As 2021 began, a Morehead State faculty member and alumna earned a prestigious award for her inventive teaching methods during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Octavia Biggs (Class of 1987), director of MSU’s Little Theatre Company, received the Prize for Innovative Teaching by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) and the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF).
The award was presented during KCACTF Region IV Virtual Conference, held Feb. 4-7. The award is given to a faculty member in the region who has demonstrated excellence in teaching innovation concerning student success in pedagogy and theatre arts.
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the theatre industry, which relies on live performances and people being close to one another in theaters. However, Biggs and her colleagues found a creative solution to the problem. In November, The Little Company presented the play “Treasure Island,” based on the classic children’s book by Robert Lewis Stevenson. The performances were staged outdoors at MSU’s Challenge Course, a ropes course located outside the Recreation and Wellness Center. Biggs and her assistant, Corinne Campagna (Class of 2011), started researching over the summer to explore ways to hold live performances while still obeying COVID restrictions regarding social distancing.
“Doing the show outside masked was the first decision made, then I was thinking about how an audience could view the show and I thought, ‘what if they stayed in their cars and it was like a drive-in movie theatre performance, offering safety to everyone?'” Biggs said.
A parking lot facing the Challenge Course allowed the audience to have a front-row seat at performances while staying safe and socially distanced. Audio from the play was broadcast so that audience members could tune their radios in to hear the dialogue.
Biggs and her team worked with the Recreation and Wellness Center staff, Facilities Management, University administrators, and other campus agencies to stage the production. The department recently graduated a record number of students, and Biggs said there were not enough student set designers. So, she called on several alumni whose jobs had been impacted by the pandemic to help design the performance. Biggs said her students benefitted from working with alumni because it gave them a different perspective.
“MSU Theatre graduated one of their largest classes from the department and so our design pool was very low. Finding designers became an issue so, I decided to help a few alumni that had lost their jobs to COVID and hire them as guest designers,” she said. “Each one of these alumni brought an energy to the production that was infectious, and they quickly became advocates for encouraging the arts during a pandemic. They fired up the students and encouraged them to remember how fortunate they were to be doing live theatre during a pandemic when hundreds of thousands of artists are out of work all over the world.”
While staging a production during the pandemic presented numerous challenges, Biggs said it offered multiple learning opportunities for her students.
“Theatre is collaborative. It also is a huge vehicle for creative problem solving; I love the challenge of thinking creatively. This is truly an opportunity for us to re-evaluate and keep these new concepts of teaching and producing theatre and then challenge and assess where we are with each situation and act accordingly,” Biggs said.
During the spring semester, the Little Company did a virtual tour of “Treasure Island,” providing packages to educators that included a Paper Theatre production of the show and a show-themed virtual workshop and study guide. Biggs will be working with the Lexington Children’s Theatre’s Shooting Stars Youth Theatre over the summer and has big plans for The Little Company’s 2021-22 season.
“Our fall mainstage show will be an adult edgy show, hopefully, and our tour will be a unique version of ‘Rapunzel.’ So, it is all very exciting for sure,” she said.
For more information about The Little Company, visit www.moreheadstate.edu/thelittlecompany.