Students enjoy in-class theater

Paige Umstead’s seventh-grade class at Louisa County Middle School watches the Abingdon-based Barter Players put on a live theater performance on March 11. More than 3,400 Louisa students had the chance to see the show.  

For the last 18 years, Louisa’s Rotary Club has sponsored the Barter Players to put on live theater performances for Louisa County Public Schools students. 

Delivering live performances to students during a pandemic required extra legwork to keep the tradition alive. The Rotary Club decided to bring the experience to more than 3,400 students virtually. 

“We didn’t want COVID-19 to get in the way of doing something we’ve been doing for 18 years and something that has gotten positive feedback from the students and strong support from the community,” said Pat Hanley, Rotary Club president-elect. 

Usually, the club funds the performances through donations from sponsors – businesses and individuals in the community – and provides them with a free, live performance at the Louisa Arts Center. That was not possible this year. While businesses still generously supported the program, the Rotary Club needed additional funding for virtual, on-demand performances. 

“It was tough going to our sponsors because we didn’t know what we were going to do,” Hanley said. “We hadn’t settled in on this [virtual format] until about six weeks ago, whereas in the past, we had everything arranged almost a year in advance.” 

The club was able to secure $1,900 through the Virginia Commission for the Arts and National Endowment for the Arts to cover the additional cost of streaming performances to individual classrooms. 

This year, The Barter Players performed “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” for middle-school students and “Aesop’s Fables” for elementary schoolers. One of Paige Umstead’s seventh-grade classes watched “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” one morning last week. The show was projected onto the classroom’s whiteboard. 

Tom Sawyer’s mischief elicited chuckles from the students, especially when he tries to woo Becky Thatcher. The more serious moments made some of the students feel the solemnity of the scene. 

“My favorite part was when he [Tom Sawyer] ran away and one of the boys said that they missed their mom and that her heart was probably broken,” said Kaelynn Polen, a seventh-grade student. 

These performances expose students to new perspectives and stories they might not be familiar with, and give teachers the opportunity to discuss the themes with students. 

“This was a wonderful way to whet their appetites of different genres of books and different stories that they probably wouldn’t have thought to pick off the shelf themselves,” Umstead said. “We’re going to look at excerpts from the actual book, and we’re going to talk about those choices the characters make and have great discussions from this.”

While a recorded performance could never replace a live one, the virtual shows gave students the opportunity to see a play and hear classic stories. The format also made the performance accessible to more classrooms, with more than 3,400 middle and elementary school students viewing the performances across the county. 

“They may not have gotten as much out of it as they would have seeing a real live performance in a theater with professional lighting and sound systems and everything, but many more students got to see it, and they got to see it in a very safe and convenient way,” Hanley said. 


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