Taking the virtual stage

How Danielle Strnad took DramaWay online

Since 1999, Danielle Strnad (Social Service Worker program, graduating 1995) has helped scores of individuals or people of all abilities with special needs in the GTA find their voices through performance.

For many, DramaWay’s programming – which enables participants to explore their creative side through drama, dance and art – is essential in helping them increase their self-esteem and learn skills to help them function better in their daily lives.

READ: Finding a Voice Through Performance

So when the COVID-19 pandemic meant DramaWay’s in-person classes wouldn’t be possible, Strnad knew she had to shift all of its arts programming online. Now, DramaWay’s weekly classes take place through Zoom, and they’re even offering free workshops that are open to the community every Wednesday, geared and adapted for all abilities.

“Many of our families would typically have their child, youth or adult programs during the day, so it seemed only right to continue,” Strnad explains. “The participants were desperate for opportunities to connect and socialize with others. Some were even contacting us crying, saying they missed their friends and programs.”

Strnad says she’s even running workshops and classes beyond DramaWay’s regular sessions, working with organizations such as Community Living Toronto, Community Living Burlington and the Down Syndrome Association of Toronto. For World Down Syndrome Day on March 21, Strnad and her team organized a full day of virtual programming, featuring 25 performers showcasing their talents, and guest appearances from celebrities such as TV personality Jessi Cruickshank and chef Shahir Massoud.

“Although it was extremely challenging to coordinate and put together in such a short time, we were so happy it all came together,” says Strnad. “I have an incredible team and understanding families, so it all worked out wonderfully, and in the end, we got great feedback from the community.”

When the pandemic was first announced, DramaWay’s performers were rehearsing for their Annual Performance showcase – a yearly tradition that gives participants a rare opportunity to showcase their incredible talents to the public. Having the showcase cancelled, says Strnad, was a huge letdown to DramaWay’s many performers, staff and volunteers.

Fortunately, Strnad pivoted quickly, developing a new virtual showcase dedicated to everyday heroes. Performers would record their segments, or have a family member do so, to be aired during a day-long online event on June 13.

“Everyone was pumped to be performing online, just like their favourite celebrities,” says Strnad. “Our goal was to uplift and entertain on our big performance date, when we spotlighted over 120 performers.”

Shifting DramaWay’s programming and annual showcase event online hasn’t been without its challenges. Strnad says many of the performers’ parents aren’t tech savvy, or as comfortable using mediums such as FaceTime or Zoom to communicate. When it came to filming segments for the showcase, some families would drop off USBs or cameras to Strnad’s home, as they were unsure how to send large video files. Despite having limited staff and volunteers, Strnad and her team had to work extremely hard to gather and piece together all the material.

“It’s rare we work in this manner, as we typically write and produce an entire play or choreograph a full dance or vocal show, and then do it live,” says Strnad. “Yet, so many beautiful things have come out of working this intimately with people. We are getting glimpses of their home and how they live. We have awesome family members who at times join in while we are doing the online classes to support their performer and it adds an entirely new level.  As always, we are trying to see the positive and good in all of this. We feel more like a family than ever before.”

DramaWay is offering an array of online summer arts programming, and is recruiting volunteers to support its programs.