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COVID & the Arts: Despite Pandemic Junior Theater Stays Open

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Davenport Junior Theatre
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While most theaters in the Quad-Cities remain closed, the Davenport Junior Theatre continues its mission by serving students virtually and in person.

New projects include a podcast, a second Zoom production in February, its first museum to open in May at the Annie Wittenmyer Complex, on Eastern Avenue, and a 70th anniversary celebration next year. DJT offers a wide variety of theater and dance classes for kids ages 3-18.

After serving as the city's performing arts supervisor and Junior Theatre artistic director for several years, Daniel Sheridan stepped back from the latter last fall. When Covid hit in the spring, DJT moved to offer many classes and resources online, including its Learning Channel at davenportjuniortheatre.org.

“I’m really proud of how fast we pivoted and moved to a virtual program and I’m really pleased with, we’re able to be here at Junior Theatre teaching and leading. Every class not only has a teacher, but we have a navigator, managing the behind the scenes, technical stuff – which frees up the teacher to only teach, which is probably the biggest challenge in the world for teachers in the school system.”

Last fall, Davenport Junior Theater had a total of 182 students in person and 166 for virtual classes, compared to a fall 2019 total of 498 students, all in person. The winter session started Jan. 18.

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Credit Davenport Junior Theatre
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Daniel Sheridan

“I’m really happy with the virtual programming we’ve offered. I understand now – initially I thought this will be limitless. But no, a virtual interaction is limited.”

DJT’s first virtual mainstage production was in November, of “Snow White 2.Zoom.” The next one, a virtual “Alice in Wonderland,” is being directed by Bobby Becher, who has taught and performed with Circa ’21, and has worked with DJT since early 2019. “Alice,” adapted by Sheridan, will be shown online Feb. 20 and 27 at 4 p.m., and Feb. 21 and 28 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

“Our first production of Snow White 2.Zoom was really throwing a lot at the wall and figuring how to make things work. I’m really looking forward to ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ because ‘Snow White 2.Zoom’ was such a collaborative project with multiple directors and multiple kids and student playwrights.”

“To have one professional director using one script to tell one story, I’m really excited to see what they do with what they learned the first time. We’ve learned so much.”

DJT did Sheridan’s adaptation of the classic Lewis Carroll tale first in 2011, which he directed, and then again in 2017. He suggested several junior theater staff and alumni to interview for the new podcast, which is run by Emma Hydorn, a 2020 Augustana graduate and one of four AmeriCorps members working for DJT.

“I’m very interested in Junior Theatre history, and I’m very interested in archiving the stories of people who have been involved over the decades. And even what’s been going on currently, to connect people with what’s going on. So it’s a mix of things.”

Hydorn develops questions and content, recording from Zoom. Junior Theatre, Incorporated, the nonprofit partner, paid to launch and host the podcast on platforms such as Apple and Spotify.

“It’s fun in the short term, but in the long-term, 20, 30 years from now, hopefully they will be interesting historical pieces.”

“Moving out of the role of artistic director, I wanted to spend my time focusing on just development – reconnecting with our alumni; developing our processes, to be more adaptable and reach more people. So connecting with alumni is part of that, and that’s one of the impetuses for the podcast as well.”

Starting last month, there have been 11 episodes so far, averaging 20 to 30 minutes, including one with Brett Batterson, the first male Showtime Pal in 1975. He’s head of the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis and was on the producing team that won a Best Musical Tony in 2018 for “The Band’s Visit.” With the 70th DJT season starting next fall, they plan to conclude with a big celebration with alumni in summer 2022.

Sheridan says the podcast, like DJT itself, aims to show that the program builds skills in kids that apply to life and not just theater.

“Creative problem solving, working under the pressure of a deadline, the show’s gonna open – having to do your part and relying on other people to do their part. Holding each other accountable, public speaking’s an obvious one, but right now, the ability to have empathy and think about what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, will forever be such an important part of the learning experience here.”

The planned museum will be in Cottage 13, on the lower level. Sheridan and AmeriCorps staff have been going through boxes of photos, articles and memorabilia, as well as finding many articles online, and creating a digital database.

The opening room will be a celebration of Showtime Pal, the DJT host and mascot. One section will be on the traveling Show Wagon, when DJT didn’t have a permanent home. As part of the history of the organization, there will be items people can touch, including scripts and rosters, and one chair each from the old and new theater. They completed a $190,000 renovation in 2017. They hope to open the museum -- with new murals on the walls – by the end of May.

A native of Detroit, Herb Trix began his radio career as a country-western disc jockey in Roswell, New Mexico (“KRSY, your superkicker in the Pecos Valley”), in 1978. After a stint at an oldies station in Topeka, Kansas (imagine getting paid to play “Louie Louie” and “Great Balls of Fire”), he wormed his way into news, first in Topeka, and then in Freeport Illinois.