Feb 23, 2021

Flipping the Script: How Education Went Virtual at Playhouse Square

By Ananias Dixon, Sheffia Dooley and Hannah Twining

Members of our Community Engagement & Education Department – Teaching Artist Ananias Dixon, Assistant Director Sheffia Dooley and Outreach Coordinator Hannah Twining reflect on the past year and how they took Playhouse Square’s education programs from the stage to the screen.

Since the pandemic sent the Playhouse Square staff and the students we serve home to socially distance, the Community Engagement & Education team has found ways to continue most of its programming including the Dazzle Awards presented by Pat and John Chapman, Disney Musicals in Schools presented by Dee and Jimmy Haslam, Sensory-Friendly Programming supported by Denise G. and Norman E. Wells, Jr., and Streaming Performances for Schools accompanied by video workshops.

Looking Back on March 2020

Sheffia: On March 13, 2020, we got the notice. Pack up your things and go home to work remotely. It didn’t matter that the following Monday was supposed to be one of our biggest nights: the Student Share for Disney Musicals in Schools, when nearly 200 students prepare to make their on-stage debut at Playhouse Square in front of their families and school communities. Canceled, just like that. So too were the other programs lined up for the spring. Needless to say, we were in shock, like the rest of the world.

Ananias: I was still new to Playhouse Square as a full-time teaching artist; I had just been hired in early November 2019, so I was still learning the ropes. A few days before our office closed, we met as a department to think of ways we might work from home for a few weeks. We had no idea.

Hannah: At this time last year, I was standing at my desk preparing for our annual Student Share. I was working with our Stage Manager and Assistant Stage Manager to make sure we were ready, prepping our education team to welcome the students and families, and driving around to the participating schools to deliver resources and offer encouragement before their big Playhouse Square debut. A few weeks later, my car was parked indefinitely in my driveway and I was standing at my dining room table trying to figure out how to move forward.

Overcoming Uncertainty

Ananias: And then it started. As a team, we said, “We are artists, we are teachers, and we want to serve our community. Let’s try something and see if it works.”

Sheffia: We asked ourselves many questions. What do schools need? What do the students need? What do the parents need? We were frustrated, sad and scared, but it didn’t take long for our mission to shine through the uncertainty. Our mission is to advance arts education and our driving purpose is to provide arts opportunities of the highest quality to enrich the lives of students, families, teachers and artists. With that as our anchor, we got to work.

The Pivot

Sheffia: As the assistant director of the department, it is my job to share my artistic experience while also solidifying program parameters, managing budgets and maintaining timelines. In these new circumstances, I found the real work was cultivating an open and innovative energy and dialogue while helping the team to focus. Again, we asked ourselves many questions. What are our resources? Who has experience in what? When you dream of possibilities, what do you see? After taking some time to turn these questions over, the team decided to explore the idea of turning what are usually in-classroom workshops into videos.

Hannah: I still remember when our Vice President of Community Engagement & Education Daniel Hahn asked if anyone had any video editing experience. If someone had been able to record my internal monologue, they would’ve heard something that sounded like, “Wow, that poor person is gonna have a lot on their plate.” Turns out, I’m that person and I couldn’t be more grateful.

I remember reluctantly offering my limited experience with video editing followed by an extensive list of qualifiers. I tried to make it abundantly clear that I didn’t have the proper software and I was an amateur at best. I had to figure out how to produce videos at the quality expected of Playhouse Square using only the video editor program contained within the photos application on my laptop. Thankfully, our teaching artists were so excellent that on the first few videos my novice abilities were masked by their excitement. It has to be said: what we lacked in technical knowledge, we made up for in pure, unmitigated enthusiasm. I also remember not having access to images or fancy backgrounds, so I ended up drawing some of the backgrounds by hand. It should also be mentioned that I am in no way a visual artist, but remember what I said about enthusiasm?

Ananias: I remember taking my cellphone, a sheet, and 3 lamps from my house and turning them into a makeshift recording studio, and I remember how difficult it was at first to adjust to engaging through a screen. As a team we stepped up and supported each other like never before; all of our past experiences were needed for this moment. It was scary but we were successful. So we said, “let’s do it again!” More than 35 videos later, I could not be prouder of our team.


Other Duties As Assigned

Ananias: Every team member has stretched into new territory in themselves and has brought forth magic. What you see is a 20-minute video, but behind it is a team of individuals who gave their hearts, souls and minds for one purpose: to serve our community.


Sheffia: I reflected on my past TV production experience on a little-known children’s show. I played the librarian and was an occasional puppet handler, but I’ll never forget the process of how it all came together so that the show was clear, educational and fun! So that became my focus: helping the team create video content that was educational and fun. And again – more questions! What are the students supposed to be seeing here? What are they hearing? How do we bring the energy and magic from the in-person workshops to the videos? How do we make the students feel like they are in the same room with us? Full disclosure: with my 8-year-old homeschooling through the pandemic, she became my litmus. If she had fun and stayed focus, I knew we were on the right track!


Hannah: Despite the challenges, our team has not lost our passion for providing opportunities to the students and teachers of Northeast Ohio. So much so that we all took on new responsibilities and reframed our job descriptions! We’re constantly encouraging students to try new things in the world of the performing arts, so we could not shy away from translating our in-person skills to a virtual setting. Students have had to flip the script and adapt to new settings, new technology and a new way of learning. We proudly follow in their brave footsteps and are excited to honor their adaptability with our work. To all of the students and teachers watching our videos: you have my guarantee that our team will continue to pursue our “other duties as assigned” with unrelenting enthusiasm and hope that we’ll see you again soon.

Sheffia: Now, here we are, almost a year later. In that time, while the world turned upside down, our team dusted off dormant skills and released our perceived notions of ourselves. We’ve reshaped ourselves to meet new challenges. I learned how to film, edit that film, adjust the sound quality and upload it all to YouTube. Considering that 11 months ago I was begging my 17-year-old to fix my Roku settings, I’d say that is some turnaround! We’ve all learned to twist and swivel like a dancer in our approach to our mission. We’ve emerged from 2020, with lessons learned and more questions at hand, poised and ready for whichever way this world will turn.