A year-end musical theatre production can be as important to the heart and soul of a high school as its season-opening football game or senior prom. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year and began robbing students of some of their most formative experiences, drama educators scrambled to keep the curtains from closing.
Karen O'Meara, department head of dramatic arts at Richmond Green Secondary School in Richmond Hill, Ont., was one such teacher. Determined to forge ahead with her combined Grade 11 and 12 musical theatre production, she reached out to Marlis Schweitzer, professor and Chair of the Department of Theatre in York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design, whom she had been collaborating with on workshops for drama teachers. They both decided that this was the perfect opportunity to combine forces in a new way.
“At the time,” explains O’Meara, “I was putting on a production, which I then had to translate into an online production. What ended up resulting from that conversation was a number of York theatre students saying, ‘Hey, we don’t have anything to do. It’s the pandemic and everything is locked down; we would love to help with your show.’ So those were the initial seeds of this project.”
With the help of those enthusiastic student volunteers, Richmond Green presented its first online production in spring 2020 – and it was a huge success. Heading into the next pandemic-impacted school year, Schweitzer decided to take the project one step further by officially incorporating it into York’s theatre curriculum as a for-credit experiential education offering called the Independent Production Practicum.
The course kicked off in January of this year and the seven enrolled students – Isabella Liscio, Megan Keatings, Hannah Smith, Rachel D’Arpino, Dave Harack, Laura Nigro and Joshua Kilimnik – jumped right into planning mode, joining O’Meara for a two-hour meeting on Zoom every Monday night. When the high-school semester began the following month, the York students took the high schoolers through a series of theatre workshops, which O’Meara says “set the bar high for the students and gave them a fantastic foundation to continue with creative exploration.”
Through breakout rooms on their weekly Zoom calls, the York students went on to provide mentorship in areas where they had passion and interest. There were rooms for choreography, vocals, directing, producing and script-writing, to name a few. They attended the high-school classes whenever they could, and provided leadership within the classroom setting – running scenes and coaching students on various aspects of the show. Their contributions did not go unnoticed.
“The York students were outstanding,” says O’Meara. “They had so much genuine enthusiasm for what our students were doing. They were always willing to offer their expertise, make suggestions and provide great feedback.”
One of the York theatre students, Liscio, who just finished her third year specializing in performance creation and research, started working with O’Meara in May 2020 as a volunteer to get classroom hours for her teachers college application. She has now helped Richmond Green put on three productions. “This experience has meant so much,” she says. “I want to be a drama teacher and I didn’t have much experience working with high-school students before. I got to learn and explore with them what this genre of online theatre is and work with them in the areas of acting, directing, marketing and production.”
Another third-year student, D’Arpino, who is majoring in performing arts and concurrent education, originally applied for the course thinking it was a volunteer opportunity that would serve her well as she pursues a future as a high-school drama teacher. She was thrilled to discover that it had become a for-credit course and she hopes to continue her involvement with the school. “Karen wants our opinion, asks us to help and gets everyone involved,” she says. “The kids are so immersed in everything, learning it all and putting it together from scratch. It has been such an amazing opportunity to give input and watch the whole experience come to life.”
Like the others, Harack, who will be heading into his third year of York’s theatre production program in the fall, plans to attend teachers college post-graduation. He knows this experience with Richmond Green will help him thrive in that setting and in the industry at large. “Seeing the students take the lead has been really awesome,” he says. “To see them progress from an idea to filming scenes and then editing, it was a really rewarding experience.”
Putting on a large-scale production during pandemic times certainly had its challenges, though, requiring the students to adapt on the fly to the ever-changing restrictions. “We knew we were only going to get a very short time together in person and we had to take advantage of every minute,” says O’Meara. “Our biggest learning was that if you want to produce work virtually, you have to be very organized, have a solid plan and be flexible to change.”
And change they did. The 28-person high-school class was expecting to have two in-person blocks for filming, but when everything was shut down after the first block, they had to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the script accordingly. “But because we had such a good plan at the start and a very good scene-by-scene vision, that really helped guide us when we had to make a change,” says O’Meara.
The end result was "Out of Sync," a completely student-written musical that went live on the evening of June 23 via Zoom, of course. The show was about four high schools – one private, one public, one arts-focused and one sports-focused – competing against each other in a lip-sync battle. As the rival schools went from cut-throat saboteurs to considerate allies, the show left its audience with the feel-good takeaway that music has the power to unite people from all walks of life.
Understandably, signs of the pandemic were everywhere in the production – students in masks, physical distancing, scenes filmed in students’ homes, in parks, on Zoom and some spliced together to make it appear that the cast was in the same place when in reality they were not. And perhaps that was part of the show’s charm, serving as a sort of time capsule for the strange and surreal year that was.
No one yet knows what the next school year has in store, but one thing is certain: the educational experience gained from putting on this production in such turbulent times will have a lasting impact for all involved.
“I’m delighted that our students have had such an exciting opportunity to work closely with Ms. O’Meara and the students at Richmond Green on the development of a new musical,” says Schweitzer. “Through this collaboration, they’ve developed leadership and teaching skills that will enhance their careers, whether they decide to go on to become high-school drama teachers themselves or pursue other creative avenues. I look forward to seeing this kind of partnership grow in the future.”
By Lindsay MacAdam, communications officer, YFile