WHS Theater Department plans for all-virtual fall play

Xenia Kobori and Katherine Wistner

Empty theater at WHS (Photo by Hi’s Eye staff)

The Westfield Theater Department has a reputation for putting on professional-grade shows and earning numerous Paper Mill Playhouse “Rising Star Awards” throughout the years. However, COVID-19 has affected how this year’s fall production will operate. 

This year’s fall play, led by Theater Director Daniel Devlin, 26 Pebbles, is a story based on the Sandy Hook shootings. The production will be done remotely, with virtual rehearsals and a virtual performance. 

Visual & Performing Arts Supervisor Thomas Weber explained that rehearsals for the play will be conducted through Google Meet and that the show itself will be a compilation of actors’ recorded scenes from home. Auditions for the play were held virtually and actors taped their submissions from home as well. 

Despite efforts to have the play be as normal as possible, the administration’s decision to have the play held in a virtual format has sparked controversy among students in the department. 

“While safety is our number one priority, students also need the opportunity to participate in activities they are passionate about,” said WHS Principal Mary Asfendis. Asfendis expressed her belief that conducting rehearsals virtually allows students who need to quarantine or are asymptomatic to continue to be involved in the production. 

Since the administration decided on a virtual play, the theater program has made many adaptations to successfully switch the performance to an online platform. 

“One of the saddest things for all of us on the production team is that we just do not have as many roles, both acting and tech, for students on this virtual play as we do in normal circumstances. We do not need a set, lights, or traditional sound [crew], and that takes away so many jobs from so many talented kids,” said Katherine McNally, advisor for the costumes, hair, and makeup crew. “On the positive side, this show will be an opportunity for students who are interested in video editing and production to practice those skills,” said McNally.

With indoor performances allowed to be held at 25 percent capacity in New Jersey, many students are left wondering why this doesn’t apply to the high school’s theater department. 

“I still don’t know why it’s not in person,” said WHS senior and International Thespian Society President Olivia Ebel. “Nobody said if [it’s all virtual because] the district isn’t allowing us or [Mr.] Devlin can’t do it. We’re just all feeling that without explanation, our first gut reaction is that it’s unfair.”

WHS senior and ITS Vice President Mckenzie Waddell believes there’s a double standard when it comes to sports and theater. She said, “I’m very happy that we’re getting a play at all, but I think that the school can do more to let us have the same experience as the sports kids do.” 

Ebel acknowledged that it isn’t realistic or safe for fall sports athletes to wear masks during intense exercise and gameplay. However, teams that compete with other towns can potentially expose germs to other players as well as spectators at games. This raises the question among many students of why sports are able to continue in person, while the theater department is forced to go all remote. 

“We just wish that the district was doing a little bit more to advocate for us and for the arts department,” said Ebel.

Ebel described how she participated in a show not affiliated with WHS over quarantine, where they had virtual rehearsals until two weeks before the performance. The performance was outdoors and everyone wore masks, which Ebel believes could have been implemented for the WHS production as well. 

Despite the new restrictions for the fall play, Weber and Asfendis are confident that the show will garner an audience. Asfendis said, “We have an incredibly accomplished theater department and I know our school community is eagerly looking forward to the fall production.” 

The production will be broadcast for two nights and tickets will be sold to gain access to the link to watch the performance.