When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and extracurricular classes throughout Southwest Washington this spring, theater teacher Heather Lundy Kahl knew she would have to move in a different direction to help her tightknit group of students.
“I was very fortunate to have a group of students who felt very attached to my teaching style,” Lundy Kahl, founder of the Vancouver-based nonprofit Downstage Center Productions, said.
Like so many educators have done over the past few months, Lundy Kahl relied on teleconferencing platforms like Zoom to meet with her students.
“We’ve been meeting every Thursday on Zoom. At first, they were heartbroken, so I spent a couple hours every week just listening to them,” Lundy Kahl said. “I told them, ‘Theater will always survive. This tradition will survive. You are the storytellers and we’ll always find you. So, hang in there.'”
Weeks after moving her students to online classes, Lundy Kahl felt driven by the racial justice movement that erupted after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black father who died in police custody after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while three other officers stood by as witnesses videotaped the incident and cried out for police to help Floyd.
“In the midst of this social uprising, we were being told as educators and theater makers and artists that there is a huge segment of the population we’re (not reaching),” Lundy Kahl said. “I became very aware that many voices are not being elevated in theater classes, especially (in Southwest Washington).”
Wanting to include students who have been left out of the theater community including not only students of color but also youth who come from lower-income families as well as differently abled students from local schools for the deaf and the blind — Lundy Kahl kicked off her Pass the Mic initiative.
The goal was to raise money to help these non-traditional students experience theater classes.
“I’m looking for the kid who wants to be part of the arts,” Lundy Kahl said, “but who would never get this opportunity.”
Within just a few days of reaching out to contacts in the theater and education communities as well as the general Southwest Washington community, the Pass the Mic initiative raised $1,300.
Lundy Kahl was able to offer five scholarships for students in Southwest Washington hoping to attend her “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” August theater camp for students age 10 to 17, which normally costs $250 per student.
The camp will offer acting, directing and stagecraft workshops from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, Aug. 10-21, at the Liz Borromeo Dance Studio inside the cottage building at the Historical Academy, 404 E. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver.
Lundy Kahl is still hoping to fill two scholarship positions as well as two fully paid positions for the summer theater camp.
Currently, her plan is to offer in-person, small-group classes in a fully ventilated indoor room as well as in two outdoor spaces where students have plenty of room to socially distance. If requirements meant to stem the spread of COVID-19 change, Lundy Kahl said she will come up with a “Plan B” to make the camp work.
Lundy Kahl is now hoping to expand the “Pass the Mic” initiative to help other students experience all that theater has to offer.
“Our five-year goal is to have 100 kids fully funded,” she said.
Even further out, Lundy Kahl would like to see the Pass the Mic initiative raise $100,000 and bring even more non-traditional students into the world of acting, directing and stagecraft.
Having just completed a four-year stint with Riverside Performing Arts, an all-inclusive dance, theater and music academy in Vancouver, Lundy Kahl said she has found that being an educator often means stepping back to listen to what students are trying to say instead of just “talking at” them.
“If we can truly hear our students, really listen to them, we can learn from them,” Lundy Kahl said.
If the Pass the Mic initiative continues to be successful, Lundy Kahl hopes to reach out to non-traditional schools like the schools for deaf and blind students in Vancouver to ask students there, “What is important to you? What stories do you want to tell?”
“I want to help them get their voices heard in a new way,” Lundy Kahl said. “Theater can do that.”
Although based in Vancouver, Downstage Center Productions — billed as a nonprofit seeking to “create a revolutionary platform for theatrical education and performance (and) provide skills designed to develop confidence and insight, inspiring passion and courage to face the challenges of life, both on and off stage”– is open to students throughout Southwest Washington and has gained support from several Camas-Washougal theater educators and community members.
Gina Mariotti Shapard, a Camas High School teacher, founder and program leader of Camas High’s Integrated Arts & Academics and Camas resident, serves as the vice president of Downstage Center Productions’ board of directors.
“I joined the board of Downstage Center Productions because I love the mission of this organization, which offers an all-inclusive, theater education program for Southwest Washington,” Mariotti Shapard recently told the Post-Record. “As a high school teacher, I know that teens have a need to be creative and express themselves while exploring who they are and who they wish to become in a safe environment.”
Mariotti Shapard said she admires Lundy Kah’s instruction methods.
“She is a master at getting students to work effectively as an ensemble. And at the same time, she personalizes the learning for each student — affirming their strengths and providing just the right amount of challenge to help them grow,” Mariottie Shapard said. “A theater education goes beyond recreation. It develops empathetic people, which our society greatly needs.”
To learn more about Downstage Center Productions, visit the nonprofit’s website at acting101withhk.com. The nonprofit also is active on Instagram and Facebook. For those interested in pursuing the two available students scholarships for the August theater camp, email Lundy Kahl at acting101withHK@gmail.com.
“This artform is not going anywhere,” Lundy Kahl said. “We will also look to the storytellers … we will always look for narratives that entertain but also genuinely ask questions and genuinely reflect the community.”