those grades, with varying levels of theater experience.

Technical issues aside, performing alone from your living room is entirely different from acting with fellow thespians on stage. That presents its own challenges — and learning opportunities.

Members of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts’ Online Summer Drama Club meet twice weekly in preparation for their virtual performance later this month.
Director Jennifer Hamilton (top left) meets with the Act Two Players in the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts’ Online Summer Drama Club. The club meets twice weekly in preparation for virtual performances later this month. Photo by: Lori Tobias

“It’s just really hard when you can’t do as much,” said Lucy Furuheim, who has a role with the Act Two Players in The Show Must Go Online. “You can’t interact, you can’t pass a prop. In one of the scenes, we’re using stuffed animals instead of people.”

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A virtual take on a total art form

Kids in Newport’s Online Summer Drama Club will learn everything from props to acting to accountability – culminating in 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.


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


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.

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