Drama Kids Embraces Virtual Realm

… and it’s on(line) with the Show!

When the COVID-19 shutdown arrived, plenty of arts organizations were in a tailspin, unsure of how (or when) everything would resurface “the way it was.” But in the past year of the unknown, many found renewed energy and tenacity, committing to their missions and keeping themselves relevant in resourceful, creative ways.

Drama Kids of Wilmington & Delaware County is one such organization. Director and Lead Teacher Courtney Clarke couldn’t be happier at what they’re about to unveil — a virtual musical, Shrek TYA, shot entirely on green screen, which premieres via livestream on Saturday, April 17.

If you’re unfamiliar, Drama Kids is an after-school community drama education program based in New Castle County. Historically, their productions include short plays or “junior musicals” for young thespians, ages 5 and up, with no theater background necessary for its actors.

“We are open to all, no experience required,” says Clarke. “Everyone who enrolls in our musical theatre class gets a part in the show. Auditions are simply to place them where they shine.”

Sometimes, Clarke says, she’ll even give the “underdog” a bigger part in a production. “How can they develop a love for [theater] if they don’t get that chance? We have the luxury of casting that way.”

Drama Kids’ New Reality

The upcoming production of Shrek TYA — the story of an ogre with feelings who finds a surprising friend and true love — actually wasn’t Drama Kids’ first choice. “We were in the middle of rehearsing The Lion King when shutdown happened,” Clarke says. “And we just knew we couldn’t make that happen.”

Clarke says she didn’t feel that it was safe enough yet for casts to sing or even to produce a show publicly or in person. Shrek TYA was an easier choice because it could be filmed in small groups, and the music is fairly easy.

“Our kids were asking if it was safe to do a musical. I personally didn’t think it was, but the kids have also come to terms with the virtual musical platform,” Clarke explains.

“I’ve loved musical theater for quite a while, and I really thought I wasn’t going to do a show this year,” says 10-year-old Celia Corbin of Wilmington. “Then, this virtual show came, and I was like ‘Yes!’.” Corbin admits it was strange because the cast couldn’t be together, but she still enjoyed learning the songs and filming.

Eleven-year-old Samantha Martinez of Wilmington was equally joyous about the opportunity, despite not being able to gather in person. “I wanted to participate in the show because the coronavirus had shut everything down; I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything,” she says. “When I heard Drama Kids was going to do a musical, I was so excited and happy.”

Delaney Frydl, age 13 of Middletown, plays Fiona in the production. “I love Drama Kids and knew that this would be another great experience,” she says. “I was excited to do a virtual play, as I know it’s a chance to learn something new along my journey. I can’t wait to see the finished product!”

Producing on a Virtual Stage

So, what goes into ‘creating’ in new territory like this? “This has been so hard, but so worth it,” Clarke says. “It started out as a Zoom musical, but then I thought maybe it could be more. I hadn’t heard of anyone in this area green screening an entire musical.”

Clarke and fellow teacher Maria Gonzalez directed the project (Gonzalez’s daughter, Sami, plays “Donkey”). We learned as we went, Clarke laughs. “[Drama Kids’] parents trust me even if I’m not sure what I’m doing yet.”

At the beginning, they’d forgotten that Shrek was green, posing a formidable (yet hilarious) challenge with their first green screen.

“We’ve done practically everything via Zoom,” Clarke says. “All rehearsals. We blocked, taught music, and read scripts via Zoom, either one-on-one or through instructional vocal and music videos for the cast. I taught choreography via Zoom and uploaded instructional videos.”

The kids were never together ‘on stage’ unless they quarantined together.

Clarke describes the process: “Once the kids had a song down, they recorded themselves at home and sent me the audio, which we edited together. To film the scenes, I bought blue and green screens and set up a mini-studio in my basement. Each cast member came to my house in staggered increments to film parts. We shot everything like a movie. And if they had a song, I played the pre-recorded audio they sent, and they lip-synched to it.”

Through mutual theater friends — and of course, Delaware being Delaware — Clarke connected with musician/Rock Orchestra Co-Founder/City Theater Company Music Director Joe Trainor, eventually tapping him to serve as video editor on the production.

Trainor was interested, although this was something not in his immediate wheelhouse.

“It’s always fun to step outside of your comfort zone,” Trainor says, noting that he wanted to put together something special for these kids, who have worked so hard.

“I had to learn literally everything,” Trainor says, only half-joking. “There are a lot of aspects of editing I had to learn on the fly. But it’s been a fun challenge, especially trying to transfer nine kids — shot separately on green screens — into one frame.”

Clarke appreciated his zest for the project. “I like that Joe’s fearless like me,” she says. “Even the little things I wasn’t going to ask of him; he totally took them on and was willing to take my ideas and bring them to fruition.

Art Takes a Village

So many more people helped this project along the way, Clarke noted. Val Beardsley made costumes and lent them to the group. Delaney Frydl’s mother, Dawn, lent photography lights.

“This really feels more like a family,” Clarke says. “We could have easily shut down, but there’s so many wonderful kids and parents who’ve been with us for years, and they just smile and get on board when I tell them my crazy thoughts.”

While two of the dances were filmed outside, everything else was shot in Clarke’s basement. “I also have to thank Chris Clarke, my hubby, for letting me take over our basement with 20 kids…he’s always on board for my wacky ideas,” she says.

All in all, 16 students make up the cast — at least six of whom have never done a musical before. They range in age from 6 to 14, and they hail from all over the region, including Wilmington, Middletown, Delaware County and beyond.

“I wanted to participate because this was my first time doing theater,” says Savannah Anderson, age 9, from Chesapeake City, Md. “Being virtual gave [me] the experience and confidence to eventually act on stage.”

Would they do it again? “After this, we’ll re-evaluate and see what we can do,” Clarke says. “I might try to sucker Joe [Trainor] into one more.”

“It has been the hardest work, I cannot lie,” Clarke admits. “But in a year that almost destroyed my business, and the arts in general, it has been such joy to allow these kids to do what they love…and safely.”

Theater from Your Comfy Couch

Shrek TYA will be streaming on Saturday, April 17, at 6 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at showtix4u.com. For the direct link, click here!

The cost is $12 per stream to access the one-night-only event. And, best of all, anyone can log in and watch it from anywhere.

“Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family from across the country (and the world) can login and enjoy what these kids have created. That’s something that couldn’t happen before,” says Clarke.

Beyond giving her kids the creative outlet they longed for, Clarke also wanted to send a message to the community with this project.

“I want everyone to see the arts are still alive,” Clarke says. “And, how amazingly flexible our kids are and open to trying new things.”

“I hope others waiting to do live theater see this and realize it’s possible to do more than just a ‘zoom musical,’” she says. “If there’s a group out there that sees this, maybe it will open the doors for them.”

For more information about Drama Kids Wilmington & Delaware County, visit DramaKids.com.