Students rally to present digital year-end musical during COVID-19 pandemic

VICTORIA, B.C. – The show must go on, to quote that timeless theatrical adage.

Arts groups nationwide have found it near-impossible to meet that objective during the earth-shaking global pandemic COVID-19 that has so rudely up-ended our lives, however.

Fifty-one students from the Canadian College of Performing Arts and their mentors and instructors have rallied to creatively ensure that the show will go on, coronavirus be damned.

Undaunted by the demoralizing news that COVID-19 would bring rehearsals for Disney’s Newsies to a halt just four weeks before its scheduled April 17-25 engagement at the McPherson Playhouse – at least in the traditional sense, in the flesh at the College.

The year-end musical presented each April is a core component of the Diploma Program’s required performance hours curriculum. Determined to fulfill that educational objective the production and creative team were set with the task of creating a new performance experience by providing an innovative digital alternative.

Director-Choreographer Jessica Hickman and Music Director Heather Burns came up with a new method of creating and capturing work that has already been rehearsed by the show’s youthful cast, who have now found themselves in isolation in their homes from coast to coast.

What would have been on the stage has now migrated into a Zoom chat room. With the support of Technical & Production Director R.J. Peters and Video Editor Pedro M. Siquieria, the students and creative team have captured a digital musical through a fusion of audio, video and drone footage from 51 students. In addition to a comprehensive ‘performance portfolio’ with several projects that challenge the students to think creatively and tackle performance through a variety of media, they have crafted a short devised piece that will tell their version of what would have been Newsies, had they been able to perform the musical live onstage.

Creatively adapting a performing arts program to online delivery has been a labour of love for the production team and College leadership. Said Managing Artistic Director Caleb Marshall: “We are incredibly proud of the staff and students involved who have fully embraced  the challenge of transitioning a live intimate art form to the digital world with some surprising outside-the-box solutions.” 

It has taken a substantial creative and collaborative investment on the part of students to work through their own disappointment and loss of what would have been a fully staged musical with a 15-piece orchestra and large audiences at the McPherson Theatre and bring it all into tiny boxes on a computer screen. 

“Managing these types of challenges and being required to think creatively to find alternate solutions for going forward is an invaluable lesson we hope they will carry with them throughout their careers,” said Burns, also the College’s Director of Education & Programming.

The story of Newsies follows a small group of youth rising up against the oppressive constraints of society. In some ways, that spirit continues through the health crisis, with the students ‘seizing the day’ and an opportunity to create and perform together.

A short video of the students’ cover of Seize the Day will be released on Saturday, April 25. 

Audio/visual materials and interviews are available upon request.  

Michael D. Reid