The kids in the Wyoming Area Drama Club have been given a great gift. They are getting to see what the world is like without hanging with friends every day, without rehearsals on their stage, without face-to-face interaction with their directors. When the pandemic ends, they will be better performers and better people because of it.
This year, club advisors selected “It’s a Wonderful Life — the Radio Play” for the fall show. It’s the same story we love with Jimmy Stewart, but the kids will play radio actors performing the play. It seemed like a good choice. It doesn’t require a lot of movement. Kids stand at microphones reading lines or creating sound effects. There is a small cast with some students playing multiple parts, and the whole thing will be videotaped and available for viewing online.
Advisor and technical director Chuck Yarmey figured out how rehearsals could be run safely, following all school guidelines. But nothing is simple these days and Yarmey has been faced with one obstacle after another. First, to get permission to do a show, he had to submit written health and safety guidelines created by PIAA, under which the performance falls. Given permission to proceed, but not in person, he posted an audition form on Google Classroom and virtual auditions were held on Zoom. Stage manager Olivia Sellers kept track of people entering the Zoom audition meeting and notifying Yarmey and artistic director Kate Mangan, who were waiting in a separate virtual room, which student was ready to audition next.
The plan was to rehearse online at first but move to the stage around Thanksgiving. On the afternoon of the first in-person rehearsal, Yarmey received a call from the principal telling him there would be no in-person meetings until further notice. The hope for a live performance is getting smaller each day, so Yarmey is working on a plan to tape the kids remotely through Zoom and edit it together. He is thinking of various ways to have backdrops and imagining the headaches of poor internet connections and audio problems. But he insists that the show must go on.
“I honestly hadn’t thought of giving up on this one because of how heartbroken everyone was in the spring. I would personally feel responsible for giving them some sense of hope and then taking it away from them again. I don’t know if I could do that,” Yarmey said.
He is referring to the play “Chicago,” which should have gone up last spring but was canceled by the pandemic. This whole sad mess is theater at its best. It’s a story of our need for human connections and the isolation COVID has thrust upon us. Kids miss being with friends at rehearsals and deeply feel the loss of the canceled spring play. And it’s a story of the indomitable human spirit that pushes us forward against all odds. Like George Bailey who realized that he couldn’t give up even though his cause seemed lost, Yarmey won’t give up because too many kids depend on him and he won’t see their dreams dashed.
Add to all of his other challenges, the show’s director, Kate Mangan, recently tested positive for the coronavirus. She watches rehearsal and gives as much input as she is able, but the virus has her feeling exhausted.
“Chuck is handling most of the show this week but I’m still giving notes, digging for their character backstories, sharing technique tips, assigning homework, and hovering like any Drama Mama would,” Mangan said.
As the drama of the COVID virus plays out, young people are learning, and older people are reminded, that we need each other.
“This year for the drama club has been different and extremely tough for all of us,” said junior Samantha Gashi, who plays Mary Bailey. “We all miss each other very much because It has been a couple of months now since we have seen each other.”
The drama club Facebook page has been a place where they can post videos of themselves performing and offer encouragement to each other.
“We also would post happy and inspirational quotes and photos to lighten the mood and to keep everyone positive,” Gashi said. “Although this year has been a rough ride, we are still sticking together and we are going to get past this.”
The kids have been positive and are seeing some benefit to the situation.
“Luckily with this show, I still see the determination everyone has to make this show as amazing as we can. We continue to innovate and handle every curve ball thrown our way while staying safe during the pandemic,” said junior Olivia Sellers, stage manager.
“The constant positive attitudes of our directors and peers are without a doubt a strong influence on pushing through the conditions,” said Michael Vukovich, a junior playing George Bailey. “While we still have not been able to work together in person, and our usual schedule has been rewritten, our advisors ensured our creative outlet and happy place would not be torn from us as we feared.”
The kids are making the best of their new way of rehearsing and learning more about themselves and their craft throughout the experience.
Chase Whittaker has realized the importance of expressive voice.
“This show has helped me to grow as an artist because I now get to focus on the voice of the character, which wasn’t something I focused on as much in other shows,” he said.
Vukovich added, “I feel that the restrictions are pushing us to work harder and have instilled a new found sense of self-discipline needed to succeed in the more limited virtual theater.”
“Ever since we had to quarantine and everything got shut down, it has given me more time to work on my craft and to improve things that I needed to work on. It also gave me time to find myself, who I truly am, and what I can do,” Gashi said.
Mangan feels the sadness of her students and sees their determination.
“It’s also a little tug on my heart as nothing feels more like November than the anticipation and excitement a packed theater, pre-show rituals and countdown cues can bring,” she said.
“I am impressed how much the students have stepped up to this challenge. Their creativity with the voices and characters is really coming through. I can hear them take my direction and apply it immediately, which can be tough for any actor,” Mangan said. “They’re getting to the heart of the written words and really painting a beautiful picture with their voices. It’s wonderful to watch young actors demonstrate such delicate thought and care and breathe new life into a timeless show.”
She also knows the importance of performing the play, especially now.
“Art is incredibly healing and shouldn’t stop when it’s needed most. I think Chuck and I knew that, while it’s a giant headache, we could rise to the challenge and give the kids something to work on, be distracted by, and give some sense of normalcy to a difficult time,” Mangan said. “I should also be clear that these students are hardworking, respectful and incredibly grateful — they are a joy to work with and therefore getting the season they deserve. Without their positive attitudes and commitment, this wouldn’t be happening.
Theater, when done well, touches our hearts and teaches us what it means to be human. Wyoming Area is doing it well.
When this show is in the books and the virus has waned, the kids and their advisors will return to their beloved stage on Memorial Street in Exeter with a new appreciation for the privilege of performing and a realization of how blessed they are to be in the company of friends. That is the gift of this drama season.
“It’s a Wonderful Life is scheduled to stream online Friday, Dec. 11; Saturday, Dec. 12, and Sunday, Dec. 13.
The details of the broadcast are still being worked out. Whatever technical problems may arise, the kids are ready and eager, and the show will go on.