Thoughts on School Tour with Frances

Touring schools is a right-of-passage for many artists during their career in theatre, and a normal educational experience of many, many youths. Whether those memories are good or bad, I think we can all agree: getting out of class for an hour or two is always a great idea. 

But during a global pandemic, the concept of normal flies out the window. With no typical way forward, the theatre industry has been forced to do something it isn’t always comfortable doing: changing and adapting. And I, for one, am excited.

When the COVID-19 pandemic landed in Winnipeg, MB, Canada, local artists had already had plenty of time to prepare. The news from China, Italy and New York rolled in every day in waves of chaos. By the time Broadway shutdown, we knew a local lockdown was only a matter of time.

I’ve gotten lucky pandemic-wise three times so far. In March 2020, I had a play running at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse. Women of the Fur Trade went on to win exactly zero awards and earn me a lot of hate mail, but as the last play to finish its run – albeit at half capacity – the memory lingers as a modest success. The day after we closed, Winnipeg went into its first lockdown.

Women of the Fur Trade (From left to right: Kelsey Wavey, Kathleen MacLean, Liz Whitbread)

The next time I got pandemic-lucky happened in September. I had just started a new job as Artistic Director of Sarasvàti Productions, and we were gearing up to present FemFest 2020.

The weather was beautiful and COVID-19 case numbers were low enough that I felt comfortable visiting restaurants and bar patios with small bubbles of friends. Then, a few days after closing night of the festival, case numbers were once again on the rise, and new restrictions were put in place.

FemFest 2020

The third time I got extremely lucky with timing was only a few weeks ago, as Sarasvàti Productions prepared to film the school tour play Seven Visions, so we could share it with students and classrooms across Manitoba. New restrictions were put in place leading up to the film shoot, but none that impacted us directly. And, once again, a few days after we wrapped on filming, Winnipeg entered its 2nd lockdown.

I do not know why I possess this singular talent for completing theatre projects mere days before the ongoing pandemic decides to get really active. There are many talents I would rather have, like being a better writer, or being good at science so I could find steady, well-paying employment in a growing field. But this recurring pattern got me thinking, and this is what I’ve realized: the timing is never right, and we – The Theatre – can adapt to any new situation.

That realization is one of the reasons I’m kind of pumped to be in this new position as Artistic Director and have the opportunity to help bring this digital school tour to fruition. I’m a Millennial. I’ve lived through a century worth of history, in 3 decades most of that history taking place over the past 8 months. I’m not afraid of change, or recessions, or technology, or high school students. Actually, that’s a lie, I am terrified of high school students. They’re so mean and cool and they call me ‘grandma’ on TikTok.

The point is, in the ongoing pandemic, inexplicably and against all odds, I feel surprisingly capable as Sarasvàti continues to bring its digital school tour to life.

Of course, this form adds an extra layer of complexity to adapting a play for digital presentation. We couldn’t simply film the play and show it to schools; we had to figure out a way to engage with the students, support them in identifying problems and finding new solutions, and – the trickiest part of all – presenting those revised scenes…all on a small touring budget.

And let’s face it: Gen-Z is more tech-savvy than any of us Millennials, Gen-X or Boomers can ever hope to be. For them, none of this adapting to new technology is new or complicated – it’s the world they were born into. It’s the rest of us that are trying to catch up.

Our tech set up for Seven Visions

One exciting thing about virtual spaces is that they are neutral ground for everyone. In a school setting, there are so many social rules governing space and relationships with that space… but online, everyone can be who they are, or even be someone else, if that is preferable to them. I’m looking forward to seeing how Gen-Z youth engage us in these digital spaces and discovering what we can learn from their innate tech prowess.

Digital Theatre is an imperfect new form of theatre with limitless possibilities and limitless ways to mess up. It’s scary, and that’s what makes it so fun. We can’t wait to bring our Seven Visions School Tour, a play about what reconciliation means to Indigenous youth, to schools across Manitoba and perhaps even beyond, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for this new medium.

Seven Visions Digital School Tour runs Public Performances run from December 17-19th and continues to tour until the end of January 2021. For more information or to book a performance contact info@sarasvati.ca or call 204-306-5303. To learn more about the process and the larger creation story check out an overview on our website.