Whether it’s Shakespeare or modern musicals, high school theater programs provide students with a chance to become better thespians, whether in the spotlight or behind the scenes.
However, with the pandemic, live theater, an experience best shared in a dark house with a crowd of intimate strangers, is unsafe.
While actors and technicians can enjoy their memories of past shows, creating a future for live theater presents unique challenges in an environment where the intimacy of the art form is now its greatest liability.
Four local high school directors – Cayla Kolbusz of Crestwood, Greg Viscomi of Dearborn High, Ken Overwater of Divine Child and Robert Doyle of Edsel Ford – take a look back at last season, and try to see what the theater crystal ball might hold next year for their high school theater students.
Cayla Kolbusz — Crestwood
Dearborn Height’s Crestwood High School, which presented the edgy and entertaining musical comedy “Avenue Q” last season, provided its students with a chance to do comedy while still tackling some very relevant issues, Kolbusz said.
“The puppetry was incredibly challenging,” she said. “Up to this point, the students were used to animating their own faces and bodies. It was difficult for them to forget about that and focus their energy into their puppets.”
Kolbusz said whether the student actors brought a puppet or a human character to life, they enjoyed creating the characters and the relationships.
“I think they did a great job at creating the humanity of each character,” she said. “Even though the show is often over-the-top and funny, the students paid close attention to the issues the play explored.”
Kolbusz said theater activities are on-hold until they learn what the school’s plans are for the fall.
“I have several plans myself, from waiting to start the season later, to some ideas for doing outdoor theater, if it is allowed,” she said. “I am also hoping to do a weekly virtual play reading with my kids, to give them an opportunity to experience plays they normally wouldn’t get to see.”
Greg Viscomi — Dearborn High
Dearborn High School performed the musical “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” last season, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the “Peanuts” comic strip, Viscomi said.
“‘Peanuts’ has been a personal favorite for most of my life,” Viscomi said. “This past year’s class of thespians were talented but young, with a smaller group of seniors, so I thought ‘Charlie Brown’ would be a good musical to help them develop their skills, leading into a harder spring musical production.”
Viscomi said his students did a superb job of bringing the well-known characters to life on the stage.
“I think they really enjoyed the fun of playing little children,” he said. “We also added an ensemble of lesser ‘Peanuts’ characters to the production, to get more students involved, and added more dance to the musical than is usually done.”
Dearborn High is waiting to see what extracurricular options the school system will allow its student actors and technicians to pursue, Viscomi said.
“We will try to create a theater season of some sort for the students,” he said.
Viscomi said he would like to see the students eventually do “Mama Mia,” the musical which was less than two weeks from opening when the pandemic closures occurred.
“The sets are done and sitting on the stage, the costumes are hanging in the dressing room, and the theater is close to ready,” he said.
Kenneth Overwater — Divine Child
Divine Child High School, which hadn’t tackled Shakespeare for 15 years, wanted to give its students a chance to perform one of the Bard’s comedies, Overwater said.
“‘Midsummer’ had so much opportunity for the actors and crew,” he said. “No other Shakespearean play could give them as much artistic freedom.”
Overwater said he also felt they could present a version of the show that could be amusing and understandable to all audiences without them needing to first study the play.
“With Shakespeare, the language presents the biggest challenge,” he said. “The production staff guided our students through it, helping them understand the language and find their character’s voice. Then we endeavored to make it accessible and entertaining to our audience.”
Overwater said the students enjoyed adding their own mannerisms and quirks to the characters they played.
“Students found moments of comedy to make these characters come to life and feel more real to the audience,” he said. “They became a tight-knit ensemble as their characters wove in and out of each other’s lives.”
Overwater said he will always cherish the successful transition of his students from struggling with archaic language to becoming living characters filled with emotion, conflict and struggles with which audiences could identify.
Bringing his students back to the school’s stage is still without a timeline, Overwater said.
“‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ will be our next full production,” he said. “We have not chosen show dates yet, but will follow government recommendations to keep our students and audiences safe.”
Robert Doyle — Edsel Ford
Doyle said the goal of Edsel Ford’s performing arts program is to benefit its students, and plays are chosen to showcase their strengths as well as challenge them to learn new skills and techniques.
He said its last two shows, the musical “Mary Poppins” and the comedy “Noises Off,” had large casts and extensive sets.
“‘Noises Off’ included a rotating set, and ‘Mary Poppins’ had to fly,” Doyle said. “‘Noises Off’ allowed our actors to explore just how far they could explore the craziness of their characters.”
He said the pandemic has left many questions about the performing arts unanswered.
“We are completely on hold in regards to any live performances in the foreseeable future,” Doyle said. “Until we know more, we are exploring as many possibilities as we can to help students create, explore, refine, discover and even perform during these unprecedented times.”
PLAYERS GUILD PRESENTS ONLINE IMPROV
The Players Guild of Dearborn will present an online interactive improv show at 8 p.m. Aug. 15 on Zoom, with a live stream on YouTube, “Guild-y by Association and the Meeting of Zoom.”
The show is intended for mature audiences, and is free, but donations to the non-profit Players Guild of Dearborn are welcome and encouraged.
The ensemble includes: Madeleine Bien of Royal Oak; Michael Micheletti of Livonia, Scott Ryan of Southgate, Stan Guarnelo of Melvindale, Sarah Zakaria of Northville, and Dearborn residents Diane Manko-Cliff, Meredith Gorden and Phil Booth.
For more information, go to playersguildofdearborn.org.