For the last 10 weeks, Ryan Shaw has seen the positive impact on youth when they have a way to connect with friends and a way to maintain their interests during quarantine.
As the managing director for Stage One Youth Theatre, Shaw works with youth through the Richmond Civic Theatre (RCT) program.
As the managing director, Shaw oversees youth workshops, summer camp, field trips, Teen Night, and four productions a year. He understands the close connection the youth have through their interests in theater and the friendships they’ve developed by being a part of Stage One. He’s been part of RCT for 18 years as a volunteer and performing with Main Stage.
The Indiana University East alumnus earned his secondary education in English degree in 2010. In summer 2015, Shaw was named the managing director for Stage One Youth Theatre, a job that combined his love of teaching and theater.
When Stage One’s most recent production, Charlotte’s Web, was cancelled in mid-March to adhere to safety measures for the coronavirus (COVID-19), Shaw started putting plans into place to keep the youth together and active in the theater.
“Unfortunately, Charlotte’s Web got hit right as everything was shutting down,” Shaw said. “We were on stage and I saw the reaction of the kids and the parents, and I just knew then that we had to start thinking of something because I knew where this (quarantine) was headed.”
He started searching online and met with committee members to get ideas on how to keep the youth involved. A committee member recommended Zoom, an online video conferencing platform, to keep the group connected while in quarantine.
Shaw got to work organizing the first Zoom meeting with his group.
“One of the first things I did was a Musical Madness, it was kind of a play on March Madness,” Shaw said.
He created a bracket with 64 different characters from musical theater, and the group would vote for the favorites each day with the winner earning the Tony. “That took a lot to build but then it gave me a couple of weeks to start working on the other ideas to connect with the theater youth,” Shaw said.
That’s when Shaw started developing Zoom parties for the group to meet once a week.
There’s an average of 20-30 participants across ages attending the parties. The first meeting was a general check-in with everyone, and then it that lead to more meetings and themed Zoom parties. One of the Zoom parties had a “Show and Tell” theme with each participant bringing an item from their first show or an item that meant something to them from a show. Each member then told the group about the item they brought and its importance.
“It led to a lot of really good story telling and sharing of memories,” Shaw said. “I think that really helped them a lot. I noticed a lot of smiles during that meeting.”
In addition to the Zoom parties, Shaw started a script reading club that includes 15 kids.
“What we do at the theater when we start a new season, is we have a small group that meets to start reading scripts for possible shows. When I took over the position, I thought it was really important to include students on every committee and every group, because that’s why we’re there, so I just extended that and made a script reading club.”
Each week the youth in the club receive two to three scripts to read. Then they meet on Zoom to discuss the scripts, the different themes, and they talk about why a show may be important to the community. Shaw says the experience is teaching the youth how to be a part of a committee. It also shows the club members the difficult side of selecting shows for the theater and how providing a balance is important to ensure there’s something of interest for everyone in the community offered by the theater.
“This has been a really good way to keep them in the fold and it’s a really good learning tool for them,” Shaw said.
At the end of April, Stage One Youth Theatre started work on a new production that will soon debut online.
“When this whole thing started a lot of the write houses started easing up on their restrictions and has been really great to work with. One of them even got scripts out designed to be done from Zoom,” Shaw said.
The script reading club went to work reviewing Zoom scripts.
“And then we did what we do in the larger committee. We discussed the high points, if it was good, does it meet the needs of what we’re looking for, and then I let them vote. They picked it,” Shaw said.
With the Zoom show decided, Shaw sent an email invitation to members of Stage One Youth Theatre to invite them to be a part of it if they wanted to and to audition. It took a few days for Shaw to cast the show, primarily aligning what member fit which character, but also had the props readily available at home for their role. The cast members are using their creativity at home and the lessons learned at workshops and rehearsals, he said, to make this a successful production.
“It’s making a MacGyver out of theater, it’s finding the stick and a string to make the backdrop,” he said.
Rehearsals have started on Zoom.
The first online production is scheduled for June 5.
The show, Ten Ways to Survive Life in Quarantine, is a comedy. Shaw said the witty production includes a host and co-host checking in on different people during a Zoom session, with each character giving their take on how to combat things while in quarantine – including a range of tactics from putting on a play with stuffed animals, a new workout routine, or watching the bird feeder.
The production has a cast of 24 Stage One Youth Theatre members, from third-grade to seniors.
His goal when the rehearsals began for the production was to be ready to go live in June.
“I wanted to give us a little wiggle room just to make sure on my side, the technology side of it, that we’re ready,” he said.
Shaw has been the go-to person at the theater when it comes to Zoom. He sets up all the online meeting conferences – and attends each as the host. He troubleshoots issues and he continues other aspects of his job while working from home including grant writing.
With the Zoom production, the show cannot be pre-recorded and then broadcast online. It has to be done live.
For the live production on Zoom, he will have to become even more familiar with the online format so the audience can attend and watch, but not be a distraction. He will also have to work with each cast member to make sure the technology works on their end, and then there are the sound effects and transitions to handle.
“I’m learning a new way to direct on the fly,” Shaw said.
The Zoom parties, script reading club, production and activities will continue through the quarantine.
“There’s other shows we may investigate depending on how this one goes, and if the kids really enjoy it, there are some other ones out there, so this is something we could do periodically,” Shaw said.
There are other projects in the works to keep them entertained, too, he added. There’s an upcoming Zoom party with a Quiz Show theme that could include prizes for the winners.
When the production of Charlotte’s Web ended, Richmond Civic Theatre was beginning its production of Newsies, and plans to schedule the show for the 2020-2021 season.
With a majority of members from Stage One Youth Theatre cast in the production of Newsies, Shaw has been involved with that production as well.
A fan of Newsies, Shaw planned a surprise for youth attending one of the weekly Zoom parties. He’s attended a Broadway show of the musical, and an autographed newspaper from the show hangs on his office wall at Richmond Civic Theatre. “Newsies is all about empowering youth, and letting youth seize the day,” he said.
The Stage One Youth Theatre members watched Newsies during one of their past gatherings.
“They became obsessed,” Shaw said. “When RCT announced they were going to do the show, they were all so eager to be a part of it, so it was really sad that we had to postpone that right in the middle of rehearsals.”
During the Zoom party, Shaw screen shared video messages from cast members of Newsies, Ben Fankhauser and Kara Lindsay. Fankhauser and Lindsay are original cast members in lead roles for Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical! and they were in the Broadway production.
In the video message, Fankhauser encouraged Stage One to hang in there by staying safe and involved with their theater. “I want to offer some encouragement that this too will pass, I’m not sure when, but I know it will be done, and I know after it’s done, the world and your local community is going to need what you do at Stage One. I know it’s amazing and I know you bring so much joy to each other as well as the community,” Fankhauser said.
The two and a half minute video included Fankhauser singing the opening theme song, “Seize the Day,” from Newsies for the group.
“They both shared really inspiring messages. I have got to say that was probably one of the happiest I had seen them in a while, and that was really, really cool,” he said. “I got a couple screens shots of their faces in shock and awe.”
Shaw said the members of Stage One Youth Theatre keep him on his schedule. They are quick to check in if they haven’t received the weekly email as expected, they text to check when the message will go out or if he’s caught up with another Zoom meeting and running a few minutes behind, they check on that too. He’s also started growing a beard, a new look he started after striking a deal with his kids that if they learned their lines, he’d grow the beard.
The check-ins and the meets ups are appreciated. He’s seen the impact the virtual gatherings have made for his group.
“I know it means a lot to them,” he said. “They are a really tight knit group. We do a lot together.”
Stage One Youth Theatre members have opportunities to attend field trips, workshops and Teen Night. Recently the group went to see The SpongeBob Musical in Dayton, Ohio, and they were planning a trip to Chicago this summer to see a show and attend a workshop.
“They’re used to being together, even outside of the theater. This separation has been really hard on a lot of them. We had several seniors missed out on their last performance,” Shaw said.
“I definitely feel like what I am doing is worth it,” Shaw said. “I know for them, it’s something to look forward to.”