A year ago, Jada-Lynn Pledger was ecstatic — then a sophomore at The Akron School for the Arts in Ohio, she was cast as Judy Turner in A Chorus Line, the big spring musical. "She was my first sort of supporting role ... I was like, oh yeah, like I'm with the big dogs, you know? ... " Pledger recalls. "And then, March 13th, Friday the 13th, is when we got the news that school was closing."
Teaching school during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging, and teaching theater — when most of the kids are learning remotely — has been particularly difficult.
At The Akron School for the Arts, A Chorus Line was just a few weeks from its first performance when the school closed. But drama teacher Mark Zimmerman decided to gather the cast onstage that day, to make a video of the show's big ballad, "What I Did for Love," just in case they didn't return. (You can see it above.)
Pledger says in the weeks after school closed, she and her castmates kept rehearsing over FaceTime, to stay sharp. They still expected the show to go on.
"Then we figured out that school was not opening for the rest of the year," Pledger says. "And that was when the shock came, because when you work towards something that's so pivotal and so formative — I just still feel that heaviness on my heart from that experience."
A Chorus Line was canceled and Pledger herself came down with COVID. Since then, she and her classmates have been learning remotely.
Zimmerman says in the classroom, he was used to controlling "the ebb and flow of learning and instruction." But online, he found "you have no idea what the environment is that kids are in," he says. "They, for the most part, do not turn on their cameras. They, for the most part, will not turn on their microphones unless they have something to say."
Pledger says she's feeling a loss, not just of performing live, but of the community that comes with it. "I struggled with the passion that I have for it fizzing out," she says. "And I can say confidently that a lot of my classmates did as well."
Since then, The Akron School for the Arts has managed to put some shows online. Still, it isn't the same, says senior Peter Kolodziej.
"Just from, like, an acting standpoint, it's hard to make an emotional connection with someone else's character when they're just like a little box and not a person in front of you," Kolodziej says.
Theater kids all over the country are facing similar challenges. The students at Great Neck South High School in Long Island — which has been operating on a hybrid model, with some students in the classroom, but most learning remotely.
Despite all the obstacles, they've been working on A Chorus Line this year. Drama teacher Tommy Marr conceived it as an online production because he thought it could translate — after all, the show is about dancers at a Broadway audition.
"It's a lot of talking directly to the audience," Marr explains. "And I thought that that would work well on a Zoom platform. I liked the idea that all of these characters wanted to do was perform, but there are all these barriers in the way of doing what it is that they want to do. In this case, making it through the audition. In our case, COVID."
Junior Rosanna Gao says it's been challenging to rehearse music and dance routines over Zoom, not to mention making videos at home.
"Doing lighting, camera work, making sure that your costume is good, your makeup is good, and where you're standing is good as well. So, it's like a whole process. But I think I definitely learned a lot, but it was very difficult." (In addition to learning online video production and managing all her schoolwork, Gao founded the student-run non-profit Music For Change during the pandemic.)
Her castmate, Elie Weitzman, echoes Gao's feelings. "This isn't what I wanted my senior year to look like," Weitzman says. "But I feel a great deal of pride in the fact that I was able to extract even something from this process."
Marr says despite all the changes the pandemic has brought to his students, he's proud of how they've adapted. "My line is always that you never should underestimate the resilience of teenagers," he says.
Once everything's edited, Great Neck South's production of A Chorus Line will be available online sometime this spring.