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High school theater performances cut short, canceled statewide due to coronavirus

With crowds limited and schools shut down, student performers have lost their audience and stage.

Benet Academy’s production of “The Addams Family” was cut short when schools shut down due to coronavirus.
Benet Academy’s production of “The Addams Family” was cut short when schools shut down due to coronavirus.
Courtesy of Brian Wand

The day after students at Benet Academy opened their spring musical, “The Addams Family,” their directors sat them down to talk.

What was going to be a seven-day run of their production would now be just two, teachers Lauren Butera and Brian Wand, who directed the show, told them. That evening, they’d be closing the show for good.

“I knew it was going to be a closing chapter anyway, but I’m sad it came sooner than expected,” said Claire Ann Santos, a senior at Benet.

Their closing night became March 13 — the same day Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that all schools would be closed to stop the coronavirus from spreading.

“There’s a song in the show called ‘Happy-Sad,’ so we talked about that as our motivation for the day,” Wand said. “We were happy that we got to do one more and sad that we wouldn’t get the others.”

Benet Academy’s production of “The Addams Family” was cut short when schools shut down due to coronavirus.
Photo courtesy of Brian Wand

With schools now shut down until at least April 30 statewide, many high school theater programs have had their final performances canceled or cut short.

Deerfield High School puts on five theater productions each year. Though the school wrapped up its big spring musical March 4, there was still one show left after the closures were announced.

Britnee Kenyon, director of Deerfield’s theater program, canceled that show Tuesday.

“I keep telling myself: You’re making this decision for the greater good, not for you and not for the students,” Kenyon said. “I did feel a lot of pressure, and I felt a lot of, just, sadness — I mean, there’s no other way to describe it — in having to do this. But remembering that it’s not just me, it’s not just them — there are theater programs all over the country that are dealing with this situation right now.”

Some schools were lucky enough to finish their shows just in time. New Trier High School’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” closed March 8. Five days later, schools were closed.

“The ramp-up to the shutdown happened so quickly that we were starting to kind of talk a little bit about it when the show was actually in its performances ... but we hadn’t even come close yet to talking about schools shutting down,” said David Ladd, New Trier’s music and theater department chair.

“It was later on in the week where we realized, holy cow, we came so close to not being able to do the show. Then we were hearing about other schools that had to cancel their shows — local schools, who were only a week later than we were, were not able to do their productions.”

Benet Academy’s production of “The Addams Family” was cut short when schools shut down due to coronavirus.
Photo courtesy of Brian Wand

The news was perhaps most devastating to seniors, many of whom spent their high school years dedicating time to their drama programs.

“The spring musical was a lot of other peoples’ last show,” said Kaley Cooperman, a senior at Deerfield. “If we’d known, maybe we’d have done something a little different because we didn’t know it was our last show.”

“There’s no other place in school or anywhere in life where you’ll find people you can just be you around, no apologies,” said Margaret Weiner, another senior at Deerfield. “I’m really going to miss that.”

Broadway In Chicago, which hosts the Illinois High School Musical Theatre Awards each year, has launched a program called “Around Broadway in 80 Days” so the students’ hard work doesn’t go unnoticed.

The company hopes to offer a “virtual stage” to high school performers, asking them to post videos of their performances and tag them #AroundBroadwayIn80Days. The students will be featured on Broadway In Chicago and IHSMTA’s social media.

Though the high school casts can’t meet up in person, they talk almost every day online. Not ready to put their shows away, some still rehearse lines or practice dialects and character building over video-conferencing platforms.

At Benet, they even had a cast party over Zoom — 50 people showed up.

“It was chaos, but everyone was laughing at silly nonsense,” Wand said. “That’s what we miss, doing nonsense together. It was important to do that again, and it’s important they stay connected.”