The Show Must Go On! Adaptive Theater Goes Virtual . . . but Benefits Remain Very Real
December 24, 2020 . . . The pandemic has impacted many industries, however, to quote the hit musical Hamilton, "the world turned upside down" for theater artists. Dependent on physical interaction and packed audiences, many Broadway, regional, and local stages remain dark, however, one Chicago-area theater company's light continues to shine brightly for youth and young adult actors who have a variety of physical, cognitive, learning and social special needs.
Special Gifts Theater's (SGT) mission is to creatively adapt the theater arts to not only showcase individuals' talents on-stage but to also provide a safe and supportive environment that helps students gain confidence, improve self-worth, navigate tricky social situations and cope with challenge.
Although practicing theatrical arts during a pandemic hasn't exactly been a picnic, students and families say it's a positive and helpful experience thanks to a dedicated SGT crew, virtual accommodations and an enthusiastic, "can-do," supportive attitude from the cast. As a swash-buckling Peter Pan Jr. actor, "Pirate O'Malley," played by Hunter Czarnecki of Barrington, enthused over one particularly rough Zoom rehearsal, "Don't worry, me hardies, we've got this!"
Special Gifts Theatre Executive Director, Elise Larsen, couldn't agree more. "Creative adaptation is at the core of what we do--even in a pandemic," says Larsen, who, along with the SGT staff, peer mentors and volunteers has creatively adapted rehearsals and performances to showcase students' strengths for over 20 years.
Larsen acknowledges, however, that delivering a virtual, educational and theatrical experience under Covid constraints requires multiple layers of adjustment, not to mention a lot of improv, but, the show must go on! Larsen reports, "We're accustom to revising scripts to accommodate verbal ability, adapting actors' entrances and exits according to mobility constraints, and creating costumes and props with a mindfulness toward individuals' needs and preferences. Accommodating the pandemic is just another adaptation for our team to work through."
Much to students' and parents' delight, SGT rehearsal schedules stayed intact throughout the pandemic, which provided a sense of normalcy for students and at a time that was anything but normal. "Our daughter's routine was disrupted, so working toward her performance has been a bright highlight during these challenging times," says Megan Banas, whose daughter, Blake, plays Olaf in SGT's March 2021 production of Frozen Jr. "SGT's virtual programming is the highlight of my daughter's week, so I'm grateful to SGT for making it happen."
"Making it happen" for Blake and her fellow castmates meant modifications every step of the way. For example, cast announcements and costume hand-outs, formally ceremonial on-stage, photo opportunities, morphed into rolling, drive-by car parades. Scripts required further adaptations for on-screen (vs. on-stage) story telling. Dance numbers and scene work were rehearsed in Zoom break-out rooms instead of school performing arts theaters. And then there were the unexpected challenges, like how to press "unmute" on Zoom with a pirate sword in one hand and a Captain Hook prop hook on the other!
Outside of the virtual rehearsal room, filming with the constraint of Brady Bunch-style Zoom grids presented the opportunity to add variation to key scenes by editing in close-ups. And, since most students rehearsed in their living or bedrooms against varied backdrops, scenery needed to be communicated in post-production by overlaying frames that connotate the setting.
In light of COVID, there are even plans to modify the audience experience as well. "For the first time, our students will watch their on-screen debut at home with their families, so we adapted the audience experience as well to make it extra special for them," says SGT's Program Operations Director, Debbie Taus-Barth. Think of it as Peter Pan (or Mary Poppins, Frozen or The Little Mermaid) meets Rocky Horror Picture Show--ticket sales will include not only a link to the show, but also a treasure chest "fan kit" filled with fun props, themed concessions (Pirate Booty and fairy dust anyone?) and sing-/chant-along instructions ("Walk the plank! Walk the plank!") to provide an interactive, virtual viewing experience.
In the end, the applause and standing ovations of a live performance will definitely be missed, but the impact may well be the same, if not greater. "I am very confident that this year's SGT's performances will different, but I'm just as confident that that the whole experience will still be extremely valuable," says Larsen. Students and parents agree.
"Since the start of the pandemic, isolation has been especially challenging for our daughter," says Danna whose daughter, Macey, plays Hans in SGT's upcoming production of Frozen Jr. "Macey's place of employment isn't open, social outings are limited or not occurring, her faith classes have been on hold, and college classes are not running. SGT and its innovative programs have filled this gap. They provide a way for Macey, who loves performing, to stay engaged and connected."
For more information about SGT or to purchase tickets and "Fan Kits" to upcoming productions of Peter Pan Jr., Mary Poppins Jr., Frozen Jr. or The Little Mermaid, Jr., please visit https://specialgiftstheatre.org/tickets-for-upcoming-shows/.
Tinkerbell, played by Sarah Weinstein of Northbrook, gets her wings at a drive-by costume pick-up for SGT's production of Peter Pan, Jr.
Blake Banas of Winnetka learns she has been cast as Olaf at SGT's drive-by casting party for the March 2021 production of Frozen Jr.
Special Gifts Theater's virtual production of Peter Pan, Jr. features cast members (from L to R, top to bottom): Sean Breen of Glenview as Chief Tiger Bamboo; Matthew Orybkiewicz of Edgebrook as Captain Hook; Sarah Weinstein of Northbrook as Tinkerbell; Jenna Pomykalski of Glenview as Wendy Darling; Justice Peters-Farrell of Chicago as Ruby; Sam Radinsky of West Rogers Park as Peter Pan; Jessica Zinder of Libertyville as Tiger Lily; Andrew Sautel of Skokie as Pirate Smee; Emily Kwidzinski of Chicago as Pirate Sadie.
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Charlie Paul of Deerfield plays John Darling in Special Gifts Theater's virtual production of Peter Pan, Jr.
Jenna Pomykalski of Glenview plays Wendy Darling in Special Gifts Theater's virtual production of Peter Pan, Jr.
Sean Breen of Glenview plays Chief Tiger Bamboo in Special Gifts Theater's virtual production of Peter Pan, Jr.
Sarah Weinstein of Northbrook plays Tinkerbell in Special Gifts Theater's virtual production of Peter Pan Jr.
Jessica Zinder of Libertyville plays Tiger Lily in Special Gifts Theater's virtual production of Peter Pan Jr.
Robyn Gray of Glenview plays Tiger Rose in Special Gifts Theater's virtual production of Peter Pan Jr.
Hunter Czarnecki of Barrington plays Pirate O'Malley in Special Gifts Theater's virtual production of Peter Pan Jr.
Maggie Filipak of Lake Zurich plays Michelle Darling in Special Gifts Theater's virtual production of Peter Pan Jr.