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How Cayuga County school musicals are dancing around COVID-19
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How Cayuga County school musicals are dancing around COVID-19

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The cast of "Newsies" at Weedsport Jr.-Sr. High School was half an hour away from taking the stage for its final performance last March. Then COVID-19 lowered the curtain before it could even be raised.

This year, though, Weedsport is one of the local school districts that are cautiously dancing around the pandemic in order to make sure the show does go on.

From social distancing and face masks to online ticketing and streaming video, the already complicated process of producing a musical has become significantly more so for those districts. But their students are grateful — grateful they can reclaim one more rite of their educational passage from COVID-19, and grateful they just have something else to do this spring.

Weedsport will present "Freaky Friday" at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 23 and 24. The show, which has already been filmed, can be streamed at those times at showtix4u.com/events/whsfriday

The district's musical director, Rachel Kerr, told The Citizen that her students began asking about this spring's musical on the first day of school, the somber memory of "Newsies" still fresh in their minds. Due to the pandemic, she couldn't give them the normal musical experience, namely the opportunity to perform in front of an auditorium packed with friends and family.

But "Freaky Friday" has still given Kerr's students plenty.

"A lot of them have said, 'We're just happy to be doing something,'" Kerr said. "They were real troopers through the whole thing. I never heard any complaints."

The cast of 28 Weedsport students and crew of 10 had to approach "Freaky Friday" differently than a normal performance for a couple of reasons.

The first was COVID-19 guidance. It required performers to wear face masks and maintain 6 feet of social distancing, or 12 feet while singing or playing wind instruments. So, first, Kerr opted for prerecorded music instead of the traditional pit band due to space limitations and concerns about the players, who typically come from throughout central New York, spreading the virus. Then she split the ensemble into two groups, reimagined scenes to minimize physical contact and enlarged the stage. But even then only one number, the finale, sees all of them together, carefully spaced apart. 

Kerr also reimagined scenes because of the other reason her cast and crew had to approach "Freaky Friday" differently: They were filming it for a virtual audience. With the camera closer to the stage than any seat in the house, sets were designed with more detail, lighting was adjusted and students were directed by Kerr to emote with their faces more while playing to the auditorium less.

Going from regular face masks to transparent ones made that process gradual, she said with a laugh.

"The actors had to learn to convey emotion with just their eyes and eyebrows peeking above their masks, then when we began working with the clear masks, they had to remember to stay engaged with the lower half of their face as well!" she said. "They had to go against what we've been training them to do for years."

Fall sports being delayed to this spring made balancing the schedules of her students another challenge for Kerr, she said. But she worked closely with the district's coaches to ensure they could participate in both the arts and athletics. So did Moravia High School Drama Club Director Joanna Kufs, whose students will perform "Little Women: The Musical" in person and virtually.

At 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 7 and 8, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 9, the show will be performed in the high school auditorium in front of audiences of 100, the number allowed by COVID-19 guidance. Kufs said a Google Form will be used to book each performance. Family members will be encouraged to attend one and then livestream the others, so as many community members as possible can see the show in person. Tickets for both the in-person and livestream performances will go on sale Monday, April 26, and more information is available at moraviamusic.weebly.com.

Kufs told The Citizen she chose "Little Women" for Moravia's spring musical because of its light choreography. It's easier to manage 24 students than the usual 70, she said, but she misses the scope of previous musicals. Still, "Little Women" is closer to normal than "9 to 5," which her students filmed in the fall after its cancellation last spring. The show was screened for a drive-in audience only.

Some of her students were disappointed in the filmed version of "9 to 5" because it focused on the leads at the expense of the ensemble, Kufs said. So the livestream of "Little Women" will most likely take a wide-angle view of the whole stage. That might also make it harder for viewers to notice when the cast's transparent masks inevitably fog up, she said with a laugh.

"I really want the kids to feel like no matter where they are on stage, their role is important," Kufs said, noting that her cast and crew have been waking up at 7:15 a.m. for morning rehearsals.

"These kids really just want to perform. They want the opportunity to do something."

Drama students at Auburn High School share that enthusiasm. They'll livestream their performances of "Once Upon a Mattress" June 4-6 and, if guidance permits, they'll welcome live audiences as well. Director Steve Gamba hopes he can fill the Auburn High auditorium to at least 50% capacity, giving him his usual audience of about 500. Updates will be posted on aecsd.education/highschool.

Like Kerr and Kufs, Gamba had to adjust to COVID-19 artistically, minimizing contact and more. But, also like his colleagues, he's been met with anxious smiles from his students anyway.

"They couldn't wait to interact with their friends. Especially in a club like music or drama, that's their core people, who they run with. And they haven't really been able to interact or socialize in a year," he said. "They were so excited to see each other and have something to do. When I finally told them about the show they just couldn't contain themselves."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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