Performing arts at high schools around the country go virtual

With the curtain drawn, virtual productions take center stage


Artwork by Chase Willet

Along with most other facets of day-to-day life and schools, the performing arts have been radically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the curtains drawn over most live performances of theater, dance and music across the country since March of 2020, many performance artists and troupes have turned to virtual productions in order to perform and engage with their audiences.

Like professional theater troupes, high school drama teachers and student actors around the country wishing to put on productions have had to get creative with their methods of rehearsals, classes and performances. While Oak Park High School has so far produced a pre-recorded Virtual Cabaret and a live virtual 24-hour play, high schools in the surrounding areas have taken wildly different routes with their 2020/2021 theater programs.

Senior Karen Dotan is a member of the ComedySportz team and the International Thespian Society. Although she was initially disappointed that performing arts would not resume in person, she believes the OPHS drama department has pulled through and is incredibly grateful for the opportunities she has been provided with to engage in virtual performance.

“Adjusting to virtual acting was definitely a challenge at first, and I was not sure if we would be performing this year. However, we have really taken this as an opportunity to focus on character building, which has been really amazing. Even in quarantine, I feel like I have been given a lot of opportunities to grow as an actor,” Dotan wrote to the Talon.

Though most of Oak Park’s surrounding schools are currently participating in a 100% distance learning model, Moorpark High School has reopened with a hybrid learning model. Students can choose between coming into live classes on campus or participating in online learning. Director of MHS’s drama productions and teacher Emily Piper spoke about Moorpark’s versatile 2020-2021 productions, which have largely been virtual, partially because many of her students have chosen to partake in the online learning option.

“This semester, [the theater classes are] currently writing and working on [virtual] Radio Shows. We are also doing a Spring Musical Revue in lieu of our normal Spring Musical, with selections from lots of classic productions, including … ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ which was the show that got canceled last spring. We currently don’t know how our Spring Musical Revue will be performed,” Piper wrote to the Talon.

For their final projects, Moorpark’s theater classes usually put on one live production each semester. This year, however, the classes have taken an unconventional route with their finals, something Piper stressed never would have happened had it not been for the pandemic. 

“During the first semester, my class ended up using Dungeons and Dragons as a part of our curriculum … since we were unable to have live performances. Our ‘final’ was a campaign with each of three groups in class [and was participated in] hybrid[ly]. I thought they would think I was crazy when I suggested Dungeons and Dragons, but they absolutely loved it,” Piper wrote.

Though Dungeons and Dragons is not the typical theater exercise, the students at Moorpark were just as excited about the campaigns as Piper. The game even had certain aspects to it that one Moorpark High theater student, sophomore Shreya Nadkarni, found to be more immersive than normal theater exercises. 

“Usually, as actors, we [don’t have a huge amount of time to] get into character. Having the chance to really become a character start-to-finish was a great learning experience and just a lot of fun,” Nadkarni wrote to the Talon.

Outside of Los Angeles and Ventura County, other California high schools have been taking very different routes with reopening. Francis Parker School, a small K-12 private school in San Diego County, has been in a hybrid model for a majority of the year, with students being given the option to come to school twice a week to attend live classes.  

Maggie Weller, a junior at Francis Parker, is currently a part of the school’s theater classes and drama club. She is immensely proud of Parker’s ability to improvise a hybrid form of theater, with a combination of live virtual and pre-recorded performances.

“We’ve been doing a lot to try to maintain our theater department … So far this year we’ve put on two shows online, two summer productions, a few showcases, and we’re currently working on a musical, each with a combination of live performance and pre-recorded videos,” Weller wrote to the Talon.

Weller, though she feels the draining effects of virtual productions, believes that Francis Parker has done an excellent job of adapting to the new platform. Without physical interactions, however, some of the personal relationships the cast had worked to develop were hard to replicate through a screen.

“The idea of virtual theater was hard to grasp for all of us, [but] we were able to adapt pretty quickly.  We were fortunate enough to already know everyone in the cast prior to being virtual. We’ve worked so hard in the past to make connections and build chemistry and trust, but we kind of had to start from scratch in our online productions,” Weller wrote. 

In a similar situation to Francis Parker, Oak Park High School, located in Kansas City, Missouri (not to be confused with Oak Park, CA’s OPHS), has been participating in a hybrid model for the majority of the year.  

As the head of theater at OPHS in Kansas City, Matthew Ashpaugh is taking a unique approach to the school’s performances. Though theater classes must remain virtual, students participating in the school’s after-school productions have been able to physically rehearse and perform together on stage for a livestream audience, with some COVID-19 restrictions in place.

“With after school productions, we had to convert [sign-ups and applications] to a digital format. We are following the same protocols as sports, so we have students fill out a screening survey each and every rehearsal. They [also] get their temperature taken every rehearsal to ensure that we stay COVID-free,” Ashpaugh wrote to the Talon. 

Along with COVID screenings, masks are also required for all indoor activities, leading Ashpaugh to improvise a unique form of mask-wearing made for the essentials of theater. This form of masks, to Ashpaugh, was the best way to allow actors to utilise facial expressions to engage with their audience and to allow his head of hair and makeup’s talents to be seen.

“In the fall, we performed with clear masks for our play ‘Radium Girls.’ These worked very well for us. It helped show expression and character changes, [along with] hair and makeup,” Ashpaugh wrote. “With our musical this spring, we are ordering custom-made masks with [the actors’] faces printed on [them]. It looks like their face, but their mouths will not move. This will make it borderline-anime style. It is also a bit of a throwback to the origins of theater, [when the Ancient Greeks would wear full-face masks in their plays.]”

Ashpaugh has seen both benefits and challenges with this new method of production. With live productions being strictly limited, high school actors have had to learn to be more than just stage actors and incorporate elements from film, a method of acting which is not often taught at high schools. In particular, with their upcoming musical “Into the Woods,” they will be filming in sections, like on a real film set, and possibly even edit in their own transitions, rather than having scene changes. The technical film and theater methods, as a result, are becoming more interconnected at Kansas City’s OPHS.

“Since we are doing more film for our musical, this is challenging the actors to act for film and tech to become [more] film-ready and not stage-ready. We do an annual Theatre For A Cause show, [where,] utilizing the streaming capabilities, [we may] team up with our school’s film crew, [which we are also doing for our upcoming musical],” Ashpaugh said.

Weller has also seen some new benefits with the film aspect of virtual productions. While live productions are limited in their audience capabilities, streaming services can be seen from anywhere in the world with an internet connection, opening the door to more viewers (who can purchase their online ticket for $15 per family.) 

“We were able to add in lots of cool features [virtually] that we couldn’t otherwise, and we don’t have to stress about the possibility of messing up, which happens a lot in live theater,” Weller wrote. “Another great thing that has come from virtual performances is that family and friends from all over the world can watch. In the last show I was in, my family was able to watch from New York, and some other cast members’ families tuned in from India.”

Though the 2020-2021 school year will go down in history as a year of challenge for live performances, one cannot say that theater has died. High school theater communities around the country, from Moorpark to Kansas City, are as passionate as ever. Students and teachers alike have worked hard to allow theater to survive these unprecedented times.

“As stressful as this year has been, I know that I have grown as a teacher, director, artist, and person … It isn’t easy to remain positive in the current state of the world, but it is something we can show our students. [Both] the power of positivity and resilience will help greatness happen for them,” Ashpaugh wrote.

While theater may be changing, all the teachers and students stressed that performance’s ability to inspire them has not diminished. Through it all, they believe the students of the country have retained their enthusiasm and love for their craft, inspiring their teachers and audiences alike.

“I have been wildly impressed by my students this year,” Piper explained, “They have rolled with all the changes, struggles and obstacles without complaint. They have been fantastic through everything.”