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Like ballroom dancing without a partner

To safely put on a show this spring, theater students filmed their scenes individually

Kenowa Hills – For “theater nerds” like Kenowa Hills High School freshmen Isabelle Matteson and Ainsley Sutherland, spring typically finds them memorizing lines, stumbling over choreography and bringing songs to life on stage for the spring musical. 

To make this happen for them despite COVID-19 restrictions in place this spring, Kenowa Hills Performing Arts Center Coordinator Ann Ghareeb decided the show must go on!

Students performed “Shakespeare’s Depictions of Love” on an empty stage, with no audience, listening to their scene partners through an earbud. Each student’s individual scene was filmed and then edited together using a split screen to make it look like both actors were performing the scene together. 

For Ainsley, hearing her scene partner’s voice in her head during rehearsals was like “talking to a wall,” she said. “You can’t see the wall, but you can hear it talking back to you.”

“It was like learning to ballroom dance with a partner and then you get to the ball and you don’t have your partner,” Isabelle added.  

After the pandemic canceled last year’s performance of “Mamma Mia” two weeks before the show opened, Ghareeb proposed the idea of a virtual performance to Superintendent Gerald Hopkins at the beginning of this year.

“We knew a live stage production wasn’t an option this year, but students wanted to perform without the hindrance of wearing masks,” Ghareeb said. “Shakespeare material is free and open to interpretation, so we performed a collection of classic scenes, recorded each part individually and then edited the video to make it look like the actors were on stage at the same time.”

The unused set designed and built originally for “Mamma Mia” got a second chance and was repurposed for “Shakespeare’s Depictions of Love.”  

“We used the teal, Greek set and transformed it to fit our Shakespeare scenes,” the show’s director and long-time Kenowa Hills choreographer, Mary Rademacher, said. “It was nothing fancy; we worked with what we had.” 

Ghareeb and Rademacher held auditions in early February and cast 24 students. 

“We had no idea how many kids would try out and were pleasantly surprised that students still wanted to participate and feel a part of something,” Rademacher said. 

Navigating New Challenges

Embarking into uncharted territory was an exciting and nerve-wracking experience for both students and staff. 

“After the first few rehearsals, it really started to click,” Ghareeb said. “By the third or fourth rehearsal, it was clear they were all in.” 

While some students missed having live audience feedback or applause, Ghareeb said filming the scenes proved helpful to those with varying degrees of stage fright. And Rademacher noted that wearing masks during rehearsals forced students to pay attention to their diction and slow down while reading their lines.

Filming small scenes one at a time also allowed the directors to accommodate students needing to quarantine due to virus exposure or a positive test. 

“It’s a weird way to create a show, but it was special.”

Performing Arts Center Coordinator Ann Ghareeb

Though unconventional for her first theatre production, sophomore Ashlyn Stolk had “an excellent time” and felt more comfortable making mistakes because of the option to re-record her lines. 

“It was really nice watching it all come together,” Ashlyn said. “We got to watch everyone else’s scenes during rehearsals and, after such an awkward start, it was lovely to see it come together.”

Even for the theater veterans, filming on stage was a new experience. 

“When I did theater at middle school, I learned to play off of my scene partner and anticipate what they were going to do next,” Isabelle said. “It was weird to not see the other people, especially the person you were talking to, and sometimes difficult to convey emotions.”

Still, Ghareeb said the students did well with this additional challenge.

“It was really magical to watch them react to a person who is not right in front of them, but they’ve rehearsed it enough to know where to be and where to look,” she said. 

Kenowa Hills High School sophomore Ashlyn Stolk wore a lavalier microphone while filming her scene for ‘Shakespeare’s Depictions of Love’ (courtesy)

Opening Night 

The final video performance premiered on YouTube on April 28 and had 150 views within the first few days. While students missed the thrill of opening night, they gathered with family and friends to watch the show on screen. 

“Watching the final cut, I was dreading my scene,” Ainsley said, laughing at herself. “Everyone is their own worst critic, but everyone else’s scenes looked really good.”

Isabelle laughed and added, “I watched it with my family and before it started I was saying, ‘Do I have to? Can I leave?’ because it felt so weird to watch myself perform.”

Rademacher had only rave reviews for the performance.

“They did a great job and it was fun to watch,” she said. “Ann and I had the most fun when we started filming and they took their masks off for the first time and we got to see their faces. … I was really blown away by the editing Ann did.”

Despite the challenges of adapting a live performance to an edited video, Ghareeb said the experience was worth it and will likely benefit future projects. 

“I’m always surprised at how well students do with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is hard enough without wearing masks,” she said. “I would like to continue getting to spend one-on-one time with students in future shows, and now that I’m more comfortable with video editing, we might be able to do more multimedia things in the future.”

“Shakespeare’s Depictions of Love” can be viewed online here. Due to the inability to sell tickets, the Kenowa Hills Performing Arts Center is accepting donations to support future productions. 

“We tend to attract a group of kids who don’t have another home in the school,” Ghareeb said. “I will never forget this group of 24. It’s a weird way to create a show, but it was special.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia and Kenowa Hills and is a roving reporter for Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN. Read Alexis' full bio

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