In keeping with the old adage, “the show must go on,” most local high schools are gearing up to present fall theater productions, even though the pandemic has thrown them a curveball the likes of which they’ve never seen.

The determination to stage the shows is evidence of just how critical these experiences are to students’ social and emotional health, and the need to maintain as much of the normal routine as possible in these trying times, educators say.

Theater students and teachers are faced with the challenge of producing a play “in the middle of a pandemic when you can’t have an audience, have to wear masks at all times, have to keep social distance, etc.,” said Rich McFarlane, theater arts and speech teacher at Red River High School.

“Even with all the limitations, some form of theater is better than no form of theater,” he said. “Kids really need these positive experiences right now.”

Red River High School is presenting a comedy, “The Covid-19 Show,” a series of three one-act plays by McFarlane, starting Thursday, Oct. 15, for a four-day run.

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“All student-performers are masked throughout the entire performance, with much more distance between performers than usual. With almost zero set, costumes and makeup needs, this is quite a departure from what (our) students are accustomed to,” McFarlane said.

The limitations imposed by COVID have “forced us to stage things differently and forced the students to express more using their bodies than their faces -- it’s been fun,” he said. “They have been working extremely hard and having a blast.”

The show is not open to the public; there’s been no advertising. Each cast and crew member received two tickets to give to whomever they want. The show, directed by McFarlane and Alex Barta, RRHS choir teacher, will be livestreamed and can be viewed at https://youtube.com/c/RedRiverPerformanceHall.

It represents a victory of sorts for RRHS students who were determined to present a live show, but not via Zoom video-conferencing.

“Over the summer, I received many emails from students begging us to still produce drama productions. We took every single student that auditioned to be in the cast and technical crew," said McFarlane, noting that theater is critically important for students during the pandemic.

“There are so many reasons to continue producing drama productions right now. And, not to sound too corny, the No. 1 reason to continue these is to provide a positive experience for as many students as possible, especially right now. Students need these things," said McFarlane, adding that there is a need for “safe, adult-supervised activities to express their passions, be it athletics, fine arts, career and technical education clubs, etc.”

For many students -- some of whom come from challenging home lives -- the theater is “a second home."

"This is simply what they do. So it was up to us to find a creative solution for them,” he said

“Our audiences will be much smaller than we’re used to,” McFarlane said. “But if this is what it takes to provide an opportunity for our students to perform, we will embrace it until things return to normal.”

Central plans one-act plays

At Grand Forks Central High School, Maren Dewar, who teaches theater arts, speech and film studies, sees things in a similar light.

“It is so important to be able to still move forward with productions, as long as we are smart and safe, because the arts are a release and outlet for these students,” she said. "I believe it helps keep a sense of normalcy and helps them with their mental health as well.”

This past summer, Dewar abandoned her ideas for this theater season “and start looking and opening my mind to different shows that could either allow social distancing, or be masked properly,” she said. “Creativity is the name of the game in 2020.”

She found them in two, one-act plays -- “Check Please,” by Jonathan Rand, and “13 Ways To Screw Up Your College Interview,” by Ian McWethy -- which will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15. Others, by voucher only, are planned for Friday and Saturday.

Thursday’s performance will be livestreamed on the school’s Activities YouTube channel for the public and available for viewing for 24 hours after first broadcast.

The effort it takes to preserve the tradition of theater performance is well worth it, according to Dewar, adding that the ability for students to express themselves means that one less thing is being restricted or taken away.

“More importantly, it is a form of stress relief for a lot of them, including myself, and allows us to laugh and be ourselves, which is so important right now," she said.

For some students, participation in theater and the arts “is what keeps them motivated, expressive and is the only thing keeping them from falling into a depression,” she said. “The pandemic has taken such a toll on everyone, including students, and allowing them to practice and perform and be together lifts their spirits and gives them a sense of normalcy and belonging again.”

Zoe Jiran, a senior at Grand Forks Central who has been involved in theater since she was 8 years old, has performed in the high school shows every year, she said.

When COVID hit, she said she was worried that theater production would be jettisoned, as she remembered that last spring’s play, “Twelve Angry Men,” was a pandemic casualty.

“It was definitely sad, especially for those seniors,” she said of the cancellation, even though she agreed with the decision. “Doing live theater is one of my favorite things. It injects joy and normalcy into my routine. It’s been really fun so far.

“Being a senior during a pandemic like this is definitely tough,” said Jiran, noting that theater and sports are particularly important as students have seen the cancellation of dances and trips.

"We are so grateful to everyone who’s made this possible, because it means so much to us, to be able to do these things one last time," she said.

Another creative solution

Leaders at Sacred Heart High School are planning to present “The Radio Play Disaster,” by Don Zolidis, in mid-November, according to Blake Karas, the school’s activities director.

“Ryan King came up with an awesome idea, ” Karas said of plans to invite parents to drive into the school’s parking lot on the evenings of the performances. “The kids are pumped up.”

Plans for a radio broadcast are in the works -- that would allow others to hear it, if they can’t attend in person.

“We have a powerful club of drama kids -- they are excited and are planning fundraising,” said Karas, of the students in grades 7 through 12 who are involved as cast or technical crew members.

The music director at East Grand Forks Senior High, Donovan Hanson, said the school usually presents a fall musical the weekend before Thanksgiving, but that won’t happen this year.

He and his colleagues considered an entertainment revue of some kind, but those ideas were put on hold. Limiting guidelines affecting things such as costuming, blocking and the use of props -- as well as issues related to royalties and licensing -- stifled plans for a fall show.

“There are too many unknowns right now,” Hanson said, noting concerns that, if work on a production did begin, it may have to be canceled.

Students were “super-bummed” to find out the fall production is not possible, he said.

“They are not in a good place right now," he said. “Kids are disappointed, but they get it."

Theater and music teachers are acutely aware of the price the pandemic is exacting, the artistic experiences their students are missing. McFarlane said, when he was student teaching years ago in Fargo, he was influenced by a seasoned teacher, Bill Lucas, who told him something he’s never forgotten: “You’re not teaching theater and you’re not teaching speech; you’re teaching confidence.”

That insight shaped his approach to education centered on creativity, he said.

“In our world of theater, creativity is really just disguised as problem solving. So if you have the creativity to problem solve, and the confidence to be at ease while presenting in front of a massive group of people, think of how far that can get you in life," he said.