How High School Theater has Changed With The Pandemic
Zoe*, a senior at Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School, sighed as she logged into her Zoom call. She would spend the next two hours asking the actors in the school play what type of clothes they had in their closets to try and piece together their costumes for the play. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoe’s main after school activity, costume crew for the B-CC theatre department, had been transitioned to online. While she was relieved to still be able to do theater in some aspect, an online play made her job and responsibilities very different than a typical school year.
2020 brought many changes for high school students during the shift to online school. Most after school activities were cancelled in the spring of 2020 at the start of the pandemic. As schools continued to be online in the fall of 2020, many extracurricular activities were able to adjust and meet safely outside with a limited number of students remaining distanced from each other. Theater in particular experienced major changes. Due to the sheer number of students needed to put on a production and the necessity of being inside to use the theater, most high school theater departments were not able to meet in person. Many schools, including B-CC, decided to use resources like Zoom to put on their first ever virtual productions. This change caused shifting roles for the stage crew, excited new members of the theater community, and drove some old participants away.
Zoe’s interest in theater sparked in middle school. “ I started theater in 6th grade, I have participated in every single production in middle school and high school,” Zoe said.“ I love musical theater and being such a part of the stage crew is so fun. I had a great time when I was on the props crew, and now that I'm on costumes, I’m still loving it so much. ”
As theater transitioned online during the fall, many people who had participated in theater for years decided to opt out of the online productions. Online theater became especially difficult for students who participated by doing stage crew, because most of their responsibilities were not possible via Zoom. Members of the crew who weren’t heads of departments had little to do and were cut from the program, while some actors chose to not participate in order to focus on school.
“Because we are doing school online and because of other factors, I’ve decided not to participate in the theatre program in the fall of 2020,” said Izzie*, a senior who acted in the theater program in the past. “As a senior I have a lot of schoolwork to do, and I’ve been applying to colleges so I just didn’t think it was possible for me to make time to do theater. especially because the experience won’t be the same online as it would have been in person.”
One of the biggest struggles students faced with online theater was the change in experience. The theater program at B-CC is steeped in tradition, most of which are impossible to do in a virtual setting. Many students loved theater for the traditions and the chance to be creative while spending time with their friends. Online theater eliminated the possibility of many of these wants being fulfilled. Some seniors attempted to continue traditions like Green Room, an activity before the opening night of shows to calm the actors' nerves, online.
David*, a 12th grader and head of the costume crew, struggled with the bonding experience theater provided for him and his friends backstage, “I’m glad that theater exists right now, but my favorite parts were definitely being in person and doing things backstage as assistant stage manager and things like that. I miss being able to see a lot of my crew friends in person and being on headset with them jamming early 2000s songs during breaks.” While many students were relieved that theater was continuing in some way during the pandemic, most agreed that the community was more disconnected and felt less like a family through the lens of a Zoom camera.
“I’ve just decided to give up some activities (because I know I can’t handle all of them) to help me deal with the added stress and confusion of 2020,” said Izzie, “I wish we could be in person to do shows. I think I would have considered continuing theater if we were in person.”
Even those who continued to participate in the program as a form of stress relief or relative normality amidst the chaos of 2020 admitted it was nothing like it is in person. “The most frustrating part of the impacts of 2020 on the theater program has been not getting the full theater experience that comes with performing in person (props, costumes, set, lighting, sound, etc) and not being able to perform live in front of an audience,” said Andrew*, an 11th grade actor who made the choice to act in the play virtually. “Personally in performances, I feed off of the energy of the audience, and pre recording the performance with no live audience makes that impossible, so it has been a major adjustment.”
As Zoe considered her time in the B-CC theater program, she said that, “There's not much we can do in costumes other than look in people's closets because we're not really in the position to bring things to people's houses and we’re not allowed to go into the school and look at our costumes collection so we can only really go off of what people have in their houses”. Despite the huge shift that occurred to her role as a stage crew head when theater transitioned to online for the fall of 2020, her love for theater remained unchanged. “I love the community that the B-CC stage crew creates. And it's a really fun school-related after-school activity I have. The most inspiring thing about the way the theater program has adjusted to 2020 is that we were able to find a way to practice and perform a play in a new environment that we haven't before. I am so grateful that theater is still happening in some form, even though it is very different from how I have experienced theater in the past.”
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of these students