“Art is a great way to connect people,” said high school student Cielo Valenzuela. “It can be easy to spend your whole day doing something that isn’t really valuable to you, but making art helps you feel better, and it helps bring people together.” Which is why Saturday, March 21, 2020 found Valenzuela glued to a screen...but still connecting with her fellow artists. With theatres, schools, and anywhere else we normally gather around art closed due to COVID-19, we’ve all been forced to adapt quickly to a new normal. For Center Theatre Group’s Education & Community Partnerships department, that meant bringing our College & Career Fair for the Arts online for high school students like Valenzuela, educators, and parents.
This annual free event typically includes workshops and counseling sessions, along with opportunities to connect with a variety of colleges and other organizations. Originally, 25 local schools and hundreds of students and organizations were scheduled to gather at our offices at The Music Center Annex in Downtown Los Angeles. But a week prior to the event, large gatherings were banned across California. The Education & Community Partnerships team quickly changed gears. At first we planned to conduct a livestream in which students would tune in remotely for many of the originally scheduled workshops. However, after our offices closed and we were directed to stay at home, the team pivoted to a live virtual chat and a playlist of informational videos from local artists and educators. All were recorded and posted in just 24 hours.
“It was definitely a challenge,” said Director of Next Generation Initiatives Camille Schenkkan. “But the team’s determination to deliver the content and fulfill the goal of the program motivated all of us to respond quickly.” What resulted was a wonderful virtual gathering of artists, experts, students, parents, and educators coming together (while staying over six feet apart) to learn more about launching careers in the arts.
“I've been skeptical about online because I always appreciated that face-to-face connection. But to see how everyone came together, that always gets me,” said actor Peter Mendoza (who has appeared in Sweat and Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue on our stages). Mendoza led a monologue workshop via video. “How we all just figured out a way to still lend a helping hand, to not give up when we could have, how a group of passionate artists who believe in what they do and come together to give back, and get the wonderful reception from those still hungry to learn and get fired up was just amazing. I found it very enlightening, fun, and lucky. It was special.”
Videos included workshops on college financing and decision-making, career advice from professionals across the field, from stage management to costume design, and even a relaxing tai-chi mini-workshop.
While most of the workshops were geared toward students, parents also received resources to help support their children’s artistic aspirations. “The more information I receive regarding different types of careers, college majors and financing, activities, and training available for my daughter to grow, learn, and succeed, the better equipped I feel to best support her future endeavors,” said Valenzuela’s mother, Jackie. “Frankly, my impetus to participate in these types of activities has been to support my daughter’s interest in the arts. However, as a mid-career professional, these workshops and programming also help me understand what other professional opportunities I’d like to pursue in the future.”
And in some ways, the virtual nature of the program provided more benefits than an in-person fair would have, allowing for participants from across the country to join in and giving everyone a digital resource archive. Plus, “having a space to pay close attention and having these resources so accessible made it easy for me,” said Cielo Valenzuela.
And although it wasn’t what we originally planned, the experience has provided us with a glimpse into the future of online arts programming. “Even before it happened, we have wanted to integrate in-person and virtual programming,” Schenkkan said. “Including online programming expands the capacity and accessibility for a lot of the work that we’re doing. This experience will change everything about the way we work, and those changes will be for the better.”