‘Uncharted territory’: Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts adapts to virtual stage amid coronavirus pandemic

For 45 years, Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts has offered theatrical experiences for youth through classes, camps and productions. Proving “the show must go on,” things didn’t stop with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year.

“We deviated from what we know works to uncharted territory,” said Gerald Jordan, deputy director of operations and programming for CCTA. “It has been a wonderful success.”


All classes — including Broadway Prep, After School Theatre and master classes — are conducted online, with students learning new dance moves, songs and acting techniques from the safety of their homes as teachers observe through computer screens.

Classes run a little over an hour to 90 minutes and are typically held once a week. The staff works hard to create a different virtual experience than students have during the school day.


“It is important to us ... to keep it active,” Jordan said. “We encourage as much movement as possible, so they are not sitting idly.”

As everyone has different home situations, students are not required to have certain props or tools to participate.

“We try to utilize things kids have in their homes,” said Brynn Williams, a CCTA teacher. “I might ask them to get a book or a notebook or to dance with a chair.”

One of Williams’ favorite things is when she asks her students to “be creative.”


“It’s beautiful to see how kids rise to the occasion,” Williams said “They take a deeper look inside their characters. ‘This is what my character wears. This is the prop they play with.’ ”

The challenges are many, from timing issues to technical delays as well as the difficulties of learning on your own.

“Choreography is a challenge to learn,” said Dana Aument, 16, who has been involved with CCTA both before the pandemic and now. “They teach us in class and then post a video of them doing the steps in [a] Google doc.”

Dance ensemble numbers, too, are not possible virtually, Williams said.

“You can’t do that,” Williams said. “When you record yourself, you miss that energy you get from each other. When you are onstage with someone else dancing, you feel it.”

Singing also has its drawbacks, according to Maddie Ellinghaus, 13, of Laurel.

“You can’t really sing over Zoom. There’s feedback and echoes, " Ellinghaus said. “Singing and dancing, that stuff, is really just hard and difficult.”

Both Aument and Ellinghaus said their teachers worked hard to make everyone feel comfortable.

“They helped us get used to it and not feel embarrassed,” Ellinghaus said, of the challenges of performing virtually. “We started turning off our mics and cameras when others are performing. It works so much better.”

“It is difficult to not be there in person, but it is still so much fun,” Aument said. “They have done an amazing job adapting. They were amazing before quarantine.”

Throughout the course, students submit videos of their performances to their teachers for comments. At the end of the course, final videos are submitted, edited and then included in a class video.

“We do hours and hours of editing,” Jordan said. “We send out a link to families so they have something at the end. You still miss the stage and flowers, but we try to work around that a little.”

An unique twist to the video, Jordan added, is that it gives the students an opportunity to be both a performer and audience member of their own performance.

“It is a rare opportunity for a performer to watch yourself after the fact,” Jordan said. “It is a different perspective.”

“We’re dealing with little perfectionists,” Williams said, laughing. “They pour over their performances watching for little details. It’s like they are under a microscope. They do multiple takes of a scene and submit it.”

Dulcey Comeau, 15, of Elkridge, said she performs as many takes as she needs to get her video right.

“That part is nice,” Comeau said. “You work real hard and only see your video. Getting to see the video after it has been edited, when they merge it all together, is really nice to see.”

While its upcoming spring session will be completely virtual, CCTA is planning for all scenarios for its summer programs, Jordan said.

“We’re flexible,” Jordan said. “We are incredibly hopeful to do in-person programs but most likely will not be doing our typical summer with a cast of 60 and audience over 100.”

Even when the classes can be held in person again, virtual classes will not be abandoned, Jordan said.

“We very much see the benefits of it,” Jordan said. “It is a way to have access to us. It is a way to serve the community.”

“We’ve reached so many kids,” Williams said. “We had out-of-state kids log-in. Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Virginia, California.”

For Siena Lemke, 13, the ability to learn and perform with CCTV during the pandemic has been gratifying.

“It is definitely the most fun I have had in a long time,” Lemke said. “I’m definitely going to keep doing it, and I look forward to doing it in person on an actual stage.”

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