Scotia-Glenville High School senior Olivia Kaye has been planning for next week’s performance of “Ordinary Days” — to be presented virtually by the SGHS Drama Club April 1-3 — since before she knew it would even be possible to stage any show.
“I’ve been working since December on trying to get something going,” she said during a recent interview.
Kaye, who stage-managed the school’s ill-fated production of “High School Musical” last year, worked as a theater production intern at Russell Sage College in the fall, learning how to manage an in-person show amid a pandemic. She also worked on an all-virtual production of “A Christmas Carol.”
Earlier this month, Kaye was armed with at least three pages of notes outlining the litany of safety guidelines and precautions planned for when students returned to the high school auditorium. Daily COVID-19 questionnaires and check-ins. Makeup completed at home. Limited costume changes. Blocking that takes into account distancing during songs. Sanitizing props.
“I won’t read all of them,” Kaye said. “We’re making sure the blocking is COVID-friendly.”
Auditions started in the winter via Zoom. And the initial read-throughs of the script were completed virtually. Students learned the pain, frustration and occasional joy of learning to coordinate a song over video conference.
At some point, Kaye made the pitch to administrators: We can do this safely. And eventually — after theater, music and students who find themselves in other activities watched while athletics got the green light to restart — restrictions eased enough for district officials at Scotia and around the region to allow drama productions to move forward.
“When they first approached me about the idea, I couldn’t make any real promises,” said Scotia-Glenville High School Principal Peter Bednarek. “But they didn’t take that as, ‘We have to bail on this idea.’ They kept moving forward.”
Theater students such as Kaye have pressed for months to ensure productions this spring will end more happily than the shows that were canceled last spring, when school buildings closed in the days and weeks before many shows were scheduled to hit the stage. Even before some districts gave the go-ahead to in-person rehearsals, student theater leaders were mapping out plans to hold all-virtual productions.
By mid-March, Kaye and a cast of Scotia-Glenville classmates were onstage inside the high school’s large auditorium. Students wore masks. Boxes taped onto the stage marked 12 feet of distancing for song numbers, and an industrial-sized bottle of hand sanitizer sat on a table at the foot of the stage. New York clean.
Junior William Schnore, the show’s technical director, sat in front of his soundboard at a table a few feet in front of the stage. He and Kaye coordinated the myriad technical decisions to make. In past years they would have ironed out the technical side of the production — lighting, sound and other special features, detailed down to the second — over one 12-hour session.
“It’s not the usual arrangement. Usually we have a full day … Now we are just going as we rehearse,” he said.
It wasn’t just the first day running tech for the show. It was the first time practicing the show onstage — instead of online.
“It’s our first time running tech fully and it’s the first time running the show in person,” Kaye said. “We’ll take it slowly.”
For Kaye, the rehearsal was also a homecoming of sorts: She has spent the school year learning virtually, making her first appearance at the school for the production. She plans to go back to in-person learning by the end of the year.
“It still feels normal because this is where I spent my time in school,” she said of the theater. “It feels safe to be back.”
Some lines and stage directions provide small but obvious hints that the show was conceived during a pandemic. (That’s why they have masks.)
“Be mindful,” theater teacher Michael Camelo called out after the students completed part of a scene. “Think about when you are on the street in a big crowd. I don’t think, where you don’t know someone, you are getting very close.”
He was reminding them that not only are they in a real pandemic, they are also in a fictional one through the show. So they need to remind the audience of that, too. “Make sure to use these moments to make it a little more impactful.”
“This is literally the first day they have been doing this in person,” he said.
The cast and crew planned to film the entire show — taking advantage of the ability to start, stop and restart — then cut the scenes together into one seamless production. The show will be available to watch on demand April 1-3 through a special streaming service.
The Broadalbin-Perth Junior/Senior High School auditorium buzzed with activity Thursday afternoon during a rehearsal for “Annie,” scheduled to livestream May 7-8. Masked students sang, danced and shuffled wooden beds across the stage. Spotlights shined. Crew members sorted through props and other parts of stage design, determining what to build and paint next.
“Orphanage: scene one, act one,” student director Sam Murphy called out.
Murphy, who also played one of the orphans, joined her castmates onstage for a scene that included choreographed dance moves, a fake fight and Annie’s flight from the orphanage. The physicality of the theater was on full display.
“It’s a hard-knock life for us,” the students sang through masks. “No one cares for you a smidge, when you’re in an orphanage.”
Standing backstage, Alix Shrome, a ninth-grader playing Annie, said the show was a good transition to in-person school, something comfortable to ease her back in.
“It’s like we are getting back to normal by being able to do this,” Shrome said. “We can do our own thing and be close to each other, even if for a short time. … It helps me adjust to being back in-person with people.”
There’s an odd thing about high school theater stages this year: Some of them are still set up for last year’s productions, the shows that were cut short amid the chaos of the early days of the pandemic — remnants of unfinished shows inspiring students to bring new shows to life.
At Broadalbin-Perth, a sign promoting the April 2-5, 2020, run of “Seussical” is still propped against a wall just offstage. The primary-colors-laden set pieces for the Dr. Seuss-inspired show are still strewn about the theater room and hanging in position above the stage.
“This is the show that never was,” Murphy said.
At Scotia-Glenville High School, Elaina Murdock, now a senior, was set last spring to play the lead role of Gabriella in the school’s production of “High School Musical” before activities, shows and eventually in-person instruction was canceled. She said she was in gym class with a friend also in the play when they read on the school website that the show was off.
“It was not the best place to find out,” she said. Her next period was chorus, where she grieved with many of her castmates and friends. “We all were just crying and our teacher didn’t make us sing that day.”
Before it was too late, Elaina went back to the auditorium to take a final look at the set. “I came in and took a picture to have on my phone,” she said.
Elaina, who is now playing one of the lead roles in the “Ordinary Days” production, said there was no way theater students weren’t going to make some kind — any kind — of performance happen. (What’s that old theater expression?)
“We wouldn’t let the year go by without doing something,” Elaina said. “It feels really good to be back. It’s like riding a bike.”
Nuances aside, the theater is where many students feel most at home, and they were relieved to have a chance to get back there during a tumultuous year.
“I have to keep pulling up my mask,” Elaina said. “But I don’t mind it, because I still get to wear my costume, put on my makeup. … We have a set.”
Schnore, the student technical director at Scotia-Glenville, said last year the school upgraded its technical and lighting elements, and he was the only one who had learned how to use it all. “High School Musical,” complete with plenty of effects, was going to be a great maiden voyage for the new system, he said. Schnore even spent one of the last nights before school was closed carefully reorganizing yards and yards of wiring on the new lights. “I wanted it to look as good as possible,” he said. “I reorganized our entire tech closet, and then it was just over.”
‘All of my leads are in quarantine’
Broadalbin-Perth Elementary School theater students on Thursday continued preparing for their production of “Aladdin Kids,” scheduled for live outdoor performances June 4-6, a la Shakespeare in the Park.
“People will come and bring lawn chairs,” elementary theater director Jennifer Szumowski said.
In the meantime, the students are piecing together rehearsals as best they can. About a half dozen of the student actors were in a class where another student recently tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the entire class into home quarantine.
“All of my leads are in quarantine,” Szumowski said earlier in the week.
But Szumowski didn’t mind, and neither did the students. By now they are old pros at working through the disruption and difficulty of unexpected quarantines and frustrating restrictions. “I’ve only gotten quarantined three times,” one of the elementary students said proudly.
Seven of the students on Thursday joined rehearsal remotely, appearing in different squares on a large, well-equipped monitor. About a dozen other students filled the school’s music room, where they continued to practice lines and iron out stage directions.
“How are we doing at home?” Szumowski asked at one point after spending a few minutes working closely with students in the classroom. Thumbs-up, the remote students responded.
“We keep rolling with it,” she said
The students rehearsed their scenes, even if it meant working through the screen.
“Genie, I wish to be a powerful sorcerer,” fifth-grader Kristoff Hipolito proclaimed as Jafar, a power-hungry villain, standing in front of the large monitor in the center of the music room.
“Yes, your awfulness — I mean your magnificence,” sixth-grader Miles Purcell, playing the role of Genie from the comfort of his home, retorted. “Your wish is my command.”
“I need more evil,” Szumowski told Kristoff, asking for a bit more sarcasm in Miles’ delivery.
During a short break, Kristoff said practicing scenes with a classmate electronically wasn’t all that bad. It was actually basic acting.
“All you have to do is pretend like they are here,” Kristoff said. “In my mind, I pretend they are and then act. I’m kind of good at dreaming.”