Columbus Arts Organizations Boost Educational Programming to Reach New Audiences

Columbus Children’s Theatre, CATCO, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and others found new ways to bring programming to children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Peter Tonguette
The New Albany Symphony Orchestra resumed its in-person sensory-friendly shows for children earlier this year.

Like all Central Ohio arts organizations, Columbus Children’s Theatre was blindsided when the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring of 2020. The company had just opened a show and had two more booked for the balance of its season. Then, in a flash, those plans were scrapped.

“We canceled everything that was scheduled until May 31,” says Susan Pringle, CCT’s executive director. “We had hoped to be able to potentially do some in-person camps over the summer and quickly realized that we would not.”

The theater company and its performing arts peers were forced to get creative and find new ways to reach audiences during a lockdown whose end date was uncertain.

CCT pivoted to online programming—including a virtual version of its summer camp program—and eventually worked up to in-person classes capped at six students plus an instructor. It also staged performances that were rehearsed virtually, performed live at the theater’s Downtown studios and then made available digitally. The most recent of those, a production of Claire Broome’s play “Same Room, Different Story,” was streamed in May.

“What we were hearing from parents was that they were as concerned about their children in terms of mental health as they were in terms of COVID,” Pringle says. “Trying to provide ways for students to gather and to work on a project together was something that we put a lot of time and energy towards.”

Amid a year of cancellations, postponements and overall uncertainty among performing-arts groups, Columbus Children’s Theatre was among those that managed to carry on educational programming. Whether through online learning or the occasional in-person activity, multiple Central Ohio organizations have kept children in contact with the arts—at a time when many have needed it most.

Columbus Children’s Theatre was able to bring back some in-person programming by utilizing safety precautions.

“The Arts Will Always Be Around”

Andrew Protopapas, interim education director of CATCO, invokes the words of children’s author Mo Willems, who last year said, “Science is going to get us out of this but art is going to get us through this.”

“Whenever we’re faced with hardship, we turn back to the arts,” Protopapas says. “As long as humans are around, and we have that capacity to create which is inherent to us, the arts will always be around.”

ProMusica Chamber Orchestra was among the earliest groups to spring into action following the first wave of state health orders in March 2020 that suspended group gatherings and in-person learning. “We had planned to do one of our family concerts at the library,” says CEO Janet Chen. “We got our musicians; we filmed it.”

The orchestra has also recorded more than 25 musical storytimes, pairing children’s books with carefully curated classical musical selections. “Our inventory of storytimes has doubled, if not tripled, versus a normal year,” Chen says.

CATCO was another early adopter, bringing out its own storytime series that incorporated at-home acting exercises based on the books. “We had that series last April to June, and a new video premiered every Monday,” says Protopapas, who also oversaw a virtual version of CATCO’s annual summer camp. Weekly acting camps moved to Zoom, as did a four-week play-writing program in which students wrote, rehearsed and virtually performed their own production. “The students decided to incorporate the pandemic into the plot of their show,” he says. “It gave students a chance to reflect on what was going on.”

Catering to Kids

Columbus Symphony Orchestra officials say they reached 55,000 children during the last year through a music-education program for Columbus City Schools third-graders that shifted online, the launch of two websites aimed at young audiences and other initiatives. “More than 85 videos were made during COVID by our musicians,” says Denise Rehg, executive director of the orchestra.

The CSO also is a partner in Mindful Music Moments, a school-centered initiative that encourages mindfulness by presenting students with a prompt followed by a passage of classical music. “The world is so complicated that having a quiet moment to re-center once a day is good for everybody,” Rehg says.

Jazz Arts Group, the parent organization of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, offers a robust repertoire of school curricula, including a pre-K program called Jumpin’ JaKs. “Obviously, we weren’t able to visit pre-Ks anymore,” says JAG director of education and community engagement Zach Compston, who oversaw an effort to move Jumpin’ JaKs and other programs, including a curriculum for fourth-graders, online.

Educators interacted with students via Zoom. “Almost like jazz meteorologists, they’re on Zoom, and they have graphics up,” Compston says. Guest artists who were in town to perform under the auspices of JAG transitioned from in-person school visits to virtual sessions.

As the performing arts in general have gradually made their way back to stages, so have concerts aimed at young audiences. The New Albany Symphony Orchestra, which presents a sensory-friendly version of all of its concerts, revived the format for a performance in March. Although there were some changes, including assigned seating, attendance approximated pre-pandemic levels. “All state guidance was in place, and everyone did a great job of following the safety protocols,” executive director Heather Garner says via email.

The Show Must Go On

CAPA, which operates numerous theaters including the Ohio, Southern and Lincoln, replaced its in-person student matinees, usually held in the Lincoln, with virtual equivalents. “We knew our teachers, particularly, would need—more than ever—access to arts opportunities to supplement their curriculum,” says CAPA director of education Amy Handra.

The organization presented a trio of “virtual field trips” free of charge: with dance company Step Afrika!, Grammy-nominated duo Black Violin and science educator Mister C. A combined 52,688 students participated in the programs. “Our reach was able to increase so much because we’re not bound by our limited space,” Handra says.

CATCO’s Protopapas says the internet has the potential to make arts programs available to far more students, far more quickly, than in-person activities. “It cuts down travel time and those kinds of things,” he says.

As a result, most organizations see virtual programming sticking around into the new school year and beyond, though the performing arts are called the “lively arts” for a reason: Live performances and experiences are key.

For its part, Columbus Children’s Theatre students will appear in an outdoor Actors’ Theatre of Columbus production of “The Secret Garden.”

“I knew that if there was any chance of getting people comfortable with being back in a performance environment as an audience member, doing it outside might be the best and most logical first step,” Pringle says.

The Columbus Symphony already announced a major initiative to spur the return of audiences to its home venue, the Ohio Theatre: All children ages 6-16 will be admitted for free to its Masterworks concerts kicking off in the fall. Students may have become acclimated to Zoom during the pandemic, but as symphony leaders see it, there’s no substitute for the real experience.

“One of the things that we really, really teach our children is that, no matter what their background is, no matter their financial situation,” Rehg says, “they belong in that symphony hall.”

This story is from the Summer 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.