Theater Educators Struggle to Keep Shows Going Amid COVID-19

High school theater troupes around the country are trying to do something that not even Broadway has been able to pull off—host live shows in-person and remotely amid the pandemic.

Convinced that the show must go on, schools have livestreamed shows via social media, hosted outdoor performances, staged socially distant plays in near-empty theaters, and are planning for radio renditions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and other holiday classics to keep drama students and audiences engaged.

Research shows that the coronavirus can linger for hours in uncirculated air, infecting people as they inhale, particularly in contained spaces such as theaters, auditoriums, and gymnasiums. In recent weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that the virus can travel further than six feet, the standard spacing for social distancing in many schools around the country.

As the spike in COVID-19 cases around the country has led more schools to shut down or delay reopening plans, schools may face tough decisions about the fate of winter arts activities, forcing a changing the focus from “Will the show go on?” to “Should it?”

A full year without live theater would be gutting for students, said Tracey Gatte, the drama director at Harry S. Truman High in Levittown, Pa., one of four schools in the nation to win the Outstanding School Award last spring from the Educational Theatre Association.

The drama program at Truman High was the inspiration for “Rise,” an NBC television series that aired in 2018. Broadway producers also turn to the school for trial runs of popular shows before they are licensed to high school theater programs across the country.

“It’s devastating to think that my kids won’t be able to be on stage,” Gatte said. “I’ve seen so many directors posting that they have to cancel rehearsal or they’re getting shut down or they have to quarantine. I don’t know if it’s worth the risk to get their [students’] hopes up, then devastate them that way.”

Hopeful that students will perform in spring 2021, school staff have taped off sections in the school auditorium to allow for social distancing. Built to accommodate 800 guests, the auditorium could seat slightly more than 100 under current safety guidelines.

Year of Loss

Outside of schools, the pandemic is punishing performing arts generally. Broadway shut down in March, and there will be no shows there until May 30 at the earliest. With large indoor gatherings discouraged, small theaters across the country have closed their doors and furloughed staff or turned to low-budget, livestreamed play readings.

In the spring, school productions did not fare much better. A survey conducted this summer by the Educational Theatre Association found that nearly 91 percent of schools canceled spring performances. Without ticket sales to prop up their budgets, the survey found that nearly 25 percent of drama teachers and theater directors are operating with budget cuts this school year.

The association estimates that schools sold nearly 50 million tickets for shows in 2017. That number is sure to decline in a school year where the cost of hosting productions is sure to soar. The need for personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies and a reluctance to use shared costumes and props could lead to bare-bones productions or sideline shows altogether.

The Illinois High School Theatre Festival, which typically draws 5,000 high school drama students, has already canceled its January 2021 event, with plans to reconvene in 2022. Without the live event, the organization behind the festival has stepped up by offering more virtual classes and productions.

“The show will go on, and we can adapt to whatever we need to,” said Aimee-Lynn Newlan, the executive director of the Illinois Theatre Association. “We’re going to find ways to make that magic happen.”

But in some places, things are a little less magical.

And the precautions taken to keep students safe are not just altering performances. They are reshaping theater department classrooms and the experience for students and teachers. Classrooms that once thrived on interaction have become sterile and rigid, according to high school drama teachers.

At Truman High before the pandemic, Gatte’s classroom had couches and plenty of open space. Visitors would see students spread out on the floor in small groups while reviewing scripts. Students are still spread out, but now they are in desks instead of couches and they are reading for parts from scripts on computer screens, rather than on paper.

Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, students from New Albany (Ind.) High School perform the musical “Bright Star” earlier this year.

“We had a lot of teachers who created really cool classrooms with tables and recliners and flexible seating arrangements, and all that had to disappear,” said Amy Miller, the director of theater arts at New Albany (Ind.) High School.

High Drama

Theater productions are not the only programs that face an uncertain winter. Band and choir performances also pose risk for coronavirus infections.

The University of Colorado and the University of Maryland are leading a study that explores how singers, actors, and musicians transmit aerosol particles. The most recent round of results, released this month, focused on how much aerosol is generated while playing wind instruments, singing, acting, speaking, and dancing. The researchers determined that wearing surgical masks can reduce aerosol emission by between 60 percent and 90 percent, but not remove all risk.

Nationally, 30 states and the District of Columbia also will postpone the start of high school boys’ and girls’ basketball seasons or cancel winter sports outright, according to data compiled by the National Federation of High School Associations in mid-November. Officials have put high school wrestling, considered a high-risk sport for COVID-19 transmission because of the sustained contact between participants, on hold in at least three dozen states.

The debate over school extracurricular activities often pits public health considerations against the need to keep students connected to school during unprecedented, uncertain times. Sometimes that debate plays out in unexpected ways.

The University of Wisconsin, Madison, released a study in October that suggested the state’s fall high school sports season did not cause an increase in COVID-19 infections among athletes. Yet the Wisconsin Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for high school sports, canceled plans for high school football championships this month to curtail travel and mitigate the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Those that advocate for finding a way to allow students to perform, whether it is on stage or on an athletic field, maintain that other factors besides safety are at play. A survey of 3,300 teenagers conducted this summer by the America’s Promise Alliance found that amid the pandemic, feelings of unhappiness and disconnection were rising among the nation’s youth.

“While the physical health and safety of participants must remain the No. 1 criterion, there continues to be the social, emotional, and health concerns if students are unable to participate in sports and the performing arts,” Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, wrote in the organization’s most recent newsletter.

Sacred Space

While Broadway and other professional theater performances are focused on the audience experience, “in school, it’s really about the process and what it [means] for students,” said Julie Cohen Theobald, the executive director of the Educational Theatre Association.

That is why Roshunda Jones, the theater director at George Washington Carver High School in Houston, has hosted two virtual shows this school year and is pushing ahead with plans to host a socially distanced performance of the musical “Dreamgirls” in January with limited attendance, even as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to rise in the region.

With in-person classes and after-school rehearsals, Jones wears a mask between 10 and 12 hours per day. It is worth it to keep students connected, she said. She spent the spring scrambling to connect with students who felt overwhelmed by virtual classes.

“This is what motivates some of the students to come to school, to pass their core classes,” said Jones, a member of the Texas Thespian Hall of Fame. “I would hate for anyone to say they’re not going to do the arts right now, that they’re going to take a back seat. That would be a huge mistake because this is a huge motivating force for our students.”

Jim Howard, a drama teacher at Westwood (Mass.) High School, center, and his student actors take a break from their virual performance of "Romeo and Juliet." The fall production was shifted from a live audience to a virtual audience because of the pandemic. Howard is flanked by Lucy Vitali, who portrays Juliet, left, and Cassidy Hall, who portrays the nurse.

Some schools are taking a more cautious approach. At the Orange County School of the Arts, a charter school in Santa Ana, Calif., all productions will remain online until June, said Donald Amerson, an instructor who teaches movement and Shakespeare courses at the school.

Like Truman High in Pennsylvania, Indiana’s New Albany High was honored by the Educational Theatre Association with its Outstanding School Award in April—and had to celebrate the accomplishment virtually with family and friends sharing the news on Facebook.

Before schools shut down statewide last spring, the school wrapped up its spring staging of the “Addams Family” musical by the “hairs on our chin,” Miller said, but missed out on the chance to roll out a brand new show at the International Thespian Festival over the summer. The event, hosted by the Educational Theatre Association, went virtual much like everything else last summer.

This month, the school called off two performances of a scaled-down bluegrass musical—then reinstated them at the last minute to give parents a chance to see the show live.

A surge of cases in Floyd County, Ind., where New Albany is located, led to new countywide restrictions, including a decision by the school district to revert to all distance learning after more than 60 days on a hybrid schedule where students attended schools on alternating days.

Much as was the case with sporting events this fall, school administrators could be forced to make day-of decisions on whether to host student performances. In that sense, rehearsals and performances have become cliffhangers for students and teachers.

“I’m not immune to the fact or denying that this is bad right now. We don’t know what’s going to happen next week,” said Miller, New Albany’s theater arts director. “Sometimes, we don’t even know what’s going to happen the next day.”

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