A Review: Sports and Theatre Amidst COVID-19

Sarah Sallee
May 19, 2021

“Tell me and I forget.

Teach me and I remember.

Involve me and I learn.” 

– Benjamin Franklin

A holistic education must support all parts of a student’s school experience. Co-curricular activities nurture students’ minds and spirits in ways that cannot be replicated in the classroom. Sports and theatre programs actively engage students in teamwork, personal growth, and perseverance while building a regular, healthy routine. Among students who struggle academically, these programs allow many to explore their interests and find success on a field, stage, or dance floor. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of teachers to adjust their classroom environments to the virtual format, it was not just the academic teaching experience that shifted. Coaches, dance instructors, music directors, and many other co-curricular instructors adapted their teaching strategies to continue engaging their students. 

Here at Santa Catalina, students found themselves working out, performing, and dancing with their peers via Zoom for the majority of this school year. Director of Athletics Paul Elliott, Chair of the Theatre Arts Department and drama teacher Mrs. Lara Devlin, and dance instructor Mrs. Cofresi shared their thoughts on navigating the world of Zoom learning and maintaining the spirit of their classes. Thanks to the tireless efforts of all Santa Catalina coaches, students continued to build healthy habits and connect with their schoolmates while participating in distance learning. 

When the United States began various quarantines to slow COVID-19’s spread, thousands of athletes had to lay down their jerseys. A vital part of many students’ lives disappeared, and at Santa Catalina, Coach Elliottt spoke of the struggle many students felt when trying to train for their sport without the opportunity to grow by competing against other teams. Furthermore, many students could use only the supplies available at home while training. For hundreds of students, the COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult to stay motivated and active. Instead, kids watched Netflix and saw how many days could be designated as “pajama days.” However, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), students engaged in higher physical activity “tend to have better grades, school attendance, cognitive performance (e.g., memory), and classroom behaviors” as well as “improved cognitive performance (e.g., concentration, memory)”. Armed with this knowledge, Santa Catalina’s coaches strove to keep their students active every week. Coach Elliott noted: “I believe that when we are faced with challenges, some of our best work comes out of it. My love for the school and our students made it easy to continue to provide everything we could to make it relevant and engaging.”

Coach Elliottt helped lead the charge by connecting with students via Zoom workouts. For the first several months of the school year, students could take virtual fitness classes tailored by coaches from our various teams and more. Students could also pursue their interests in dance, theatre, or theatre tech for their virtual co-curriculars. The schedules were arranged with students’ various time zones in mind, allowing friends from around the world to join their “Zoom classmates” and catch up socially while exercising. 

When touching on how coaches kept students engaged, Mrs. Cofresi shared that offering various virtual dance classes motivated her when building workout routines for her athletes. This mixed lineup of ballet, jazz, hip hop, yoga, and musical theatre classes allowed Mrs. Cofresi’s students the opportunity to develop “a strong technical base, get a good workout, and find a sense of artistic expression.” While technological difficulties posed a constant risk, Mrs. Cofresi expressed gratitude she could still engage and get to know her students, noting: “[We could] keep that connection – making them smile for a few small moments makes my day. I also am so glad I was able to make a connection with new students I have not been able to teach on campus yet, but now that I have worked with them online, I am eager to meet them in person.”

However, Zoom dance classes posed their own challenges. Synchronously practicing dance routines proved a regular test for the resilient Mrs. Cofresi, who observed:

“The hardest aspect of keeping dance alive during the pandemic is the collective feeling you get from dancing together – there’s something about dancing in a room and following the rhythm of the people around you that is hard to replicate online. The most challenging aspect of coaching dance is not being able to be as hands-on as I usually am, fixing a foot, correcting alignment, helping students physically understand how to change things in their bodies without just relying on the image they see of me. Choreographing is still an incredibly enjoyable outlet, especially during this time, but the challenge lies in keeping everything confined to the space everyone had at home, and staying within the screen – I usually thrive on formation changes and using as much space as possible, but this has presented an interesting challenge.”

Despite initial setbacks, Mrs. Cofresi kept the spirit of dance alive in her students, partly due to how the pandemic provided new, virtual opportunities for the public to appreciate dance. As Mrs. Cofresi commented, dance “has been shown worldwide with the explosion of dance films, posts, and classes.” Mrs. Cofresi clearly believes that dance has been “one of the easier performing arts that we have kept alive during the pandemic.” 

As dance blossomed, theatre programs struggled to engage with audiences when unable to offer patrons the optimal experience of live theatre. As Mrs. Devlin explained:

“The most… important aspect of live theatre is the connection that you have in-person. The feedback between actors on stage with each other and the sound of an audience and being in that moment together as a collective is… what makes live theatre so amazing and so valuable to the human experience. And so obviously there are many other forms of performing arts that happen: film, television; these kinds of things that are valuable, but it’s not live theatre.”

While discussing the challenges of directing shows this school year, Mrs. Devlin shared:

“I had to really mourn that we weren’t going to have those interpersonal connections because it’s not the same over Zoom and it’s not the same when you watched something played back… Then I had to sort of get over it and think about how I could share the value of the other mediums of performance… that were accessible to us.”

After making that adjustment, theatre students performed in the first-ever Santa Catalina virtual production of A Christmas Carol. The pre-recorded show live-streamed on a select date to audiences via Zoom. Mrs. Devlin revealed she had to “rely on the intuition of the girls” to actively portray their characters through a screen. Furthermore, from a director’s perspective, she found herself focusing on “the physical rather than the character work” with her students to create a show that would better resonate with at-home viewers.

In March, 2021, the theatre department achieved another “first” by putting on its pre-filmed production of Clue. An on-campus pod allowed the cast to experience rehearsing the show with all the actors in the same space. In compliance with COVID-19 regulations, the cast met for final run-throughs on campus before individually filming their scenes in front of a green screen. Mrs. Devlin found she preferred this style of production to Zoom recordings as it allowed students to have a sense of what each scene would look like with the rest of the characters in the same room. As Mrs. Devlin explained:

“In film… everybody has to have access to the big picture from the very beginning or you won’t be successful. People need to know who they’re talking to, why we’re going to shoot it this way, what it looks like, what the background is, so I needed to really be very open with people when I knew exactly how something was going to go and communicate it clearly, and when I was learning right along with them and open to their ideas. I think, in effect, this year became the most collaborative [that] it’s ever been because I was so readily utilizing the students’ skills and expertise that I didn’t have.”

Mrs. Devlin compared the difficulty of filming a production to that of cramming a “three-year film student course” into four months. A filmmaker instructed Catalina’s theater cohort on using the film equipment and how to edit scenes. Despite the challenges, Mrs. Devlin shared that her students became the driving creative force that produced this show. She stated, “I wasn’t going to be the one to drop the ball if they wanted to have this experience.” 

Echoing the struggles of creating virtual productions, Mrs. Cofresi shared her surprise at “how much I love and hate editing dance videos – it’s another way of creating beautiful pieces, but so much more exhausting than relying on the dancers alone.” Yet Mrs. Devlin and Mrs. Cofresi both emphasized their love for their students and their passion for performing. Mrs. Cofresi shared, “seeing my students dance together, in any format, brings me such joy” and added she is impressed with the “major improvements” she’s seen her dancers make while learning choreography. Similarly, Mrs. Devlin believes that when she looks back, she will remember the resiliency and “spirited presence” of her students, in addition to “their commitment and passion for performance and for being together to be creative collectively.” 

In addition, Mrs. Devlin believes this experience allowed students to learn how many steps go into creating a final production. She believes that through this experience, her students have advanced their skills in “project management, and organization, and communication, and seeing things through from start to end, which I think are invaluable lessons in any medium.”

With Santa Catalina’s return to on-campus instruction within the last month, teams can practice again for numerous sports, while Mrs. Cofresi and Mrs. Devlin are co-teaching an after-school musical theatre program. While students must follow social distancing protocol, Mrs. Devlin shared how it is starting to feel normal: “We’re not to the point yet where we would be putting a show together, but I can see that on the horizon.” In addition, she expressed excitement about seeing students in-person again, saying:

“I think the most valuable thing is just the joy of getting out of breath together, and being present, and not knowing choreography; I mean, I think the stumbling moments are the things that, now, are enjoyable and virtually [on Zoom] seemed impassable.”

Coach Elliottt echoed Mrs. Devlin’s sentiments, and said that he “realized how resilient our students are and how much they value the relationships fostered through sports.”

Students’ love for their sports teams and theatre programs never disappeared during the pandemic. The love for the game, the dance, and the production remained through various virtual and in-person activities. As Mrs. Devlin stated, “It was the girls that made this happen, and I just provided sort of the tools to do it.” Ultimately, this experience allowed students to realize that no matter the obstacle, they can embrace the challenges thrown their way.

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