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A Conversation with Valerie Bijur Carlson: How Drama & Theater at Our Prep School Has Adjusted to COVID-19

Valerie Bijur Carlson is the Theatre Director and an English teacher at Randolph-Macon Academy. Although she’s only been teaching at R-MA for a semester, Carlson brings to our school a wealth of experience, knowledge, and passion for the craft. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic making it impossible for plays and musicals to be staged like they normally would, she’s showcased her creative thinking by helping to reinvent how theater is taught during these unprecedented times.

Although traditional R-MA drama & theater classes haven’t been going ahead as planned since last year, intramurals are continuing, and Carlson is playing a big role in helping to make this happen smoothly. Here’s what she has to say about her experience teaching drama & theater intramurals during the pandemic, and how students have adjusted to the new normal.

How Theater Helps Students Develop Valuable Soft Skills

Carlson wears two hats while on the job at Randolph-Macon Academy: English teacher during class hours and director of R-MA’s theater program after classes are done for the day. For Carlson, theater is an avenue through which students can use a different area of their brain, get a break from their typical academic routine, and practice real-world soft skills like collaboration. Collaboration and the rest of the four Cs (creativity, critical thinking, and communication) are skills Carlson says can be learned through theater. “Employers love people who have studied theater, because they know that they can communicate,” she says, adding that “Employers want people who can think outside the box. They want people who can approach problems creatively…” For these reasons, students interested in all kinds of different fields can benefit from theater.

Theater also gives students the opportunity to discover new things about themselves. “Students will often find themselves, or find a niche community within a wider one, through theater,” says Carlson.

How Our Private Boarding School Is Adapting the Program to the Pandemic

Students in the theater program at our prep school typically get to perform in a fall play. However, this was moved to the spring following discussions regarding safety during the pandemic. This year, the spring production will be the Italian comedy The Servant of Two Masters. Carlson notes that it will be a “big comedy with a cast of about 20 people and a crew of at least a dozen more.” She says that for now, the plan is to do the show live, in front of a masked audience. “The cast will be masked for the show, as well,” she adds, saying that “We’re going to build the look of the mask into the costume, to make that work.” Of course, Carlson notes that safety is the number one priority, and so circumstances surrounding the production may change.

Carlson is helping the theater program complete productions while adhering to guidelines

This isn’t to say that the Fall semester was devoid of theater—far from it! During the fall semester, R-MA put on two small theater productions. The live production was 12 Plays in 24 Minutes, a compilation piece of sketches, monologues, and original content to make for 12 short plays within 24 minutes. Though it was shown to a small audience only, those in attendance got to choose the order of the show by voting on the titles, making for a truly interactive experience. The virtual production students did was Wellness Check, written late last spring by a professional playwright, and designed to be performed via Zoom. Rehearsed and performed live while in quarantine, those wanting to watch were invited to join the Zoom call with their mics and cameras off.

Students appreciate how theater gives them a creative outlet and helps them build confidence

Though students at our private boarding school will need to continue taking part in drama & theater initiatives while adhering to R-MA’s COVID-19 guidelines, Carlson says there’s lots in store for the program in the immediate future. For example, a theater elective has recently become available to Middle School students. She also plans to have initiatives in place for Shakespeare’s birthday week and National Poetry Month, both of which are in April. For theater fans, there’s a lot to look forward to at R-MA!

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