Virtual learning is challenging enough with general course studies. But what about the performing arts electives that motivate so many young people to stay engaged with their educational experience?
This time of year is typically marked by final rehearsals and addressing last-minute logistical details ahead of the big holiday concert, musical or play. Instead of a student-led production of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,” teens ordinarily immersed in preparing for performances are now staring at computer screens because of the coronavirus.
Hearing the frustrations of classroom educators left Tali Allen, director of education for The Muny, with a pressing and urgent question. “How do you teach performing arts online?”
The idea of struggling to come up with content to keep students engaged with virtual arts on a daily basis was both a challenge and an opportunity for Allen. The answer laid the foundation for Muny U, a program that connects St. Louis area high school theater classes with industry-leading musical theater professionals from across the country through a virtual learning environment.
“Usually my programming starts from a place of what is good for the kids,” Allen said. “This time it was kind of reverse.”
Allen invited a Muny performer with Broadway experience to teach a master class for one of the teachers. She was able to provide an income opportunity for the artist, help teachers who might be struggling to come up with creative content and break up the monotony of the online learning experience for students.
The response was overwhelming. As the requests poured in, the seed for Muny U was planted.
Muny U is a part of the Muny’s Crawford Taylor Education Initiative. The website for Muny U launched last week. It features options from eight sections, nearly 30 instructors, including Broadway veterans and members of the Muny staff – including Allen.
More than 50 class options provide invaluable insight into each step of the production process. Students can work alongside their teachers by jointly selecting guest artists and topics that cater to their specific classroom and theater education journey.
Allen said the website was created from a student-first perspective.
“It is really catering to the student,” Allen said of the site. “The teacher can get with the class and they can all walk through the website together and look at the eight areas of putting on a show that we offer. Then they’ll choose the topic that pertains to them or what they are working on – or maybe what their weakest area is.”
Classes will begin in early December. Allen said the student buy-in for Muny U is everything.
“So many decisions have been taken out of their hands this year, I just wanted to give them something to be excited about,” said Allen.
The idea of piercing untapped potential in students through the expansive programming – especially those who showcase the wide range of career options – excites Allen.
“More than anything, I want the kid who has been super intimidated to get on stage – maybe that is just not their thing and they think theater is just not for them because of that,” Allen said.
“After they talk with Kwofe [Coleman], the managing director who started out at the Muny as an usher, or they talk to the marketing department or they talk to the stage managers or the lighting designers, students will see that there are so many other opportunities within this art form that go beyond just being on stage. That’s just one small component of it in this program – you are getting a 360-degree view of musical theatre.”
Allen came to the Muny in July 2019. She spent the second half of her first year at the helm of the Muny’s Education Department reimagining how the organization engages with school partners in the midst of a global pandemic.
“We are in unprecedented times and it calls for unprecedented programming,” Allen said. “It’s been a lot of adjusting and adapting on my part — but it has all been fun and definitely a learning experience. It’s been an upside-down year for everyone, and we are all trying to figure it out as we go along.”
Allen says the sky's the limit for Muny U.
“Because it’s online, we can do it anywhere. We can go to any high school classroom,” Allen said. “Obviously, St. Louis is our home, so the St. Louis region and Metro East is where we are starting. But we certainly don’t have to stop there.”
Muny U is open to any high school within a 50-mile radius of the Gateway Arch.
“I think the one good thing about this year is that we have all learned how to do everything online,” said Allen. “And while there are some drawbacks there are some great benefits to that.”
For more information about Muny U, visit https://muny.org/munyu/