The show will go on for the 23 members of the Litchfield High School theater department who are staging “The Little Mermaid.”
But along with receiving the traditional theatrical encouragement of “break a leg,” some might also be hoping to break the emotional hold COVID-19 has over them and their stagemates.
“I really feel that this, this world for our kids, theater, has been a little normalcy in their unusual world right now,” director Sara Dollerschell said prior to rehearsal last week. “And it’s been great to have a routine to help stay on track.”
There was some question about whether the traditional fall musical might happen this year, with pandemic restrictions and even the question about in what form school might take place. But LHS Activities Director Justin Brown encouraged Dollerschell to go ahead with the show. It was decided cast and crew could observe social distancing and take other precautions enough to make the show safe and worthwhile. And with the live show scheduled to be performed at Bernie Aaker Auditorium, they believed there might be fewer restrictions than at a school venue.
As with everything COVID-19 related, things have changed since then. The show now will be performed before only small friends and family groups, who will attend by invitation only.
“I have no regrets just going ahead and doing it,” Dollerschell said. “There are not many communities that are doing shows this fall. They’re postponing them ‘til spring, and I felt that we, I didn’t want to do that. Who knows that the spring will hold? So, I just thought, let’s keep it as normal as possible.”
As normal as possible isn’t the same as an auditorium filled with friends, family and others. And that is disappointing, admit cast members, but they have taken an upbeat approach.
Junior Greta Hulterstrum, who is in the lead role of Ariel – her first lead in eight different musicals — said she will miss the bigger crowd reactions that a normal show might get. But just to have a show in these times is a victory.
“We have practice every day, and it gives you a sense of purpose,” Hulterstrum said. “It’s definitely disappointing, but it’s still worth it because, I mean, at least some people get to see it. And we love being here. And so, even though not as many people can see it, we’re thankful for the experience we have.”
Caleb Schweim, a senior who plays the highly comedic role of Sebastian the crab, said coming to rehearsals every day has actually been a sort of therapy.
“Honestly, I’m a bit of an introvert outside of theater,” he said with a mischievous grin, “so I kind of like this whole quarantine thing. But it is nice to have a break from my family once in a while, because being trapped in the same house with the same two people who just don’t want to hear me talk is like ….”
Dollerschell and the cast members said they’ve worked hard to follow health and safety guidelines, even though that’s a challenge at times – especially when on stage, where so much of acting is dependent upon facial expressions. A mask covering those expressions does not work very well, Dollerschell said.
“We don’t have a lot of kids, which isn’t ideal for a show like 'The Little Mermaid,' but on the other hand, because of the small cast it has allowed us to keep separated,” she said. “So in some ways, I think it’s worked in our favor.”
Most of the cast plays multiple roles, and they also work as part of the stage crew, rolling set pieces on and off the stage.
Goals have shifted on a regular basis for the cast and crew, as they first thought they might have regular-sized audiences and then learned many classmates and others might not be able to get tickets. And so they have tried to focus on what they could control – refining their characters, the sets, improving their vocals, and so on, growing as actors.
“I think this year was more about the journey than the destination,” said Jacob Huhn, a senior who plays Prince Eric in the show, his seventh.
That journey will take them to the live show this week. They are scheduled to perform two shows Wednesday, for a third-grade class in the morning and a fourth-grade class in the afternoon. That will be followed by the regular schedule of shows, one each Thursday through Sunday, to which cast members can invite 10-12 people, who will be socially distance throughout the auditorium.
The cast expects to have to work a little extra to find their stage sense and deliver roles with enthusiasm before a smaller audience.
“I think it will take a lot of energy from us as a cast, kind of working to feed off each other’s energy on stage and hopefully that can help,” Hulterstrum said. “We’re going to be excited, you know, thinking that our parents are in the audience or other people invited by use, so to me it will be exciting.”
Added Schweim: “I’m going to put everything I have into making people laugh.”
Students have viewed their public performances as gifts to the community in years past. Limiting attendance has been accepted with sadness, but they continue to look for the positive.
“I have to say, this year’s case amazed me at auditions,” said Dollerschell, who has directed the LHS musical for several years. “It was probably the best audition I’ve ever had. And they came prepared and they came willing to try new things, and that was really fun.
“I’m so grateful we got to do this,” she added. “I just can’t say enough. Even though they’re, we are, disappointed and having to make those adjustments, it’s a blessing for these kids to have something to do, when they’ve lost a lot of the things that they can do.”