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What happened to youth arts during the pandemic?

JCompany Youth theater actors perform Snoopy at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center
JCompany Youth theater actors perform a masked version of “Snoopy” at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center on January 28, 2021.
(Sandy Huffaker/SDUT)

From theater and orchestra performances to dance recitals, the pandemic has changed the face of youth arts in San Diego

Quiet ...

Like silence, but not really silent ...

Just about a year ago, the song “Quiet” from the musical “Matilda” was heard all over San Diego. If a youth theater hadn’t already staged a version of the Tony-winning show, it was likely in the midst of performing it or rehearsing for an upcoming engagement.

But then the pandemic happened and everything really did go quiet, just like Matilda describes.

Broadway shut down on March 12 and San Diego arts organizations followed — everything from La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe to the San Diego Symphony and San Diego Opera halted productions and canceled their seasons.

And silently, without a lot of fanfare, the shutdown also affected youth arts.

Along with the closing of schools, theater groups, youth symphonies, dance classes, voice lessons and other performing arts halted. Shows, recitals and concerts that required weeks — sometimes months — of rehearsals had to be abandoned.

Just that still sort of quiet ...

JCompany Youth Theatre in La Jolla was one weekend into its three-weekend run of “Matilda” when the pandemic hit.

“We were lucky in that we got a whole weekend of shows in. I’m very grateful that we got that far,” said JCompany’s artistic director, Joey Landwehr. “I know a lot other people had to stop at rehearsals, before they could even open their show, which is even more heart-wrenching.”

Michael Davis, a 17-year-old Junior Theatre actor
Chula Vista’s Michael Davis was set to play Trunchbull in Junior Theatre’s “Matilda.” The pandemic shut down the production and there are no immediate plans to bring it back.
(Courtesy photo)

San Diego Junior Theatre was one group that never made it past rehearsals. The Balboa Park organization had just cast its version of “Matilda,” which included Michael Davis, an 11th grader at San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts playing villain Agatha Trunchbull.

“When the shutdown hit, it was a bit of a shock, and we didn’t know if we would be coming back or not,” said the Chula Vista resident. “When we found out we weren’t, I felt disconnected from the thing I loved most.”

Just the sound of your heart in your head ...

Along with youth theater, dance studios and youth orchestras had to figure out how to pivot to distanced education models.

La Jolla Music Society, for example, transitioned its free after-school Community Music Center program in Logan Heights to online only.

The program serves about 40 schools in the area, offering free instruments and free lessons to all participants in grades 4 through 12. Before the pandemic, students were meeting three days a week for in-person group lessons. Advanced musicians met an extra day per week for ensemble rehearsals.

Allison Boles, the education and community programming manager for La Jolla Music Society, said the transition to online has “been pretty radical.”

“It was a top priority for us to keep the program, not only for the students but also for our teachers,” Boles said.

In April, the music program — which includes voice, piano, guitar, percussion, strings, woodwind and brass — shifted from group lessons to an individual format where students get one-on-one time with instructors.

Students from La Jolla Music Society's Community Music Center program in Logan Heights.
Students from La Jolla Music Society’s Community Music Center program in Logan Heights. Students went from in-person group lessons to one-on-one Zoom sessions.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Music Society)

At first there was a drop in attendance because some participants didn’t have computer access. But working with the San Diego Unified School District and the San Diego County Office of Education, about 70 students were able to continue. And Boles said enrollment has been creeping back up to its usual numbers of about 120 students.

But this noise becomes anger and the anger is light ...

One group that quickly learned to adapt to the pandemic is the dance community.

In addition to moving classes to Zoom, some studios built outdoor stages or held outdoor classes with dancers wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart. But recitals and traditional performances like “The Nutcracker” were either canceled or went online only.

Amanda Daly, the co-director of West Coast Dance Complex’s Ballet Academy, used the pandemic to try something new. The Carmel Valley-based school decided to continue with its “Nutcracker” production, only as a film rather than a stage show.

“This year is different, so we thought why not embrace that and create something new and special,” she said. “It was also a way to document and capture this time that we’re in.”

Making a ballet movie kept dancers engaged and active. And it also taught students and faculty new skills, like working with natural light and using a smaller range of movements.

“I was pleasantly surprised how quickly everyone adapted to the new genre,” said Daly, who is also a dancer at California Ballet. “It’s great to see how — no matter what the challenges are — our team and our dancers were able to create something beautiful.”

The studio is already rehearsing for its next film, a ballet version of “Mulan,” which will be filmed at parks and other outdoor spaces in May.

And it is quiet.

And I am warm.

Like I’ve sailed.

Into the eye of the storm.

Landwehr was certain the pause on youth arts would be temporary.

He kept his theater space at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center (JCC) frozen — no props moved, no scenery taken down — so that his “Matilda” cast of 78 kids could pick up as if nothing happened.

“Everything was ready for us to walk right back in, have two rehearsals and go,” he said.

Even in June, as the JCC facility was preparing for distanced, in-person summer camps, the JCompany team optimistically moved the props and sets off the stage and stored them in every nook and cranny of the JCC.

“I think it was October when I knew we wouldn’t be coming back,” he said. “We finally put everything in storage and called it a day.”

But in that time, Landwehr and the team at the JCC figured out a way to get back to live, in-person performances — and JCompany is one of the only groups in San Diego County to do so.

“When the pandemic hit, my first thought was, ‘these kids are going to be so isolated’ and I knew I was going to have to figure out something to keep them engaged,” he said. “Now more than ever is when we need the arts because that’s our way of connecting.”

An outdoor stage was built on the JCC facility’s soccer field. Small groups were brought back at the end of the summer for masked and distanced rehearsals on the tennis courts. And in order to participate in a production, students and their parents sign contracts promising they will follow California safety restrictions and not travel.

“Safety is the first priority, no matter what,” he said.

There have been no cases of COVID-19 (though there was one scare that shut down rehearsals and required cast members to get tested before returning).

JCompany cast members prepare to go onstage during a performance of "Snoopy! The Musical"
JCompany cast members prepare to go onstage during a performance of “Snoopy! The Musical.”
(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Live productions have included the non-musical “Macbeth” and “Magic in the Attic.” In January, it went back to small musicals with “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy! The Musical.” And this month brings “Rent,” which for the first time since the pandemic will include choreography and a very small orchestra.

Though the shows are live, the only people allowed in the audience are the actors’ immediate family members. Groups sit in outdoor pods and are not allowed to socialize with other pods. Plus, everyone is required to wear a mask during the performance. The shows are also recorded so they can be streamed by the general public.

“The response that we’ve gotten, not only from the kids but also from the audience, has been overwhelming,” Landwehr said. “The audience comes walking into our soccer field theater and there’s this sigh of relief, like there is something normal in the world. Some people start crying a little, it’s really beautiful.”

Quiet ...

Like silence, but not really silent ...

Desha Crownover, the artistic director of San Diego Junior Theatre, is still waiting for her kids to be able to meet in person. Because her theater is located in city-managed Balboa Park, rules about in-person gathering have been especially restrictive.

“Since the pandemic, we have been 100 percent virtual,” she said. “We’ve had to be very imaginative about what we give our kids and how we help our kids get through this.”

Instead of putting on virtual shows, Crownover has been focusing on classes, workshops, singalongs and master classes with Junior Theater alumni who now work professionally.

And the efforts seem to be helping.

“Throughout this whole ordeal, I have not stayed disconnected,” said 17-year-old actor Davis. “I’ve taken several online classes and studied how to improve my craft, not only as a musical theatre performer but as a musician as well.”

Crownover hopes that Junior Theatre will be able to have some in-person classes in the summer, but if not she will continue to keep her youth performers as engaged as possible.

“One of the things that I love about theater education is that it teaches resilience and theater kids learn to bounce back,” she said. “They get disappointed in auditions, things happen, and they have to act on a dime.”


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