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The Mount Mansfield Union High School Theatre Department was ready to transport audiences to a tropical locale this weekend as it presented the upbeat musical “Once on This Island.”
That was before the pandemic. When the state declared March 26 that all Vermont schools would be closed for the rest of the school year because of the COVID-19 outbreak, that spelled the end of MMU’s Caribbean paradise. The best that cast members could do instead was an online rehearsal last weekend, in vague hopes that they can present “Once on This Island,” someday, someway.
“It’s a big disappointment, obviously,” said Kristina Day, a junior from Jericho cast in the lead role as Ti Moune. “We all put in a lot — a lot — of work. It’s a lot of time, it’s a lot of dedication and practice. It’s not just the two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal we’re putting time in. It’s a lot of practice at home.”
“It’s a really big time commitment,” Day said, “and a really big passion for everyone involved.”
From school groups to community troupes to professional companies, theatrical productions across Vermont were scuttled when the coronavirus outbreak arrived in Vermont in mid-March. Some shows are canceled, some are postponed to later dates, and theater companies are wondering what this abrupt stop will mean for their long-term health.
“I’ve been doing community theatre since I was a kid — and I’m in my 50s now — but I’ve never rehearsed a show that didn’t end up hitting the stage,” Craig Bailey of Shelburne Players, whose production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” was to open March 27 but was postponed March 13, wrote in an email to the Burlington Free Press.
Vermont Stage, Middlebury Acting Company affected
The Middlebury Acting Company was to stage John Patrick Shanley’s play “Outside Mullingar” this weekend but postponed the production until Sept. 10-13. The company has also delayed a performance of “The Bible: The Complete Word of God, Abridged,” now likely to be staged in the winter, according to an email from artistic director Melissa Lourie.
Burlington’s professional theater company, Vermont Stage, ended its production of “Marie and Rosetta” mid-run and canceled another show, “The Pitmen Painters,” as well as the spring Youth Company showcase and that company’s production of “Twelfth Night.” Vermont Stage still plans to present its Vermont Young Playwrights Festival in late May, its annual “Bake Off” production in June and the summer youth program, according to a note on its website from artistic director Cristina Alicea.
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With the “unprecedented nature of this situation,” Alicea asked supporters to consider donating to the company. “As you can imagine, the loss of income to Vermont Stage over these next few months will test our resolve,” she wrote. “We will have to make difficult decisions that will impact the livelihoods of our staff and artists so that our theatre can survive this challenging time, and we are facing the reality that 20% of our annual operating budget, over $100,000 worth of revenue, will be lost.”
Mount Mansfield Union suffers disappointment
Some groups, such as the MMU Theatre Department and Shelburne Players, are not affected by loss of income as much as the loss of a creative outlet for them and their communities. The MMU production of “Once on This Island” began with auditions in late fall.
“Our set crew built a beautiful island, our actors had been rehearsing since January,” Candy Padula, director of MMU’s Theatre Department, wrote in an email to the Free Press. “We were just ready to start fine tuning everything for the production of this beautiful show. And the kids were so excited about it.”
Kristina Day said the cast of “Once on This Island” learned all of the songs and dances and was in a good place when word came that school would be closed for the rest of the year. “All of the theater kids’ minds go to, ‘What’s going to happen to our show?’” she said.
“It’s really just a disappointing time for everybody in general and learning how to adapt to that,” Day said of her fellow students. “The seniors are missing out on it the most. It’s prom, it’s spring sports, it’s the end-of-the-year spring fling. There’s so much that everyone is disappointed about.”
Still, Day said, students are understanding. “Everything happens for a reason, obviously,” she said. “I would never want to compromise the health of someone else just to carry on with our show.”
‘Once on This Island’ may rise again
Theater veterans know that what can go wrong with a show often does go wrong; adjusting on the fly is a learned skill. Some are applying that approach to life in a time of coronavirus.
Craig Bailey of Shelburne Players said the cast of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” united via video chat on what would have been opening night March 27 to run through the final scene. They turned that moment into an adventure.
“Forget a line?” Bailey wrote. “We all drink.”
The Shelburne Players board of directors postponed “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” until spring 2021. The cast and crew, according to Bailey, are “all vowing to keep our calendars clear so we can regroup then.”
MMU’s Theatre Department holds out hope that “Once on This Island” can be presented at least once for an audience. Padula, the director, said the set remains in place on the school’s stage, with no plans to take it down. She wrote that the dream is to present the musical in some way this spring or summer, at least for participants’ family members.
Kristina Day hopes for that opportunity as well.
“It would be so rewarding,” she said, “to finally show off our hard work.”
Contact Brent Hallenbeck at 660-1844 or email@example.com. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.
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