New director helps drama department turn to virtual

The Shorewood High School drama department is facing many changes this year with a new drama director and an online curriculum. In the past, the drama classes at the high school have always been very hands-on and personal.

“In costume design there’s a lot of things we do that are very intimate, like learning how to take a person’s measurements,” said Sara Van Loon, SHS costumes teacher. “Even teaching someone how to use a sewing machine, you have to kind of be right there, especially for someone who’s never even used one.” 

Van Loon, like many other teachers, has had to redo her syllabus to fit a virtual format. 

“Usually, I don’t teach my history until closer to winter break, but I’ve got that up in front because it can be done on the screen,” Van Loon says of her Introduction to Costume Design class. “I can do the history, and we can talk about the types of makeup we use in theater, and they could do it on themselves, but that also means making up makeup kits and making sure they get the kits. We can do hand sewing but then it means making up a sewing kit and making sure it gets to them at their home and that sort of thing. So that I have pushed to possibly second quarter.”

There are several other drama classes that take place at Shorewood High School, including Stagecraft, Drama Performance I, Drama Performance II, and Advanced Acting. Each comes with their own challenges in adapting to an online format. 

“In Advanced Acting, we did a lot of projects that lasted a few weeks or a month, like monologue projects, or duo scenes, or songs. So we would usually either rehearse during class or learn what our next project would be. They were all very entertaining,” said Clara McElfresh, junior. “But it’s pretty hard to learn a monologue or learn a duo scene when you can’t meet with the person or practice.”

It’s pretty hard to learn a monologue or learn a duo scene when you can’t meet with the person or practice.

— Clara McElfresh, junior

With previous high school drama director Joe King’s resignation from Shorewood over the summer, Adam Sheaffer has been hired to take his place. Sheaffer is teaching Drama Performance |, Drama Performance ||, and Advanced Acting at the high school, and has some new ideas for each of the classes virtual curriculums.  

“I’ve been working on kind of adapting the things that I do in the studio and trying to get student’s bodies engaged as much as possible because, at least for the Advanced Acting class and for the parts of Drama Performance | and || where students would normally be on their feet, your body is kind of your instrument,” said Sheaffer. “I’m fearful that students might have a sort of deficit with that part of the kind of training that we’re taking them through, that they’re not able to engage with their bodies and their voices quite as much, so I’m crafting my curriculum accordingly.”

I’ve been working on kind of adapting the things that I do in the studio and trying to get student’s bodies engaged as much as possible,

— Adam Sheaffer, drama director

However, there are still parts of acting class that can be learned in a virtual setting.

“As far as the script analysis piece, the theater history piece, that’s stuff that can have a little bit more of a lecture and discussion format, which actually I feel like Zoom and Google Meet are pretty conducive with,” Sheaffer said.

Regarding the drama class, Sheaffer is hoping that students can still feel connected, even through a computer screen.

“I’m trying to recreate the things that I do in a studio and give them the experience of giving and taking and reacting, which is sort of one of the big foundations of acting is being present, and at the moment we’re all sort of present in a certain way in the digital realm, so trying to recreate that is something I’ve been working on,” Sheaffer said.

Stagecraft, a class that teaches students how to use tools to build sets as well as elements of stage design also faces questions working with virtual learning.

“In a normal school year, we would start off  in the regular class learning about the tools and the safety procedures and how to use them, and then they would start working on building our fall show,” says Brad Brist, who teaches both regular and advanced Stagecraft at the high school. “In the advanced class, the fact that they’re in advanced would mean that they already know how to use the tools, so they start building right away on day one.” 

However, due to the hands-on approach of the class, Stagecraft is facing some changes this year due to COVID19.

“We’re going to start off with stuff that kind of happens a little later in the semester that can happen more in a virtual world: learning about design elements, especially of scenic design, and drafting, and sound design,” Brist said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we can come back and do a winter show and that they can start building that towards the end of the semester. But we are allowed to have up to five students come in at a time if they are able. So, I’m hoping to still have kids come in so that they can get hands-on experience learning the tools and how to use them, even when we are remote and can’t have as many in.”

Advanced Stagecraft focuses more on the design aspect of theater, which is something that can easily be converted to a virtual platform.

“I have them watching broadway shows via, and they watch those and critique them, so they’re learning more of the critique side of the theater,” Brist said.

As for shows, the new drama director has some inspiration for how those may work in a virtual setting. 

“I think we have the advantage of five months of theater artists in educational settings and in professional theaters sort of showing us what might be possible,” Sheaffer said. “Even some of the publishers that publish theater scripts have started having these sorts of sections of their website that’s devoted to [plays that] would be really suitable for online.”

Sheaffer, who is a Shorewood graduate himself, also has a few new ideas for the Shorewood High School drama department as a whole.

“I actually graduated from Shorewood in 1996, and I was heavily involved, as you might imagine, in theater, and when I was a student the programming was somewhat different. We didn’t really do two musicals a year, which has sort of become the accepted way of things,” Sheaffer said. “And I guess the big change, I’m not revealing it or anything, is that we are revisiting whether we want to do two musicals a year, whether we can still meet the needs of the student and the district.”

Sheaffer is planning to introduce new challenges into the drama curriculum as well.

“I’m thinking about […] looking at world theater and looking at really sophisticated […] scripts, but also ways of working in the theater,” said Sheaffer. “I want to sort of capitalize on that in the programming and challenge the students. Different kinds of challenges than doing two musicals a year. Of course, doing two musicals a year […] is really really challenging, but I’m sort of interested in different kinds of challenges that we can bring to students in the community.”

Due to a new drama director and a new online curriculum, the Shorewood High School drama department has many plans that will make for a new and exciting upcoming year.