As we all know since March of 2020, life changes on a dime. No matter the moment, in peacetime or in paradigm shifts, it is teachers that are helping students navigate the ups and downs, the how and the why. Throughout the school shut down, we have worked closely with theater teacher Emily Hageman, discussing best practices and how to deal with the constraints of teaching theater remotely.
Here, Emily shares her mindset through these past months and offers a glimmer of hope for where this experience will take us.
A few months ago, the world was upended. I remember the day after I learned that school would be cancelled for a month. In moments like that, I always feel like I am hovering above myself—watching, observing, listening, but not living. It wasn’t possible, and reality was pushed aside in favor of tasks, of planning, of working, of setting up online learning. There was so much to do. There was no time to think and feel.
Imagine that, a theater teacher incapable of thinking and feeling.
But I was thinking and I was feeling, unbeknownst to me. It would catch me in moments where I least expected it. A catch of emotion would catch my throat when I would see my seniors working so hard on their monologue projects, and I would realize that I would likely never see them walk through my classroom doors again. My eyes would unexpectedly sting with tears when I would see my students dutifully log onto Zoom and navigate their grandpa/mom/dog/brother to get a good rehearsal in. My heart would clench and moan when I would see these amazing, incredible, undeniable performances, but I would always feel like Adam stretching his fingers towards God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—so close, but the distance was more significant than the nearness.
Photos from Brian the Comet by Emily Hageman. (Professional Imaging Provided by Ketchelos Visuals © 2020)
The day I found out that we wouldn’t be going back at all, I felt something inside of me collapse. I had several rehearsals that day, and the seniors were as cavalier as they could be, but they were in pain. They messaged me, they emailed me. I could feel it through the screen. And not just my seniors, all of my students. Because we could laugh and chat over Zoom, but it wasn’t the same—and each rehearsal we had just reminded me of that pain.
I didn’t want this, I wanted to tell someone. I didn’t ask for this. The same words that Brian says so miserably in on my one-act Brian the Comet. I felt like Dean locked in my chair in The Cages We Build. I felt like Madison in Back Cover with the weight of history smashing down on me.
Please don’t let this happen to them. They would be fine, I knew that, they were strong and amazing and full of life and hope, but they were suffering. They were in pain. And for a few long days, I could not write. I could hardly even speak. There were no words. My goal as a writer and as an educator is to heal and to provide hope. There was no healing, and there was no hope—and I felt like the most miserable charlatan alive promising them something I did not believe.
But I kept going because sometimes there is nothing else to do.
Photos from The Cages We Build by Emily Hageman
It’s not theater, I first sulked.
It’s not the same, I groused after every rehearsal.
And then, I started to watch their performances. There was a remarkable intimacy in this face-to-face communication. The actors had nowhere to look but each other’s faces. They were nervous, uncomfortable, even a little embarrassed at first. But as I watched them, something shifted in me.
It’s not theater, I found myself marveling. It’s not the same.
Photos from Back Cover by Emily Hageman
A brand new art form. One that is tender, intimate, and private. I saw students who had struggled to be honest and open suddenly blossom. I watched actors who had always been afraid of comedy suddenly become vivid and undeniable. It was better than okay. It wasn’t a placeholder. It was something completely new, and I was amazed.
No. It’s not what I signed up to do. Yes, I miss theater. Live performance will always be my first and truest love.
But this new art form is something. And I had thought there was nothing left.
The Pandemic That Didn't Define Them
A collection of monologues by Emily Hageman inspired by the hearts of young people. Read it for FREE!
Of course, I always knew that my students would inspire me. They reach me and pull me out of my darkest places even when I don’t want them to. And I always knew that I would pull through—I knew that my pain was my greatest paintbrush. How beautiful it is to experience hurt because it means that you loved something enough to let it sting you.
It’s not the same. None of this is okay. I miss my students, but this is not bad. In fact, it’s even a little beautiful.
As I tell my students, let it hurt. Let yourself mourn. Let yourself long for the beauty of live performance. Let yourself grieve the time away from your students. But this world needs beauty now, so let’s find it.
If you aren’t ready, that’s okay. Neither am I. Sometimes we don’t need to be ready.
This will end. There will be an end. And I will see you at the finish line.
MORE PLAYS BY EMILY HAGEMAN:
Emily Hageman is a music and theater educator currently residing in Sioux City, Iowa. Her plays have seen production with Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival, Heartland Theatre Company, A Light in Dark Places, the Red Eye 10s International Play Festival, Eden Prairie Players, Midwest Dramatists Conference, the Growing Stage Theatre, Theatre Evolve, Spokane Stage Left, Iowa State University, Memoriam Development Nightshade, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, and Gi60s. Emily is published with YouthPLAYS (“Everafter.com” and “The Man Card”) and Stage Partners (“Back Cover” and “The Cages We Build”). Her plays are constantly workshopped by the magnificent high school and middle school actors at Siouxland Christian School.