October 25, 2021

Cortland High Theater works through COVID

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

From left, Genevieve Femino, Allie Edwards, Camarianna Inman, Giovanna Perfetti, Nick DeRado and Jenna Diescher rehearse the one-act play.

Olivia McKenna said the musicial “Ordinary Days” features the lives of four people living in New York City, who kind of bump into each other.

“It’s very storytelling-like,” said McKenna, a senior at Cortland High School. “It’s not your usual musical theater show.”

Bringing it to life is anything but ordinary. Cortland High School Theater is taking a stab at staging one-acts and a four-person musical and airing them virtually, in the midst of a pandemic.

“You don’t know if you are going to be shut down,” said Susie CarrFeuerherm, musical director at Cortland High. She’s used to planning two to three weeks ahead as a rule. “Now it’s day to day.”

People can check the Cortland High Theater Facebook and Instagram pages for updates on the shows, set for this month and next.

“There is so much unknown but it is important to keep the kids artistically engaged in the meantime,” Carr said. “We will find a way to showcase their skills even if we get shut down. We just have to be adaptable and willing to think outside the box.”

She is working with Ben Wells, vocal director at Cortland High School, and asked McKenna to be an assistant director.

“Olivia is awesome. She’s very organized, she’s very talented. I trust her vision,” said Carr-Feuerherm.

Students started rehearsing in mid-October. “Ordinary Days” will be brought to the public virtually on Dec. 18. Details are being worked out how, Carr-Feuerherm said.

A one-act, “The First Annual Cortland County Beauty Pageant” written and directed by juniors Daniel Zhang and Lily Kelly Haley, was livestreamed by cell phone Nov. 6.

A second one-act,“Lettuce Search for the Meaning of Life,” written and directed by senior Ryan Lassey, will be livestreamed 3 and 6 p.m. Nov. 20 at Cortland High Theatre’s Facebook and Instagram sites.

“I think it’s great,” said Kerby Thompson, producing artistic director at Cortland Repertory Theatre. “At this point, anything that our schools can do to keep the students interested and involved in any level of performing is important.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Hunter Sherman, Michael Williams and Amanda Hopko.

Challenges in professional theater

CRT is investigating the virtual option for its theater and Thompson is in the learning process.

“There are many platforms available to do something like this, from as simple as Zoom to something more complicated and costly,” he said. “Most of the companies that hold the rights to shows have created their own program, which a theater company can ‘hire’ to run their virtual performance. These of course are more costly but will more than likely be a better product in the end.”

A few theaters around the country are trying this option, while others say live theater needs to be in person and refuse to produce virtual shows, Thompson said.

Still others are doing interviews with actors and or technicians and some do a combination of cabaret-style performance in the actor’s living room mixed with interviews, Thompson said.

“If CRT wanted to do a virtual performance of ‘Show XYZ,’ because we are a professional company, the royalty company needs to get permission from the playwright (and composers) to allow a virtual show to happen,” Thompson said. “There no doubt are many stipulations to the arrangement, not the least of which, a control over when the show is seen, how many people are allowed to see it at once, and how much tickets are for the performance. The royalty company and the playwright all get a cut of the proceeds as well, so ticket prices and the timing of the event are all part of it.”

Then of course, he continued, it must be cast without in-person auditions costumes designed and sets built safelty. “All of which is doable, it’s just a whole new way o thinking about how to produce ‘live’ theater,” he said.

Kids take safe practices in stride

At Cortland High, students are wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

“When we were shut down, we (practiced) on Google Meet,” said McKenna, a senior.

Now that school is open again: “Students are keeping their masks on with 12 feet distance, to not spread COVID. Our priority is to be safe. If we can’t be safe, we can’t do this,” she said.

The 12 feet length is the suggestion for safe spacing for singing. Six feet is the suggestion for dialogue.

“Ordinary Days” by Adam Gwon, features seniors Hunter Sherman and Michael Williams, junior Clare Lickona and sophomore Amanda Hopko.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

From left, Olivia McKenna, director, Clare Lickona, Hunter Sherman, Michael Williams and Amanda Hopko rehearse music from “Ordinary Days” on Nov. 3 at Cortland High.

“I have loved this show for a really long time,” Carr-Feuerherm said. “The music is beautiful. The story is simple. I never thought I would be able to do it in high school. It’s kind of rude. There’s only four people in the cast. We needed to do a small-cast musical.”

If the school is closed and learning takes place remotely, the show can still proceed, she said.

Sherman plays the optimistic, sparkly Warren, who refuses to give in to gloom, he said.

“The musical has no lines, only music,” he said. “It has its challenges. We work around them pretty well.”

The cast had to do video calls when they were in quarantine and had to give up singing together, with their voices not in sync using one virtual platform. Instead, they did solos to get practice in.

Clare Lickona plays Claire. “You can tell she’s got a very good heart,” she said. “She deals with some deep-rooted issues in the show.”

The music is fast-paced and the songs are really fun, Lickona said.

Williams plays Jason, “a settle down type of guy” who’s in a relationship with Claire. The two have moved in together. “He wants to take the next step. Claire is iffy.”

He said the actors are happy to get on the stage and they are able to be spaced out.

“We have not had a problem with volume,” he said. But the music is complicated.

“There are multiple key changes. Multiple time changes,” he said. The piano is showing the emotion of the character on the stage and doesn’t necessarily help individual singers.

Amanda Hopko plays Deb, a college student who misplaces her notes on the subway. And she meets Warren. The two become unlikely friends.

“I think it’s pretty good so far. This new set up is interesting,” Hopko said. “But it’s fun so far, to get to try something new.”

Theater at the college

Kevin Halpin, chairman of SUNY Cortland’s performing arts department, said staging virtual shows is a great idea.

“It’s a possibility for the college in the spring,” he said. “It’s a way to keep our art form alive.”

Theater officials have to consider material that works. “Ordinary Days” is a good choice, he said.

And they need the technology to stage a quality show and choose whether to live-stream or upload a show as one unit.

The college created practice spaces with social distance boxes when it was doing in-person classes. Some students also would attend classes in person and others would attend virtually for safe spacing.

“Once we went to all online, that virtual space was all set up … Performance-wise, we had to cancel our fall shows … we are looking forward to spring,” Halpin said.

CHS One Acts

At Cortland High’s stage, Daniel Zhang was directing a one-act he cowrote that aired Nov. 6.

“It’s exciting and you realize how much you don’t think about writing it,” Zhang said. “There’s blocking. There’s sound effects. Using live people is definitely a lot harder than a theoretical situation on paper.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

From left, Camarianna Inman, Giovanna Perfetti, Nick DeRado and Jenna Diescher work on a one-act play, “The First Annual Cortland County Beauty Pageant.”

“There’s obviously some stuff we have to work around,” said Jenna Diescher, a pageant worker in the show. “We have to keep our masks on. We have to be louder. You use body language as a rule but it has to be amplified.”

Genevieve Femino, in her first show since the third grade, plays “space cadet” Sally, who “doesn’t know what’s going on.” She was getting the hang of staring at a camera instead of a sea of faces in the audience.

And enjoying working with student directors.

“I think it’s really cool,” Feminio said. “I think it’s better. You get to work with someone more your age.”