Theaters may have shut down and live performances may have been canceled throughout the world, but Orange County School of Arts theater arts students are out to prove they don’t need a stage to entertain.
Pre-COVID-19 crisis, the OCSA students were three weeks into intensive rehearsals for their annual spring musical. When they received the news that schools and theaters were closing, the OCSA team and professional “Now. Here. This.” authors Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell and Jeff Bowen pulled together to reimagine what the spring musical may look like in the modern world.
Rehearsing over Zoom meetings, and shooting over six weeks from their own phones using smartphones and home computers, more than 30 OCSA students from musical theatre, acting, production, design and visual arts conservatories created a full-length digital theatrical experience for their audience, which will debut at 6 p.m. PST on Thursday, May 14 and can be viewed any time through Sunday, May 17.
We chatted with writer, performer, and educator Susan Blackwell about the innovative theatrical production process.
Can you describe the process of creating a virtual theatrical experience?
A little backstory: for the past year, the authors have been re-working our original musical NOW. HERE. THIS. We wanted to make it more flexible so that a theatre with any size cast could perform it, and musically it could be played on a keyboard or with a full band. We wanted it to be modular so that a theatre could do the full-length version, and then do a cutting for a theatre festival or competition. And we wanted it to be as non-gendered and inclusive as possible, so that many different performers could play all different parts. We were envisioning something with a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ element, with clear rules of engagement provided in the script.
We were in the middle of testing this version of the show with an amazing team at the Orange County School of the Arts when the pandemic struck, and all live theatre was cancelled. At first we were devastated, but then we regrouped, and we all agreed to attempt one number virtually. Then one number became two, and two became four.
Soon, the entire show was being recorded and shot on cell phones, home computers, and personal devices. It was rehearsed, costumed, location scouted, set dressed, lit, recorded and shot entirely by the OCSA high school students and their families in quarantine.
Through the hard work and dedication of the creative team, the students, and their families, this virtual version of NOW. HERE. THIS. came into existence, one number at a time!
How did the students react to the initial announcement that they will still be performing despite the COVID lockdown?
We actually have footage of their faces when I suggested that they start thinking about what this show might look like in the virtual context. There were definitely some blank stares coming back at me through the Zoom conference. After the fact, I asked some of those students how they felt when I pitched the idea of creating a virtual musical.
Graduating senior Adam Castrillon said he was concerned about the logistics and how to get things completed and uploaded on time.
Graduating senior Maggie Gidden said when I floated the idea, it seemed like an impossible task. She thought, “What happens when more than one person has to sing? What happens when I’m standing against a tan wall in my home, and someone else is standing in front of a neon orange wall in their home?”.
But I just had a sense, given the talent and creativity evident in this OCSA group, that this could be an excellent opportunity for all of us to stay engaged and creative during these strange times. AND it would be a great opportunity for the students to bring their awesome, weird, tech-savvy selves into the mix. It also could provide a chance for other departments to get in on helping make these pieces. And, it would give me and my fellow authors a chance to continue experimenting with this flexible version of NOW. HERE. THIS.
In what ways did this virtual theater open up the creative process for the students?
Doing NOW. HERE. THIS. virtually from quarantine really gave the students a chance to be wildly creative and self expressed.
For the number ‘Golden Palace’, lead performer Tristan Leach wanted each performer in the number to portray their ‘golden palace’–that space where they felt most creative. For Tristan, it was coloring. She put her colored pages up on the window of her home, making it look like a stained glass window–that was how she represented her ‘golden palace’ in her footage.
Matthew Kontur, who is featured in the number ‘Kick Me’, said the process was super-fun because he basically became the costume designer and prop master–he made his own prop flag out of a shirt and a broom. He loved having that much creative freedom, which he probably wouldn’t have had if they had performed the show traditionally on stage. He even cast his family in his piece, and he said they loved being in it, too!
What is the premise of the reimagined “Now. Here. This.”?
NOW. HERE. THIS. is a musical that explores our pasts and futures, and why living in the present is life’s greatest gift. Timely lessons for today, to say the least. Told in over 20 mini-musical scenes that delve into life’s big questions with a lot of heart, humor and humanity. Because of the way it’s structured, it really lends itself to a flexible, virtual approach.
What do you hope the audience (viewers) will take from this production?
First, I hope the audience will simply enjoy the show–that they will be moved by the material and the beautiful work of these young artists.
Secondly, I hope that people will be inspired by what’s possible. I was talking with the Gidden family, including graduating senior Maggie Gidden, who thought at first that this whole thing would be impossible. Her mom, Gina Gidden, said, “This whole experience gave the students something they could control. It gave meaning to this time. It gave them purpose. This proved that impossible things can be done.”
I can’t say it better than Gina Gidden: I’d love for audiences to know that seemingly impossible things can be done, even during challenging times, even during a pandemic, even under quarantine.
Are there any particular standout performers that you would like to share by name?
The entire cast is stellar. Truly. But I do want to shout out the graduating seniors. This is their last high school musical, and I couldn’t be more proud of their hard work and their fine performances: Nathan Burke, Adam Castrillon, Therese Fontese, Emily Frazier, Cambria Gallo, Maggie Gidden, Audrey Hempel, Matthew Kontur, Tristan Leach, Noi Maeshige, and Mariah Williams. Each one of them is an excellent human AND a gifted creative. Plus, SENIORS RULE!
How were the general theatrical production elements — set, props, costumes, etc. produced/coordinated?
It was all handled by the students and their families. Thankfully, the material is pretty contemporary — they weren’t trying to costume A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. So the students could use things that they and their parents had around the house.
What do you want theatergoers/viewers/readers to know about this unique production?
If anyone is moved to do something like this themselves, a great place to start is with one scene or musical number. If you enjoy the creative process, try two! If you’re really feeling it, keep going! And if you and your theatre would like to perform NOW. HERE. THIS. virtually, this new flexible version will be available for licensing through Concord Theatricals. We can’t wait to see what you do with your production!
Now. Here. This. will air exclusively on OCSA’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/weareocsa. The premiere begins at 6 p.m. PST on May 14, 2020, and the full presentation can be viewed anytime through Sunday, May 17, 2020.