The show must go on, but how? Theater department ‘changes everything’ for COVID safe production

By Elizabeth Hogan

Senior editor

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic the theater department at St. Michael’s College has decided that “the show must go on” by finding new COVID safe ways to put on their fall production.

This semester’s production is the play “Mill Girls” which was created by theater professor Peter Harrigan through the use of primary source materials and featuring musical score by Burlington pianist Tom Cleary. 

“We are changing everything, live performance is one of the most difficult things to do in the current pandemic and was one of the first things to shut down, and it will probably be one of the last things to open back up,” said John Devlin professor of fine arts as well as a resident designer and technical director in the theater department. “This is simply because it is a recipe for disaster, you are bringing 350 people into a room and have them breathe together for two hours, which is not a good thing with COVID.” The play tells the story of the lives of 19th century girls who worked in the mills of New England towns.The play first premiered on campus in November of 2017 for large crowds. But, due to the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic the format of the play will now be an online video project, so that it can be executed in a safe and socially distant manner.

“ so much of the energy of a performance comes from having an audience there. We have signs in the theater of all the seats you can’t sit on and when you look at it there are not that many left. It wouldn’t be much of a show even if we did have one because everybody would be so spread out and then even the actors on stage would be spread out,” said Harrigan. 

Photo by Elizabeth Hogan

Since there is no chance of a live performance the theater department has planned for what they feel will be the next best thing, an online video production that will be edited together and then uploaded to YouTube. 

“One of the challenges is that we are moving from a live stage performance to a film essentially. Neither Peter nor I have ever worked in film before and so it changes everything about the way in which we think about the scenes and the way in which we can think about staging those scenes,” Devlin said. “But, the hope is that it has a longer shelf life then our usual productions and it is something that could potentially be used in educational settings for high schools, as it is talking about the early labor movement in the United States. We are looking specifically at young women who were moving off the farm into town and going to work in the mills,” Devlin said.

Student  actors must also take the necessary precautions to remain safe from the COVID-19 virus. This includes wearing masks while acting in group settings, even when singing. This led to some students creating masks which are specially made for singers.

“Singing is kind of a unique thing because you really need to be able to use your mouth and lips in a way that most masks wouldn’t allow you to do,” Harrigan said. “ So, these masks have almost a little duck bill, like it sort of sticks way out in front of you and has wire in it and has some plastic structure in it so that you have room to sort of do what your mouth needs to do in order to sing.

“We are making singers masks for the mill girls themselves and the masks will actually match their costumes” said HarriganThe student spearheading the creation of the singer’s masks is Dove Frishkoff ‘23 who is in Harrigan’s costume design course. Frishkoff has had a lot of prior experience with sewing, but had no prior experience with singer’s masks.

“Over quarantine I ordered a few professionally made masks that basically look like a duck bill that projects out at the mouth. So I put that on a piece of design paper and then just marked out the design and started figuring out how I could make one. Peter as soon as I made the one decided we needed eight, so that threw me for a little bit of a loop. I said alright and I guess I will try to make eight of these things” said Frishkoff.

Though Frishkoff has a lot on his plate with only a few of his peers willing to help take on the challenging task of creating these masks, he said he is up for the challenge. “I’m definitely getting ready for this industry through challenges like this,” said Frishkoff. Regular masks are also being made for actors in the play who will not be singing, many of which have designs on them which playfully relate to their characters.

Despite all of the challenges that come with trying to put on a production during a global pandemic, both the students and faculty involved are excited to have an opportunity to practice their craft.

“I think every student at St. Mike’s is dealing with the challenges of COVID. S,tudents in the performing arts are being impacted in ways similar to the athletes on campus. For athletes the game is what you play for and for performing artists the performance with the audience present in the same space is what we go for. So, we are suffering some of the same challenges.  It’s different from many academic departments and programs who are struggling to figure out how to deliver the information, we are dealing with that as well as struggling with how to produce our craft” said Devlin.

“I think we’re all getting a little antsy and we are almost seven months in now,” Harrigan said. “. For the people who are in the play it is really a wonderful release just singing with other people. I was disappointed at first because the play was very successful last time that we couldn’t have in-person shows, but I think this way people’s grandparents, family, and cousins can watch it” said Harrigan.

Photo by Elizabeth Hogan