For theater-lovers in St. Louis, the lights have gone up and the curtain’s gone down for the unforeseen future. Because of COVID-19, too many stages sit empty, too many stories stay untold, and too many songs remain silent.
However, for the region’s playwrights and performers, creativity waits for no pandemic. Since March, theater companies across St. Louis have found unexpected ways to bring productions home to their fans. At Metro Theater Company (MTC), St. Louis’s premiere professional theater for youth and families, that means offering a diverse array of educational resources, including streaming productions and virtual classes, to keep little ones entertained and engaged as well as looking forward to a new season with excitement and optimism.
A front-row seat and a backstage pass for kids of all ages
In May, MTC launched its pay-what-you-can-pay, pay-per-view digital streaming series for kids, presented in partnership with HEC Media.
Now through July 26, And In This Corner…Cassius Clay by Idris Goodwin takes them back in time to Jim Crow-era Louisville where they can watch a young boxer battle prejudice as he starts on his journey to become one of the greatest athletes of all time.
In addition, since the start of COVID-19, St. Louis residents have become storytellers and historians by sharing their experiences with MTC for its COVID-19 Memory Project. The perspectives of St. Louisans of every age, race and background will be adapted by playwrights into virtual theatrical performances to create a digital record of this unimaginable period in time.
“It’s been an ongoing project since the beginning, and that’s what makes it so interesting,” said Julia Flood, artistic director for MTC. “There are stories that came in the first week, and there are stories coming in now, so you can see how the experiences change. We imagine a lot of things will come out of this material, and our hope is that eventually a stage play can bring all of these incredible stories together so we can look back and reflect once we’re out of quarantine.”
COVID-19 Memory Project “Zoom Plays,” developed in partnership with the Missouri History Museum, will start in July. For a sneak peek you can check out MTC’s website for its first dramatic reading, which covers stories from St. Louisans of all ages. You can also submit your own stories at metroplays.org/memoryproject.
The COVID-19 Memory Project, like many of MTC’s projects, helps young people better make sense of the world around them. Remarked Joe Gfaller, managing director, “We’ve never shied away from issues that young people are capable of responding to and dealing with. Our mission statement talks about how we respect the emotional intelligence of young people, and just as everyone is trying to process everything that’s happening around COVID, we want to help in a way that’s healthy, responsible and professionally executed. The best way for us to attempt to do that is to gather children’s stories. It makes us all the more responsible in ensuring the programs we create actually reflect a child’s experiences, not our assumption of their experiences.”
For the young thespians in your home, MTC has also moved their renowned summer camps online. While it’s currently in the middle of middle school camp, MTC will also host a high school camp July 6-10 and two one-week camps for pre-K through fifth grade July 27 – August 7. For younger kids, the focus is on drama, dance and music while older campers learn elements of audition technique, stage make-up, playwriting, and other theatrical skills.
Registration is still available for July’s camps at www.metroplays.org/summer-camps.
Finally, this summer, MTC’s education department launched the Intergenerational Storytelling Project. Young people are encouraged to reach out to the older adults in their lives and invite them for an interview. They can then take the stories they learn and retell it to MTC in any medium they prefer, whether that’s turning their tale into a dance, a cartoon, a picture, or a play. Stories can be submitted to MTC, and with the family’s permission, may be showcased on the site.
A new season of imaginative, inspiring theater
Even while restructuring their summer plans to respond to COVID-19, the MTC team continues to look forward with their 2020/2021 season, featuring two touring productions and three mainstage features. While MTC has always been dedicated to providing diverse programming for the past four decades, the current cultural landscape in the U.S. has made this year’s lineup more important than ever to open conversations and spark change.
“There’s a strong movement that’s been going on in this country for the past few weeks around racial equity,” explained Gfaller. “If you look at our programming over the coming year, it’s very much focused on—as we’ve always been—centering voices of communities of color in our work and in the stories we tell. It’s our goal to expand young people’s worldviews and perspectives. So, in everything we do we are creating an environment where they can see their lived experiences on stage and at the same time, live in someone else’s shoes to expand their thinking.”
This year’s productions include:
• Digging Up Dessa, October 25 – November 8: After the loss of her father, 12-year-old Dessa finds an unlikely source of comfort in a friend only she can see and hear – 19th century paleontology pioneer Mary Anning. In the midst of her grief, Dessa fights to ensure Mary gets the same recognition as her male counterparts—two centuries later.
“It’s a story about loss and trauma in a young person’s life, pushing back against them, and finding ways to direct that energy into something positive,” Flood said. “I loved the play before COVID-19, but now the message is even more relevant. Plus, it’s got that element of female empowerment that I really like!”
• Jacked!, touring January 14 – March 13: Playwright Idris Goodwin combines modern hip hop with a classic fairy tale to shine a spotlight on substance abuse in America and its effect on our children. After Jack steals the giant’s golden eggs, his village discovers they have a mysterious power over them—and one they can’t avoid. Geared toward children in kindergarten through fourth grade, it gently touches on the message that an adult’s distraction doesn’t mean a child is loved any less.
• Say Something, Do Something, touring January 14-March 13: Designed for fourth through sixth graders, MTC’s interactive, participatory theater program helps students build their critical thinking and interpersonal skills so that they are better equipped to handle conflict resolution. Students will watch a performance and be given the chance to actively help the target by altering the cast, script and scene.
• Last Stop on Market Street, January 31 – February 28: Matt de la Pena’s award-winning children’s book hits the Grandel Theater stage for a joy ride your children will never forget! Set to an R&B soundtrack written by Motown legend and his son, recording Paris Ray Dozier, CJ joins his Nana on a trip through the city where he is reawakened about his community and discovers what’s truly beautiful in the world.
• The Very Hungry Caterpillar, April 11 – May 2: 75 of Eric Carle’s most beloved characters leap off the page and onto the stage for what Gfaller calls, “The ultimate rock concert for four-year-olds.” Featuring 75 larger-than-life puppets, the production takes your child into the bright, beautiful world of Caterpillar, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, The Very Lonely Firefly, and all of their incredible friends. The English-Spanish bilingual production will also help kids from toddlers through age seven build their foreign language skills.
Because social distancing will likely still be in effect by the time October rolls around, MTC is taking every precaution to make sure children have access to its productions and that they remain safe and healthy. Depending on CDC guidelines in the fall, this may include contactless ticketing and zone seating for enhanced social distancing. Plus, MTC is working with playwrights on securing digital streaming rights to each production.
For more information on the 2020/2021 season or on any of MTC’s educational programs, visit www.metroplays.org.
Metro East mom Nicole Plegge is the lifestyle and pop culture blogger for STL Parent. Besides working as a freelance writer & public relations specialist, and raising two daughters and a husband, Nicole's greatest achievements are finding her misplaced car keys each day and managing to leave the house in a stain-free shirt. Her biggest regret is never being accepted to the Eastland School for Girls. Follow Nicole on Twitter @STLWriterinIL
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