For Montclair Local

In spite of all the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the show did go on at Montclair High School in the 2020-2021 school year.

This school year saw a modified return to live drama, dance and musical performances by the MHS School of Visual and Performing Arts, after the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020.

To get the SVPA’s programs back before a live audience took some ingenuity on the part of students, staff and parents: from figuring out how to keep students socially distanced during rehearsals and performances to sanitizing microphones between uses and bringing in dinner for the cast and crew during tech week. 

In the end, it all paid off.

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Shutdowns and reopenings

The pandemic, with the closure of the school buildings, brought a premature end to SVPA’s programs for the 2019-2020 school year. 

As the new school year approached, there was a lot of uncertainty among students and staff about whether live performances could resume. 

Brenda Pepper, who had been SVPA’s artistic director though this school year, said that students in their senior year typically land their major starring roles. So it was important to her that this year’s seniors got a chance to perform live before they graduated, she said. “I didn’t want to leave them with nothing,” she said.

Most area high schools went virtual with their performing arts programs. But over the summer, Pepper saw a theater production in West Orange in which the performers were socially distanced, and the microphones were wiped with Clorox between uses. 

Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and the high school and district administration gave their blessing for the SVPA to resume live shows, as long as safety guidelines were followed.

Opening the house

SVPA conducted a lot of outreach among freshmen and sophomores to invite them to audition, and it was the current SVPA students who did a lot of that outreach, by spreading the word among friends and classmates. Sophia Antoine, a senior and the outgoing SVPA president, said there was outreach to some of the school’s different clubs as well. 

Every year, SVPA also has a freshman-senior buddy event, with freshmen being paired up with seniors. This year, every freshman got two senior buddies, said senior Ella Fine. 

Because the usual in-person auditions couldn’t take place at the start of the year, students were invited to submit tapes of themselves. There was also an open audition held over Zoom. 

Ken Cleerdin, the longtime SVPA technical director and a mentor to most of the tech crew, retired from teaching at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. This meant that this was the first year the SVPA students were working without him being a regular presence. 

Cleerdin surprised the cast and crew by attending one of the shows: “You could see how proud he was of us,” senior Maddie Blackburn recalled. 

The Little Theater, the usual venue for many SVPA rehearsals and performances, was still off-limits. So productions had to be moved outside, to the MHS amphitheater, while the weather still permitted. The amphitheater, which usually seats 600, was restricted to 100 people for the fall showcase in October, and the stone seats had to be marked with chalk, showing where people could sit. 

Dance Company usually rehearses earlier in the school year, and presents its main show in mid-March. This year, rehearsals started in March, ahead of an early June show. Some of the rehearsals had to be moved to Rand Park because of competing needs for rehearsal space. 

The October showcase was reduced from five shows to two, and there were two musicians accompanying the musical director. 

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Parents pitching in

SVPA parents traditionally supply meals for the performers and crew during tech week, the last week of dress rehearsals, with full staging, sound and costumes. In a normal year, parents supply a buffet-style meal with lots of home-cooked food, Pepper said. But because of health and safety concerns, the parents arranged for other kinds of meals: a taco truck on one evening, for example, and Subway sandwiches and snacks on another. 

The parents also helped set up tents where performers could change into costumes and strike the scenery. 

The support from the parents, the administration and the community was vital to keeping everything going: It’s been key, Pepper said, “to be in a town that recognizes this — that this is a lifeline for the performing arts kids.”

Cast members dance with hoops during the finale of "As You Like It."(KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Cast members dance with hoops during the finale of "As You Like It."(KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

‘As You Like It’

By the time “As You Like It” went ahead in May, much of the cast and crew had been vaccinated, and everyone was much more comfortable, said senior Mikee Ellis, who was involved both with the costume crew and with Dance Company. 

The six-piece orchestra for the show was set up in two indoor classrooms with sound systems to allow for social distancing. 

The last dress rehearsal unexpectedly became the first official performance, due to worries about the weather. But not even a rainy Mother’s Day could slow things down; the students kept going with the show, and the audience stayed through to the company bows. 

“Bless the audience and bless those kids, they rallied on,” Pepper said. 

Senior Destiny David, who played the lead role of Rosalind, remembers the cast and crew getting together for a screening of the show. And it was a real bonding experience for everyone involved. “It’s cool, seeing SVPA morph into a different sense of community,” she said.

Ellis remembered sitting with other members of the costume crew during the “As You Like It” rehearsals and realizing that the show was finally coming together. “This is just, like, ridiculously good,” they said. 

Antoine said that tech week, and watching the show take shape, “felt kind of like normal — you could feel the community coming together.” It was a feeling she and others wanted to hold onto: “Like I didn’t want to let go.”

An earlier version of this story referred to Mikee Ellis by an incorrect pronoun.