Fine arts aims to stage outdoor comeback

Administrators, parents, students work together to implement new pandemic-friendly creative space

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Symbiotech Design

This rendering of the outdoor stage shows its possible use as a venue for dance or theatre shows. Other renderings show the space as a venue for visual art exhibitions, for regular class meeting and for guest speakers. Junior theatre major Grace Hickey is excited for the opportunities the space would bring. “With … this [the outdoor stage], we might have the opportunity to do some real, in-person performing,” Hickey said. Renderings by Symbiotech Design.

Venus King, Alysa Spiro

Audience members sit on the grassy hill near the portables adjacent to Sunshine Drive. Six feet apart, masks on, they enjoy the outdoors and the performances that are unfolding in front of them. Atop a sturdy platform, dancers glide across a stage, actors perform their ballads and artists display their masterpieces.

I don’t know how long this is going to last, so getting to have that opportunity for our kids this school year, especially our seniors, is so important.”

— principal Nicole Griffith

Right now, this tableau is just a figment of the collective imagination, but with the possible introduction of McCallum’s new outdoor stage it may all become a reality. After months of halted Fine Arts Academy performances because of the COVID-19 quarantine, Academy parents, teachers and principal Nicole Griffith have launched an initiative where the Academy can once again take center stage … outdoors.

“I think that kids changing the environment, taking the learning outside the four walls of the classroom is very positive,” Griffith said. “I fully support endeavors that are allowing kids to continue to learn during this time and feel safe learning.”

Griffith believes that part of her job as a leader-educator is to give students the resources they need to explore their own artistry, especially at a fine arts magnet like McCallum.

“It falls into our priorities as a school to continue to have creativity outlets for kids, and to continue to have that really awesome instruction,” Ms. Griffith said. “I don’t know how long this is going to last, so getting to have that opportunity for our kids this school year, especially our seniors, is so important because we can give them a bit of the year with the passions that they have in their interests.”

Distance learning has proved to be a challenge for teachers, administrators and students. In October, Griffith hosted a parent and faculty Zoom meeting to discuss the future of schooling and the possibilities of safer methods to teach that can still incorporate aspects of typical in-person school. Working together, Griffith and the parents envisioned an outdoor stage as a pandemic-friendly way to safely resume fine arts activities.

We are very interested in using [the outdoor stage] for concerts, even after COVID is under control. … It will be really exciting to give our students more opportunities for creativity, especially for student-directed types of things.”

— dance director Natalie Uehara

“We put parents into groups,” Griffith said. “Some of the parents were brainstorming how to get stuff: how to get chairs, how to get wagons, etc. Other folks were brainstorming connectivity issues. We had a group that was brainstorming for the fine arts, the outdoor stage. That group just took off, there’s a great group of parents working on it.”

Nicole Wayman, mother of two girls, one of whom is a sophomore dance major in the Fine Arts Academy, was one of the parents to jump on this opportunity.

“Initially, we talked about having a temporary, makeshift stage that they could use as we are inviting more kids back to campus.” Wayman said. “The challenge with that idea was finding a flat level space.”

The task of finding a possible space, given to the administrators, proved to be easier than expected. Ms. Griffith identified an promising plot of land for the stage. Located off of Sunshine Drive, the outdoor stage would be on the slice of land in between the portables and the horseshoe parking lot.

“The idea of where to put it came about just from people walking around,” Ms. Griffith said. “It’s this real gradual hill that makes it a natural stage.” The discussions that began in October have picked up as more parents and faculty have gotten onboard with the prospect of a new outdoor stage. But for the stage to be built, there is one big hurdle to jump: fundraising. Without the necessary funds, the outdoor stage will remain a figment of the imagination.

With the possibility of an outdoor stage, we might have the opportunity to do some real, in-person performing, which would be great for all of our spirits.”

— junior theatre major Grace Hickey

“We need to raise a lot of money,” said Natalie Uehara, a dance teacher and a director of the McCallum Youth Dance Company. “Once we have the money, it won’t take long to build: approximately three weeks. But right now, it’s the funds that are holding us back.”

Uehara believes the fundraising is well worth the effort because the usefulness of the stage will extend far past the times of COVID-19.

“We are very interested in using [the outdoor stage] for concerts, even after COVID is under control,” Uehara said. “I think that site-specific work and work outdoors is something that is very contemporary. It will be really exciting to give our students more opportunities for creativity, especially for student-directed types of things.”

With no performances or productions since March of 2020, many students and teachers are already vying to use this space as a way to connect with audiences once again. Because of the many different types of fine arts majors and the wide range of events hosted each year, there was competition over who got access to the current indoor stages in the MAC and the Fine Arts Building Theater.

“Getting the space [for performances] has always been something that’s been challenging,” Uehara said. “If the MAC is really hard to get or the Fine Arts Theatre is really hard to get, [the outdoor stage] is going to open up a lot of possibilities for more performances.”

Junior theatre major Grace Hickey is among the students who devoted time to help with fundraising efforts. Like Uehara, she believes the hard work of raising the money needed is well worth the reward.

“I’m really excited because I think [the outdoor stage] opens the door for a lot of new opportunities that maybe we didn’t see in our close future until recently,” Hickey said. “In my mind, I thought it would just be Zoom shows for the next year, but with the possibility of an outdoor stage, we might have the opportunity to do some real, in-person performing, which would be great for all of our spirits.”

Despite the hard work it would entail, teachers, students and parents say they want to make the outdoor stage a reality.

“As a parent, I am really inspired to give these hardworking students another outlet to really appreciate and fine-tune their craft,” Wayman said. “It all started from the energy Ms. Griffith lit.”

As a performer, Hickey sees the outdoor stage as just one more opportunity to try something new. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to feel the wind, feel the elements,” Hickey said. “I’ve never experienced performing outdoors with a real audience before. It’s going to be crazy.”

ROYAL TENNIS COURT PLAYERS: MacTheatre held auditions for its upcoming musical Urinetown on Dec. 9 and 10 this week. Vocal auditions took place on Wednesday, and social distancing protocols were enforced by allowing one student into the Fine Arts Building Theatre at a time to audition and requiring masks at all times except when a student was singing. Junior Grace Hickey thought that individual time slots helped her to relax while auditioning. “They were a lot less stressful since they were individual instead of 10 per group,” Hickey said. Dance auditions and callbacks took place on Thursday, and the dance auditions were held on the tennis courts in masks. Sophomore Anderson Zoll was excited to audition and enjoyed the flexibility of his fellow auditioners at the dance auditions, even in new circumstances. “It was a little harder than normal because we didn’t have mirrors and it got dark very quickly,” Zoll said. “We all were very excited and made it work by using the flashlights on our phones to see.” Junior Charlotte Bearse also reflected on the differences between these auditions and previous ones, but made light (get it?) of the situation. “It was an extremely different experience from the other, especially the dance call,” Bearse said. “But hey, if I messed up, it was almost completely dark on the tennis court.” Overall, actors, dancers and singers alike were glad to return to their craft after a long hiatus. “I was so glad to get back and see everyone,” Zoll said. “I have missed performing live theatre more than anything during this pandemic and I was so glad we are able to start safely performing again.” Caption by Samantha Powers. (Dave Winter)