Saddest casualty of all: The school play and the unknown loss

| September 2, 2020 | 0 Comments

When the pandemic hit in March (remember March?), theater productions everywhere were cancelled. Large theaters, 99-seat theaters, summer theaters, etc. all suffered devastating artistic and financial losses, from which many will never recover. Indeed, the entire play- (and concert-) going experience may be changed if not quite forever, then for a very long time to come.

The Berkshire Theater Company in western Massachusetts, for example, recently presented an Equity-approved production of the 1971 musical “Godspell.” To pull this off, the cast rehearsed in a socially distanced way, performed six feet apart, never touching, and wore masks when not singing. The audience of 100 had its temperature taken upon entering the outdoor tent that housed the production, tickets and programs were on cell phones only, and the cast is living in quarantine during the run of the show.

As much as I want to see theater thrive, this is about as appetizing as dining out in purple nitrate gloves with a bottle of hand sanitizer as a condiment. Of course, the alternative is worse. Along with many other theaters, Seattle’s ACT has cancelled the rest of its season, which will have devastating artistic and economic repercussions. Zoom readings have lost whatever initial charm or curiosity they may have had even three or four months ago, and email in-boxes are stuffed with requests for support, funding and donations from ever-more-desperate theaters.

School plays

The saddest casualty in all this, though, is the school play. Last spring, kids across the country (and their hard-working teachers!) got the rugs pulled out from under them, when, after weeks of rehearsal, schools closed and performances were cancelled — often without ever having had an opening night. Arts teachers everywhere are grappling with how to do plays online, teach acting or violin or drawing, schedule rehearsals, all the while being tossed back and forth by administrators and politicians with, to be polite, conflicting agendas.

But it is the students, of course, who suffer most when the intangibles of an arts education — discipline, dedication, commitment, trust, diversity, enthusiasm, camaraderie, etc. — are taken away from them. Those experiences, such as auditioning for the class play and NOT getting the part, but coming back next year, or taking a smaller role this time; or coming to rehearsal and finding that you do have a “voice” of your own — what people thought was geeky gets laughs on stage, perhaps — all this is gone, and these students will never have a chance at having it back.

While it might not make them a lost generation, the danger is that they become a generation that doesn’t know what it has lost.

Since the 1940s, according to an NPR Education report, the most frequently performed school plays have consistently included “Our Town,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “12 Angry Jurors” (originally “12 Angry Men”), and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet.” More recently, plays like “Radium Girls” (factory women poisoned by radiation), “Peter and the Starcatcher” (the prequel to “Peter Pan”) and “Almost, Maine” (a kind of Hallmark “Our Town” with multiple gender and sexual identity themes) have joined the lists. On the musical side, “Oklahoma!” and “Charlie Brown” have slowly given way to “Mamma Mia!” and “Into the Woods.” Students — and their teachers — use more and more difficult plays to present and discuss more and more difficult issues to their schools and communities.

This is one of the chief roles of art in a free and dynamic society, one which we are in danger of losing if theaters stay closed for the foreseeable future, which they must, until the pandemic is under control. Students, then, will get neither a true play- or concert-going experience, nor an experience of making theater or music with and for others. As long as the art that they, and we, get is limited to our computer screens, or literally sanitized for safe consumption, we will be the lesser for it, for the unfortunately foreseeable future.

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Category: Entertainment

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