A mom working from home struggles to focus during an online meeting as shouts reverberate through a bedroom wall.
“Mom, Jada’s not doing her homework.”
Perched on the side of her bed, the woman apologizes to colleagues for the interruption.
Children fight and yell. Her husband loses his job. She loses her cool.
This level of COVID-19 stress is reality for many families, and Kaiser Permanente Northern California Educational Theatre has captured the moment.
Theater Reinvented Online
Sidelined from giving live performances for the time being, the theater group reinvented itself over the summer with new online video programming that depicts and offers help for the tension, despair, and chaos of life in the pandemic.
The video of the mom who struggles to hold it all together is part of Resilience in School Environments: Understanding and Practice for educators, also known as Rise Up for the New Reality. It is one of 17 new virtual performances across 5 educational theater programs scripted and filmed specifically to help young people and teachers navigate physical and mental health issues during a major pandemic.
“We’re still trying to help young people, help them make good choices, and get them the support they need,” said Regina Dwerlkotte, Educational Theatre director. “Everything about this is not what we usually do, but it is exciting.”
Dwerlkotte said actors and producers re-wrote and filmed most of the shows over the summer.
“We worked very hard, and there was very little time off,” she said.
‘Webisodes’ and Workshops
All 4 of the group’s core productions for students, The Best Me, Peace Signs, Nightmare on Puberty St., and Ghosted, now offer schools in Northern California free “webisodes” they can watch any time, followed by live, interactive workshops with the actors.
The newest production, Ghosted, started as live theater last year. It is now a 30-minute video showing a single day in the life of 4 high school students as they learn to adapt to remote learning and struggle to connect with others while social distancing.
“It really was quite amazing to see how Ghosted was adapted from the physical performance to a 100% virtual performance,” said Irvington High School health teacher Julien Goulet. “And the quality of the follow-up workshop was phenomenal. The open, caring environment really facilitated honest communication.”
Since school started in September, Educational Theatre productions have been viewed around 54,000 times.
The shows still teach kids how to deal with a range of growing up issues like changing bodies, abuse, mental health, and suicide. But they are now set in a pandemic world where the usual pitfalls are amplified. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of adults in June found that 40% of respondents reported at least one mental health symptom related to COVID-19 including about 31% with anxiety or depression, 26% with a trauma or stress-related disorder, 13% who started or increased substance use, and 10% who seriously considered suicide.
In the new online workshops, actors facilitate “bridging conversations” with students who are experiencing mental health issues such as risky sexual or drug-related behavior. The actors offer a bridge to a trusted teacher or mental health professional. One unexpected yet positive aspect of going online, said Dwerlkotte, is that kids are more inclined to come forward with a problem in an anonymous chat.
“The anonymity of chatting online is good for them,” she said. “They can approach a performer if they are feeling in danger or are a danger to themselves, and then we can bridge them to adults.”
Dwerlkotte said she hopes the new offerings do a good job of holding a mirror to youth and what they are experiencing right now.
“Students are just so much more stressed and depressed right now,” she said. “We’re acknowledging that’s what is going on in their lives and talking about it openly and giving them tools to cope with that situation.”