With state COVID restrictions easing and students returning to school buildings, drama programs at local high schools are looking to get back on the stage for in-person performances following a year of online productions.
High school students in the Albemarle County school division returned to in-person classes last month with the start of Stage Four, opening the door to spring drama performances.
That means moving performances outdoors, figuring out how to stage kisses when actors still need to stay six feet apart and working around COVID precautions that don’t allow props to be shared among cast members.
In Charlottesville, the division’s fine arts coordinator has been asked to develop a proposal to offer outdoor concerts based on Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest guidance for public events, city schools spokeswoman Beth Cheuk said.
On April 1, Northam officially relaxed some of the restrictions on gatherings.
At a recent city School Board meeting, board members asked about plans for in-person performances or recitals.
“Bars and restaurants are open; why can’t our children who need access to these resources be able to perform in our public schools like we’ve promised them for eight years?” board member Jennifer McKeever asked about end-of-year performances for graduating students.
Playwriting focusAt Monticello High School, drama teacher Madeline Michel decided against a virtual spring musical, focusing instead on the creation of student-written plays that can be performed next school year. However, she’s still looking for ways to bring students together safely.
Starting Thursday evening, Monticello students can participate in a weekly outdoor storytelling competition in the school’s courtyard. Submissions ranging from stand-up comedy to music are welcomed.
“There will be some lights, some microphones, some music and some storytelling, and that’s what we’re gonna do,” Michel told her students during a workshop last month. “… It’ll be masked and outdoors. Mitigation strategies will all be in place.”
Michel said she’s also hoping for a live performance outside at the end of the year in the school’s stadium.
Since the summer, several of Michel’s students have been gathering over Zoom to work on their own plays. These virtual workshops are led by Sophia Heinecke, a former student who now works in New York City, and Jessica Harris, a University of Virginia alumna who founded an arts nonprofit in Fluvanna County
The workshops have given students an outlet to express themselves and gather with one another amid the upheaval of the last year.
“I know that the summer was hectic in a weird kind of way because I didn’t have anything going on where I should have had something going on,” said Eden Radifera, a junior at Monticello. “It was really stressful. To have this as something stable that I went to every single week and that I enjoy doing, that I was doing it for myself and not for college applications, was particularly rewarding, and it just made the whole summer better.”
Radifera said it’s much more rewarding for students to work on their own pieces — “and then see it performed, especially when you’re working on it in a time where you can’t be physically together. It makes it more rewarding when you actually can do it safely.”
For Michel, the workshops have helped to keep her connected to students.
“Honestly, this is so beneficial for me because I learned so much,” she said. “I’m such a much better person than I would have been if I had never met any of these kids.”
For the fall, students were challenged to tell a story in one minute. The resulting videos were stitched together in a video posted online. This semester, students are writing monologues for “This is What You Need to Know,” which was performed virtually for the Virginia High School League Theatre Festival.
In the afterschool workshops, students work on their individual pieces and discuss other plays written by their peers. One student, Kyle Lee, focused his play, “Divorce,” on the dissolution of a marriage. Another group of students is working on “Unhinged,” the story of a girl growing up in a strict household and finding out who she is.
Lee’s a senior, and his play will be performed on the stage and videotaped over the summer.
Reese Bryan, a sophomore, said focusing on her own plays is preferable to a virtual performance. Bryan is part of the group writing “Unhinged.”
“I think I’d rather prepare something and work for a long time on it until we actually can perform it physically because I just think it’s more powerful than everybody just being on their own screen, and the interaction between characters is really important,” Bryan said.
For Will Miller, a senior, doing a play or musical over Zoom just doesn’t cut it.
“I see all of these problems that can happen when I imagine that,” Miller said. “I think the way that we’re tackling it is just a little easier because you’re removing a lot of the variables that could go wrong.”
Overall, Kayleigh Kalagher, a Monticello student, said the workshops and other opportunities this school year allow for variety and give students the chance to try different things.
“Whether that’d be like poetry or play or whatever because I know there are a lot of different people and a lot of different passions, and it’s definitely an effective way to expose everybody’s passions and let everybody have a chance to show what they can do,” Kalagher said.
At Western Albemarle, the stage and the still-intact “Addams Family” set greeted students last month when they returned to the school’s auditorium to start rehearsals for the spring musical, “Little Women.”
“Addams Family” was canceled in mid-March last year, the day before opening night, as the pandemic took hold. Northam ordered schools to close two days later. At the time, officials said the musical would be rescheduled.
“It was very emotional, especially because they did it before we did our dress rehearsal,” said Kali Bradley, a senior at Western Albemarle. “So we still got to do that dress rehearsal, but we were all doing it knowing that we weren’t going to get to actually perform. It was very hard. There were a lot of emotions.”
Bradley is the assistant director for “Little Women.” Rehearsals started as soon as students resumed in-person classes with the move to Stage Four.
“Little Women” will be run from May 21 to 23. The cast also will videotape a performance for online audiences.
After a year of online rehearsals and performances, Bradley said she had to brush up on some things, such as specific stage directions.
“Coming back to school has been weird, and it’s taking a lot of getting used to,” she said. “But I feel, especially with drama, it’s been much more beneficial than being completely virtual, especially with how our show ended last year.”
For Kathryn Steenburgh, the return to in-person rehearsals was welcomed.
“It’s super nice to get back to it because doing it online, it’s just not the same at all,” said Steenburgh, a senior at Western. “We don’t get to talk on breaks or anything. It’s much more awkward on Zoom.”
Drama students at Western have put on two productions online this school year, including “Silent Sky,” a play about the astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.
Steenburgh said they had sets at home, virtual backgrounds and costumes to enhance the online performances, which were streamed live over Zoom.
“It was fun but it was also not really ideal in a lot of ways,” she said. “It’s hard to get the interpersonal interaction that you want when you’re acting over Zoom because there’s a lot less connection.”
With online shows, they also had to deal with technology delays, connection issues and other challenges.
Steenburgh said she was glad that everything worked out to allow them to have a final performance at Western. In “Little Women,” she’s the Hag.
“If you asked me two months ago if I thought we were going to have a musical, I probably would have said no,” she said.
“Definitely not in person,” Bradley added.
To have an in-person musical, the team at Western will build a stage in the school’s bus loop. Bradley said that setup means there won’t be a pit band, and she’ll be responsible for playing the music.
She’s nervous about making sure that she plays the right music at the right time in the performance.
The Western crew also has to figure out how to power the operation, as actors will need to use microphones.
“We’re already not getting a senior year in the traditional sense, so it definitely is really important,” Bradley said. “I really want this show to go well and to be successful because it is our last show, and it is something that I know that everyone’s going to be working really hard on. So, fingers crossed about everything.”