The spring season traditionally is curtain-raising time for high school performing arts programs, when students at Dos Pueblos, San Marcos, Santa Barbara and Laguna Blanca schools present elaborate stage productions in their respective on-campus theaters. But the theaters will be dark this year because schools have been ordered to close for the remainder of the school year because of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a huge blow to the talented students who put so much time and energy into an activity they’re passionate about and excited to share with their families, friends and the community.
The shows on the marquees this spring were slated to be “Shrek, the Musical” and a student-directed “Little Mermaid” at Dos Pueblos; “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a madcap comedy within a musical, at San Marcos; “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at Santa Barbara High; and “Guys and Dolls” at Laguna Blanca.
“Hunchback” was going to be the swan song show for longtime director Otto Layman, who’s retiring after 25 years at Santa Barbara High. The show was scheduled to run May 1-10.
“Yes, a very sad and difficult time — and artists are no different,” Layman said. “With a cast of 42 and an additional professional choir of 30, we looked forward to the end of a great run with exhilaration and joy. So, of course, it hit me — all of us — hard.”
Work was humming along on the ambitious production before school was shut down because of the pandemic.
“We were $15,000 already invested, although Musical Theater International has said that they would refund the $5,300 in rights fees,” he said.
The enormous set was three-quarters constructed and painted, and work had begun on costuming. The cast had six weeks of choreography and vocal direction under its belts, an orchestra was hired and Layman was in negotiations with a choir.
He and his cast and crew are now left with “pieces of incomplete art.”
“Musical theater productions have a particular rhythm and momentum, and there was no way to continue along with this production in the hopes that we might one day open,” he said. “We were in the middle of the process. I canceled the show so that I wouldn’t continue to spend money without any return. That debt would’ve been carried over to the person that follows me, and that was dreadfully unfair to them and to parents and donors.
“Now, with school not returning in any form this year, other than online, sadly no form of ‘Hunchback’ will see the light.”
At Dos Pueblos, student actor Phoebe Appel expressed her disappointment about the April 3-18 performances of “Shrek” being canceled.
“Not being able to do ‘Shrek’ has been one of the most painful experiences I’ve felt, if I’m being completely honest,” said Appel, who was playing the role of “Donkey.”
“As a senior and president of the theater company this year, I’ve spent my four years performing in all the big musicals, straight plays and student-run shows I could be a part of. I’ve been a part of theater leadership, and I have dedicated practically all of my time to the Dos Pueblos Theatre Company. I wouldn’t have had my high school career be any other way. I’ve truly found my passion for this art, made the most amazing friends, and created experiences I will cherish for life.
“Getting to work alongside my two other very talented and hardworking scene partners, Matthew Kleeburg (Shrek) and Lexie Brent (Fiona), was unbelievably inspiring. I learned a lot from them, and I will never forget the moments we shared in rehearsals. I’m deeply saddened for the entire cast and crew, who have worked tirelessly to put on this show.”
There’s a possibility that the show might go on at Dos Pueblos, according to performing arts instructor Clark Sayre.
“We’re going to try to pull off a very informal concert-type presentation for parents in the first couple weeks of school,” he said. “Since we won’t have costumes, will be missing cast members, etc., we won’t be presenting a full-paid public performances.”
Sayre noted that the theater department lost $30,000 with the cancellation of “Shrek,” which will affect productions for the next school year.
“This entire plan for next year is budget related, so we may actually be operating in the red or very close to that to start the year,” he said. “Our designers have generously donated some of their time so we can stay financially afloat. We’ll be heavily dependent on donors and sponsors for next year’s season.”
Sayre said the actors in the “Little Mermaid” will be taking the songs and scenes they’ve rehearsed and making “fan videos” (five minutes or shorter) that they’ll show to parents through a closed group.
He said he feels for the seniors.
“I’m mostly really sad for the seniors who have not only lost this, but their Senior Prom, Senior Week activities and graduation. It’s a reality that none of us had to face, and I’m sure would have trouble even picturing. Imagine going through the loss of all those things as an 18-year-old. I’m devastated with them.”
At San Marcos, theater director Shannon Saleh said her actors had been rehearsing for “The Drowsy Chaperone” since January for their April 30-May 9 performances.
“At the point of school’s dismissal, we had blocked all scenes, learned most choreography and learned every vocal note in the show,” she said, acknowledging vocal director Eleni Pantages. “Our orchestra had been practicing the score under the direction of Micheal Kiyoi, and our set was half built — and still standing unpainted — by our stage craft class, which has been lifting, building and planning since January under the direction of Jonathan Mitchell.”
Senior Eva Moschitto of San Marcos said she is bummed that the cast members won’t get to experience that euphoria of finally nailing a dance number, or seeing the show for the first time with lights and costumes.
“There’s the anticipation of waiting backstage for the lights to dim on opening night, the thrill of performing the show for the first time for an audience, and the sense of overwhelming accomplishment and celebration after a show has closed,” she said. “There’s also just the disappointment of not being able to showcase something we have already poured time, energy and resources into.”
Saleh hasn’t canceled the rights to the musical as she hopes the cast can do a concert version of the show, “even if we live-stream it to our audience and our actors are socially distanced.”
“This gets pretty hairy, and the timeline will have to be entirely fluid, of course, based on the daily state of our world,” she said. “But since theater is about live connection and process and product, I am so open to exploring what the new frontier looks like. Lots of locals are already using creative means, and I want to learn from them.”