Bay Area Children’s Theatre adapted quickly to COVID-19 closures
By Lou Fancher
Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s artistic director, Nina Meehan, says she’s learned to “embrace the unknown” during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The nonprofit Oakland theater company normally presents productions in Berkeley, San Francisco and Sunnyvale featuring professional adult actors and offers educational outreach programs and camps to more than 175,000 children and adults each year. Performances include annual subscription series and special programs for students in underserved communities. On March 12, the day Broadway shut down in New York City, Meehan became certain Bay Area audiences would soon no longer be able to experience the joy and importance of live theater.
“We pivoted immediately,” she said. “We had our first online ‘Creativity Corner’ episode out within five days.”
The first episode involved character creation and videos of an actor playing the part of Dame Gigglegoose. A series of challenges provided templates for kids to design a royal character and crest; to name, color and assign superpowers to a dragon; and to draw and write captions to determine the giggle-filled story’s end. For Samantha Quist and her two older children, six-year-old George and Aria, age 4, the BACT programming arrived in their Redwood City home at the perfect time.
“Just about immediately when the stay-in-place (order) began (and) much faster than any other remote learning,” Quist wrote in an email. On the phone, she said, “I was so impressed and grateful because it gave us some wholesome and educational and happy activities to do at home during those first stressful weeks.”
Another program highlighted choreography and songwriting for “Uni the Unicorn: The Musical,” a production Meehan said will be the first show presented live after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issue “go-ahead” clearances. Quist’s son said in a phone interview that he “liked the writing.”
Quist, whose daughter claims being onstage is “her favorite thing,” was impressed with her children’s level of engagement.
“When they were acting things out with the children’s theater actors, they really got into it. And their ability to pick up the music — and asking to practice it over and over — was surprising. I worked with George on pitch and tune, and he developed a better sense of those things. It got their bodies moving and their imaginations flowing.”
Asked to imagine the superpowers of a character he’d like to become and proving the continuing fluidity of his imagination, George said, “I’d like to fly and go out in outer space. I could fly and grant people’s wishes. Maybe wishes that the virus can’t happen again when this one ends. I could make the whole thing start stopping. Everybody could go back to school and do stuff.”
In the meantime, other “stuff” available at the BACT website includes additional interactive “playborhood” challenges — and for the younger set, “Virtual Baby Raves.” In partnership with DJ E.T. Hazzard and streamed live on the BACT Facebook page, the 90-minute events weave music and dance into a popular dance party. Modeled on the company’s popular in-person Baby Raves, the online version adds suggestions for props — ribbons, sunglasses, twinkling lights — to create “Baby Rave” party environments in participants’ homes.
The Bronson family, of Lafayette, has ushered at BACT performances for five years. Kyla, 6, enjoyed watching the videos of mermaids and unicorns and making original mermaid songs and menus. Callie, age 2, simply loved “dancing and singing with the mermaid and queen.”
Kids are also encouraged to share pictures and videos online. Contributions to “Chef Olive’s Cookbook,” handwritten by participants, are a delight: Directions for “Mac + Cheese” ends with “Yum!!” “Gummy Brownie Sundae” ingredients instruct that “you need a hand full of gummy bears, 1 brownie and some ice cream.”
BACT since the online launch in March has released two episodes per week. Meehan says they have had more than 20,000 visitors and credits local teachers of pre-K, kindergarten and first-grade students with some of that participation.
“We sent the Creativity Corner link to our mailing list of teachers. We offered a touch of theater they could give their kids now that they couldn’t come to us on field trips.”
A new initiative, the BACT-Yard Drama Club, will serve this year in place of summer camps that often sold out well in advance.
“It’s a resource where kids every week will have a new topic,” Meehan said. A series of videos using folk and fairy tales prompts kids to write original scripts and create props and costumes for their own backyard plays. Children previously enrolled in the now-canceled spring and summer camps will gain entry first, followed by open enrollment for anyone. The program is entirely free, which begs the obvious question: What plans are in place to monetize programs and survive the financial crunch caused by loss of the company’s primary income stream?
“We’re in the same situation as so many other performing arts organizations,” said Meehan. “It’s almost worse because we’re dependent more on earned income than contributed income. About 80% of BACT’s revenues come from tuition and ticket sales and 20% from donations and grants. (For) most arts organizations, and theater in particular, it’s closer to 60-40.”
Although very much in the early stages, Meehan said the board has approved development of in-house, screen-free programming that will serve families until live performances can resume. The program is titled “Play On!” and will be rolled out in July or August. With price structure and exact details pending, Meehan said financial stability and artistic viability requires “walking a fine line” while remaining mindful that families and kids need creative outlets.
“I want to make sure theater is accessible to all kids who need it. Embracing the unknown is one of the things we’re learning in this process.”