Riverside’s ‘Will Power’ reimagined for virtual classrooms

Riverside Theater is providing arts education through a virtual series about Shakespeare’s “The Twelfth Night.”



Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

Since beginning in 2006, the Will Power series has brought many of Shakespeare’s works to the classroom. Ordinarily, the annual event involves the Riverside Theatre team visiting middle school classrooms in-person. This year, it’s been reimagined for online schooling as a YouTube series featuring stop motion animation and theatrical performances.

The series doesn’t require each video to be watched in order. Teachers can choose which videos they’d like to use in their classrooms, and the rest can be omitted without causing any confusion.

Crystal Marie Stewart, who acts in the series and co-designed the curriculum, said it’s easier for students to stay engaged in learning when the lessons are entertaining, especially during the pandemic.

“I really have a passion for arts integration, I think it’s super fun and underutilized, because people think you have to be like a famous actor or something to use acting techniques in your classroom, and that’s not the case,” she said.

Stewart is a teaching artist, a position that increases student engagement by using the arts to make traditionally “uninteresting” subjects more enjoyable.

Becoming a teaching artist wasn’t something Stewart had foreseen after graduating college. In fact, she said she didn’t know that the job existed until it was recommended to her while she was professionally performing in Shakespeare plays.

Stewart’s background in Shakespeare and love for integrating theater into learning made Will Power the perfect project for her. This year, they’ll be focusing on the comedy Twelfth Night.

“It’s been a while since I’ve created new content involving Shakespeare,” Stewart said. “My favorite part has been really unpacking Twelfth Night in a new format.”

While Stewart has experience in those areas, this project was the first time she’s been asked to put her skills to use in a digital format.

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“I’ve done video auditions and been in short films, but I haven’t worked on videos that are trying to educate. It’s been fun figuring that out,” she said.

Stewart said another unique challenge for this series revolved working around Iowa’s unpredictable weather. Filming for the series began in the fall, so getting footage before the snow hit was a concern. The group filmed outdoors so they could follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Filming was completed without any major issues arising. While Stewart misses visiting students in person, she said she’d be interested in continuing to make an online version of the series after the pandemic so that students who aren’t on their tour can watch as well.

Stewart’s co-creator, Christina Farrell, is also a teaching artist. Farrell said she’s also looking for the opportunity to connect with as many students as possible.

“One of the biggest struggles with online teaching is that some of the kids aren’t showing up to virtual learning and that they’re not fully engaged because that personal connection is lost,” Farrell said. “But with arts-based learning, there’s really an opportunity to connect. It’s enjoyable and creative.”

Farrell said it’s important to meet the students where they’re at with their learning to encourage them to stay engaged.

“We know that Shakespeare can be intimidating, both for students and adults, so our goal was to make aspects of Twelfth Night manageable,” Farrell said. 

To make it more manageable, Farrell created visual aids that were implemented into the videos using stop motion. She said she kept them fairly simple so that middle school students could create something similar.

“My expertise is really in creating experiences that connect to students. When creating the episodes, we think about what’s going to be meaningful to them, and what’s going to be relevant and engaging,” Farrell said.

Dominick Shults, Will Power’s video editor, said working on the series with Farrell and Stewart has been easy because of their shared vision.

“I think we all kind of ‘get it,’” Shults said. “We’re all on the same page, everything just clicks.