Robbinsville High School theater director Alison Sussman and her students were a little overwhelmed this summer. Like millions of other people, there was a lot to be overwhelmed by—COVID-19, the coming school year, a lot of uncertainty. So they decided to channel that into their work.

“The pandemic, our spring shutdown, the ongoing protests in response to systemic racism, all the negativity on social media, the rise in hate crimes…we knew we couldn’t ignore the world around us as we approached our show, if for no other reason than the fact that we had no idea how or when we’d be able to produce it,” Sussman said.

Enter a classic. With a twist.

The RHS Players decided to produce William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The students performed the play virtually last month.

“It gave us the flexibility to deal with all of our uncertainties while also offering us the ability to explore the nature of hatred versus love and acceptance,” Sussman said. “The play turned out to be exactly what we needed on both counts. The themes of the play gave us an opportunity to dialogue about racism and other prejudices—bias is very much at the heart of this play. We began our rehearsal process by discussing as a cast and crew why the Capulets and Montagues hate one another and, just as importantly, why Juliet and Romeo love one another despite the ongoing enmity between their families.”

The students put on their production Dec. 21 through YouTube. And that was an adventure in itself, Sussman said.

“My background is entirely in live theater, and, when I got my degree, none of our current technology existed,” she said.

Fortunately, she had some help. Her colleague, Nicole Torno, has experience with film. Torno’s husband, Aaron, is skilled with photography, video and video editing. A student took film courses at Mercer County Community College last year as part of the dual enrollment program.

With their expertise, everything ran relatively smoothly. Production meetings and rehearsals were held online starting in September. Soon, they were able to meet outside to film while following CDC guidelines.

“Then the COVID-19 cases rose, and meeting outside to film became problematic,” Sussman said. “We were able to change course and rethink how to produce the rest of the film. You’ll see as you watch that we used a variety of methods to capture the story—live filming together outside, filming scenes over Zoom, filming scenes individually and stitching them together—whatever worked to move the story forward. And, conveniently, the play is set during a time of contagion, which causes Friar John to be forced to quarantine and prevents him from delivering Lawrence’s note to Romeo in Mantua. Well, we set our play in a fictitious Verona in our time of pandemic which allowed us to justify many of our storytelling choices.”

Virtual shows have their advantages and disadvantages, Sussman said. The theater students and staff “desperately” miss being with each other—and with their audiences—in person.

“Theater is an ensemble art form,” Sussman said. “Most of us do it because making art together brings us joy, and there is no better feeling than sharing it with a live audience.”

It’s been difficult for the students who don’t perform, too. The crew is unable to design, build and paint sets, hang and focus lights, call a show from the booth.

But Sussman said they, like everyone else, are adapting.

“We’ve found ways to keep everyone engaged and involved,” she said. “We’re all learning new skills that expand our abilities and allow us to make more art. Our staff tech director, Matt Brady, and my student teacher this fall who has a degree in technical theater, Megan Beres, created online workshops for the students to keep practicing the skills they’ll need when we go back to making live theater together.”

There are advantages to virtual shows, though. Sussman said it’s been enjoyable to reach a wider audience.

“Family and friends from far away can now see what these students create,” she said. “And any work that is outside of copyright (like our improv shows, student written one acts, and Shakespeare) can stay online.”

For the most part, that seems to be the case for the theater industry nationwide, too. Countless performers and crew members have lost not only their ability to perform live, but also their jobs on top of everything. That’s why the students decided not to charge for their performances.

Instead, they’ve been asking virtual audience members to donate to one of several charities: Broadway Cares/Actors Equity Fights AIDS, Artists Striving to End Poverty, the Actors Fund for Everyone in Entertainment and the Trevor Project. Three of the organizations are offering support to those out of work in the industry due to COVID-19, while the Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning young people under 25 years old.

“Given the environment in which we currently live, we took this opportunity to create theater for social justice, to learn new skills that will assist us in our increasingly digital world, and (perhaps most importantly) to allow us to stay connected socially and healthy emotionally through creating art together,” Sussman said. “Our marketing and dramaturgy team has put together a beautiful website that offers resources and lessons linked to the show and to the issues we chose to focus on in our production.”

In addition to Romeo and Juliet, the RHS Players also hosted a virtual improv cabaret in December. They have a few more performances planned throughout the school year, Sussman said.

Knowing that has been beneficial for her and for her students.

“The goal is always the same—try to give the students as close to a normal experience as we can get so that they can continue to connect with each other socially and emotionally,” she said. “Theater is really important to the mental health of many of us within the program during normal times. Given how challenging this time is for everyone’s mental health, we definitely couldn’t lose theater.”

And they certainly don’t plan to lose it anytime soon.

“Honestly, I know we all hope things go back to normal for live theatre as soon as possible —not just for us, but for the entire industry,” Sussman said.”We will definitely continue to take advantage of the virtual components that benefit the arts and education, though. The ability to work with artists from all over the world at any moment is likely to change theatre and theatre education forever.”