CESJDS Performing Arts Triumphs Even When the Theaters Are Closed
Dr. David Lyle Solomon

When the pandemic shutdown hit on March 13, 2020, we were two and a half weeks away from the opening night of our middle school musical, Once on this Island Jr.  Ticket sales had just started, the set was half painted, and the costume room was in a state of disarray.  At that time, we thought, “ok, we’ll probably need to push off the opening night for a few weeks.” In fact, during the first couple weeks of virtual learning, the set designer continued to come into the building to finish painting the set for the premiere - whenever that would be! It became clear, however, that this shutdown was going to pummel everything we had anticipated.  

The cancelled middle school musical of 2020 was indicative of what was happening to the performing arts across the country. 93%  percent of those employed in theater were out of a job.  Theaters and concert halls were closed. Movie theaters were shuttered. Broadway openings did not happen. The show must go on - except when it can’t. Live singing, projecting one’s voice, being in an audience with others -- the performing arts were dangerous! To see the performing arts completely demolished was heartbreaking.  

When the Barbara and Allan Topol Middle School Musical was cancelled, many assumed we could just “do it online.” But as we discovered, the switch to an online performance was not easy. The technology has not been invented to allow performers to sing live in sync together online in a virtual space. Because every home has a different internet lag time, singing together live in a zoom room sounds like utter cacophony. This was hard for people to believe, as there were so many virtual choir videos that had gone viral during the early days of the pandemic. In reality, they were an illusion--each one of those performers in the Brady Bunch-style grid had recorded themselves singing separately, usually while listening to accompaniment in their earphones, and a savvy video editor matched them together to make it appear as if they were singing in unison. Ultimately, the choir never heard how they blended together until after the video was made.

There were copyright issues to consider, too. When we began to construct the Joan and Marvin Rosenberg High School Musical in September 2020 - a musical review we dubbed “Broadway Unmasked”, which featured one number from every Broadway musical that would reopen when the pandemic ends, we contacted seventeen different music publishers to acquire synchronous rights, or the permission to use their music in video. This is a different, more cumbersome process than licencing a show to perform on stage, called grand rights.  

And, there were logistical issues as well - we were socially distant! How do we put a movie together when we can’t be near each other? How do we get costumes and props to everyone?  (Think about how complicated it becomes if one actor has to pass a prop to another actor if they are not filming in the same location.) How do we teach music online? How do we handle weak internet connections, poor lighting, background noise?  There was a steep learning curve with the software, and an even steeper curve with the time needed to edit a video together - a painstakingly long process.

It was a challenge and yet video production became a critical component of the school year - not just for the school musical or for concerts, but for nearly any event where we wanted to gather everyone together online, including our weekly Kab Shab assemblies, which continued virtually without fail. At JDS, we became a production studio. I was fortunate to have students who were very interested in video production. Shir Madness a cappella choir music videos, musical theater videos, Kab Shab videos, videos for concerts, videos for assemblies, videos for morning announcements - easily we have put together over a hundred videos during the span of the shutdown, several of which went viral on social media.  

The quality of the videos grew from month to month. This makes sense - we were learning in the process. Although it was incredibly time consuming, it filled a creative and collaborative void.  Video editing is a form of artistic expression - this is an art I’ve come to appreciate more due to this past year - and I have found myself looking at video editing lately. when I watch a television show or movie.  

Here are additional skill sets that students developed this past year as we created video performances:

Problem Solving. When it came time for students to film or edit videos, we typically met prior on zoom and I gave students a general sense of what I was looking to see before they ventured out to film or began to edit. In reality, I had to release control and let the students figure it out.  Social distancing meant that I wasn’t with the students when they were filming or editing, and they had to make on the spot decisions by themselves. I was always delighted when students uploaded their footage or video because I had a window into how their minds worked. The videos they uploaded were often surprising, clever and fun. This was a good lesson for me -- I learned out of necessity I had to let the students problem solve, and I am confident it will forever shape the way I direct.

Leadership. We could have never put together the many videos we had without student leaders. Over four hundred files were uploaded for the high school musical alone, and something close to that for the middle school musical. Thank goodness for my three stage managers, Aaron Adams, Eliana Mannes, and Adina Schwartz, whose spreadsheets, file organization systems, and text messages and emails to students kept the process smooth and organized. With the middle school students in particular, who needed more guidance with the process, stage managers were in constant communication with them to assist them. They also met with the middle school students to record all the dialogue for The Addams Family. We also had student leaders involved in the video and sound recording process: Jonathan Morris, Rochelle Berman, Will Sexter, and Aaron Adams were masters of the art, taking student footage - sound and video files - and transforming the videos into something grand. Yotam Wiengarten oversaw the editing of videos for school assemblies and produced beautiful tributes for holidays.  And there were many, many student speakers, musicians and members of clubs who created videos for Kab Shab. That’s been one of the most astounding successes during this past year for the performing arts - student leadership. There are no two ways about it: students saved the performing arts this year.  

Determination. It’s weird to say that this was an incredible year for the performing arts, even as we remained in our homes, unable to get on stage. The students were so invested in keeping music and theater alive - it was inspiring. While putting together a live performance is exhausting, transforming it into a film takes just as many hours, if not more so. The demands that were placed upon students - on top of their school work, let alone the emotional traumas of the world around them - were tremendous. Hard work and determination paid off and I am so proud of their accomplishments.

We needed the arts this past year - the students, the faculty, the community. Nobody got through this shutdown without the arts: the movies we watched, the music we listened to, the books we read, the video games we played. These were a necessity. Add to the list: the films and movies the students made - they gave joy to us every week in Kab Shab. The videoed musicals, concerts, and assemblies gave us exciting events to look forward to and enjoy in watch parties as we gathered as a community. They brought jubilation in a year when it seemed like there would be none.

And the best part of all?  We’ve got them saved. Here are some of the many videos that were created this past year - musical theater, band, choir, Kab Shab, solos, duos, trios - golly, this is a small sampling of hours of entertainment. Enjoy!