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Durham Public Schools embraces the arts

What’s a sitzprobe? What’s the difference between a standby and an understudy? How do you get an agent? When you get nerves before a show, what do you normally do?

These questions and countless others were asked by students to an array of theater professionals during a Durham Public Schools (DPS) virtual event, Stage Center 2021, held on Saturday, Feb. 27.

Welcome screen for Durham Public Schools Stage Center event. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Stage Center kicked off Arts in Our Schools month, and DPS is honoring the four arts disciplines — dance, music, theater, and visual arts — all March long.

All year, DPS has worked hard to continuously connect students from across the district. That’s according to Jeremy Tucker, director of arts education at DPS.

“We’ve made all of our community events completely virtual,” say Tucker. The district is among those in North Carolina that has been completely virtual since March 2020.

“The teachers have worked really hard to keep those [arts] opportunities for our students,” says Tucker. The Stage Center event is proof of that creativity. It showcased the breadth of talent in not just the DPS staff, but in the district’s ability to pull in professionals from the theater world for their students.

Stage Center: What can a virtual theater program look like?

The Stage Center event offered an array of virtual classes and a panel with industry professionals for students interested in all-things theater. The day began with a welcome followed by an hour of interactive instruction.

Students could sign up for courses that focused on monologues, voice control, stage management, dance for musical theater, and much more. These classes were taught by district instructors, some of whom students work with during school.

We visited Irving Truitt, an educator at Northern High School, during his course entitled the “Actor’s Monologue.” The class was fully interactive, with everyone turning on their cameras and microphones to participate. He started with vocal exercises for students and played around with tongue twisters and alliteration.

Irving Truitt’s the Actors Monologue class at Stage Center. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Throughout the class, he would turn on a meditative video to the allow students a moment of calm and concentration. This was also part of the practice, and something to help students during script studies. Other classes happening during this time included Medicine for Writer’s Block, Photography for the Stage, Cast Mic-in Technique, and more.

After lunch, the career panel took center stage. The wide-ranging panel included professionals in lighting, set design, marketing and PR management, production carpentry, acting, and writing. There was an anchor from a local news station and the COO of a theater production company.

Students were able to virtually see behind the curtain, so to speak, and meet the professionals who create the shows they love. The panelists talked about the ins-and-outs of their respective jobs and, potentially the most important for students, the paths they took to get where they are. Students were able to ask questions and talk directly with professionals who work in what may be their future industry.

Theater professional panel at DPS Stage Center event. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

The second course options for the day were mostly audition workshops hosted by Broadway-touring actors. One class was offered for technical theater as well. This was an opportunity for students to perform for actors who have been in shows such as Hamilton, Mean Girls, Dear Evan Hansen, Book of Mormon, and so many more.

The actors listened and provided encouragement and constructive criticism to the DPS students. We popped into the audition workshop with Ciara Harris who is known for her role as Alana and Zoe in the Dear Evan Hansen National Tour. We watched as students performed their monologues and songs, received praise and feedback, and then performed again with knowledge gained.

The last part of the day was dedicated to virtual field trips. Students got to virtually tour three large North Carolina venues, including the Durham Performing Arts Center, The Steven Tanger Center and Blumenthal Performing Art Center’s Belk Theater.

Stage Center was just one of many events for students in the district who are interested in the arts. Events to come are listed below.

DPS March Arts events

Virtual All County Choir – March 4 at 6 p.m.
Students from 31 schools participated in this year’s All County Choir. The process gave students the opportunity to meet online and collaborate with fellow singers around the district. Students learned two pieces of music, worked with DPS clinicians, and were able to workshop their music with three different composers. Through this year’s virtual instruction, students had to learn and master the technology required to record themselves. The event is going virtual, and the finished product will live stream on March 4 at 6 p.m.

Solo and Ensemble Virtual Festival – All March
Students submit videos of themselves performing a solo, duet, trio, or other small ensemble piece with friends and judges are giving feedback to all participants.

Destination Dance – March 12 and 13
This event is geared toward dance students from elementary, middle, or high school. Classes of all kinds are being offered; from hip hop to ballet, African, contemporary, musical theater, and more.

Durham’s Finest – Mid March
In partnership with North Carolina Central University, student artwork will be showcased in a virtual gallery. Artwork will be recognized from elementary, middle, and high school with an awards competition.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.