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Florida theater, teachers collaborate during the pandemic

CRESTVIEW, Fla. (AP) — “Tarzan,” “Annie,” “Freaky Friday” and “The Addams Family” were all shows high school theater students in Okaloosa County rehearsed for many hours for three months but never got to perform.

When the pandemic started, the curtains were closed on spring shows and many theater students were separated from a place they call their second home and the people who they treat like family. And now that school has returned, four teachers want people to understand why theater is equally as important – if not more – than it was before the coronavirus outbreak.

Theater teachers Ritchie Jackson of Niceville High School, Karen Monroe of Choctawhatchee High School, Jason Blanks of Fort Walton Beach High School and Brittany Zick of Crestview High School want the community to know high school theater isn’t the drama class of yesteryear — it prepares their students for college.

“Our level of instruction is higher,” Jackson said. “In this area, in Okaloosa County, if people are not going to their local high school shows, they’re missing out on some quality entertainment. I think it’s time for the community to give high school theater in Okaloosa County another look.”

“The caliber of what our students are doing and what they’re capable of, I don’t think the community realizes it until they come out and see what we’re doing,” Monroe added.

If allowed, local theater teachers hope to host spring performances in 2021 with smaller casts.

Niceville High School Theater rented the Sprint Theater at Northwest Florida State College for its January production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town..” Although the show will offer limited seating to meet social distancing guidelines and the audience is required to wear masks, the students are excited to perform in front of an audience again, Jackson said.

“They need this as much as I do,” Jackson said. “We are all mourning the loss of theater.”

‘YES, AND…’

True to their theatrical fashion, Jackson, Monroe, Blanks and Zick jokingly compared themselves to the cast of the 1985 movie “The Breakfast Club.” While seemingly unlikely allies, they don’t compete against each other but instead have forged a friendship and support system to strengthen their programs.

“We decided, ‘Hey, why don’t we just meet regularly?’ “ Jackson said. ” ‘Do you need a prop? Maybe I’ve got it. If I need a costume, maybe you’ve got it.’ “We collaborate on lesson plans and resources. We’ve found that we get along really well and it was productive for our programs to be intertwined. It’s just taken off. Now it’s like these three are my family. We mesh really well.”

“We’re also the only theater teacher at our school, so it can feel like you’re living on an island by yourself,” Blanks said. “Sometimes it’s nice to have other theater teachers close by.”

Their collaboration has paid off.

In Zick’s first year teaching theater at Crestview, an organization built the set for a show in a way much different that how she envisioned. She called Blanks and they all came to her rescue.

“He was like, ‘Come and get whatever you need to build whatever,’ “ Zick said. “He was there to lend a hand and an ear and offer ideas of ways to fix it and coached me on ways to communicate properly what I wanted. They could’ve let me crash and burn, but they didn’t.”

And their students have mimicked the friendly behavior. Some travel as a group to the Festival of the Arts held at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando to take workshops from professionals.

“My kids follow their kids on Instagram,” Jackson said. “They get together and hang out. You would never get that with the football teams. You’d never get Crestview players hanging out with Fort Walton.”

The students have a community in theater, and the lessons they learn there last. Improv class, for example, which most of them teach, translates into almost every aspect of life.

“What I’ve discovered about improv is that it detaches kids from this idea of right and wrong and the pursuit of false perfection,” Blanks said. “They just make the best of whatever situation they’re in. There’s so much ridiculous pressure on kids now. They learn to make decisions confidently instead of waiting to make the right decision; they know it’s important to just make a decision and then do your best with it.”

Improv helps with conversational skills because students “think on their feet,” Jackson said. Zick witnessed exactly that ability in this past year’s performance of “The Outsiders.”

“The set was not changed and my lead kid had to improv in the moment knowing what was coming up, what had happened and be able to perform to give my stage hands 30 more seconds to flip that scene,” Zick said. “Had he not had that background and that knowledge, lights would’ve come up.”

The concept of improv changes their outlook.

“The basic premise of improv is ‘yes, and … ‘ where you agree with the person and then you help them do whatever they have decided,” Blanks said. “It’s not about focusing on yourself, but focusing on the other person and making them look good and getting kids out of their ego world.”

It simultaneously helps them understand why things are effective on stage and in life.

“We get into, ‘Why is this word better than that word? Why is this phrase better than that?’ “ Blanks said. “(It’s) the specificity. They live in such a general ever-changing world. This is disposable culture. The idea that certain things will always be funny and always be true is really attractive to them.”

Theater breeds collaboration. Every production is a team effort.

And because students spend so much time rehearsing together, they leave their high school stereotypes at the door of the theater room.

“One of my favorite stories is this nerdy boy I taught was in the same class as the football quarterback,” Blanks said. “He was a goofy kid and the quarterback secretly was, too. They had a lot of fun in class. One day in the hallway, the goofy kid was getting harassed and the quarterback strode up and put a stop to it. That kid’s life changed that day. He realized the friends he made in class would echo through his life.”

A HOME AWAY FROM HOME

It’s not uncommon to hear the words “Mom” or “Dad” thrown around in high school theater.

Unless mid-scene, the students are referring to their teacher, a role model who not only shows them how to get into character but also how to develop their own. They teach them how to empathize with others, how to communicate effectively and how to cope with life’s trials and tribulations (COVID-19), so that when they step off the stage they can just be themselves.

Zick said her students call her “Mama Z,” and Monroe said she is “Mama Monroe.”

Each teacher has a special relationship with his or her students, sometimes being the person to check on their grades in the core classes and tutoring them in those subjects after school, other times bringing them together for bonding at special events like “Blanksgiving” and often being the person they confide in, maybe the only person they tell that their parent has died or they’re living in their car.

For some students, theater is their only home. They need it.

“Our kids are artistic and creative kids,” Zick said. “They pour so much of their art out. Oftentimes, especially without theater, nothing would ever get poured back into them. How many of these kids work two and three jobs but will still be at rehearsal every day on time? The level of resilience they have and determination — the world has attacked them, but yet they still show up for rehearsal.”

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