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When illness sidelined a lead actor in Grand Forks SPA production, backup steps in with only hours to prepare

Bella Costa excelled as Morticia Addams, but then had two miss the final shows due to COVID. That's when Abbey Kinneberg, who had been playing another role, moved into the spotlight, despite little preparation. The show's director said “there really are two stories here: The kid who worked on her part for two months and nailed it, and the kid who stepped up and was a hero.”

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Tension mounts as some cast members of "The Addams Family" surround Abbey Kinneberg while she is fitted for a microphone about an hour before the performance Monday, July 25. Shortly thereafter, she filled in as "Morticia" for Bella Costa, who was sidelined by COVID that morning.
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GRAND FORKS – The old adage “the show must go on” became a stark reality this week when a lead actress in the SPA production of “The Addams Family” was hit with COVID and a 16-year-old – not an understudy – stepped into the role with only several hours' notice, said Rich McFarlane, the show’s director.

Bella Costa, a rising senior at Central High School, tested positive for COVID Monday, July 25 and – as required by district protocol – had to remain home in isolation for five days. She could not perform her role as Morticia Addams in the Monday and Tuesday evening shows in Red River’s Performance Hall as part of SPA, or Summer Performing Arts, a program of Grand Forks Public Schools.

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Bella Costa, as "Morticia Addams" in the SPA production of "The Addams Family," gave three performances before a positive test COVID test made isolation necessary.
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McFarlane got the bad news at 1 p.m. Monday, six hours before curtain, he said. The show did not have understudies, stand-by actors who learn roles so they can step in, if necessary.

“When Bella called to tell me ... she felt that she was letting everyone down.” He reassured her that it was not her fault.

“For two months, Bella had worked on her part,” the role of the mother in “The Addams Family,” McFarlane said. “She was killing it.”

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Performing under pressure

With Costa sidelined, McFarlane asked Abbey Kinneberg, a rising junior at Grand Forks Red River High School, to step into the role. As a member of the show’s ensemble, she was a dancer; she didn't have a speaking role.

"She already knew the music, which included two solos by Morticia," McFarlane said.

Kinneberg had to learn the part in four hours, including her lines, blocking and a tango.

Before Monday night’s show, McFarlane explained to the audience that the actor who was to play Morticia, Bella Costa, was unable to perform that evening, and asked if they would support the student, Kinneberg, who replaced her.

“If so, I said, let her know, make some noise, because she’s right behind me,” he said. Kinneberg was behind the stage curtain. The audience erupted with applause.

As she performed as Morticia, Kinneberg kept her script behind a prop, a photo album, to alleviate some of the pressure, he said.

The next day, McFarlane and his colleagues worked with Kinneberg from 2 p.m. right up to the 7 p.m. showtime, he said.

By the time Tuesday’s performance began, Kinneberg had memorized more than 70 pages of dialogue, McFarlane said.

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Costa had ‘nailed it’

As a rising senior, this was Costa’s last opportunity to perform in a SPA production. In the three performances in which she played Morticia Addams, Costa had “nailed it,” McFarlane said.

She recalls waking up Monday morning feeling “weird” and decided she’d better take a COVID test, “just to be sure,” she said. “I was really upset. I remember I saw the results and I started crying; it was (my) final year (with SPA) and I wanted to do the shows.”

“But I’m glad we figured something out, where all of my castmates could finish their two shows,” Costa said. “I was really scared that we might have to cancel them. I felt terrible.”

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Bella Costa (center, wearing black) and Abbey Kinneberg (to the right of Bella) perform a dance number, along with other ensemble members, in the SPA production of "The Addams Family" at Red River High School.
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McFarlane turned to Kinneberg because “she was in a major tango dance number that features Morticia and two other girls, so we wouldn’t have to teach that part,” he said.

Also, he and his colleagues were impressed by Kinneberg’s performance as Cinderella’s stepmother in a SPA production last year and knew she could handle it, he said. “We know she’s a quick study and would pick stuff up quickly.”

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Abbey Kinneberg (left) rehearses a scene with Bryn Hanson (center) while Blake Storbakken looks on.
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“I was pretty shocked, because it was very very short notice," Kinneberg said. "I was just very happy that they thought of me and they decided to pick me as their backup.”

Kinneberg, who’s been active in SPA since third grade, also remembers being “scared,” she said, “because I didn’t want to mess up or disappoint them for choosing me.”

She didn’t, however, think about saying no.

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“I felt like they asked me specifically, and it felt like it was something I couldn’t pass up on,” she said. “Even if I had messed up, I knew it was the right thing to do.”

She practiced the dialogue intensely at home, reading lines along with a friend “back and forth,” she said. “And it kind of just stayed in my head.”

Looking back on the episode, McFarlane said, “There really are two stories here: The kid who worked on her part for two months and nailed it, and the kid who stepped up and was a hero.”

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Cast of "The Addams Family" on the first day of SPA (top photo) and on Bella Costa's final day at SPA are (from left) Anika Suriano, Jada Jensen, Blake Storbakken, Quinn Roehl, Bella Costa, Quinlan Schudrowitz and Isaac Richter.
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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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