LAINGSBURG — It’s been an eventful year to say the least for Laingsburg High School’s Drama Club.
Grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Director Jennifer Strickland opted last fall to change the club’s entire schedule, moving the yearly musical from fall to spring in hopes of having a live audience. The group’s annual competition shows, meanwhile, were moved entirely online, forcing students to develop creative ways to maintain the magic of live performance while positioned behind a computer screen on Zoom.
The challenges, though recognizable, didn’t seem to faze the group, however, as both competition shows advanced to the state level, with “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost Play” winning the Division 2 state title in the humorous division and “The Curious Incident of the Dog and the Knight” taking fourth in the serious division. The club also secured the People’s Choice and Innovations in Theater awards, respectively.
“It meant the world (to see the students succeed),” Strickland, now in her sixth year as Laingsburg’s director, said. “These students worked so hard, they put everything into this.”
Thanks to a partnership with the city of Laingsburg, drama students will also be able to perform their spring musical “The Hello Girls” before a live audience, using the newly built amphitheater in McClintock Park. The group will be the very first act to perform on the amphitheater stage, with shows slated for 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, along with a matinee at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets are available at ticketor.com/laingsburgdrama. The group must adhere to MDHSS guidelines, so seating/space are limited.
“The ability to give the Laingsburg drama kids the opportunity to be able to perform in front of a live audience is so amazing,” said Laingsburg Clerk/Treasurer Paula Willoughby, a driving force behind the amphitheater project. “The excitement builds everyday as we watch them practice for their event. We are able to watch them arrive every afternoon, as the amphitheater is just outside of our office. It is such a great feeling to see the space being utilized and for what better cause than Laingsburg High School students.”
Laingsburg drama students were just one week into rehearsals for their Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association (MIFA) competition shows when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 15 ordered the suspension of face-to face instruction for a minimum of two weeks amid surging virus numbers.
Laingsburg Community Schools administrators, acknowledging a rise in local cases, opted to go fully online through Christmas break, with the understanding that students would return in-person in early January.
Adjusting to the circumstances, Strickland moved all rehearsals over to Zoom, allowing students to connect to one another online from home.
“We spent the time (during the shutdown), a very frustrating time, trying to figure out how do you put on a production via Zoom and still give that magic of the theater?” Strickland said. “Theater is magic, you are transporting your audience into a story, and I still wanted to bring that into the virtual recording, so we spent a really long time and I did a lot of research trying to figure out how we could possibly do that.”
Even when students returned in January, rehearsals were remarkably different. Cast members were stationed individually in separate classrooms, using school computers to carry out the performance.
“It was definitely a culture shock,” senior Regan Yates, a four-year member of Laingsburg’s Drama Club, said. “Everybody turned (each direction) so that it looked like we were talking to each other and we all had different backdrops that kind of connected together so it gave the illusion that we were in the same space.”
“Because they were socially distanced in individual classrooms, these cast members had to become their own props person, their own costumes person, do their own hair, their own makeup, so they were doing skill sets that they normally would not have to do,” Strickland added. “They put everything into it.”
As each show advanced through the district and regional competitions, group members opted to re-record the online performances, using judges’ comments from the previous round to make improvements.
“There were several times we had technical difficulties mid-record and had to start over,” Strickland said. “One time we recorded and we were over (the allotted), it would’ve been a deduction in points … We were at the school until 9:30 at night because the students wanted to re-record. They wanted to put forth their very best. Their effort was 100 percent above and beyond.”
The attention to detail was well worth it as the group combined to win four awards at the MIFA state competition.
“The fact that we were able to come back and do everything still, even in the midst of a pandemic, was very important for everybody just get a little sense of normalcy, even if it was different,” Yates said, adding she and her fellow cast members are all very proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish.
When choosing shows, Strickland always strives to provide students with not only a challenge but also a learning experience. She believes this year’s musical, “The Hello Girls,” fits that exact criteria.
The Hello Girls were among America’s first female soldiers of World War I. Set in 1918, the musical touches on timeless issues and tugs at heartstrings. The women served as bilingual telephone operators on the front lines. General John Pershing wanted women from Bell Telephone to be sworn into the Army because he believed women had the patience and perseverance to do long, arduous, detailed work.
“The story is a real-life story with historical characters,” Strickland said. “It’s a story very few people know about.”
Drama students are also using the show as a platform to honor veterans. A “Veterans Wall” comprised of photos of friends and family of the cast who have served in the military will be positioned in the McClintock Park Pavilion for patrons to view during each of the performances.
Yates will be portraying Grace Banker, an individual she admires for her stubbornness and determination.
“It’s very interesting to be able to play a real person rather than just a character, someone that’s made up,” Yates said. “I think it’s important, especially for all the little girls who are watching, to be able to see that everything wasn’t always as it is now where men and women have equal rights to everything.”
The group began rehearsals at the high school stage in mid-February, and transitioned outdoors to the amphitheater stage in early April, using the outdoor space on days that weather allows.
“It’s been very interesting to be able to work outside, especially because we don’t have all of our technical elements that we usually do with our stage that we have at the school,” Yates said. “We’re having to figure out how to make the sound work and how to make the lights work and how to give it the illusion of being in an actual theater without it being indoors. That’s been something we’ve had to overcome and I think we’ve done that well.”
The cast is also choosing to wear masks for the outdoor performances, a measure intended to make audience members feel more comfortable amid the ongoing pandemic.
“This pushes the students to find different ways to show emotion,” Strickland said. “There’s been a lot of learning that’s come in, and as a teacher, I think that’s one of the most important pieces of having students be part of the theater,”
For Willoughby, the experience of watching the kids rehearse in the amphitheater space has been very rewarding.
“We have been able to accommodate all of their requests and are excited to get feedback on how to improve on the space,” she said. “The vision was to create a space that would be used for many different events, and when the drama teacher asked me if they could use it, we answered ‘absolutely.’ This is exactly what we wanted to see, we want the schools to use it, we want it to bring students, parents and friends into Laingsburg.”
For more information about the Laingsburg Drama Club, visit facebook.com/LaingsburgHighSchoolDrama.