High school students from across Bloomington-Normal have dropped their crosstown rivalries to unite and send COVID-19 a message: You can’t stop us from performing!
In the tradition of all the world’s a stage (thank you, Shakespeare), the first-ever intercity digital drama festival debuts online Nov. 16 and runs through Nov. 20. The Everywhere is a Stage Festival brings together students from Bloomington, University, Normal Community, and Normal West high schools, and Illinois State University to fill the performance gap created by the pandemic.
With many school activities lingering in limbo, the online festival will allow drama students to get creative in the face of a scary situation, said NCHS Theater Director Kevin Vernon.
“We thought it was particularly important to say that we can still do this, we can still do this art. Because we can make everywhere a stage,” Vernon said.
In the great pause that many organizations are facing, Vernon said drama directors from across the community each had the same notion at the same time, and they leapt at making it a reality.
“Miranda Buob from Bloomington High School called me up in the summer and asked, ‘What are you doing this fall?’ and said that we should collaborate.”
Soon, Ryan Kerr from Normal West contacted Vernon with the very same question. It was more than a trend, Vernon thought: It was a great idea. A flurry of phone calls and email chains resulted in the birth of the Everywhere is a Stage Festival.
ISU theater education students also were brought on board to give them an opportunity to work with students virtually. ISU had to cancel plans to have its undergraduate students teach in classrooms during the fall semester, so the festival helped fill in that gap.
The result is 12 shows and more than 70 students involved. The college students are directing alongside the directors from each of the high schools. All the casts are a mix of each high school, allowing NCHS students to perform alongside (virtually, of course) BHS, West, and U-High students.
The plays include classics, such as “The 39 Steps,” as well as new works, such as “She Kills Monsters.” There’s also “Ten Ways to Survive the End of the World.” Ahem.
“We really had no particular parameters on it,” Vernon said of the play choices that came from the ISU theater education students. “We wanted something that was going to be a little shorter, so that we could fit multiples in, and also something that could use as many kids as possible.
“The thing about online theater is that it generally has to be a small cast. My play is about an alternate universe living in teenager’s phones, and it has eight people. If you’re just one school, then you’re only involving eight kids. But by getting everyone involved, we were able to cast so many more people.”
It’s not just young actors involved in the Everywhere is a Stage Festival. Those interested in scenic design, costuming, and sound are in demand, too.
“It’s a little harder, particularly for those who build sets,” Vernon explained. “But they’re going to try and create backgrounds for the actors who are sitting in front of laptops. There’s the usual work for props and costume kids. The sound design person is incredibly crucial because it’s a little limited trying to do Zoom theater. So, you need things like sound design to create ambient sound, to create something that’s a little more believable for the audience.”
All the various elements must be assembled by a technical team.
“We’re trying to video it in segments, so we don’t create extremely large files. And then we’ll edit those together, editing people coming in and out of windows so it looks a little more smooth. We will be basically calling a live show and recording it, so the night that we stream it we know that we have actual video. Nothing is worse than trying to live stream something and having it fail on you.”
The students involved in the festival not only get to be creative, but they gain lessons in creative problem- solving as well, said Vernon.
“We wanted to prove to them that it may not be exactly what they want, or the senior year experience in theater that they had been dreaming of, but here’s what we have -- let's make the best of it.”
“And still providing them the home that they feel in their extracurricular, and the chance to say that this is art -- it always belongs here. It has always been a part of what we do as human beings communicating to each other.”
“We need that. We need it now. Here’s a way to do it.”
The Everywhere is a Stage Festival streams Nov. 16-20 directly from the Festival’s website. Admission is free. Community members can support the endeavor by purchasing branded shirts and hoodies.
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