By Sabrina Jacob Washburn, Drama
The return of live theater is just around the corner. I read this morning that “Pass Over,” a modern riff on “Waiting for Godot” that explores race and class written by Antoinette Nwandu, will open on Broadway as early as August 4. The Public Theater is set to open its Shakespeare in the Park program soon, and many of my friends and family members are eagerly buying up tickets to shows slated to re-open throughout the fall. And, hallelujah! Many of my out-of-work actor friends are being called back to their jobs with renewed hope. New York is thirsty (dehydrated!) for live performance, and I predict its return will be as thrilling as we all imagine.
Nothing can beat the feeling of sitting in a dark space with other people, all focused on one electric moment together. It is said that audience members’ heartbeats synchronize when watching a live performance. Certainly, the experience of an ensemble of performers, technicians, and creative leaders coming together under one goal can be life-changing and long-lasting, no matter how brief or liminal the process. The high school theater company is all-too familiar with this notion, having found deep bonds and emotional connections to one another through shows like “Rent” and “As You Like It.” When the prospect of giving up this process to the pandemic for the second school year, a process that is found in the long and dark hours backstage during tech week and while covered in sawdust during strike, I wondered how Grace Theatre Company would survive. How can we continue to build these relationships and strengthen our identity as a company through the tedious and choppy nature of Zoom?
“We can’t do another Zoomsical,” I remember telling Andrew Leonard, our musical director. As successful as our Into the Woods pivot was last year, I could not envision asking our students to embark on yet another Zoom-reimagined project. They were ready for something else, something more personal and connected. So, we set out to make a movie musical, one we could rehearse on Zoom for safety purposes, but then film live on set together (with proper protocols) in order to gain a sense of that “normal” production experience everyone so desired. After some deliberation, we created A Guide to Getting Through, a musical revue featuring scenes and songs from various contemporary musicals that showcase characters finding their way through difficult moments. I also wanted to feature New York City as a symbol of our greater community’s ability to pull through the last year of sadness and uncertainty with the classic “New York tough” resiliency that I also see in so many of my students. So, we set the scenes in various locations all around Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and New Jersey.
This project was certainly ambitious. None of us on the leadership team are experienced filmmakers and there was a steep learning curve as we prepared to launch into a fast and furious shoot week in April. The universe wasn’t necessarily giving us a generous helping hand most days, either. Between rain, COVID cases in the cast, forgotten props, dying batteries, dealing with crowds in Washington Square Park, and general exhaustion, we sometimes wondered how we would pull through. Additionally, I am currently living in Los Angeles and was unable to travel to NYC for the film shoot. This resulted in “Sab-on-a-stick,” a cheeky name for the device set-up that allowed me to direct the shoot over FaceTime. Needless to say, we fought our way through some significant challenges and the show became our own guide to getting through that week.
It is these challenges, however, that actually gave us exactly what we were looking for. Cast and crew members leaning on one another and troubleshooting together brought us back to those intimate backstage moments we were craving. Long production days meant sharing meals outdoors in between calls. Last minute issues meant people had to pitch in and take on tasks they didn’t know they were capable of. In addition to making a show we were all very proud of, students and faculty alike found new aspects of themselves and their relationships that will remain strong after the show closes and the world opens up.
We wrapped up the process with a pajama-themed premiere for the cast and crew in the high school gym, followed by a closing cast party in a sunny backyard. It was clear from the cheers and tears that Grace Theatre Company has endured the many shake-ups of the last year with the same passion and adventurous spirit that has defined us in years past. Here’s to moving forward knowing that, together, we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.