New theater teacher to direct virtual performances

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Theater teacher Sarah Thermond enters her first year at Palo Alto High School with plans to direct virtual performances in the fall due to school being moved online. Thermond said she heard about the open position from recently retired Paly theater teacher Kathleen Woods. “I happen to know Kathleen Woods,” Thermond said. “So she gave me a heads up that she was planning to retire this year. And I felt very positive throughout the whole process. I really liked everybody I met in the interviews.” Photo: Ethan Chen

Sophia Krugler, Managing Editor

Theater teacher Sarah Thermond enters her first year at Palo Alto High School with plans to direct virtual performances in the fall due to school being moved online. Thermond said she heard about the open position from recently retired Paly theater teacher Kathleen Woods. “I happen to know Kathleen Woods,” Thermond said. “So she gave me a heads up that she was planning to retire this year. And I felt very positive throughout the whole process. I really liked everybody I met in the interviews.” Photo: Ethan Chen

Under the guidance of a new theater teacher, the Palo Alto High School theater program will put on virtual performances — instead of in-person shows — this semester due to COVID-19.

The new teacher, Sarah Thermond, who worked for eight years at Saratoga High School before coming to Paly, said one of the main reasons she made the switch was because the position at Paly allows her to teach Drama full-time, while her position at Saratoga required her to teach both Drama and English to fill her schedule.

“I have a literature degree, and I’m really passionate about that as well,” Thermond said. “But trying to come up with all of those different pieces of curriculum, grading all of the different kinds of assignments, and trying to attend department meetings and be a contributing member of both was just a lot on my plate.” 

Thermond is faced with unprecedented challenges for her first year as a theater teacher at Paly, given that classes have been moved online due to COVID-19. Although the fall semester would normally consist of a small-scale project at the end of September followed by a larger performance in November, Thermond said she has adjusted the number and scale of performances to accommodate for performing online. 

Instead of putting on one large-scale production in November, Thermond said she plans to coordinate three shorter plays (“Murder by Poe,” “Clue” and “She Kills Monsters”) each with smaller casts, in hopes of avoiding confusion and keeping audiences more engaged given the online format.

“I would normally be wanting to include up to 40 actors or so in it [the fall play],” Thermond said. “And my experience with directing shows on Zoom is that it stops being easy for the audience to follow who characters are after you’ve got five or six on a screen.”

Senior Jonathan Sneh, who is taking Theater 4 Honors, said he views this change as an opportunity for more students to have larger roles. 

“In a regular show, you’d want to have people in the background moving around and really making the world feel alive,” Sneh said. “But now, everyone kind of gets a chance to act and have a role.”

Thermond, who directed virtual performances last spring at Saratoga, said one challenge of putting on a live, virtual performance is lag-time and Wifi issues. To address this concern, Thermond said she plans to integrate pre-recorded videos into the live performance during scenes that require precise timing and will utilize software that allows one person to control which videos are visible to the audience. Pre-recording some scenes will also solve problems caused by changes in scenery or the handling of unique props, Thermond said. 

According to Thermond, the smaller-scale September production will consist of four student-written short plays, some of which were planned to be a part of the One Acts performances last spring, which were canceled when school moved online. Although some students will have to adapt their work for a virtual setting, Sneh said he and a few other students wrote their short play, titled “Breakout Room,” with an online performance in mind.

Palo Alto High School senior Jonathan Sneh performs his monologue audition as Dupin from Murder by Poe for the camera of his bedroom. With Paly theater auditions and performances moved online for the fall semester, Sneh said he believes one challenge of performing virtually will be the lack of interaction with the audience. “There’s the cliché term, ‘acting is reacting,’” Sneh said. “It’s harder to react to something that’s happening on your screen than it is to react to them face to face.” Photo: Jonathan Sneh

“It all takes place in a breakout room,” Sneh said. “Instead of seeing what we can do with the physical space, now we’re going to explore what we can do with the online space. We’re gonna see how we can use sharing screens and turning off and on videos.”

Auditions for the fall performances concluded the first week of September and consisted of a pre-recorded monologue along with live auditions over Zoom, according to sophomore Erin Brady.

Brady and Sneh expressed similar concerns over performing for a virtual audience as opposed to an in-person one. 

“It [performing in front of an in-person audience] is just this game of catch, where I throw my energy to you, you throw the energy to me or to the audience, the audience throws it to me,” Sneh said. “Now that game of catch just straight up isn’t there. It’s like, who do I throw my energy to? This monitor?”

Despite the challenges distance learning poses for theater, Sneh said he considers his theater class, which often involves students getting out of their chairs and moving around their rooms, to be even more valuable with school moved online. 

“It gives me a nice break from sitting down … because there’s only so much of my attention you can capture through an online lecture,” Sneh said. “So the movement is a nice change of pace.”