By Kathleen Buttolph
Adjunct Faculty, Theatre, Walters State Community College
Tucked away in the Smoky Mountains of TN, in the CAPE building of Walters State Community College’s Sevier County Campus, there is a bustling hallway echoing with music, song and dance. Every day on this hallway students are preparing for a career. They are building foundations. Rehearsing instruments and voice and dedicating themselves to the art of acting and theatre arts. All here, on this hallway, faculty and students, are committed to these day-to-day, sometimes intense, practices as students begin to pave their way for a career in performing arts. But on March 16, following the college’s spring break, that all changed as Dr. Miksa, the college’s President announced, “Walters State will transition all face-to-face classes to online instruction” due to the threat of COVID-19. And “effective immediately” the hallway went silent.
“What’s going to happen to the class?!” emailed one of my concerned acting students, who is currently enrolled in my Audition Techniques course. Relatively new to the area, this is just my second year teaching theatre and acting courses as an adjunct faculty member on the college’s Sevier Campus. But, with over 20 years of experience directing and teaching theatre in the region, I knew I had to get creative… quickly. I have loved the Audition Techniques class. We were really just getting started on creating professional audition pieces for potential colleges and theatre conferences, or the students’ career. Normally, audition pieces are perfected by intense focus on the individual performer. A lot of one on one feedback and face-to-face coaching and instruction. A difficult task to imagine as an online class. Acting requires listening to what the entire body is doing in offering characters to an audience. What, I wondered, can help me keep the enthusiasm and learning integrity that students have been giving so far to the class?
So, I went back to my roots, my own college experience in the highlands of Southwest Virginia at Emory & Henry College (E&H). Just south of the E&H campus is Abingdon, VA, home to Barter Theatre.
I sent an email to Katy Brown, Producing Artistic Director for Barter Theatre. Barter Theatre holds a special place in my heart. Barter is home to a resident acting company and The Barter Players. Katy has always been someone that I know understands the importance of fostering a safe space for actors to really play and get to know and develop their craft. My hopes were that she would have some actors volunteer to mentor my students during this online transition. And, she did. SIX!
One member of the resident acting company and 5 Barter Players, currently on furlough, were able to give my acting students several hours of their time over a 2-week period. For this assignment, the acting students were tasked to submit what are called self-tapes, short 2-minute audition videos, to me and the Barter actors. The students then arranged interviews with the professional actors. They learned about the varying career paths each Barter professional had. From changing majors in college (the sciences and math to theatre), auditioning for 4-year college programs, graduating college, working for theatres, not working and waiting for what’s next, summer repertory programs, Unified Theatre Professional Auditions (UPTA), character development, current work for the Barter Theatre, constructive criticism on improving current monologues and songs, finding the right audition piece, and fun tidbits like creating a song playlist for a character your working on or writing your character a letter, and the list goes on. After the interview and first self-tape, students applied the feedback to their audition pieces, submitted a second self-tape and then had a final Zoom meeting with the Barter actors and me.
Most of all the actors from Barter encouraged and uplifted my students. They were each kind and nurturing when it came to showing the students that they sincerely understand the importance of process and the care that each new young student-actor places into their individual audition piece. It is so hard to put yourself out there when you are brand new to theatre, yet you are just discovering your passion for it. This art demands that you literally put yourself out there. Though these Walters State students and Barter actors were not sitting in a classroom side by side, the mentoring process that took place in these two weeks was irreplaceable. This was such a gift and I am forever grateful to our friends at Barter.
Part of Barter Theatre’s amazing legacy is a give-what-you-can system, a barter system, where in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, patrons sometimes paid with produce. These days feelings of fear and uncertainty cause us to reflect and connect to those early Barter days, and we may feel like we can only give our thanks through produce. I look forward to sitting in a Barter seat soon to applaud the players and show gratitude, but for now I can watch the Barter Players perform Peter Pan through Barter on Demand.
I watched this energetic, fantastically fun performance of Peter Pan with my husband and 6-year-old daughter. This is a wonderful performance for all ages and especially now. My daughter adored the performance. She laughed, clapped, and teared up as Peter was saying goodbye at the end. When I asked her favorite part she said “All of it!” Her dad asked her to choose one and she said, “When Peter Pan heals, he gets better.” In these uncertain times, I think one child voicing her thankfulness for healing may be so simply spoken, but she like the many children of our world are so much more aware of what’s going on around us than we (those that have “grown-up”) acknowledge.
As described on the Barter Theatre website, “Barter Player performances focus on what brings out bravery in all of us.” So, in these very uncertain times, thank you Barter for the gift of bravery throughout this season. Thank you for mentorship to students you’ve never met, and as the Barter On Demand performance of Peter Pan reminds us, now, more than ever, let us continue to say “I believe” and clap for those that feel without hope and help them be healed, let us play hard like a child at this very moment and every day, and always keep the window open so that we can all come home safely.