Metro Atlanta high school theater programs improvise during pandemic

Cory Kelley came to Cambridge High School this fall as the new theater director, intent on growing the program and creating memorable shows.

But because of the pandemic, high school theater troupes across metro Atlanta must find new ways to give students a chance to perform.

“This is what they do, and they haven’t been able to do it for months,” the Fulton County teacher said.

They’re staging shows online and outside, in masks and face shields, with smaller casts and bigger precautions. They’re building extra time into rehearsals in case schools shut down and watching budgets carefully.

“We can take this moment right here that we are living in and throw up our hands and say, ‘It’s canceled or it’s closed,’" Kelley said. “But … as artists, you kind of are supposed to think about things differently.”

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

In a national survey, just 19% of theater teachers were confident that they would hold in-person performances this school year. Over half hoped “they might be able to,” according to an Educational Theatre Association survey that drew responses from nearly 2,400 teachers.

Many are considering virtual productions. About half might do outdoor shows, such as Cambridge’s recent performance of “The Occurrence at Sleepy Hollow."

Kelley’s cast and crew staged the recent production, billed as an “outdoor immersive theatrical experience,” along a wooded cross-country running trail outside their Milton school. They cleared tree branches and dragged out lights to illuminate the path.

The audience, wearing masks and walking in groups of six, picked up pieces of the story as they traveled through the scenes where actors performed in socially distanced vignettes.

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Other programs have moved online.

When McKenna Weinbaum, a North Atlanta High School junior, told friends she was taking a virtual musical theater class, they had one question: “How?”

Her teacher, Lilliangina Quiñones, figured it out. With Atlanta school buildings closed until at least January, she produced an hour-long virtual showcase starring her students in videos they shot in their backyards and bedrooms.

“Breathe” premiered on YouTube and featured 21 performances — songs, dances, original spoken-word poetry and scenes. The show addressed the pandemic and protests against racial injustice.

“There has been a level of engagement via Zoom that I haven’t seen in a classroom," Quiñones said.

She gave lighting and composition tips. Students raided their closets for costumes and finalized makeup looks and film locations in online chats.

Rylie Dixon, a senior, relied on a stepladder and her little brother to film.

“The greatest thing about recording it yourself is that you can mess up and just keep going and going and going,” she said.

She and Weinbaum missed the electrifying moment of stepping on stage in front of an audience, but still felt a connection.

“The most gratifying part, I suppose, was just having that community aspect when it feels like it’s impossible to,” Weinbaum said.

Fulton County started the year virtually before resuming in-person classes. Some schools have closed again temporarily. Many hope to put on live shows with restrictions while others experiment with online performances, said Betsy Eppes, the district’s visual and performing arts coordinator.

Tri-Cities High School offers a visual and performing arts magnet program. The school had just wrapped its musical, “Into the Woods," when everything shut down in March. Theater director Jade Lambert-Smith returned months later to find costumes hanging on racks.

She’s planning a virtual holiday performance and preparing students for online auditions.

In a typical year, a senior who wants to join a university theater program might travel to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles to meet with colleges from across the country.

Now, it’s digital. That’s leveled the playing field for students who don’t have the means to travel, Lambert-Smith said.

Credit: Ava Arezoo King

Credit: Ava Arezoo King

Hall County’s Flowery Branch High School recently staged “A Year With Frog and Toad” in the faculty parking. Audience members brought their own chairs, wore masks and had temperature checks.

When thunderstorms threatened the show’s second week, the production moved to the cafeteria. Masks and temperature checks were again required. Seats were staggered to allow more than six feet between each party, which could include no more than four patrons.

Theater program director Jessica Smith blocked scenes so actors were as far apart as possible. She limited singing and required masks during rehearsals.

“It was just so sad seeing little eyeballs, and you could tell they were working so hard to emote … to give character and expression,” she said.

Her team made it work. They found transparent face shields that didn’t cast a shadow or cause an echo. They pulled power from the nearby welding shop.

Smith has a dozen seniors who love to perform. “They are in the theater more than they are at home. It’s their people,” she said.

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

A highlight of high school theater is competing against other schools, and contests will look dramatically different.

The Georgia High School Association usually crowns champions of the one-act play competition in November but pushed it back to February.

The Georgia High School Musical Theatre Awards will be virtual. A panel of arts professionals normally watch live productions to assess performances, costumes and choreography. Nominees perform in a televised awards-show extravaganza.

This year, schools will submit about 45 minutes of recorded material. It could be a full-blown musical, a concert version or a Zoom performance, said Angela Farr Schiller, director of arts education for ArtsBridge Foundation, the nonprofit that runs the program.

Theater directors are dealing with tight budgets and uncertainty, she said. Schools usually rush to fill the 75 competition spots, but only a third were confirmed a week after registration opened.

Still, the goal is to give students something to reach for when many feel they’ve lost so much.

“Resiliency is such a huge part of what it means to be an artist. We make ways out of no ways,” Farr Schiller said.