The Austin Chronicle

Summer Break Theatre's COVID-Era Comedy

Area educators deliver a timely lesson in their original work Going the Distance

By Robert Faires, July 24, 2020, Arts

Maybe you've heard a little something about schools reopening and if they should and what it will mean for the students and what doctors think about it and what parents think and what pundits think and what Betsy DeVos thinks and so on and so forth. Seems like everybody is getting to weigh in on the situation except the folks who will actually have to walk into the classrooms every day and do the teaching, coronavirus or no coronavirus.

Well, in Going the Distance, the teachers get their say. This original production from Summer Break Theatre focuses on a crew of eighth-grade educators at a fictitious Texas middle school, who are still teaching remotely this fall but planning their transition to in-person classes in the spring. Do they have thoughts on the matter? You can count on it – and you can count on those thoughts being authentic. Because everyone working on this production is a teacher.

Summer Break is a company of, by, and for teachers. It was launched to provide a creative outlet for educators who love theatre but can't do it during the school year because, well, school. Such drama-deprived instructors are legion, as became clear when teachers from school districts in Austin, Round Rock, Georgetown, Hutto, and Jarrell signed on to help Summer Break mount John Cariani's dark suburban comedy Cul-de-Sac. That show, which ran for three nights at Hyde Park Theatre last July, left the teachers hungry for more.

So Summer Break planned another show for this July and had the play picked and a run booked when the coronavirus crisis crushed the possibility of a live production. Given the gravity of the pandemic and their experiences in the last months of the school year, the teachers wondered if they should even do a show. But then they realized that the pandemic and their experiences in the last months of the school year were the reasons they should do a show. In a play, they could speak directly to the coronavirus crisis' impact on education as they'd witnessed it firsthand and felt it personally. And out of this came Going the Distance.

The play takes the form of that mode of communication teachers had long grown accustomed to/weary of by May: the Zoom call. Its characters gather on a series of dreaded staff meeting calls (Professional Learning Community sessions, to use the jargon), and between those scenes are sprinkled more intimate ones with just two characters sharing their personal POVs. In developing the play, teachers worked from an outline and characters established by Ria Ferich and Courtney Wilson, but they had ample room to improvise, which let them draw on the true-life disconnectedness and anxiety and frustration and burnout that have overwhelmed them since the COVID-19 wave hit. But – and this is a major but – at the same time that they were revealing that heavy reality in education right now, the teachers wanted to make the play itself lighthearted. Producer Maggie Bell calls Going the Distance "a satire, with elements of farce" and says it "resembles a school-centered telenovela of sorts." That fictitious school where the play's set? It's Buck E. Middle, sponsored by a certain ubiquitous chain of travel centers (wanna guess the mascot?) – a dig at the insidious corporatization of the school system. (Another is that the educators get schooled in best teaching practices by a private company of non-teachers.)

So even in this dark time for theatre, Summer Break has managed to make something original – and it's managed to find an original way to present it, too. The first of its two prerecorded "performances" will screen at the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In in the Mueller neighborhood. The hourlong play will be preceded by videos of new music from local soul musician Ray Prim and humor from Dallas stand-up Kc Mack, who knows how to mine jokes from school because he's a teacher himself. Snacks will be provided by Summer Break sponsor Austin's Pizza. That will be Sunday, July 26, at 9pm, but for those who can't get to the drive-in, Summer Break is offering a second presentation on YouTube Monday, July 27, at a more teacher-friendly hour: 7pm.

And speaking of teacher-friendly, Summer Break has launched a campaign to aid teachers in purchasing classroom supplies without dipping into their own pockets. They're raising funds for gift cards they can give to teachers, and H-E-B has led the way by donating $200 to the campaign. If you want to learn more about the campaign and Summer Break Theatre and Going the Distance – and we all know the importance of lifelong learning, right? – visit Class dismissed!

Going the Distance

Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In, 2103 E. M. Franklin
Sun., July 26, 9pm
Running time: 2 hrs.

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