By Patrick O’Brien
Insofar as any theatrical institution can have “business as usual”, Highland Park’s Performer’s School had just that on their hands in March 2020. They had two shows in the hopper — Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr. for the fourth and fifth graders; Les Misérables School Edition for the sixth through eighth graders. They were all set for the Skokie Theatre in May; there was so much to do and so little time in which to do it.
Then, all of a sudden, everyone had all the time in the world, but nothing to do to ready the show.
On Friday, March 13th, Illinois schools were told to brace for closure in the wake of the fast spread of the novel coronavirus. Shortly after, public gatherings were restricted to no more than fifty people, and so, by default, theater companies, from storefronts to the big shots, were forced to close, too.
Lauren Hanson, not yet involved with Perfomer’s at the time, was cast in her school’s Mary Poppins. She remembers administrators said “we would most likely come back in two weeks. Everyone in the cast was so happy that we had a couple weeks off from school, but we all immediately burst into tears because we couldn’t have our last show!”
Two weeks passed. Indefinite quarantine set in.
“We in the cast set up a weekly Zoom meeting for us to all talk to each other when we couldn’t meet in person,” says Hayden Meyers. We all theorized when the show would go on.”
Shows didn’t go on.
Something set in. It wasn’t quite cabin fever. It was leaving routine; it was reaching out by any means except by being face-to-face, so close and yet so far away.
“No matter what was going on in my life, whatever happened at school, every Thursday and Sunday, I had a wonderful community to come to and do the thing I love most: theatre,” says Nora Sharman. “During the early quarantine, we had Zooms and hung out, but we didn’t work on the show.”
There’s that “Zoom” thing again…
Though, to be absolutely clear, Performer’s School is not hopping on the Zoom or livestream bus; their work has been filmed and edited ahead of time. No less daunting than doing it live, though. Actually, it’s probably even more daunting; how do you pack dozens of kids into a frame while obeying COVID-19 protocol?
Well, where were we? Ah, yes: Into this torpor, enter Peter Marston Sullivan and Elizabeth Telford.
Seeing an increased need for theatrical video production during the quarantine, Sullivan founded Marston McCoy Media, a videography firm. Telford is a familiar face in Chicagoland musicals, and she’s Peter’s wife, which was very handy for preparing proofs of concept for filmed musicals, “when, last year, so many companies were looking for alternatives to live performances,” Sullivan recalls. “We pitched the idea to The Performer’s School, with a demo of my wife singing fourteen parts in ‘One Day More’ – a true gem of a video!”
But, again, that’s one performer.
“[Students were filmed] individually, one at a time, and socially distanced with a Plexiglass shield between them with our orchestrator,” says Liz Fauntleroy, co-founder of Performer’s and Les Miz‘s music director. “He recorded their whole track of the show with them. Finally, they were all costumed with make-up and went in front of a green screen with Marston McCoy. They were socially distanced and filmed individually. Peter then put them all together and layered them into the scenes. “
“We have forty students in Les Misérables and twenty-six in Beauty and the Beast.”
“I’ll admit,” says Sullivan, “we didn’t fully know what we were getting into, as this was all experimental. Trying to make it look like actors are in the same space, looking towards one another, interacting and exchanging objects, etc., all sounded feasible and we thought it out in great detail. However, we never expected the sheer number of challenges that crept in throughout the process. Simply remembering where all the other performers were was a monumental task in itself. We had to essentially ‘stage’ the show for film ahead of time, and then because the filming itself took several months, we had to attempt to remember what we did months ago! The volume of video required all of us to purchase additional hard drives (multiples!). We’re talking upwards of ten terabytes.”
How about just one number, say, ‘One Day More?’ “That number alone took one editor two weeks to compile. In addition, the time it took to both record audio and film everyone spanned more than 5 months.”
Also in this mix: Jeffrey D. Kmiec, another Chicagoland regular, a scenic designer — a regular at the Marriott and Aurora’s Paramount Theatre — with a knack for projection. Sullivan again: “Jeffrey created elaborate and beautifully layered illustrations that we were able to animate for the project to help make it appear as though all the performers were in the same space.”
“While there were certainly times we felt overwhelmed and way in over our heads, we are emerging from the other side with perhaps the most memorable experience in our lives.”
Omi Lichtenstein, from the junior cast: “It was one of the best things I’ve done and I love it so much. It made me feel happy and more like things were normal.”
Assuming all the best — that musical theater does return to normal by fall — will Performer’s keep streaming musicals in their back pocket?
Says Liz, “Our hopes in fall are to return in person following state guidelines! Fingers crossed!”
Les Misérables School Edition will stream May 21st thru May 30th; Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr., May 28th thru June 6th. For tickets or more information, please visit theperformersschool.com.