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Paula Riley, Wilson High: Back to Virtual Theatre Arts

Musical Theatre is exactly the type of class that doesn’t work over Zoom. Right?

Wrong. The ever-positive Paula Riley is excited for this unordinary year. She is the Musical Theatre and Drama teacher at Wilson High School.

“There is this amazing Zen freedom that is coming out of this upside down year.” She explains. “Nothing normal is allowed, so it’s like… we’re finally able to try all of these new and creative things we never would have been able to do before!”

There will be no group singing over Zoom. So much of what the kids expect, demand, and look forward to each year just can’t be done. Enter (drumroll): Cool, new projects!

Riley’s drama class will be starting an intensive study on monologues and the August Wilson playwright experience. Students will learn about the amazing American commentary written by Wilson, and have a chance to express their own interpretations of the world through their monologues.

“My four goals for this year are one, to have fun; two, laugh; three, connect; and four, have more fun!” says Riley.

It’s a golden opportunity for students to log-in to their elective class and try to get all the intangibles that they’re missing from school.

When online instruction was suddenly imposed at the end of last year, it stood out to Ms. Riley how much the kids were craving talking about everything going on. Ms. Riley has adapted her learning projects to reflect that.

Her Musical Theatre class will be deconstructing West Side Story. Deep diving into the story. And students will get to pick one little part of it…a song, a dance, or an acting performance and perfect it. The student deliverable will be a solo, independent performance that Ms. Riley has never been able to attempt before, because Musical Theatre class is usually so driven by putting on three shows a year. There is usually just not time enough to really explore the productions and deconstruct.

“I love the idea of every single student being able to perform the part they connect with the most. There can usually be only one Maria. This year there can be 20 if they want. Whatever part of the play they love, they get to perform. Then using video productions we can put it all together. I think it’s going to be wonderful.”

Riley is quick to note that the musical productions we all love will make a comeback. There will be the traditional tryout, rehearsals, and ensemble performance. But for now, during this pandemic interval, it’s sort of wonderful to show students how it’s okay to think outside the box.

“It has freed me from the relentless tradition of ‘every year we have to do this, this, and this.’ The expectations are out the window and now it’s more open minded.”

When asked, “What do you miss most?” Ms. Riley responded: “Being in person. Nonverbal communication and the ‘vibe.’ “It’s so true now that we don’t have it. There’s a thing a good teacher does, [it’s called] a check for understanding. You can do that in many ways. ‘Raise your hand’ doesn’t always work well. An experienced and sensitive teacher can tell from the body language and little sounds in the room whether you need to switch it up or if they need more help. Or if an individual is sad or sick, or needs discipline…You can’t do that as well on technology.”

“Then there’s the spontaneous joy of the classroom…The way the class clown in a positive way will bring the class together. There’s a spontaneous joy, and I can’t wait to get that back.”


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