For students of the theater, the play’s the thing.
Performers have long seen the stage as that place where they go to work, to entertain, and to embody their passion for artistic creation.
It’s true that the coronavirus pandemic has taken stages away from performers over the past 12 months. But creators gotta create, and students and staff at Hopewell Valley Central High School have risen to the challenge of making art in a time when people could not gather indoors or in groups.
Like performers around the world, they have embraced new ideas and new technologies that make it possible to go “on stage” again — even if their stages are virtual ones.In November, for instance, Central High School found a way to produce not one but two versions of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest.
Two separate casts of students donned period costumes provided by the school and, working at home and, often, alone, recorded their performances. The recordings were then edited together by local theater professional Damian Bartolacci and broadcast online (where they can still be viewed on the Bulldog TV YouTube channel).
The students are hard at work now rehearsing for their spring production of a musical version of Little Women, the novel by Louisa May Alcott.
If all goes according to plan, they will indeed take to the stage of the Performing Arts Center to deliver this performance — which will give seniors that one last chance to grace the actual stage before graduation.
The school has deemed it safe for the students to share the stage for Little Women, with some restrictions in keeping with Covid-19 protocols as they stand today. Students will still have to wear masks, which will make singing all but impossible and necessitate prerecording of all musical numbers.
But the students will get to perform much of their roles on stage and together, a luxury they have not enjoyed for more than a year.
Although the students are able to assemble on stage, it will still be too early to allow large crowds to gather in the PAC to watch a live performance. So Little Women, like Earnest, will be recorded and broadcast online.
“It might not be what it normally looks like,” says Katie Rochon, theater teacher and director of CHS’ theater productions. “But it’s less about the final product and more about the process. They’re still getting the process, even if the final product turns out to be something different from what we would normally produce.”
Rochon says that if you can say one thing about theater people, it’s that they are creative. The pandemic has just meant creating new ways to create.
Ultimately, she says. theater folks are the ‘Show will go on’ people.
“We don’t have a box. We’re always thinking outside of it. It’s obviously not the ideal way of doing it, but we’re still doing the things we should do,” she says. “We’re still learning Shakespeare, the students are still showing growth. They’re learning the things they’re supposed to learn.”
HoVal was getting set to put on its spring production of Cinderella last March when the coronavirus crisis turned into a pandemic. Students got one weekend of performances in before the governor ordered the state into lockdown. The final weekend, like all in-person schooling, was canceled.
“It was heartbreaking for the students and for us because we love them so much,” Rochon says. “We chose to take the perspective that we were fortunate because our show got to happen at all.”
She points out that it could have been worse, as it was at Ewing High School, where the spring production of Suessical never opened.
Elliot Block, now a junior at CHS, was in the cast of Cinderella. He says that students tried to put a positive spin on seeing last year’s show shut down.
“I’d say that I didn’t take it that hard because, I’m a big basketball fan and I saw the NBA shut down. I saw what was happening in the world. It hurt that we didn’t get to do our shows, and I definitely felt really bad for the seniors, but I’m really thankful that at least we got to get a couple shows in,” he says.
Block is part of the cast of Little Women this spring, and also had a starring role in one of the productions of Earnest in the fall.
“It was something that I’ve never done before, so I really didn’t know how it would all come together,” he says. “Even though the final product was different, the results were very similar to what would happen in a normal play. We still got to see the final production and all the work that we put into it.”
Block says that having to make Earnest in a novel way ended up exposing students to aspects of theater production that they would not normally get to experience.
“I went to a friend’s house and filmed a scene with them outside, and when I was helping my friend film their scenes, I got to see what it’s like to be behind the camera and do the lighting and things like that,” he says. “To then be able to see our production put together by our amazing editor, it was great to see that even in our homes we could still make great art, and it was amazing.”
One frustration for theater folks is that there have not been clear guidelines set out by the state in terms of what is and is not OK.
“Sports have these very explicit guidelines from the state they’re telling them how to do this and how to do that, but in terms of theater, every single school is coming up with best for them,” she says. “There’s people doing things completely over zoom, people doing things outside. There are schools doing things for audiences.”
* * *
Caroline Herbert is one alum who has been going through many of the same things at the next level. The 2019 CHS graduate is a first-year student at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, where she is studying musical theater.
She says that almost all of her classes this semester have been online, although all of her dance and movement classes have been held in person.
“It’s a very small number of us, we all wear our masks and everything, but it’s really nice in this pandemic era to have the ability to be in a studio and be performing next to people, even if we can’t get close to them,” she says.
First-year students in the Boston Conservatory program usually take ensemble singing classes — which is one discipline that is very difficult to re-create in a virtual setting. But the conservatory has given students a specialized app called RLS Coach, which enables the instructor to patch together multiple students’ streams and play back a coherent group performance.
“It’s super refreshing to be able to have that experience after going a year without being able to sing in an ensemble with people,” Herbert says.
Dance classes feel a little closer to normal, Herbert says, although dancing with masks on took some getting used to. Acting classes remain mostly remote, however.
“I’d say it’s been interesting,” Herbert says of her experience. “Difficult, but a really eye opening experience. Because while in certain senses it feels like we’re limited, because we are, in other senses it feels like the pandemic has given us an opportunity to open our eyes and be more creative than we have ever been before. It’s been good and bad for sure.”
* * *
Rochon and many Hopewell Valley theater students are part of the International Thespian Society, which Rochon describes as a “national honor society for theater.” Rochon is a member of the high school adult board of the New Jersey Thespians, and Block is a state Thespian officer, or STO, part of the student board.
In a normal year, Thespians get together for both state and international festivals. Last June, the internationals were held virtually via Zoom, and in January, the state festival was also held online.
At the state festival, students participated in the Thespys, a variety of events including monologues, musical solo, acting duos, improv pairs, and musical theater group.
CHS student Sophia Parsons was selected for the “Best of the Festival” showcase for her contrasting monologue, and eight students participated in the first ever all-state musical, Songs for a New World, directed by Rochon.
Again for that production, the students were recorded independently and then edited together into one performance by Bartolacci.
“Songs for a New World is about people coming to a place of crisis and moving through it and feeling empowered so it was very much a show for these times,” Rochon says. “Some of the lyrcs are ‘Hear my song, it will help you believe in tomorrow.’” it was a really beautiful and amazing experience.”
Parsons and eight other CHS students — Alayna Domboski, Jack Creegan, Molly Higgins, Payton Tharp, David LaRaus, Elliot Block, Caleb Briggs and Olivia Levin — earned “superior” ratings at the state festival, and will be allowed to participate in the international festival in June. Again this year that festival will be virtual.
“We’re very lucky to be in Hopewell, in a district that really supports the arts and was really supportive in helping us figure out how to do this,” Rochon says. “We did a fall play, a lot of places didn’t. I love these kids and this community and I feel very lucky all the time to be a part of this.”