Sara Brunow was excited for the spring. She and her team at Asolo Repertory Theatre had been meticulously planning a set of new educational programs since she joined the Sarasota, Fla., theatre in August 2019. Brunow had gotten artists, the local community, and Asolo Rep’s marketing and development teams on board for her first fully realized project as the company’s education and engagement director.
The final product, a set of community-based educational theatre programs, launched over spring break, and she was very proud. The program included master classes, theatre games, and dramaturgy, among other offerings. “And then about three or four days after that, we ended up needing to stop and cancel,” she said.
The reason, of course, was the global shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This abrupt stop forced Brunow—a Washington, D.C., native who arrived at Asolo Rep after working at Nashville Children’s Theatre and Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars—and her team to sit down and reevaluate their mission in a scenario without live theatre. The last thing she wanted to do was move her career off the stage and onto a screen, but it was the inevitable next step.
While the decision to move online was unanimous, Brunow said, each team member came at it from different directions. Her own vantage point was that of a parent.
“I have a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old,” she said. “That’s my reality. That’s my world right now. They don’t use screens a whole lot. But I talked to a lot of moms and teachers, and realized that we were going to have to make some changes.”
While Brunow’s own children are still in preschool, her thoughts went to all the other mothers and parents with school-age children who now must manage their kids’ education as well as their own careers. One mother in particular helped Brunow see how Asolo Rep should go further. Brunow’s sister is an arts teacher in Seattle, one of the first U.S. cities with a coronavirus outbreak, and thus one of the first to have its schools move curriculum online and do distance learning. As Brunow heard about the challenges her sister was facing, she knew it would soon be her own reality, and that of her fellow Florida parents.
So she began planning what is now Asolo Rep Engage, an online educational platform that celebrates theatre and invites the community into Asolo Rep’s creative process. Once Brunow’s team at Asolo Rep decided what they wanted to do, they started brainstorming how they would execute it before the shutdown began. By March 16 they had decided to move the programming online; it has been having a rolling launch since March 24, and goes fully online on June 1.
Brunow worked with Asolo Rep’s dramaturg and literary manager, James Monaghan, and associate artistic director, Celine Rosenthal, trying to figure out how best to connect with students and educators who were about to switch to distance learning. Among the questions they asked themselves, Brunow recalled, were, “What resources do we have? What videos can we make? Who can we interview? What pictures can we take? What archival footage is there? What can we do to continue this conversation with our community so that we as artists can continue to create?”
Asolo Rep Engage primarily consists of interactive and accessible educational programming for students and educators. It includes theatre games that have been modified for Zoom and can also be used in the classroom curriculum. It features existing programs like the Scoop, which allows audiences to arrive an hour before a performance begins to go behind the scenes and learn about production, which will be adapted for online use. Two Equity actors teach mini-master classes on theatre techniques, and the site also features interviews with Asolo Rep staff members as well as Monday Musical Moments, showcasing excerpts from Asolo Rep’s musical video archives. The program is available on the Asolo Rep website at zero cost.
While it is an educational program, it also focuses on community engagement. The main target audience may be students in elementary school and upwards, but Brunow insists that it isn’t only for children.
“There’s a little something for everyone,” Brunow said. “It’s just how you consume it. Videos like Nia Explains It All can be used in a classroom (or distance learning) setting for students to explore different elements of production, but it can also be interesting and informational to our general audience.”
Brunow achieved these results from home while co-parenting her own young kids. She credits a lot of this success to her partner, who has been a huge source of support. She believes that theatre is something that has influenced every aspect of her life, including parenthood.
“I was a teaching artist before I was a mom,” she said. “And I feel like my teaching artistry has informed me as a mother. You do what everybody does: You breathe and you cope. And you feel like you’re not doing enough. And you try to find those moments to connect. And you thank your lucky stars every day that you are okay.”
Brunow said she and Asolo Rep have benefited from the close ties she still has with her former workplaces. “There was, early on, an email chain with all these education directors saying, ‘How are you finishing your classes? What are you doing? What platforms are you using? How are you making it work?’” she said. “It wasn’t competitive in the least. ‘This is what’s working best for us. This is how we’re using it. What do you think?’ People are sharing wonderful nuggets of information.”
Still, the collaboration that ultimately matters most is between an audience and a group of performers in the same space. Zoom doesn’t have that, and Brunow knows that this setup will always pose challenges.
“When something is happening onstage and the audience is leaning forward, it’s very different than watching something streaming,” she said. “There was an article a few years ago about the audience’s heartbeat syncing up during theatrical experiences. We’ve been trying to think of how we can develop that as we move into a more digital side of things.”
Shrishti Mathew is a Magazine, Newspaper, and Online Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.