FOR THESPIAN TROUPE 1573, school closed eight days before opening night of their spring musical, 9 to 5. “We thought we would beat it to opening weekend, if maybe not weekend two,” said Melissa Staab, theatre arts director at Redondo Union High School in California. “I kept telling students, ‘If Hamilton’s still on Broadway, we’re still doing 9 to 5.’”

Then, on Thursday, March 12, a student came in and said, ‘Did you hear? They closed Broadway!’”

That’s when Staab knew.

The 9 to 5 cast and crew had a planned cue-to-cue that afternoon. Staab asked the band director to gather the student orchestra. They knew it would be rough — though they’d done a paper tech, the crew hadn’t practiced set changes or incorporated lighting design — “but I said, ‘We need to run the show; this might be our last chance.’”

Cast members picked out costumes while Staab advised seniors to discreetly invite their parents. “I didn’t tell them all at the top of rehearsal or we wouldn’t have gotten through,” Staab recalled. “We ran the whole show, and it was crazy chaotic, but they were so amazing! Afterward, we gathered everyone and said, ‘We’re not coming back to school for a while.’ There were lots of tears, lots of emotions.”

Liana Moore, who plays Margaret, called the experience “surreal,” but added that, as a senior doing her last show at Redondo Union, “I am determined to keep the spirit of the show alive.”

These student actors are among countless Thespian casts rehearsing plays and musicals via Zoom, Google Meet, and other digital platforms. Whether learning lines or perfecting well-tuned numbers, many cautiously hope for summer (or even later) performances, while others have adapted their shows for digital presentations.

Thespians of Redondo Union High School at their March 12 run-through of 9 to 5.
Thespians of Redondo Union High School at their March 12 run-through of 9 to 5. Photo courtesy of Melissa Staab.

Redondo Union students rehearse tracks through the MTI Player app. “If I play a track through my device, they mute themselves and sing along,” said Staab, who hasn’t had success with everyone singing together, though she reported that “solos are typically fine.” They meet weekly on Zoom to go through a third of the show at a time, running dialogue and singing songs. Cast members practice choreography on their own and complete daily theatre challenges posted on Google Classroom.

The students also put together a lip sync video of the 9 to 5 title song “just for fun,” said Staab, adding, “We realize now how much school theatre means to us and not to take it for granted anymore, to appreciate how much work goes into it, and how much our souls need it.”

Moore knows everything — including her troupe’s live performance, tentatively postponed to mid-August — remains up in the air. Still, Moore said, “It gives me so much joy to continue working with the Thespians I love on such an uplifting piece.”

She’s not alone. Dramatics checked in with schools conducting remote rehearsals across the U.S. to discover their stories.


On March 12, as Moore and her castmates in Redondo Beach, California, looked forward to their scheduled cue-to-cue of 9 to 5, Bevan Fogdall of Troupe 5706 in York, Pennsylvania, was anxiously checking a cast list. Just hours after learning she’d landed the lead role of Dolly Levi in the spring play, The Matchmaker, theatre director Shannon Mitchell broke the bad news.

When Dramatics caught up with York Suburban High School Thespians in late April, Fogdall, in an endearing understatement, described the situation as “really bad timing! … It was disappointing to hear that we wouldn’t be able to start rehearsals soon.” A senior, she said, “This will be my last show with Trojan Theatre.”

According to Mitchell, the day the cast list goes up she traditionally gathers students for their first cold read, but “that Thursday afternoon — which none of us knew — was literally the last day we were all inside the classroom.”

They knew enough to anticipate a potential “minor shutdown,” said Mitchell, so instead of a read-through, they discussed what might happen. By all accounts, the students — comprised largely of seniors, many of them troupe officers with lead Matchmaker roles — were committed to rehearsing the show even without a guaranteed performance.

Two weeks into the Pennsylvania stay-at-home order, Mitchell met with her Thespian officers on Zoom to pitch the idea of postponing the show to summer, which would involve continuing digital rehearsals, followed by an intensive live “bootcamp” the three weeks leading up to the performance. “I was trying to be a voice of encouragement but also reason,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘If we move forward with something, it is knowing it could end up not happening.’ Everyone was emphatically on board.”

For her part, Fogdall “was relieved we were exploring options to perform the show later. Most of my friends are a part of this group, so staying connected with them [through digital rehearsals] has been a big boost to my mental health. The opportunity to rehearse this show with my friends is meaningful, even if I end up not getting to perform with them one last time.”

Mitchell holds Zoom rehearsals Mondays and Wednesdays. With the help of student stage manager Steven File’s color-coded spreadsheets, the group divides into Zoom breakout rooms (or a different platform, like Facetime, when Zoom malfunctions) for individual character coaching or scene work. Then, on “Theatre Thursdays,” the entire 50-plus-member Thespian troupe meets online. “We do games and chats — whatever they come up with,” Mitchell said. Their favorite activity is an adaptation of the improv game, Freeze.

As anyone who’s tried a Zoom call can attest, there are drawbacks. “Microphone issues and lag time were the first things we ran into,” said Mitchell. “I see these wonderful videos of choir students singing all together and wonder: How do all their microphones sync?”

Fogdall shrugs that off. “Sure, technical difficulties happen, but everyone is so helpful and understanding.” Her primary challenges are “genuinely mental. Through this experience, I have learned to focus on the present reality. It is easy for me to wish this year had gone differently or get my hopes up about what will happen, but these thoughts are ultimately painful. I am trying to focus on enjoying the rehearsal process and being grateful that I work with such a flexible, positive group of people.”

Fellow York Suburban senior Corey Lim, cast as Barnaby Tucker in The Matchmaker, appreciates real-time feedback from seeing himself perform. Plus, he says, Zoom rehearsals help them focus more on expressions and vocals. “I was told after one of our rehearsals that I sounded like a robot, and I had no idea that had been happening,” he said.

Mitchell said she worried about screen fatigue or plain old boredom during Zoom rehearsals and meetings, but “overwhelmingly what we’ve seen is they are so happy to see each other’s faces.” As a teacher, she said she can’t require students to turn on their cameras if they don’t want to — and she teaches college prep and other classes in which many students opt out. “But theatre students, they just want to see each other and have that outlet.”

Like Fogdall, Lim has “learned to adapt and look at the bright side of things,” including the fact that technology facilitating remote rehearsals exists at all. “I keep telling myself that seeing my fellow Thespians is a privilege. I consider myself lucky and don’t take anything for granted. I think that’s a really important life skill, so I’m thankful in part that I’ve had such a strange experience for the last show of my high school theatre career because I have garnered new knowledge and wisdom from it.”

If they ultimately cancel The Matchmaker, Mitchell hopes to “pull something together that will be a representation of their time. … We could look at doing some kind of online performance of original monologues, something like that, so they can have a spotlight.”

Thespians at York Suburban High School rehearse their production of The Matchmaker.
Thespians at York Suburban High School rehearse their production of The Matchmaker. Photo by Shannon Mitchell.


Thespians of Troupe 8975 at The Woodhall School — a close-knit boarding school of 42 boys in Bethlehem, Connecticut  had also just finished auditions for the school’s first musical, PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Old Man and the Old Moon, before dispersing for a planned three-week break starting March 3.

“Very quickly, we learned that school would need to go online for the remainder of the year,” said Woodhall Director of Theatre Christina Vincent, who used the scheduled break to reimagine their show as a digital performance combining filmed live-action segments and student-designed animation. “The script calls for theatrical sequences — like filling the moon or being swallowed by a fish — originally done by PigPen Theatre through shadow puppetry,” she said.

Vincent now directs Zoom rehearsals with students dispersed across nine states. Twice weekly she posts “individualized assignments to hone specific skills and script analysis for the production” on Google Classroom. Cast members also meet one-on-one with their musical director.

Sophomore Zach Breitbard, who plays The Old Man, said he and other cast members have contributed to the play’s creative reimagining. Early on, he said, “The actors met via Zoom to review the script and talk about how we would deploy each component of the play in a virtual setting.”

Meanwhile, Vincent said, “Our technical director and crew are experimenting with a variety of animation styles and software, including stop-motion Lego animation, stick-figure flipbook animation, and paper cutout animation using either Adobe Animate or Blender.”

The technical team also consults with the crew to ensure consistent, optimal sound and film quality. “We’re asking for a neutral wall or predetermined story-specific location, generous lighting, a tripod, and an off-camera scene reader.” Actors will work with costumes and props they have on hand and use accessories to indicate different characters — a crucial aspect for the cast of five playing 24 roles among them.

Junior Nate Schofield, for example, plays the Clerk, Boatswain 2, Captain, Cookie, Bartender, and Bartley. He loves the challenge of shifting among various characters —though he admits remote rehearsals take getting used to.

“Dear God, it’s been very awkward since it’s completely uncharted territory, but it presents an opportunity to learn and better my acting skills, so I’m ready to ride or die for it,” Schofield said.

Through acting for film, Breitbard has come to better appreciate “how essential your facial expressions are and how much you need to emphasize what emotions your character is feeling, because not every scene will be a clip of your entire body.”

The Thespians are collaborating with two actors from a nearby high school whose spring show was canceled, and they will provide a viewing guide with kid-friendly activities to students from local elementary schools in advance of their scheduled recorded performance, streamed by Broadway Licensing on May 29 and 30. “We are still working out the logistics of a talkback,” Vincent said. “We may utilize the live chat feature during the stream or have a separate Zoom event to talk to the cast and crew.”

Broadway Licensing “has been absolutely wonderful through this process and is even launching a streaming platform to host virtual performances,” said Vincent. “In lieu of a ticket purchase, we will be asking audience members to consider donating to a local nonprofit such as our town’s food bank.”

PigPen Theatre has also worked closely with the school. On May 8, Vincent and her cast got to meet via Zoom with members of the company for what she called “a great chat” about the show and their approach to it.

The Old Man and the Old Moon has proven “incredibly timely,” said Vincent, who describes the story as “one of finding hope in the midst of forced change.”

Zach Breitbard rehearsing The Old Man and the Old Moon.
Zach Breitbard rehearsing The Old Man and the Old Moon. Photo courtesy of Christina Vincent.


When West Boylston Middle/High School closed in Massachusetts, its Thespian Troupe 6514 was two weeks into rehearsals of their spring musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, having choreographed the first four songs and learned almost all the music in Act 1.

West Boylston Thespians rehearsed daily through their Performing Arts Workshop before the stay-at-home mandate went into effect, said Drama Director Debra Huard. They’d also designed and sourced building materials for sets and begun sourcing materials for costume designs for the show, originally scheduled to open May 8.

“I polled the class and overwhelmingly they all wanted to produce the show whenever and however we are able,” said Huard, who has officially postponed the production with Concord Theatricals and feels prepared to supplement their remote work with three weeks of physical rehearsals and one week of tech if they get the green light.

“We are hoping that will be late summer, but we realize it may be well into the fall term. All the kids are on board to make it happen. We have three seniors — including Jesus, Mary, and Pilate. Two are staying local and one is going to college in a neighboring state, but all have said they will come back to play their roles.”

The students practice with ShowReady, a rehearsal track app through Right On Cue Services, and Huard uses Google Classroom to post assignments, schedules, audio recordings by the musical director, and choreography videos from their early live rehearsals. “The students LOVE working on the choreography at home,” she said, adding that she’s found herself giving more focused one-on-one vocal training than she might otherwise have.

The biggest challenge is lag time. “Between playing something on my keyboard and them hearing it, and any more than two people singing together at a time — it’s a total train wreck, but it makes for a lot of smiles and laughs,” she said. “Primarily I try to use those rehearsals to teach the music, plunk out some notes they’re having trouble with, and talk about character development, objectives, and emotions.”

Junior Sophia Thomas, who plays Priest 1, has enjoyed creative problem solving by her director, especially Huard’s decision to teach blocking sequences through Lego stop-motion animation videos. “That was so much fun to watch and made my day brighter,” Thomas said.

Huard explained that her 7-year-old son has both a stop-motion program on his iPad and “SO many Legos, so I just built a very-not-to-scale replica of our stage and assigned each cast member a different Lego figurine,” including Star Wars and Frozen characters. “We have 35 people in our cast, so I needed to figure out a way to record something that effectively showed everyone onstage without confusing everyone.”

Ultimately, the status of their performance remains uncertain, but Huard “tries to keep my attitude about everything positive and light. I’ve made it clear we don’t have a lot of information, but we will work together to keep it going. I also encourage them to take time to practice self-care and try new things,” like drawing or playing music.

In addition to rehearsals, the group meets informally to watch free online shows. “We watched NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar together on Easter,” Huard said. “I had about nine students join, and we shared a screen so we could chat during commercials.”

For Thomas, whether or not they perform, it’s enough to “stay connected with theatre and with my fellow Thespians. I don’t want to lose the fun, the joy, or the inside jokes that come with rehearsing a show. I don’t know when I’ll see my Thespian friends in person again, and some of them are graduating this year, so I’m thankful I at least get to see them through my computer screen.”

A great piece of their normal

Huard finds that “the biggest benefit has been on the emotional-mental level. Not just for me, but for the students as well. I think by continuing rehearsals and keeping the commitment to producing the show strong, it has been giving the kids a goal to stick to and something to look forward to.”

For schools still hoping to perform postponed spring shows, the possibility of cancellation doesn’t deter or demoralize; they’re just happy to stay connected with the material and with each other. Mitchell said, “The biggest silver lining is that, even when students say they’re struggling mentally or with work, they’re still showing up on rehearsal days to laugh and have fun. If we can do that and nothing comes of it, that’s still a great piece of their normal.”

Mitchell’s student Lim wrote one of his college scholarship essays about his definition of family. “I talked about how I’ve come to think of my peers in theatre as part of that,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for me to continue to give it my all in remote rehearsals and theatre meetings and to be part of theatre as much as possible in the current circumstances; I think of it as keeping in contact with my family.

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