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ISF’s education program is weathering the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to creativity, flexibility, and passion. Veronica Von Tobel, ISF’s Director of Education, is leading the charge as the Festival takes its first-ever journey into virtual education. The two long-standing school performance tours, Idaho Theater for Youth (ITY) and Shakespearience, have pivoted to online collaboration and production, and Veronica sat down (over email) to tell us about the journey to get to the virtual worlds of The Disbelievable Domain of Zee (ITY) and Hamlet (Shakespearience).
Normally in-person and touring the state for 11 weeks, Idaho Theater for Youth reaches elementary and middle school students through stories rooted in classic literature, and Shakespearience’s 10-week tour reaches high school students through condensed Shakespeare plays. Both tour performances are designed to last the length of a class period (about 40-50 minutes), and they are cast with professional actors. The tours can perform 2-3 shows a day, totaling 90-100 performances per tour. It is estimated that in pre-pandemic years, these programs reached over 50,000 students annually across Idaho (starting in 1986), including those in rural and underserved communities. The goal is that the materials created now, digitally, might have a life beyond 2021, as an added component to the Festival’s educational offerings. That being said, and hoped for, nothing can replace the feeling one gets from seeing a live performance, many for the very first time.
Veronica generously took the time to tell the story of the winding road to 2021’s educational offerings, please enjoy.
ISF Development Team (Dev): How long were both 2020 school tours running before COVID shut everything down?
Veronica Von Tobel, Director of Education (VVT): Idaho Theater for Youth was 5 weeks in (less than halfway) and Shakespearience was 7 weeks in when we made the decision to cancel.
Dev: How did you stay inspired amidst so much uncertainty, in the months where you would normally be coordinating camps, classes, tours, residencies and Apprenticeships?
VVT: I feel like most of this year has been planning something, and then it gets canceled, so we adjust… and then we have to cancel again. For me, most of this year has been trying to feel inspired, but feeling completely out of my realm when it comes to virtual offerings. Now I’ve really been contemplating: What do teachers, parents, and most of all students need right now? And that’s where we are headed.
Dev: What led you to the “Domain of Zee” idea? Who is co-writing it with you?
VVT: I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do for ITY, and at one point I thought about not doing anything for ITY, and just focusing on Shakespearience. But that just didn’t feel right to me, and I knew kids that we reach need something like this more than ever. So I thought, “Where could we even film in winter?”
We have these big production shops where we build sets and costumes and I thought… perfect! Now, what kind of story could be created there? I thought, what if kids were in a Zoom classroom session, and then got zapped to this warehouse and have to figure a way out, which led me to think about “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the classic L. Frank Baum book series, which just so happens to be public domain [public domain pieces are not subject to copyright and are wholly available to the public]. Eventually the story became about following Dottie, who has just moved to a new town and is attending virtual school when all of a sudden, a storm hits, and she and her classmates are teleported to this mysterious warehouse, created by someone named Zee. Together they have to find a way back home, and along the way they find out what it really means to have brains, a heart, and courage.
The most important part to me was making it interactive for kids, making it different than just watching a movie. The kids will have an activity book that they will need to follow along with, and it will have different exercises they need to do along the way to help our characters get back home. Anything from getting up and doing a dance battle against monsters, to solving a maze, to science experiments! This will require students to be fully immersed in these characters’ journeys. I am co-writing “The Disbelieveable Domain of Zee” with two amazing writers, Chad Shohet and Dakotah Brown. Chad and Dakotah were two thirds of the writing team on the hit ITY show “Jabberwocky”. All three of us have been actors in ITY shows, giving us a unique perspective on what really enthralls kids that age who are watching.
Dev: Who is directing and designing?
VVT: Everyone is wearing multiple hats. Chad, Dakotah, and myself will be acting in it, and I will be directing. We are hiring an amazing film crew, all while following the strictest COVID safety protocols!
Dev: Tell us about Shakespearience’s 2021 performance.
VVT: Shakespearience this year was going to be “Twelfth Night,” however once we made the decision to go virtual, I thought, why not “Hamlet”?! “Hamlet” is taught in most (if not all) high schools, meaning most students will need help understanding what it’s really about. The character, Hamlet, has so many speeches and lines where he directly addresses the audience, which to me was very reminiscent of how we use social media today. So, in our 50-minute condensed version, we will be considering how the story exists solely on a social media platform. The brilliant Sara Bruner and I will be teaming up to direct a cast of talented actors from across the country who will be recording themselves at home. It is a completely unique take on the story, however I think it makes it even more relatable to students, which is the whole goal of Shakespearience. Sara Bruner has directed me in tours before, so I know first-hand the amazing ways she can make Shakespeare intriguing, heart-wrenching, and understandable to students.
Dev: What is the biggest challenge as Ed Director right now?
VVT: The biggest challenge for me, as I’m sure everyone, is navigating a world that’s completely out of my comfort zone. I have had to do a lot of research on virtual learning, filming, and safety measures, but it has ultimately made me a better educator and artist. I have such empathy for what students, parents, and teachers are going through right now, and I want to help in any way I can.
Dev: Explain what it is like to collaborate with artists without meeting face-to-face. How does this affect the creative process?
VVT: ITY is being completely written over Zoom meetings and Google Docs, however after every meeting we are just so jazzed to be together, creating. It feels almost more special, because it takes more to make things happen right now, and it feels very rewarding when things start to happen.
Dev: What plans are in the works to make the content interactive with students and teachers?
VVT: We will be launching both programs at the end of March 2021! Schools will pay a certain amount and on March 29th we will send out a private YouTube link for them to either share in their classrooms, or for students to view at home. My biggest mission is to make this financially possible for ALL schools and students, therefore we are really pushing any and all schools to reach out to us for scholarships. I want to do EVERYTHING in my power to make this available to anyone who wants it.
For more information or to book 2021 virtual educational productions, click here for Idaho Theater for Youth (recommended for grades K-5). Click here for Shakespearience (recommended for grades 6-12). For information on the Festival’s wide range of educational offerings, please call 208-429-9908 x206 or visit our website by clicking here. You can also donate in support of education at idahoshakespeare.org (click Donate in the main menu), or by giving over the phone (extension 206) or by mail (PO Box 9365, Boise, ID 83707). THANK YOU!