Show must go on: NJ schools, community theaters weather COVID-19
Rahway High School was two weeks away from opening its annual spring musical. Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville was ready for a full weekend of main stage and children's theatre performances. Then everything shut down.
When schools across the Garden State closed and public gatherings were whittled down to groups of almost no one in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic exploded, live entertainment events New Jerseyans may often take for granted were suspended indefinitely.
RHS music teacher Robert VanWyk said it was a major disappointment for his students, particularly seniors, not to be able to raise the curtain on their production of "Catch Me If You Can" on March 27, for which they had been preparing since January.
But the school adapted quickly. As VanWyk said, "we're navigating new normals," and so on what would have been opening night, a montage of rehearsal, marketing, and behind-the-scenes footage was streamed live on YouTube to an audience of more than 1,000 viewers.
"It was a chance for the kids to come together and hopefully share a laugh and a smile and maybe even a cry, and celebrate the work that they had done together," VanWyk said.
Even if the livestream provided some small measure of closure, VanWyk and the musical's director, Alison Dooley, are still hopeful and optimistic that "Catch Me If You Can" will be able to be performed live on stage, even as late as July or August. In fact, vocal rehearsals have continued through Google Classroom.
"The longer we are out, the longer it will take to get the show back up on its feet once we return to school and rehearsal," Dooley said. "What was left to add was all the technical elements — sound, lighting, costumes, and live musicians. I am confident all will rally once we can."
At the nonprofit Music Mountain Theatre, the set for their production of "Into the Woods," which had opened Feb. 28, remains intact onstage nearly a month after its scheduled closing weekend was canceled. MMT also operates a robust class schedule and slate of Children's Theatre performances, and its planned performances for the spring and early summer are very much up in the air.
Ginny Brennan, MMT founder and producing director, is keenly aware that some people are still not grasping the severity of the COVID-19 crisis and that the priority right now is for everyone to stay home. But in doing so, the arts can often be the best therapy.
"Click onto any of the community theaters, any of the Broadway sites, any of the museums, anything that has some art and culture," she said. "I think it is the most helpful thing for your mind, and your soul."
Brennan said she would be happy to eventually reopen the theater, even under limited gathering guidelines, as soon as it is safe to do. But in the meantime, she said any sort of a schedule is helpful to those stuck at home.
And so, MMT has been reaching out from inside its doors to conduct three weekly Facebook Live events for its followers, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 3 p.m. The Thursday slot has been a tap class instructed by co-artistic director Louis Palena, but other streams have included a backstage tour, makeup demonstration, and vocal health clinic.
Brennan said the classes and other videos are meant to keep people interested and give them something to do while reassuring them that the theater, both as an individual building and as an art form, is "alive and well."
Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. He has appeared in seven productions at Music Mountain Theatre, including the run of "Into the Woods" that was canceled on March 13. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.