Performing In A Pandemic: Taking The High School Play Online

Jun 13, 2020
Originally published on June 14, 2020 2:39 pm

Among the many losses this school year was the chance for students to shine on stage in the classic end-of-the-year theater production. Yet teachers and students across the country turned misfortune into opportunity, creating memorable plays and performances that will live on — online.

For many student performers, there was that one week, back in March, where everything shifted. One moment everyone was at school, going to class and hanging out with friends ... and then suddenly they were at home, social-distancing and trying to figure out online learning.

At Zeeland High School in western Michigan, that was THE week. The week they were to perform — onstage — the annual spring musical.

David Miller, the school's theater director, said they were one of the lucky ones. His students actually got one full show in before all the schools in Michigan shut down. He says many of his colleagues at other schools never got that far.

Zeeland sophomore Ellie VanEngen says she and the other performers initially held out some they would get to perform again, but when they got off the stage it became clear the whole show was off, cancelled.

Ellie remembers everyone leaving "with piles of clothes in their arms, as much as we could carry."

That abrupt end of the spring musical left Miller and his students with one big question: What about the school play? They hadn't even held auditions yet, but the students were adamant: they wanted to do something.

So Miller decided to turn their on-stage version of "Radium Girls" into a radio play. To stay true to form, they held auditions over Zoom, with the cameras off.

"My dog actually came into the room and knocked my phone over!" Ellie says. "And I was so freaked out, but luckily we didn't have to be seen so I was like, 'phew it's OK,' and I finished the piece."

And it did end up OK — Ellie got the part she wanted!

The students rehearsed for a couple weeks and until they were ready to record. For Ellie, it wasn't the big performance she'd envisioned on stage, with her parents and all her classmates there, but she says it was a cool experience to just work with her voice to convey emotion.

Of course, the Zeeland High Players weren't the only students who improvised this season. At Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy in Arizona, Michael Levin's students took their plans to stage the classic Arthur Miller play "The Crucible," and turned it into a series of short horror films.

Levin says he had just cast his students in "The Crucible" when their school shut down. At first, he and the students weren't sure how to frame it. After some workshopping, they began to connect with the central themes of Miller's classic: fear, anxiety, hysteria.

So they set out to adapt the play. They moved it to modern times, a reflection of what it's like living through a global pandemic.

Radio plays and horror films — that's not at all what the classes at either school had envisioned, but in the end, all the students really wanted was a chance to perform.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now. Among the many casualties of the school year was the chance for students to shine on stage in the annual end-of-the-year school play. But across the country, teachers and students turned misfortune into opportunity and created memorable productions that will live on online. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo reports.

SEQUOIA CARILLO, BYLINE: Do you remember that one week in March? When the week started, everyone was at work, at school, out and about. And then, by the end of that week, everything had changed. Well, for Zeeland High School in western Michigan, that was the week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) You may feel (unintelligible) and angry...

CARILLO: The annual spring musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) (Unintelligible) and grown-ups are a fraud.

DAVID MILLER: I'd actually called my principal and just asked, are we going to be able to perform for the rest of the week? And, you know, there was that slight pause. And she's, like, I'm just not sure.

CARILLO: David Miller is the school's theater director, and he said they were actually one of the lucky ones. They got one full show in before Michigan schools shut down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) I love you.

ELLIE VAN ENGEN: And we just kind of had a really fun dance party before because even though it was really stressful, we still had to go out there and put on a good show, especially if this was going to be our last one.

CARILLO: Sophomore Ellie Van Engen (ph) said they held out some hope that they would get to perform again. But it quickly became clear that the whole show was off. So that left Miller and his students with one big question - what about the school play?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Our story begins in an abandoned factory. The year is 1949.

CARILLO: Miller and the students decided to turn their version of "Radium Girls" into a radio play.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PLAY, "RADIUM GIRLS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Papa?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Over here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) This - this is where I saw her last.

CARILLO: But before they could perform it, they had some obstacles. For one thing, they hadn't even held auditions yet.

MILLER: They signed out their audition form, and then I would pair them up on Zoom and say, all right, you're reading for this character. You're reading for this character. OK. Now go.

ELLIE: My dog came into the room and, like, knocked my phone over. And I was, like, so freaked out. But luckily, we didn't have to be seen. So I was, like, it's OK. And then I just, like, finished the piece.

CARILLO: And it ended up OK because Ellie got the part she wanted. So they rehearsed for a couple weeks, and then they were ready to record. It wasn't the big performance she'd envisioned - on stage with her parents and all her classmates. But...

ELLIE: It was actually a really cool experience to get to just work on voice because when you're doing it over a radio show, that's all you get.

ELLIE: And the Zeeland High players aren't the only students who've had to improvise this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As John Hale) My name is John Hale, minister of Beverly.

CARILLO: At Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy in Arizona, Michale Levin’s (ph) students took their plans to stage the classic Arthur Miller play "The Crucible" and turned it into a series of short horror films.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) My mother told me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) My mother told me.

CARILLO: Levin says that, in the midst of a pandemic, that choice seemed logical.

MICHALE LEVIN: I met with Advanced Acting the day after spring break. Everybody showed up. There are 20 members. And everybody said, let's do this.

CARILLO: He had just cast his students in "The Crucible" when their school shut down. At first, he and the students weren't sure how to frame it.

LEVIN: It got me to thinking about "The Crucible." And "The Crucible" is, you know, these characters are suffering fear and anxiety, confusion, hysteria. And I thought, OK, now we're onto something.

CARILLO: So they set out to adapt the play, put it in modern times, mirroring the pandemic they're all living through. Radio, film - it's not what the classes at either school had envisioned. But in the end, that didn't really matter to the students.

ELLIE: Because it was a sense of accomplishment that we were able to figure out how to still put on a show and go with the plan that we had at the beginning of the year but different.

CARILLO: Sequoia Carillo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.