'The value of performing arts opportunities': Live theater returns to Howard County high school stages

·6 min read

Oct. 20—Just as Broadway in New York reopened last month, many Howard County high school theater departments are returning to live performances after over a year of shuttered stages due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With many pandemic-related restrictions lifted in the county and state, the departments are still trying to balance the art of keeping everyone safe with bringing their productions to life. For many, it has been an emotional journey.

"We were devastated by the pandemic shutdown of live theater [in] March 2020," Laura Greffen, theater director for Howard High School, wrote in an email. "The past 18 months have reminded me of the value of performing arts opportunities as a powerful way to problem solve, connect, create and express, and to never take this special process for granted."

Long Reach High School's theater department was getting ready to open its spring 2020 production of "The Phantom of the Opera" on March 26, but COVID-19 closed schools March 13. Marla Blasko, Long Reach theater director, tried to organize some type of performance over the next few months, but pandemic restrictions and cast members graduating or becoming busy with other commitments dashed those hopes.

"When I walked in the first day back in the spring [2021] and saw that chandelier, I knew I had to drop it," Blasko said of the famous prop that drops at the climax of the show's first act. "I was ready to give up on it."

That's when Greffen reached out to her, Blasko said.

"She asked, 'Do you really want to give up on "Phantom of the Opera"? I think I have a Phantom,' " Blasko said. "I said, 'I think I have a Christine.' "

Working together on a tight schedule that started in the summer, the two schools combined their resources and were able to produce a full-scale production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in September, the first high school theater production in the county since the pandemic began.

"I am so grateful that my students and I were invited to be a part of the remounting of this epic undertaking," Greffen wrote. "My heart is so full watching our two neighboring departments collaborate, form friendships and work together to finally make this 'crystal chandelier in pieces' rise once again!"

Glenelg and Mt. Hebron high schools were also in the midst of productions when the pandemic hit.

"We were one week away from performing our big spring musical, 'Beauty and the Beast,' with over 120 students involved. This was a huge blow to the kids," Mt. Hebron theater teacher and director Kathryn Carlsen wrote in an email. "I feel horrible that they didn't get the chance to showcase their skills and hard work."

The department also took a hit financially, Carlsen said, as without ticket sales, the group had to use its savings to pay bills.

The set pieces for Glenelg's 2020 spring production of "Hairspray" are still backstage, according to theater director Kassidy Sharp, along with numerous props and many, many wigs as she decides what to do.

"We were less than two weeks away from opening. It was so hard," Sharp said. "I haven't totally let go of that production yet. While we got a refund for most of the rights, we did take a loss ... financially and [it was a loss] to us to stop and not perform."

That's why Sharp decided to do a small-scale production of the murder mystery "Drop Dead" when county restrictions in the spring allowed events such as indoor sports games to have a small audience. While there were many challenges — the small cast had to keep socially distant, wear masks and have limited contact; microphones were stationed at the front of the stage instead of worn by the actors; and only basic stage lighting was used — they were able to offer three productions after only two weeks of rehearsals.

"For me, while I was certainly nervous, it was so important to me to give the students, especially the seniors, the opportunity," Sharp said. "Bringing people back together again after such a long time, they didn't realize how much they missed it."

Glenelg's theater department is now preparing to produce the play "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" this weekend, from Thursday through Saturday, with a full cast and stage crew.

"It is so nice to be back," Sharp said. "We are still mask-wearing. There are different challenges, but we are getting back into the swing of things."

Lauren Tobiason, theater teacher and director at Hammond High School, is excited to be able to welcome people back for their production of "The Curious Savage," a comedic play by John Patrick, in November.

"The students (20 actors in the cast and 25 in the crew) are working incredibly hard, and they don't take the opportunity to produce a live show for granted," Tobiason wrote in an email. "We have a very large auditorium that allows for lots of distancing and masks are required, so we hope audiences will feel safe coming to see the show in person."

A limited amount of tickets will be sold for Mt. Hebron's upcoming production of "Peter and the Starcatcher" in November, Carlsen wrote, to allow for space between seats. Both the cast and the audience will be required to wear masks.

"We are all hungry for some connection and community and theater provides that for us in spades," Carlsen wrote. "It is a wonderful feeling to be able to rehearse for the show. The kids are so excited to get to work together and that means the world to me."

Rachel Evans, 17, a senior at Hammond, has the leading role of Mrs. Savage in "The Curious Savage."

"It is awesome to be back because the energy of being in person is more palpable than doing virtual theater," Evans said.

For student actor Chris Lee, 17, a senior at Howard High, performing "The Phantom of the Opera" with Long Reach during a pandemic was something he will remember for many reasons.

"Vocalizing this show is really challenging," said Lee, who performed the role of the Phantom. "It is a challenging show and was a great experience to be a part of. It was just amazing how they accepted us in."

Upcoming high school theater productions

Atholton High: 6520 Freetown Road, Columbia

— Nov. 10-14: "Macbeth"

Centennial High: 4300 Centennial Lane, Ellicott City

— Nov. 5-6 and 11-13: "The Winter's Tale"

Glenelg High: 14025 Burntwoods Road, Glenelg

— Oct. 21-24: "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

Hammond High: 8800 Guilford Road, Columbia

— Nov. 18-20: "The Curious Savage"

Howard High: 8700 Old Annapolis Road, Ellicott City

— Nov. 11-13: "The Addams Family: A Musical Comedy"

Long Reach High: 6101 Old Dobbin Lane, Columbia

— Nov. 5-7: "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind"

Mt. Hebron High: 9440 Old Frederick Road, Ellicott City

— Nov. 11-13: "Peter and the Starcatcher"

Oakland Mills High: 9410 Kilimanjaro Road, Columbia

— Oct. 21-24: "Almost Maine"

Reservoir High: 11550 Scaggsville Road, Fulton

— Nov. 12-14: "All Together Now! — A Global Event Celebrating Local Theatre"

River Hill High: 12101 Clarksville Pike, Clarksville

— Oct. 21-24: "The Complete History of Theatre [abridged]"

Wilde Lake High: 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia

— Nov. 18-20: "Clue"

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