How student performers are faring in 2020

by Shelbi Voss

Around this time, most theater companies are preparing for the bustling holiday season, opening new shows, and performing for packed houses. But this year, spotlights and bright marquees have been traded for ghost lights, as most productions have been shut down or cancelled since early spring of this year.

For most professionals, they have no choice in the matter. Broadway and its professional counterparts will not see shows reopening until May 2021, a date that could be pushed back at any time. But smaller companies and educational programs seem to be finding ways to get people back on stage.

During the summer there was a question of why and how some companies kept their shows running. Was it the cast size, the minimal set pieces or the virtual audience options that made it okay? Some were critical of the choices made, convinced that all cast and staff members were put in unnecessary danger. Others were proud of the creative decisions, hopeful that it could be the beginning of a new era of live performance.

With school back in session and a need for creative outlets programs are inviting students to explore socially distanced productions. Whether it be full length shows of small casts or concert performances, indoor or outdoor, or for live audiences or live streams, performers are back on stage.

Theater and music programs at the University of Illinois are no different, showcasing students in online readings, weekly playwriting contests, socially distanced outdoor productions and more. The Lyric Theatre program will showcase its students this weekend at Lyric Under the Stars at Allerton Park. The concert performance of arias, songs and scenes from opera and musical theatre productions gives the students the chance to showcase what they have been assigned in their coursework over the course of the fall semester. It is a change from the normal full-length musicals performed at Allerton every fall, but a production, nevertheless.

As great as these opportunities are, the question of how long this will go on still looms over every artist’s head. Readings, concerts and showcases help to keep up with the craft, but there is an element of connection missing. The inability to look at your scene partner when singing, having to stay ten feet away from your counterparts at all times, and performing for a dark house with no live reaction can be daunting at times. Part of what makes theater special is the shared experience between everyone on and off stage. You are forced to fight your instincts of where to go and when simply because crossing paths with someone is too risky. A director or choreographer’s full vision might be squashed, and you walk into rehearsal every day knowing that you could be shut down at a moment’s notice.

So yes, students in the arts are much luckier than professionals who have not stepped foot on a stage since March. But it is worth noting that artists everywhere are struggling with means beyond their control. Their studies or jobs are there but could be swept away with no notice due to the unknown. A year and a half of little to no profit could be damaging to the industry as a whole and to the people who have worked hard to make it what it is today.

Regional companies and educational programs might have the key to moving forward. Here’s to hoping their creativity expands to Broadway and beyond to bring art back into the lives of the public.

Wear a mask. Social distance. Support the arts.

Photo credit to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts