The Performer's School uses new technology to stage shows
A cornerstone of the experience offered by The Performer's School, a musical theater training program for fourth- through eighth graders in Highwood, is the opportunity to perform for audiences in a fully-staged production of a hit Broadway musical.
Before the pandemic, 26 fourth- and fifth-graders had been cast in the school's planned productions of "Disney's Beauty and The Beast Jr.," and 40 sixth- through eighth-graders were cast in "Les Misérables School Edition."
With in-person performances prohibited under the quarantine, The Performer's School co-founders Stacey Flaster and Liz Fauntleroy found a way to provide these students with an equally satisfying, but COVID safe, performing experience.
The finished products will be streamed May 21-23 and 28-30 for "Les Misérables," and May 28-30 and June 4-6 for "Disney's Beauty and The Beast Jr."
Flaster and Fauntleroy brought in the digital production company Marston McCoy Media, a new firm founded by veteran Chicago theater director and Marriott Theatre Associate Artistic Director Peter Marston Sullivan, to produce video productions of the two musicals.
Sullivan had been experimenting with editing technology that would allow performers to be recorded individually in front of green screens and edited so that the actors appear to be performing together on a stage.
He saw a way to use this technique to meet the demands of a large cast musical theater production. As employed for the two Performer's School productions, Sullivan's technique creates the effect of having up to 40 singers and actors appear to be performing on a single stage simultaneously in front of elaborate and detailed backgrounds designed by three-time Jeff Award winner Jeffrey D. Kmiec.
Film production and editing techniques allowing use of close-ups and special effects are being used to further create a cinematic product intended to be more visually engaging and satisfying than many of the Zoom readings that have become common in the past year.
Here's how the two musicals are being produced:
Scene 1: Rehearsals, Audio Recording and Costume Fittings
Students Zoomed in twice a week to learn music, blocking, choreography, and character development.
Once COVID regulations allowed, each masked student went into a studio to meet with TPS's conductor/music director/editor Jeff Poindexter and Sullivan. Poindexter recorded each performer's vocals from behind a plexiglass screen separating him from them.
The individual vocal tracks -- from solos to big ensemble numbers -- are now being mixed with an existing orchestral track to complete the soundtracks of the two musicals in preparation for opening dates in late May.
While at the one-on-one vocal sessions, the students enjoyed costume fittings with costume, set and prop designer David Geinosky, who built hundreds of costumes for each of these productions. Mindy McDonald provided additional costumes for "Les Misérables."
Scene 2: Video Shooting
Students had individual filming sessions where they shot their scenes in full costume and makeup, with help from costume designer Geinosky to get into their many costume changes. They were shot in front of a green screen to allow for Kmiec's beautiful backgrounds to be added during editing.
Sullivan, along with actress Elizabeth Telford and editors Peter Robel and David Sajewich, worked with each student to shoot their scenes in front of the green screen and lip-sync to their own voices one person at a time.
Scene 3: Editing
The editors are now taking the footage and editing actors together in front of the backgrounds with anywhere from one to 40 performers appearing in a frame, just as audiences might see them on stage or in a film, rather than in a Zoom checkerboard.
"We truly believe that this process has been unique and special for all of us," Fauntleroy said. "We have heard such great things from The Performer's School families. Not only did their children have an amazing theatrical experience, but also, most importantly, they stayed connected with their theater friends during an extraordinary time in our world."
Student Ethan Michaels, a seventh-grader from Lincolnshire who will appear in "Les Misérables," said, "Being in this show has been the best part of the pandemic for me. I have been with The Performer's School since I was 9 years old, and when I thought the show would be canceled, I was devastated.
"But the film is something new and exciting. It's cool knowing you're a part of something no one else has done before. Not to mention, it's doing something I love. This has been an amazing experience, and I'm lucky to get to do this."
Screening times are 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays for both musicals. "Les Misérables School Edition" will stream May 21-23 and 28-30; and "Disney's Beauty and The Beast Jr." will stream May 28-30 and June 4-6.
Tickets are $30 each, $50 for family virtual admission, $100 for a COVID-safe viewing party. For tickets and information, visit www.theperformersschool.com.
"Les Misérables School Edition" is directed by Stacey Flaster and choreographed by Carrie Vignali Rossi, with music direction by Liz Fauntleroy. Book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer.
"Disney's Beauty and The Beast Jr." is directed by Lisa Pogofsky Sobelman and choreographed by Casiena Raether, with music direction by Jeffrey Poindexter. Book by Linda Woolverton, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.