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State of the Arts Part VI: Performing Arts Education

By Susan L. Peña

State of the Arts Part VI: Performing Arts Education

Throughout the country, the performing arts have taken a huge hit as their venues have been closed down during the pandemic. This six-part series, inspired by the Reading Musical Foundation, will visit our own performing arts community—theaters, musical organizations, presenters, and educational/performing institutions—to see how they have been coping, and what their plans are for 2021 and beyond.

BCTV is collaborating with local journalists to bring you the stories of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic. This media partnership is made possible in part by the support of The Wyomissing Foundation.


For performing ensembles, the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting closures has been damaging livelihoods, but for organizations that provide performing arts education, it can present a threat to their students’ futures as professional artists.

Music, theater and dance students need classes to build and grow their technique and opportunities to perform in front of audiences to build confidence and connect with their community. Interruptions for months at a time during their training can be disastrous (as they are for athletes).

We took a look at three such entities—Berks Ballet Theater Conservatory of Dance, Berks Youth Chorus, and the Yocum Institute for Arts Education—to find out how they have been handling the pandemic. Fortunately, all three have managed to keep students working on their arts and presenting performances online. Despite the challenges, the educators are determined to keep everyone on track, and many students are committed to improving and performing no matter what.

Berks Ballet Theatre Conservatory of Dance

Faith Hartman, a member of BBT, in class.

Like most dance companies, BBT is associated with a studio. It was founded as La Petite Ballet by Carol Ennis in 1976, who owned and directed a dance studio in various locations until 2012, when she sold the studio to Nathan Bland.

The company had evolved into BBT, a pre-professional ensemble, and the studio is now a full-fledged conservatory with a pre-professional program, along with classes for young children through adults who love dancing.

Since its beginning, BBT has performed an annual “Nutcracker” ballet, and this tradition continued in December 2020 with a one-hour virtual production, premiered Dec. 19 and available through Jan. 1. BCTV broadcast it on Christmas Eve and Christmas day.

“We decided to try a virtual version,” BBT artistic director Kelly Barber said. “It made us get more creative, and we sold tickets. It did well (although we knew we wouldn’t make much money). We were able to reach people all over the country, including relatives who got to see the girls dance for the first time, and alumni who could see it from as far away as Alaska. So we reached a whole different audience.”

The all-female cast, wearing beige masks, were filmed by Jason Hugg (a photojournalist and owner of Hugg Media Group) in the empty Scottish Rite Cathedral in West Reading, Barber said. A voice-over actor was hired to narrate the Act 1 party scene over clips of past productions of that segment. Then the current company danced the “Land of Snow” scene from Act 1 and all of Act 2, including solos by company members Faith Hartman as Clara, Emily Brossman as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Gretchen Kimmel as the Snow Queen.

Jessica Bealer, a member of BBT, in class.

Barber said she was in the midst of rehearsals for BBT’s spring performance, which would include the second act of “Giselle,” when, on March 13, she found that the GoggleWorks, where BBT has its studios, would be closed that weekend.

“My first reaction was indignation,” Barber said, laughing. “I was saying we’re going to miss a weekend of rehearsal; we can’t miss two days!”

Then she and Bland, ballet master and resident choreographer for the company, realized they would have to cancel that performance, and the annual student recital.

“Nathan jumped on it right away,” she said. “Less than a week later all the teachers recorded video classes.”

“We had just come back from the Youth America Grand Prix (dance competition), and we filmed for eight hours,” Bland said. “We created our virtual studio, and every class level had a catalogue of classes the could link to from home.”

That worked for a while, he said, with students making do with kitchen or bedroom floors, furniture as barres and only a screen for company. But soon they switched to Zoom classes, in which the teachers could give students feedback.

“It taught everyone about adaptability,” he said. “The pre-professional students learned that even though it might not be the best situation, they can still train.”

Over the summer, they began bringing students back into the studio, where the classrooms were set up with live webcams and large TV screens for those who chose to stay home. They were meticulous about wearing masks, social distancing and wiping down the barres.

“Everyone is good with the masks,” Bland said. “Even the tiny ones (age 2 and 3).”

Backstage at BBT’s “Virtual Nutcracker Suite.”

Keeping the classes consistent and attending competitions when possible resulted in the pre-professional students maintaining or even improving their technique, he said. One senior was even offered a talent-based scholarship to a major dance program during the pandemic.

One positive aspect of this heavy use of technology, Bland said, is that students “don’t have to be in a city with a studio to learn dance. That’s something I want to continue, because access is privilege.”

For example, a student from out-of-state joined the BBT Zoom classes because she lives two hours from a dance studio.

Barber said classes are being held as usual now, including Saturday company classes, and she plans to present a spring ballet in April, possibly live. But “we know how to do it virtually if necessary. We’re trying to figure out what’s feasible. We’ll be starting the rehearsal process in the next couple of weeks.”

Bland said the student recital will be held this year “one way or another,” to avoid the disappointment last year (partially made up for with free ice cream).

Barber said she is “grateful” that the 12-member company has stuck with it. “They have wanted to be in the studio and parents have been supportive.”

Thanks to a strong board, with an “amazing president” (Christopher Kunkle), BBT has managed to stay afloat financially, with generous donations.

For information on BBT, or to donate, visit www.berksballettheatre.com.

Yocum Institute for Arts Education

Since moving from Wyomissing to its new, state-of-the-art building at 3000 Penn Ave. in West Lawn, the Yocum Institute has been expanding its programs and its outreach, as well as presenting student and professional performances in its black-box theater.

The Yocum is overseen by executive director Susan Rohn and artistic director Beverly Houck, who also heads PrimaryStages Productions, a program providing quality children’s theater by students and professional adults.

In addition to offering classes and performance opportunities for all ages in theater, dance and music, the Yocum holds classes in fine arts, including regular exhibitions. It also has a thriving preschool/kindergarten and a summer camp program.

When Covid-19 arrived, the Yocum’s annual (and only) fundraiser, Dancing With the Reading Stars, held each May, had to be canceled. But otherwise, many of the programs continued, according to Rohn.

“We could have the theater groups and still have safety,” she said. “Transparency has been a priority for us. Our enrollment is pretty strong, but our expenses for cleaning have tripled.”

“In the early part of the pandemic, the dance department went virtual for their classes, and we offered Zoom improv classes in the theater department,” said Houck.

During the in-person summer camp programs, she said, they hired people to be in charge of wiping down surfaces and enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing. Theater students produced a virtual “Alice in Wonderland.”

Yocum Institute performance of “Alice in Wonderland,” Zoom curtain call

Rohn said the Yocum had to cancel its exhibits last spring, but in September they held a virtual exhibit on their website called “Hope Inside Change,” with discussions and interviews with the individual artists.

In December, PrimaryStages presented “A Christmas Carol” for a 25-percent-capacity audience, five locations for dressing rooms for the 37-member cast, and wipes and hand sanitizers hidden in the actors’ props and clothing for use during the performance. They were able to do two performances before the December Covid-19 surge shutdown.

“The kids from families who choose to attend in-person and do things intensely have a high level of commitment,” Houck said. “The 8 and 9-year-olds did two 10-minute plays, the middle-schoolers did ‘Shakespeare to Go,’ and the oldest teens did ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ which was really ambitious.”

Rohn said this year’s Annual Senior High School Juried Art Exhibit (Jan. 31 to Feb. 15) has 100 pieces of work on display, from all over Berks County, and can be seen on the Yocum website.

The Yocum has more theatrical performances planned for the spring 2021 season, thanks to technology and some valuable help from Wilson High School senior intern Giani Clarke, whose videography, photography and stage-management skills were polished in “A Christmas Carol,” Rohn said.

Yocum Institute performance of “A Christmas Carol.”

The Young Performer Series will present a virtual “Tinkerbell,” featuring seven girls from around the community, on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 20 at 2 p.m. These ticketed performances will be live-streamed on the website only at those scheduled times.

PrimaryStages will venture another live performance in March, of “Dragons Love Tacos,” based on the children’s book by Adam Rubin, with limited seating and plenty of safety precautions. Local composer Chris Heslop has created music for a small ensemble, and there will be live music and a Dancing Dragon Taco Party, Houck said.

The production will open March 20 and run for two weekends (see the website for dates and times).

“We have to keep hope alive and show that we can go on,” Houck said. “The arts have gotten us through the pandemic.”

For more information and to donate, visit www.yocuminstitute.org.

Berks Youth Chorus

Amanda Svetlak, executive director of Berks Youth Chorus

When Amanda Svetlak joined the staff of Berks Youth Chorus in April 2020, and took the place of executive director Dail Richie (retiring after 23 years of service) in July, the pandemic had already halted normal operations.

“It was very different from what I had imagined in March,” Svetlak said. “We committed to going virtual right away for the whole season. We would rather close our doors completely than risk the health of our students. And they needed to have certainty with BYC (rather than opening and closing again); kids need stability and structure.”

BYC was founded by Donald Hinkle in 1992 as Berks Classical Children’s Chorus, with the aim of encouraging excellence in choral singing for school-age children and offering many performance opportunities, along with a music education curriculum. The name changed in 2012, and since that time the organization has added a commitment to outreach and diversity to its mission.

BYC comprises a training chorus, “All-Stars” (grades 3 and 4, directed by Rachel Ohnsman); the Chorale (grades 5 through 8); and the MasterSingers (grades 9 through 12), under the overall music direction of Sam Barge, who conducts the entire ensemble.

Hinkle, who had retired as artistic director in 2005, passed away on April 3, 2020, and BYC created a virtual choir video, including present chorus members and alumni, of the group’s signature song, “Blessing,” by Katie Moran Bart, to honor his memory. This is still available to view on the BYC website.

From then on, Svetlak said, the goal was to design a program that would keep the students engaged in singing and music education, while helping them to be “much more community-oriented.”

In May, Svetlak brought in BYC alumni now working in the music field to give free virtual workshops. These Home Studio Creative Sessions were on topics not normally covered in music education, such as “Expression and Songwriting,” by Ohnsman; “Vocal Technique for Style Diversity,” by Hannah Schreffler; and Alyssa Lahoda’s workshop on musician wellness, including handling performance anxiety. These and more are continuing to help students learn from home.

But because “the best part of performing is the performing itself—that experience is tangible,” Svetlak said, she and the staff decided the students needed some projects they could work on together.

They had meetings with the kids, who came up with ideas for what they could do to connect with each other and the community. They suggested honoring first responders and, in non-Covid times, performing for nursing homes, among many other ideas.

In May, for National EMS Week, they created a Zoom performance of “You Are a New Day,” released on the BYC Facebook page for local EMTs, and they also sang virtually for local nurses (“And God Shall Wipe Away All Tears”) during National Nurses Week.

“We’ve added a philanthropic segment to our curriculum,” Svetlak said. “Some of the students are 9 years old and they’re learning about music management, the meaning of ‘overhead’ (and much more). They understand that they can sing because of what other people do. They’re navigating GuideStar (a guide to nonprofits), and learning elements of philanthropic and nonprofit management.”

In the fall, she said, they chose four or five organizations that support people affected by Covid-19, researched them, and voted on which one they wanted to support. They chose the United Way, and under their “Chorus for Causes” program, they presented a virtual benefit concert and pledged to give 50 percent of their donations to the Berks County United Way. They presented the organization with $405.

“Music is so powerful; the arts are so powerful,” Svetlak said. “You have a platform, and they’re seeing that you can use it for good.”

On Feb. 15, BYC will be presenting another “Chorus for Causes,” this time to benefit the PA Immigration Resource Center in York.

In the spring, they will be having a Women in the Arts celebration, during which “we will interview as many women involved in the arts as possible,” Svetlak said. “We will also support an institution which supports women in the arts.”

She said BYC is making an effort to attract more students by eliminating the auditions this year, expanding the repertoire to include more contemporary and diverse works, and by finding ways to give the kids ownership of the organization.

“Covid has affected us negatively and positively,” Svetlak said. “It forced us to think outside the box.

“We exceeded expectations for development (donors). People get on board when you’re doing something worthwhile. We all know it’s a dire time, but we’re celebrating what we’re doing for the kids and the community. We came to a point where it was bringing a bit of light and a smile to the community.”

For more information, to donate, and to hear “Blessing,” the tribute to Donald Hinkle, visit www.berksyouthchorus.org. To hear the fall concert, visit https://www.facebook.com/berksyouthchorus/videos/388012839122414.