By Nikayla Goddard, August 4 2020—
Wagonstage at containR wouldn’t be the same without the University of Calgary playwrights and actors that craft and perform two COVID-inspired shows for children aged 3 to 12 and their families. The theme, Summer of COVID-19, incited two playwrights, Aldona Jaworska and Czarina Zoleta, to create two fun performances that inspire children and families to be safe this summer while still enjoying what the season has to offer.
The Wagonstage Children’s Theatre has been in action since 1971, with performances taking place at Springboard Performance’s containR site in Sunnyside. Their collaboration with the U of C’s School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) allows UCalgary actors to perform in these settings, providing actors with opportunities to put what they learned in the classroom into action on stage.
Nicole Mion is the artistic director and executive producer for Springboard Performance. In 2008, there was a call at the winter Olympics asking for arts projects, encouraging artists to “Think wildly and imaginatively, but there’s no money and no facilities,” Mion said. That was the beginning of containR as an imagined facility made from repurposed shipping containers that hosts a variety of programming, including murals, performances, films, open jams, dance and theatre, circus events and more.
Wagonstage came out of a partnership between Springboard, containR and the University of Calgary. Frances MacDonald, cultural programming production assistant for Springboard, and Mion say that the performances are accessible and more down-to-earth because of the containR facility and nature of the in-park set up that allows for physical distancing. But even though distances are kept, the show is anything but boring and standstill.
“There’s a lot of audience participation, and it’s been designed for these times,” Mion said. “Having a place where we can […] gather and see performance and keep our distance […] and have fun together.”
Playwrights Jaworska and Zoleta explained their role in creating the performances after being asked to write fun and engaging short scripts, and the importance of having a fun outlet to express COVID safety through.
Jaworska is in her final year of graduate studies at the SCPA, Drama, Playwriting, and explained that the overall performance theme was meant to show how “humour could be used to deal with recovery from isolation and loneliness or coping,” she said through an email interview. “During these unprecedented times, everyone is striving to do their best when dealing with the challenges brought about by this new situation such as learning new daily routines and learning about the science behind the novel Coronavirus. To do all this in a fun way that would be interesting for children, I thought that venturing into the world of unseen could provide some insights into why we need to wash our hands with water and soap more often.”
Jaworska’s play, How Bubbles Helped Chase Away the Germs this Summer, takes “children into the world where a bumblebee and a lollipop are gigantic, and they could see the COVID virus, making it fun but also more real for them. To the rescue come the bubbles, making the COVID monster disappear,” she explained.
Zoleta just completed her Master of Fine Arts in Drama with a specialization in Playwriting, but was given the unique opportunity to write for Wagonstage. Her performance, Let’s Play, focuses on the COVID theme of frustration. Through the interactions of a family dog, who is vying for the daughter’s attention, and the daughter vying for her father’s attention as he works from home, Zoleta says the play explores COVID anxiety and topics of family turbulence.
“Not only were we expected to bring the fun to families during a time of crisis, but we also had to create a script that took into consideration the safety of the performers and the audience,” Zoleta wrote. “It was quite the challenge to be able to creatively adhere to health protocols (mask/social distancing) but also make sure that the play could be clearly communicated and enjoyed by spectators! As much as I love making audiences laugh, I’m a writer who loves exploring sensitive issues and making people think regardless of age. Even though I knew this show was for children, I wanted kids to connect to the piece on a heart level but still allow adults to appreciate the piece as well. Regardless of age though, I think all of us can relate to the feelings of frustration, disappointment and confusion that my play explores.”
Zoleta added that her play aims to bring out the “silver lining” of COVID isolation, which has brought many families closer together.
“In a time when it is so easy to get consumed with ourselves by ourselves, I wanted to write a story that encourages us to explore this pandemic from different perspectives: the eyes of a dog, a child and their parent. I hope that my story helps us better understand others, speak to the rollercoaster of emotions, and reminds us to focus on what and who truly matters while offering lighthearted laughs along the journey.”
Jaworska says that the main draw of the COVID plays come from giving children something fun to watch and interact with while still being educational. She stated that her play is important because “children learn by observing and participating, especially if they have fun doing this. A short play that engages the children could be an effective way to help them understand what surrounds them and why they need to wash their hands with water and soap to deal with the Coronavirus.”
Mion said that the program also provides engagement for the university students who are actors in the plays, explaining that there is no better way to receive feedback on your performance than the engagement and laughter of the children in front of you.
“Wagonstage brings professional opportunities for university students who want to have professional careers in the arts, and it’s a really great bridging program,” she said. “It’s a really great way to spend the summer and hone your skills with kids who are always an awesome audience to tell you the honest truth.”
As a playwright, Jaworska was also thankful for the collaborative opportunity and the ability to expand and hone her writing skills. She said that the collaborative effort between the playwrights and Wagonstage is reflective of how “everyone’s involvement is required to deal with the virus. My script was adapted to fit into the overall performance, making it a fun and safe way of involving the children into learning new things and sharing their knowledge about how to best deal with the Coronavirus.”
Zoleta had accolades to speak of for Wagonstage and containR, saying that “creating a play in a strange time with so many restrictions definitely required extra creativity, and it was wonderful to be able to bounce ideas off of director Jacqueline Russell and fellow playwright Aldona. After handing over the script, it has been wonderful to see how Jacqueline, the performers, the designers and the whole creative team could combine my story with Aldona’s, then bring the show to life!”
Wagonstage performances happen at the Springboard containR site in Sunnyside every Sunday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and every Thursday at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. from July 26 to August 30, weather permitting. Admission is “pay what you want” and it is highly recommended that families register for the scheduled events to guarantee seats. For more information, visit the SCPA website.