Rachel Slater

Out of isolation: teaching the arts

As Portland Public Schools continue to teach long-distance during the pandemic, the district's arts teachers discover creative ways to adapt

One by one, students pop into the classroom, each in a respective Zoom window. Trisha Todd, a drama teacher at Portland’s Grant High School, waits a few minutes until everyone in her Beginning Theatre class has arrived. Todd is teaching from her office at Grant, which is full of theater tchotchkes: a turquoise folding screen, a poster for Sarah Ruhl’s play Orlando, and what looks like poor Yorick’s skull. Todd’s students, however, are scattered around the city. There is no bell to sound the start of things.

So class begins, inconspicuously, with a warmup. First some stretching. Then Todd asks the students to go around and share the musical artists they’ve been listening to recently. More than one student mentions Billie Eilish; another says he’s been blasting a lot of classic rock.

“I’m doing whatever I can to keep them engaged,” Todd says. “We’re just hoping to keep them with us until they get back.”

THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

Last March, schools faced an unprecedented challenge when classrooms were shuttered due to the coronavirus. Arts educators, especially those with subjects in the performing arts, were forced to grapple with ways to reach students from a distance.

“It was really hard,” says Lisa Adams, a music teacher at Duniway Elementary School. “I wasn’t able to meet with the students live. Participation was not required. There wasn’t a unified way that every school was handling it.”

Lisa Adams shows off some of her homemade musical instruments. As a way to overcome resource challenges, Adams has taught her students at Duniway Elementary School how to make their own instruments. Photo: Max Tapogna

Six months later, Portland Public Schools has worked to refine and innovate arts education in a style that is tailored to the moment. “Spring was very doomy gloomy,” says Laura Arthur, a music teacher on special assignment for the district. “I feel like the fall is the second, third stage of grief. We’ve reached acceptance and solutions.”


With Amorphous, DownRight Productions asks, ‘What If?’

A new Portland presenter arrives on the scene with a mix of performance disciplines and film in various states of completion


The new performance-presenting venture DownRight Productions—co-directed by dancers Anna Marra and Emily Schultz—debuted at Headwaters Theatre February 15-18 with Amorphous, a program designed to showcase local talent working at the intersections of dance, art, music, and film.

It felt like a waltz with possibility: DownRight was willing to book artists who, at the time of their booking, were offering pieces that were finished, partially finished, or still in the idealized stage. And for a show that skewed young (though not inexperienced) and modern, the modest stage in this intimate space provided a fitting platform to play around with creative questions, such as:

What happens if I twist this knob?

There’s a long choreographic tradition of using tech to goose dance: in her solo “Dark Spot,” Kate Rafter switched a handheld light on and off in front of a computer screen, creating inkblot images that splotched across a larger projector screen facing the audience. After dispensing with the light, she moved toward and away from the computer screen, causing portions of her body to emerge and recede on the large screen, to ghostly effect.