June 3, 2020 | Arts & Culture
If the end of your semester depends on dozens – or hundreds – of people sharing the same space, getting word that large gatherings are no longer permitted changes everything.
By the time the news that MacEwan University’s spring production of Legally Blonde The Musical couldn’t be staged broke in mid-March, students had already invested more than 100 hours each into the production – rehearsals were in full swing, sets were being built, costumes were being sewn and the band was rehearsing.
After public performances of the show had been cancelled and just two days before in-person classes were cancelled for the semester, theatre arts and theatre production students did a final run-through in the rehearsal hall. “That gave them some emotional closure, but the truth is that their experience was cut off at the knees,” says Jim Guedo, program coordinator of the Theatre Arts program. “I know that sounds bleak, but we do theatre in order to share a story with an audience – they’re the final ingredient, and the energy they bring to a live performance is why we choose theatre as opposed to film or TV.”
This could easily be a tale of only disappointment, sadness and frustration – but it’s not.
“Both our faculty and our students were amazing about all of this,” says Jim. That included Jessica Schnell, who was cast in the lead role of Elle for Legally Blonde.
“For as long as I can remember being into theatre, Elle has been my dream role,” she says. “Even though I didn’t get to share Elle’s journey and her message of being true to yourself with the people I wanted to, being able to explore those things taught me a lot. Working on this show brought our tightly knit class even closer, and leading a show in the midst of this showed me that sometimes you just have to pull up your socks and keep going.”
That’s exactly what Jessica did. During that final run-through, everyone knew the show wasn’t, in fact, going on. But they kept rehearsing anyway.
It was the first time the cast had attempted Legally Blonde’s final scene – set during the graduation of Elle’s class at Harvard Law School.
“I was standing behind a music stand – we didn’t have a set or podium yet – looking at all of my classmates,” she says. “I was supposed to deliver Elle’s valedictory speech, but I had written my own. I got to look my classmates in the eyes in the last moments before we put the show away and tell them how I felt about them. I wouldn’t trade that moment for anything.”
Students had already invested more than 150 hours into Legally Blonde The Musical – including preparing costumes – when COVID-19 cancelled the show.
The end of the show, however, wasn’t the end of classes. Typically, those last weeks of the Winter semester have students finishing up their courses, doing their final juries in tap, jazz, movement and voice, taking a vocal lab, doing one-on-one coaching sessions in ear training and practicing mock auditions. This year, faculty members strove to find equivalencies and worked to deliver those pieces remotely.
The mock auditions that Jeff Haslam, artistic producer of Teatro la Quindicina, was supposed to attend, for example, were done through video. Instead of performing the two songs from Hello Dolly that they had prepared to sing live, second-year students recorded and submitted them online, then met up with Haslam on Zoom for a post-mortem. A worthwhile exercise, says Jim, in a world where the number of remote auditions can only increase. And although the semester didn’t end as she had hoped, Jessica agrees that wrapping things up positively was a group effort.
“This situation is one that we were all experiencing together – profs and students,” she says. “I don’t think it would be so hard to say goodbye to everyone if everyone in this program hadn’t been so generous and real with one another right up until the end.”
But this year’s students aren’t the only ones adapting to a brave new digital world. As one class walked off the stage for the last time, a new class was forming to take their place.
In mid-March, live auditions for the 2020/21 academic year were also cancelled, and the Department of Theatre moved solely to video auditions – something they have done in the past, but only for international or out-of-province students. Prospective theatre students, including Nico Maiorana, recorded and uploaded their songs and monologues digitally.
“I live in a family of five with three pets, so finding a quiet place when we’re all at home was difficult,” says Nico. “But I put everything I could into the video, sent it away and hoped for the best.”
The results of his audition came in an email Nico says he stared at for at least an hour before opening. “It would have been nice to get feedback in person,” he says. “But all things considered, I’m happy and excited for next year.”
Nico isn’t alone. “We’re looking forward to welcoming back our second years and a new group of theatre students,” says Jim. “We're confident that they will receive a quality theatrical experience – even through these unique circumstances.”
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