Davenport Junior Theatre Zooms Into Virtual World With New “Snow White”
Saturday In The Arts is a weekly look at a personality, place, trend or topic of interest to the Quad-Cities. It runs every Saturday morning on your site for fun, free, local entertainment and features, QuadCities.com.
It’s a brave new world at Davenport Junior Theatre – as the new artistic director is overseeing the first virtual production in the 69-year-history of the program.
After 11 years, Daniel Sheridan was succeeded this year as artistic director of the nation’s second-oldest children’s theater by Ben Gougeon, a 43-year-old actor-director who is helming “Snow White 2.Zoom” – a free online production opening Saturday, Nov. 7. Sheridan remains as performing arts supervisor for Davenport Parks & Recreation.
“Ben brings a lot of passion, experience and kindness to the table,” Sheridan said Thursday. “It is his kindness that fits so well with the DJT mission, but his experience and passion creates drive for the art. Students will be safe under his leadership and challenged at the same time.”
“Timing-wise, it was sort of fitting that my last show after 11 years was cancelled by a pandemic,” he said of the planned “Robin Hood” this past April. It was nice to be the one shutting things down, wrapping things up, and handing off the mainstage company.”
“The Covid-19 situation is a time for innovation, creative problem-solving and ultimately a reconstruction,” Sheridan said. “Junior Theatre will have a real chance to look at how things are structured and delivered and make some changes. That sort of fresh plate will be a great place from which Ben can start.”
“As far as the virtual production, since DJT has been all virtual for six months or so, we had a lot of virtual systems already in place,”
Sheridan said. “But creating a show is very different than building a classroom space. You have to think of the audience’s experience. We have an amazing group of kids and a talented team of professionals up for the challenge.”
“For Junior Theatre Inc, I am continuing on in the area of development, helping on special projects, alumni relations, grant writing and general support,” he added. “Expanding the team and bringing in a fresh leader is good for the whole organization.”
This is the first time in the history of the organization that the performing arts supervisor and artistic director are separate people.
Gougeon has worked at DJT since September 2019 as an instructor, then theater programs coordinator, and was chosen last February as the new artistic director, to start this fall (on top of his coordinator duties).
Founded in 1951, DJT offers classes (both virtual and in-person) and camps year-round in theater and dance for students ages 3 to 18. Classes are as varied as acting, improvisation, musical theatre, puppetry and theatrical design. (The nation’s oldest children’s theater is The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, which dates to 1919.)
In the quickly-growing DJT dance division – now in its 9th year – young dancers learn poise and confidence while having fun and making friends in a noncompetitive dance environment. Summers see a myriad of camps and other activities for kids of all ages. Through all these opportunities, DJT prepares kids for a lifetime of success, no matter what path their lives may take.
The new “Snow White” features the winner of the student new play competition (“The Evil Queen Returns” by 12-year-old Julia Reagan of Davenport), scenes from Sheridan’s adaptation of “Snow White” (produced at DJT in 2014), and original content created by students.
“I really wanted to focus on DJT’s mission of producing for kids, by kids,” Gougeon said. “ ‘Snow White 2.Zoom’ involves 18 students from around the QCA. The kids, who range in age from 10-18, are the actors, directors, writers, and technicians.”
Local professional theater artists work alongside the kids, creating a live performance that will be livestreamed and available to watch for free on the DJT website, YouTube channel, and Facebook page. Most students got green screens (for virtual backgrounds), costumes and props.
“Once we committed to doing a virtual production, we decided to lean into the Zoom format,” Gougeon said. “In our pre-planning, we knew it was very important to stay flexible with the changing state of health protocols, while also maintaining the safety our students and staff. All through the pandemic, I’ve been telling our staff and students that ‘Zoom is a tool, not a roadblock,’ and we’ve tried to embrace that ideal.
“Rather than producing theatre that’s hampered by distancing and masks, we’re producing a live online event,” he said. “Snow White 2.Zoom” centers around the Grimm fairy tale ‘Snow White.’ In the show, DJT’s longtime mascot, Showtime Pal, is hosting a talk show with the seven dwarfs as their guest.”
During the course of the talk show, while looking back on scenes from “Snow White,” the dwarfs reveal their side of the story, while Showtime Pal has a surprise of their own to reveal. DJT students have been the driving force in the creation of the show.
They built off Julia’s script, pulled some scenes from the previous production and, using free writing exercises and improvisation, created a structure that “brings everything together into a fun, fresh look at Snow White, the Evil Queen, and all the classic characters that we know and love,” Gougeon said.
Julia said: “I thought of the idea for ‘The Evil Queen Returns’ because of my love of Disney. It is not necessarily based off of the Disney version or the Grimm Brothers version, though.
“I based my story on Snow White because it is one of the few stories that does not have a sequel,” she said. “I knew the evil queen had to be
alive and with that the story just unfolded. Having a play you wrote preformed is unbelievable and I’m lucky to experience it. I encourage you to tune in and see it all of the actors and actresses in it are so talented, and so are the directors that helped put it together. It will be like watching a live TV show. Only different.”
In addition to Julia and Daniel, the new Zoom show features content by Gougeon, Hyacinth Branaman, Claire Cordell, Anna Dennis, and Emilee Johnson.
It takes a village for this one
Doing a new virtual production, where kids are acting from home and rehearsing since early October, has really stretched the boundaries and talents of DJT staff, students and families.
“It’s been a lot of fun and allowed the kids to be really creative, and our student directors – one is directing ‘The Evil Queen Returns’ and one who’s directing the Snow White classic scenes,” Gougeon said. “I’ve kind of overseen the talk show element and the production as a whole.”
“The thing I’ve tried to lean into, especially for this, our longtime mission statement is ‘for kids, by kids,’ and one thing I’ve tried to do is empower the kids to create work and at the end of the day, it’s their theater,” he said.
“It’s not my theater; it’s not Daniel’s theater. It’s the theater for the kids,” Gougeon said. “I’ve really tried to let them in on the act of creation for this show at least.”
His view on producing theater now is, he’d rather do virtual, rather than in person with a bunch of restrictions like masks and distancing.
The talk show format is ideal for Zoom and a screen setting.
“That’s how we’ve been approaching it on the back end and technically,” Gougeon said. “Yes, this is a form of theater, but really, we’re producing a television show that’s going to be livestreamed. We have our command center set up with all our monitors and tech, it feels like you’re in a command center for a live sports event or any live television event. We’ve got six or seven computers set up.”
The students do miss the social element in not being together to rehearse a show. Gougeon lets kids socialize on Zoom and encourages them to use the chat feature to support each other.
“It can be so impersonal on Zoom, so we’ve tried to encourage – hey, we’re still all here together, even though we’re not physically together,” he said. “We are still creating this community here.”
“We’re used to producing theater and now we’re producing television,” Gougeon said, noting he’s been able to relate his TV experience to kids.
For a couple years in New York City, he also hosted a variety show at a bar on the Upper West Side, and can apply that to this talk-show
For the last six years before moving to the Q-C in September 2019, Gougeon mainly acted in commercials, TV and film, and relates that to kids about working on camera, compared to working on stage.
“It’s definitely different than being on a TV show,” he said of Zoom. “We’ve encouraged for them to push the boundaries of that camera. You don’t have to just sit in front of the camera and be framed in. How can you work with the camera to tell a story? Whether that’s your distance from the camera, or how you’re entering or exiting.”
Each of the “Snow White” show’s parts have different backgrounds – the talk show part is more clearly a Zoom call. The Snow White scenes are more otherworldly, telling the fairy tale story.
“It’s been a huge testament to our families and parents, because normally they just drop the kids at the theater and we take care of the rest,” Gougeon said. “With this, they’ve had to do basically setting up little TV studios in their home for their students to perform in. We’ve sent out
resources for them, as far as positioning of your camera, of your lights in the room, so your kids are well lit and we can hear them.”
“It’s been great to have families who are invested and want to make this experience as best they can,” he said, noting it’s also a learning experience for the parents. “It’s definitely ‘it takes a village’ sort of production.”
“An unprecedented time”
On the “current season” page of davenportjuniortheatre.org, it says:
“It’s an unprecedented time at DJT and around the country, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to make adjustments in how we live
our lives. The safety and well-being of our students and staff always comes first, and with that in mind, DJT Mainstage is committed to remaining entirely virtual through at least the end of 2020.
“And with so much uncertainty about what comes next, we’ve decided to take this season one show at a time. Rather than announcing a full season and plans, only to be canceled by forces out of our control, we’ll make those decisions as they come, taking into account local health guidelines and assessing the safety of students returning to our stage and audiences to their seats.
A native of northern Michigan (on the shore of Lake Huron), Gougeon began acting at the age of 9 in the many theaters in his small town, and continued his training at Western Michigan University (where he earned a bachelor’s in 2001) and Western Illinois University (earning a master of fine arts in 2007) in Macomb.
After graduating from Western, he moved to New York City and was a member of Nylon Fusion Theatre, Take Action Workshop, and Witness Immersive, and worked regularly at the Obie Award-winning Metropolitan Playhouse. For the past three years, he played Bob Cratchit in the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” in Arrow Rock, Mo.
While in Michigan, Gougeon was assistant artistic director at the Whole Art Theatre in Kalamazoo, and founder and executive producer of eXit Productions, producing theater around the Midwest and in New York City.
A veteran of stages and screens of all sizes, he’s also performed all over the U.S. and has been seen and heard around the world in film, television, commercials and voice-overs, including “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The Deuce,” “Succession,” “Law & Order: SVU,” and “The Blacklist.”
“It was great to be on a show I really respected and enjoyed,” Gougeon said of Amazon’s “Maisel.” “It was fun, then she won an Emmy for the season I worked on. It’s like I was a little tiny part of that Emmy. That was really exciting.”
The last four years, he’s worked in Arrow Rock, Mo., first with a production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and played Bob Cratchit in “Christmas Carol” three seasons, but it’s cancelled this holiday season.
“It’s this tiny town of 56 people, with a 400-seat Equity theater there, and people come from miles around to see the shows,” Gougeon said.
“It’s this magical little place.”
His last couple years in New York, he enjoyed being in the “immersive” theater scene, in which patrons are placed in scenes, where actors are spread out throughout a large building like a hotel.
“The flagship immersive production is ‘Sleep No More’ in New York, which the producing company is out of London, and they turned this old hotel into this five-story theatrical event,” Gougeon said. “You’re just kind of dropped into the event and there’s action happening throughout the hotel. And it’s your job as an audience to go seek out the action. All the rooms are fully realized.”
The production he was in was “The Visitation,” staged in an old farmhouse from the 1600s, about a couple who thought their daughter was possessed.
“It’s impossible to see everything that’s going on,” he said. “You get to immerse yourself in the world and it’s also great because you leave the immersive shows and say, I need to see that again, so I can see what else happened.”
2018 (when Gougeon was on “Mrs. Maisel”) was the best year of his career, financially and professionally. “I was starting to build momentum in television, but it just wasn’t fulfilling. It all felt like sugar rushes, and then it goes down,” he said. “I guest-directed at a university in Ohio and found that being in education and giving back, to just be far more satisfying than my performing career was.”
He worked two weeks (in April 2019) at University of Findlay (in northwest Ohio), which felt “more like a full meal.” They created a play in 11
days around themes of love and fear, all student-written.
“It was a lot of fun – a really good and successful show, an experience for everyone,” Gougeon said. He went back to New York, but after that was really unsure if he wanted to stay.
He had visited the Q-C just a couple times while he was at WIU. In July 2019, he interviewed at DJT, as “a big leap of faith – am I gonna do this?” Gougeon recalled. “When I got here, I’m a firm believer in, make the leap and the net will appear, and I always approached life and career choices with that knowledge and belief in the background.”
“One thing I found, I’m just not focusing on my performing career right now. That will still always be there,” Gougeon said. “I found it to be a lot about ego, and it was very fulfilling ego-wise, but not fulfilling creatively.”
He wanted to move here partly because he was ready to have a family. He and his partner Liz Nolte now have a three-month-old son, Beckett Finn.
Coordinating and leading at DJT
Gougeon started in the DJT coordinator job (which he still does) last October, in charge of scheduling and organizing all classes, offered through Davenport Parks & Recreation. He manages the instructors, registration of students, and makes sure the classes go smoothly. The artistic director oversees the mainstage shows.
“Part of the appeal of doing both of the jobs was I could start to shape classes and curriculum that feed into the work we want our mainstage students to be doing,” Gougeon said. “So what they’re doing in classes is more applicable to what they’ll be doing on stage.”
Going virtual had a big learning curve, with online classes starting in June, he said.
“It took lots of time to learn Zoom and get all of our terminals set up,” Gougeon said. “We wanted to set up a professional, high-quality experience, so people felt they got a good experience even though it was virtual.”
“It’s little things like this production, like when we have costumes fit, normally the kids come to the first rehearsal and they get measurements done, fill out registration forms,” he said. “That all had to be coordinated and scheduled digitally.”
The DJT virtual classes attracted kids from about 10 states, including some DJT alums who enrolled their kids. Total enrollment was down compared to last year, but over the summer they served about 500 families.
“Once school started and kids were doing school virtually, the virtual enrollment definitely was hurt by that, because your kid’s on a computer for five hours doing school and the last thing they want to do is jump into another virtual class,” Gougeon said.
They revamped the classes, to tailor them to virtual learning – including playwriting, monologues, accents class, Zoom theater, and voice-
over, that are easier to do virtually. In-person classes recently started back, those that are better suited to in person – including musical theater, acting and improvisation.
In person, DJT allows eight students at most, on the main stage in Nighswander Theater, with plenty of room for distancing and masks required, with lots of cleaning between classes, Gougeon said.
Transitioning after Covid hit
When the pandemic closed down all DJT programs on March 16, they had 500+ students weekly in classes and were in the middle of a Spring Break Camp, Sheridan said. They also were in the middle of rehearsals for “Robin Hood” on the mainstage, at 2822 Eastern Ave., Davenport.
After the closure, staff looked to build online programming, creating a free DJT Learning Channel. “Free resources for the community was our top priority with schools closing,” Sheridan said. “Hosted on our website, this free channel has theatre and dance lessons, performances, behind-the-scenes tours, games, activities, story times and much, much more.”’
“After that, we launched our first ever virtual class series starting on June 1,” he said, noting that four-week series had 337 students and 40 classes running per week. The next four-week online sessions were in July and August, with a fall five-week session that saw a drop to 140 registrations.
“After sending out a survey to our families who have participated in the last two years, it was clear there was a greater desire for us to offer theatre and dance in person in some fashion,” Sheridan said. “For our most recent session 5-week session starting Oct. 19, we offered both in person and virtual.
“People were just growing tired of virtual,” he said. “And with schools having large or fully online component, kids and families are screen timed out in a lot of ways.”
This fall, there are 155 total students in 27 in-person classes, and 37 students doing virtual classes, Sheridan said.
“These numbers are still tremendously difficult for us, because last fall we had 500 registrations. That is a typical session for the program,” he said. “Another reason for the lower numbers is the stage itself is our only theatre classroom, with a limit of eight kids per class, masks required, temperature checks, social distancing, etc.
“The single largest dance studio is where we offer dance,” Sheridan said. “So we are used to programming out of seven spaces, and now we only have two. So our amount of classes offered and time frames are drastically reduced. With 27 in-person classes each week currently, last fall we had 70.”
“Supporting non-profits will help our immediate community ride out the pandemic,” he said. “Junior Theatre stands ready to continue to innovate and create ways to serve kids. If interested in making a donation, hop on over to the DJT website. Or follow our social media pages
on Facebook and Instagram and spread the word.”
“On June 1, when kids started back in our virtual classrooms, there were tears,” Sheridan said. “In the virtual space, we could all see one another with our masks off, ready to do some dance and theatre. We outfitted four of our studios with various cameras, microphones, and audio and streaming capacity to really help us offer top-notch classes.
“The staff was more tired teaching virtually than in-person,” he said. “It requires so much focused energy to really connect. And you cannot have a dull moment or you lose the group. But the whole team is passionate and shows up for the kids. And a little fun for kids right now is so important!”
“The ultimate downside to virtual is kids spend a lot of time in virtual spaces these days,” Sheridan said. “The summertime was more successful, because kids had less screen time. But I can imagine how fatigued they are getting and we get it. That’s why our virtual classes are on your feet, having fun, connecting with your teacher and fellow students.”
More challenges for local artists
Gougeon is interested in getting involved with QC Theatre Workshop in Davenport, as an actor or director. But that is one of several local theaters that’s shut down, and recently lost its home at 1730 Wilkes Ave., the former gym at the old Johnson School.
It’s hard for artists to cope during the pandemic, both finding work and expressing their talents in virtual formats, he said.
“It’s been really challenging, when your livelihood depends on getting people together and getting an audience together, and suddenly that is either completely out the door or severely chopped at the knees,” Gougeon said. “It’s tough to make things financially work.”
“We have the benefit at Junior Theatre, because of our association with the city of Davenport, and our classes through Parks & Rec, we get to use that space for free,” he said. “We have not been in a position where we need ticket sales right now.
“But so many theaters rely on that revenue of ticket sales, and that’s either fully gone or at a reduced capacity,” Gougeon said. “For actors and directors, designers and everyone, the thing that’s been their livelihood and creative outlet together, they can’t practice that. It’s definitely been a hard road to hoe for a lot of people.”
There’s more film and TV work picking back up across the country, since that’s easier to manage on a set, he said. But theater, without
audiences, is harder.
“Planning for the future, we knew it was important to be flexible with things,” Gougeon said. “You see so many planned productions that have been canceled and we did not want that to happen, so we tried to be really flexible.”
“Snow White 2.Zoom” will be free to watch, but donations are accepted and there will be a silent auction as part of it, he said. “We thought it was more important to make it as accessible as possible and have the content there available for kids.”
The show (less than an hour) will be done Saturdays, Nov. 7 and 14 at 4 p.m., and Sundays, Nov. 8 and 15 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. It will be available at www.davenportjuniortheatre.org, the DJT YouTube channel, and DJT Facebook Page.