Staging moves outdoors for Chicago performing-arts school

outdoor stage
Two students of Chicago Academy for the Arts rehearse outside. Photo credit image provided to WBBM Newsradio

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) — When the student body of the Chicago Academy for the Arts returned for the fall semester, members had to think outside the box in order to continue performing during a pandemic.

"We spent many months trying to figure out how we come back safely, yet continue teaching the arts to our students," said Alan Robinson, the school’s department chair for musical theater.

"We thought, why don't we do it outside? Could we build a stage outside? We jumped on an opportunity to make something that could be useful," he said.

The 30-by-18-foot space was built in the corner of the school's parking lot.

"The COVID pandemic is asking us to use what we call future school with Zoom technology and a lot of use of video, but the arts part of it is asking us to look back,” Robinson said. “What does it mean to do art in a way that Shakespeare would do art when The Globe was being closed by the plague? The safest way to do art right now is outside."

Students are doing a combination of in-person and distance learning. Teacher Sarah Grant says students are observing social distancing and wearing masks while using the outdoor resource.

"This was born out of the need to feel safe while we're acting,” Grant said. “This unique setup also reflects what we're studying: the Italian Renaissance. We get to experience what it's like to perform outside. We're competing with the sounds outside just like the Renaissance.

Arts school Chicago
Chicago Academy for the Arts Photo credit WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Robinson said faculty are still trying to figure out how to continue in the colder weather.

"We've used our outdoor space quite a bit. We have tents that we've set up for sketching and painting outdoors as well,” he said.

The stage also makes a physiological and emotional impact on the students.

"I feel them so focused and productive and so happy to be here. That’s frankly different than before COVID. I really think they appreciate being together and working together on their art form,” Grant said.

outdoor stage at magnet school
Outdoor stage at Chicago Academy for the Arts Photo credit WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

Robinson predicts the teaching model he’s helped shape in 2020 will influence future years.

"We all know we are not alone in doing theater the way we want to, but we are bringing the old to them and they are bringing the new to us, whether it’s video or streaming,” he said. “This will remain a part of the arts even into the future.”

Chicago Academy for the Arts, 1010 W. Chicago, enrolls 150 students and has offered academic-performing arts since 1981.