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A Promise Kept

By Dr. Phillip W. Moss
Chair, Creative and Performing Arts

The Players at University Liggett School gather each spring to plan the theater season for the upcoming school year. This is a thoughtful process of goal setting, idea generation, and conversation about the kinds of shows the group hopes to produce. Last May was an extraordinary time. Unprecedented challenges faced live theater across the state, country, and globe. Theaters were shuttered, and there seemed to be little hope of opening a live venue on the horizon. Our theater students were crushed by the thought of not having that golden opportunity to star in their senior show. Great challenges can become the foundations for unique opportunities. The group was asked to consider what it would take to do live theater again. To research the possibilities and suggest alternatives. Facing this task, they made a promise. They challenged themselves to employ the best research, science, and methods to create a way of doing live theater that takes into account the safety and wellbeing of our school community. They promised each other they would be on stage again.

Used to planning months in advance it became clear that our current times forced a new nimbleness to old models of preparation. Things change daily, and sometimes in hours or minutes. Research featured information from the Center for Disease Control, The Educational Theater Association, Michigan High School Athletic Association, and the National Association of Event Organizers. The group checked the theater space, carefully analyzing everything from fogging techniques to air scrubbing. At every step, the group partnered with school administrators to check and double-check procedures and protocols. Once an overall game plan was established they worked to select show choices that reflected the new normal. In the end, it was decided that a live performance of a small cast show would be possible with a significantly socially distanced audience. 20% of capacity was set as the high number of audience members, and the group continued to explore rehearsal and staging techniques that kept cast and crew members safe.

The selection of “Steel Magnolias” allowed for a small cast, a single unit set, and limited technical requirements. The group met for auditions via Zoom and spent the initial part of the rehearsal process online. As school opened, and the Michigan High School Athletic Association opened up the sports season a reassessment of our production process moved us into live rehearsals. All members were masked and socially distanced, and we limited access to the auditorium space to the members of the cast, assistant direct, and director. An informal conversation during rehearsal led the group to make the most significant promise. This small group committed to becoming and staying a “family cohort”. This basis of trust and the promise to limit outside activities as a means of reducing risk became a major factor. As the process moved step by step closer to the production date, this was a key element of establishing trust in the process, and in our safety.

As months, turned to weeks, then days, and now hours we are on track to open our show. Our theater seats 400 people, we are limiting access to less than 20% or 70 people. The ticketing software tracks purchasers by name to assist in contact tracing, and socially distanced groups automatically. At this point, we have not reached the 70 person capacity for any of the 4 performances. The groups look to be in the 40 person range per show. The air exchange system in the spaces is the most robust in the school and has been set to “high.” The air in the room is cycled every 45 minutes and is passed through medical-grade filtration. The room will be “fogged” each evening after the show. The first four rows of the theater have been left open so that performers (all in mask) are between 12 and 20′ from the first row allowed for seating. Upon entrance to the building, Parton’s will be asked the standard protocol questions, and all participants must be in masks. After the show, there will be no “meet and greet session with cast and crew” all members of the audience will be asked to exit the venue promptly. We have separated the production company into three cohort/teams for purposes of contact tracing. To that end, these cohorts are separated from one another.

There are few programs that have followed this path. Many schools followed a virtual path or a “drive-in” style presentation. We are one of the very few schools in the state to choose this path. Our students are proud of their show, and of the thousands of decisions along the way. They are confident that we have demonstrated care and caution as we moved through the process. They have found that COVID-19 has changed planning. We used to have solid plans for “weeks to months”. In April and May those turned to “days to weeks”. Recently with the rise in numbers, it almost seems hour-to-hour. With all that said and protections in place, we are counting the minutes until we can keep the promise … a promise of live theater. This promise allows a story to be told and shared in real-time between real people. It is that shared moment that is at the core of being human and humane. In a world filled with screens, zooms, and simulcasts the human touch is refreshing. So, they count the minutes, keep the promise, and they will share what is most important to them, live theater.