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Sep. 19, 2020 | Saturday
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COVID-19: Yellow Door keeps musical theatre going amid pandemic
Hannah Jamal, far left, and sister Ayla (middle, black dress), with fellow Yellow Door performers. (Supplied)

Non-profit Virgil school was in danger of closing, but generous landlord helped out


Even during a pandemic, musical theatre is finding a way in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Yellow Door Theatre Project, a high-end school of musical theatre, is hosting its classes online via Zoom, so students can continue to meet and work on their performing skills.

The classes will be a mix of singing and dance, artistic director Andorlie Hillstrom said during a Zoom interview.

“It’s just a smattering of things that we’re going to be offering dance-wise, musical theatre-wise, just to test the waters again.”

Classes have been on hold since March, when the province issued emergency orders that shut down most activities.

To Hillstrom, it feels like “forever ago.”

On top of not being able to hold regular classes, the not-for-profit Virgil school also missed out on one of its major fundraisers this year.

“It is a shame really. Right now I am so missing live theatre and live events. It’s killing.”

Hillstrom said when the pandemic first hit, because of the losses, the future of Yellow Door was uncertain.

“We came very, very close to (closing). Honestly, I saw the writing on the wall, it was like, 'We’re done. We’re going to become one of the victims of this pandemic.' And it made me really sad,” Hillstrom said.

“There was no income. And I was really worried — really, really worried — because we can’t go in a hole, we’re a charity. I thought, ‘What on earth are we going to do?’ I was already to the point where I was planning to move everything out ... into a storage space, and then once things had died down and were over we would make decisions about where we would go.”

She said her landlord Lloyd Redekopp and his wife Angela stepped up to help them out.

“Thankfully, our landlord was very empathetic and he was working with us ... he is continuing to make this available and he is giving us hope for the future. I wanted to mention that because it’s people like that (who) are making a difference for (organizations like ours).”

Now that the future is more certain, she said it’s all about focusing on how to adapt.

The school is reinventing how to do things, since the pandemic means in-person classes are not possible, Hillstrom said.

“It’s a very different process — obviously you can’t sing together. I’m finding that the easiest way to do this is that you can go through things a phrase or two at a time, and then have the student or students repeat after you.”

She also said recordings have “come in really handy.”

“I’ll have my students send a recording, I can critique or perform from their end, their side of the Zoom. And I listen. Yes, there’s some lag. There’s some glitches, but it’s enough. And I can do a critique and then we talk about it and they can redo it. So there are ways to get through it. It’s not optimal, because I really like to be in the same space as the people that I’m working with, whether it’s in a group, whether it’s one-on-one.”

Hillstrom said it has been particularly tough for group work.

“Drama work involves an integration of movement and physical contact, and that group experience of being able to respond to individuals beside you, or in front of you that you’re working with. So, it isn’t perfect. But we’re all trying to find ways to do this so that we can still see each other’s faces. We can talk, we can connect. And I think that’s really important. I think that we have to do everything we possibly can to stay connected right now.”

She said she’s thankful the technology exists to keep the class connected.

“Otherwise, it would be ever so much harder. And we would feel that much more isolated,” Hillstrom said.

“And realistically, I do not see us doing in-studio work in the same way that we have, for a very long time,” she said.

“The entire way that things are taught, the way the program is set up — everything has to be changed.”

Hillstrom doesn’t think online classes and performances will end soon, so everyone involved is learning to adapt.

“There’s been a huge learning curve for all of us, and it is getting better and better. I think there is that realization that this may very well become a permanent part of our lives. I have no doubt that we will end up going back to the theatre for concerts, we will have those options once again. But there may very well continue to be a permanent online virtual sharing, like we’re beginning to experience now.”

Still, she said she doesn’t think it’ll ever match a live event.

“It’ll never be the same as that live event, and having people there and hearing their applause and their responses and everything else,” she said.

For students, it’s also been hard not having the school open. Many of them live and breathe musical theatre and fellow students have become like family they don’t get to see.

Ayla Jamal, a 14-year-old student of Yellow Door, said she’s excited to start classes, but worried it might be a struggle.

“I’m just kind of sad about it because I don’t have like the motivation of the people around me to do it.”

She said it’s been tougher to practise from home and that being around everyone else challenges and inspires her.

Her sister Hannah, 16, said it’s also been tough not being exposed to as much art as usual. 

“It’s kind of been rough to stay on top of like learning new techniques. But I’m really thankful that I have a person in the house that loves the arts as much as I do. We’ve been able to exercise our skills together, so I feel really fortunate to have that,” Hannah said.

Another student, Sebastien Moccio, 15, said he’s been fortunate to have had a different experience, in that he’s had almost “more opportunity to make music” while being at home.

His father is a music teacher at Eden High School, so he was able to bring home some equipment to record with.

“That’s what I’ve been doing a lot, but I have not been practising dance,” he said.

With dance and music together, Hillstrom said it’s been a challenge to figure out online lessons.

Ayla said she prefers the pressure of performing live, where "it’s only one shot. When you know that you have multiple takes, it’s a lot more difficult because you know that if you mess up, you can do it again. So, there’s not as much pressure put on you. And I guess that like is always in the back of my mind.”

Hillstrom said it’s been nice to see other theatre companies adapting in the same ways, like the Shaw Festival's "That's Shawbiz" live online cabarets.

“From their first Shawbiz to even the second one, the improvement was significant. They’re getting their technical people involved now, and again, everybody’s learning, they’re learning how to do this,” she said.

The loss of revenue has been hard, with Yellow Door's full slate of summer courses cancelled.

She said she’s hoping the Zoom classes will generate a little bit of revenue to help the school survive.

Hannah said it would be sad if the school doesn't survive.

“That space, I’ve been working in there since I was 12,” she said. “ I’m a Yellow Door baby. I was there for the first year.”

Ayla echoed her sister's sentiments.

“That was the space that I found out that I love theatre and it’s actually like another family to me. I care about the people there and the company and I just I love it so much,” she said.

Moccio said Yellow Door “basically is the driving force” behind his plan to pursue professional performing as a career.

“Just like the sense of community and stuff I learned. And the friends I’ve made, they’re just incredible,” he said.

Hillstrom said being able to continue adds a sense of normalcy in the kids' lives because they, like the rest of the world, have had to accept major changes.

“Because their lives have been turned upside down as well. They’re not in school with their friends, they just found out that their school year has ended.”

Yellow Door will be performing with the Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines on June 25.

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