The glow of a ghost light kept the hope of a fall theater season alive at two District 196 high schools where student actors and crew members flipped the script on performing arts in the time of COVID-19.
A socially-distant yet equally as riveting production of “Les Misérables” took the stage at Eagan High School in November. And a tech-savvy group of Eastview High School actors brought their hilarious performance of “The Perfect Ending” to Zoom.
“Instead of waiting around to find out what was going to happen this fall, we made a decision, which was that we knew we had to keep these kids together and keep them actively involved in theater,” said Scott Durocher, theater director at Eastview.
Fall plays began auditions and rehearsals in the summer, and by the time the hybrid learning model was approved for the start of the 2020-21 school year, students at both high schools had already completed months of practice. Rehearsals were conducted electronically, cast members Zoomed after school and on weekends, and as a group, they committed to seeing the shows go on.
“They were really all in and took ownership over the whole process,” said Amy Jo Cherner, vocal director and producer of Eagan’s performance. “They all made a pact to stay healthy, work hard and make this the best show it could be.”
At Eastview, the production of “The Perfect Ending” was adapted for a virtual audience, and brought to life the spoof on a family in the 1950s who is staring down the end of the world. Using “broad strokes” to reinvent the play, Durocher and his crew incorporated a classic comic book theme, complete with makeup, sound effects and set design.
“The comic book theme worked perfectly on Zoom,” he said. “Each video square represented the comic book square with the white borders. And actors leaving the stage or moving from one moment to the next on videoconference presented a challenge. So, we edited in a page turn of the comic book. It might seem like a small element, but it was one in a whole sequence of elements that brought to life the comic book feel.”
Another challenge the actors faced was the typical dot-style comic book makeup, which had to be re-applied exactly the same each time the actors would film. To ensure accurate detailing, students took photos of their look and referenced it over the several days of filming. For Durocher, the performance presented a unique opportunity for him to grow as a director.
“I direct for the stage, but had to learn how to direct for the camera, which was interesting and enlightening,” he said. “I stepped through a lot of things I never dreamt about doing. And instead of just one stage, we had 23 stages.”
Across the district, Eagan was tackling “Les Misérables,” a massively popular musical adapted from Victor Hugo’s namesake novel. Because the show required a number of large props and particular set design, Cherner said they moved forward with an in-person performance conducted in the style of a concert. However, as the pandemic worsened locally, their rehearsal time was cut short and their film date moved up twice.
“This was very worrying, as we in the theater department can always use every rehearsal we get, but COVID-19 restrictions really messed that all up,” said Eagan senior Kevin Kodalen, who plays Enjolras, a charismatic leader in the French Revolution. “It was really scary, the feeling that all of our hard work would be for nothing. However, we stuck it out, stayed safe and got over the finish line.”
“Les Misérables” opened Dec. 12 and is available for virtual viewing through Jan. 27. Tickets for a single view are $12, or $25 for a four-pack of tickets. Purchase tickets at https://www. showtix4u.com/event-details/41692.
“After all of this was done, we saw that a lot of good came out of what could have been a really negative situation,” Cherner said. “The kids had the right attitude and the hope that we could do this. As a teacher, I felt it was my job to make sure they had that opportunity and that we were able to find hope in a time of darkness.”
Though opening night of “The Perfect Ending” was conducted virtually, Durocher said he was happy that an opening night even happened. The production ran for two weeks in November on YouTube.
“The most important part of all of this was that we were together and we were making art,” he said. “We believed in our kids from the beginning, and I’m so proud of them for jumping in and trusting each other and trusting this artistic process. This was weird, really weird, but fun, and worthwhile.”