Throughout the pandemic artists of all genres have shown us what it means to think outside the box, and instead of running out of ideas 15 months in, the creative community seems to be picking up steam.
Local playwright Jim Dalglish’s new play, “Teacher of the Year,” which is being presented episodically beginning Friday, May 28, was conceived as a work to be performed under the constraints of the pandemic and to be presented entirely online. In a statement, Mr. Dalglish explains how he decided to take things even further: “I decided to write a new play that could…not only accommodate social distancing, but also use new media to explore how the pandemic has altered the way humans have adapted to connect with each other.”
This statement couldn’t be more true. It felt perfectly natural to sit at home and watch the first few episodes of “Teacher of the Year.” Scenes with Miranda Jonté as 6th grade teacher Annie and her students were like flashbacks to last March when my own sons, then in grade 6, were introduced to Zoom learning by their educators, teachers who, like Annie, did their best to juggle both classroom teaching and help children to emotionally adjust to a new normal that was anything but.
Not only did watching the story unfold virtually and episodically feel normal, it felt compelling. Who hasn’t binge watched at least one series on Amazon Prime or Netflix in the past year?
I was immediately drawn in by the characters. The almost-deliriously enthusiastic teacher, fidgety kids, helicopter parents, the pragmatic and slightly menacing principal, the strained relationship of a mom and a stepmom. The characters come to life, their stories unfolding in 20-minute episodes that leave you wanting more.
The production quality of the performances I watched was excellent. In his statement Mr. Dalglish tells of how he used every bit of technology he could think of to pull off the production: multiple green screens; ring, box and umbrella lights; body doubles; mobile phone and computer cameras; high definition audio recorders; Camtasia and Quicktime Recorder for screen captures and video editing; Zoom, Slack, FaceTime and Google software for connectivity. I don’t know what half those things are, but I do know that the different technologies worked together seamlessly throughout the production. Scenes happen over FaceTime, through Zoom, and via texts and Facebook posts. Still others come to us as slideshow presentations and snippets of video. It all works together and never feels stilted.
And while the one drawback I’ve found to watching performances at home—that I get distracted by dirty dishes in my sink or a basket of towels in need of folding—that wasn’t the case for “Teacher of the Year.” The scenes are fast paced: you’ll want to watch and keep up. The only thing I found missing was not something lacking in the performances but rather my disappointment at not being able to share both heartfelt and humorous moments with other audience members.
In addition to Ms. Jonté, the show’s lead roles include Calvin Thompson as Devon, Bonnie Fairbanks as Principal Edwards, Darlene Van Alstyne as Shiela, Sara Sneed as Mrs. Gundersen and Nina Schuessler as Cass.
The show also features a large ensemble cast, and like many virtual performance these days, not everyone is local. Mr. Dalglish described only meeting online with Ms. Jonté and Mr. Thompson, as well as many of the young actors playing students and the adults playing school board members. “It seems insane to me that as director I never met some of my lead actors in person,” he said.
The play opens on the first day of virtual learning for Annie and her students. The school being closed, one of her first orders of business after checking in with students is the fate of her large, in-classroom aquarium, composed of fish from a local river. Annie, hopeful the shutdown will only last two weeks, wants the fish to stay. Principal Edwards, who views the project as smelling like sewage, wants everything to go. Later we learn that one of the students in Annie’s class is her son Akeem, who’s been sent to live with his father and stepmom rather than spending lockdown in Annie’s small apartment. Next up we hear Annie, who is less optimistic than her daughter about the outlook of the pandemic, check in with her.
There might be enough for 12 episodes just with the personalities and conflicts in the school but this is no ordinary school, it’s the Minnehaha Montessori School in Minneapolis, and the play’s action takes place both before and after the murder of George Floyd.
Mr. Dalglish chooses to complicate things even further: Annie’s mother Cass is an ICU nurse, her son Akeem is biracial, and her ex-husband and his wife think Akeem needs more Black culture in his education. The Greek Gods are “a bunch of white guys running around in bedsheets,” says Akeem in response to one school assignment.
“The best way to learn is through authentic experience,” says Annie to Principal Edwards early on in the series, and it’s evident, just by watching the first few episodes, that Mr. Dalglish plans to cover a lot of authentic experiences with “Teacher of the Year.”
“Teacher of the Year” is being told in 12 episodes, with the first two airing on Friday, May 28. Tickets are $25 ($20 for members of the center) and provide access to the entire series. Subsequent episodes will be available for viewing at any time following the initial Friday night broadcast. Anyone who purchases a ticket after the series has begun will also have access to future broadcasts as well as all previously released episodes. Once a ticket is purchased, a viewer may watch episodes as many times as the viewer likes simply by using the same link received at the time of purchase.
The play is a joint production of the Cotuit Center for the Arts and Eventide Theatre Company.
Tickets are available through the Cotuit Center for the Arts website.
“Teacher of the Year” will be available for purchase and viewing through July 2.