Remember when you were a kid, and your school’s music teacher taught you how to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds? It seemed easy enough, but it was always harder than you’d expect to get the timing just right to match everyone else.
Now, imagine that, but with 17 kids, all singing in different parts of town, and you have some idea of the challenge facing Janet Lazarus, artistic director of Reno’s Sierra School of Performing Arts, as she directed the company’s very first online musical, The Big One-Oh, premiering Nov. 13.
Lazarus explains that SSPA, now in its 15th year of offering performing arts education and experience to local children and adults, typically presents one youth production each fall. But when it became clear this summer that it simply wouldn’t be feasible to arrange a live production, Lazarus did what pretty much everyone else has done in 2020: pivot to online.
“I started looking for what other people were doing, and I found this play online,” Lazarus said. “The publisher put out a sample production, and when I watched it, I thought (somewhat naively), ‘Oh, we can do that!’”
The 25-minute show tells the story of Charley Maplewood (played by Cooper Mills), a boy who’s new at school and whose only friends are the imaginary monsters from his favorite comic strip. As he approaches his 10th birthday, he decides to throw himself a party. Through being himself and overcoming challenges, Charley winds up making new friends.
Lazarus purchased the show and attended the publisher’s four-hour workshop, via Zoom, that provided instruction on the logistics of producing such a performance.
“They said it was going to take 20 hours of rehearsal—it took 40,” she laughed. “But we thought it was doable and put out an audition notice and had people send in video auditions of themselves singing and doing a monologue.”
She wound up with a cast of 17 kids ages 10 to 18. Then, by mid-September, the hard work began, starting with two-hour rehearsals, three times a week. She explains that it’s called a Zoom show because the rehearsals and final, individual performances were done and recorded through Zoom.
The logistics for the five musical numbers were especially tricky. With the cast members’ microphones muted, the show’s vocal director, Elise Van Dyne, would sing each piece as it was supposed to be sung. Then each cast member would sing it back to her, recording themselves so they could go back to watch and listen to themselves later. Van Dyne would coach them on their performances, then they’d do it again, over and over. “And that was just the singing parts!” Lazarus said.
Once the performances were edited together for each number, the final audio track was sent to the actors so they could all record their choreography to the same audio. Lazarus would offer direction throughout, ensuring, among other things, that all eyes were on cameras (not themselves) and that their timing was aligned as closely as possible.
Then there was the challenge of ensuring actors were well and consistently lit, could overcome issues with internet connectivity, and had the elements needed for costuming at home. The cast came together just once at SSPA’s facility, in socially distant fashion, for a prop-making session.
Ultimately, the cast performed live via Zoom, with the final, edited videos of the musical numbers inserted at the appropriate moments, and the entire production was recorded via Zoom. The final tally on editing was somewhere around 30 hours, Lazarus said. The final, packaged show will be live-streamed to those who purchase access, or “tickets,” online.
But while it certainly wasn’t easy, Lazarus is happy with the results. “I have very high artistic standards—to my own detriment at times” she said. “But there are moments in this show that are very strong artistically.” She said the final production is entertaining, charming, and at times quite moving.
“It was an overwhelmingly good experience for the kids,” she said. “I’ve gotten so much feedback from the parents saying, ‘Thank you so much for doing this, my kid loves it.’ It brought joy to 17 children, so yes, it was absolutely worth it. … The arts are at risk right now in schools, and there are no theater programs in schools right now. For children who love the performing arts, we are providing an option for them, and it might just save them. So that’s why we do it.”
The Big One-Oh: Online Edition streams on Nov. 13, 14 & 21 @ 7 p.m. and Nov. 22 @ 3 p.m. Tickets: $5 single, $15 family. For information, visit Sierra School of Performing Arts. Purchase tickets here.
This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.