Liberty Theatre Department Opens With its First Show Since the COVID-19 Shutdowns

At 2:15 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, the cast and crew of “The Drowsy Chaperone” milled around on the stage of Liberty’s Tower Theater before rehearsal. Some did pushups. Others hummed parts of songs, reviewing harmonies. One leaned over a high-backed armchair running lines. The choreographer reminded them to warm up. 

Despite temperatures reaching 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside, most of the cast wore sweatshirts in the theater, and crew members sitting in the audience brought blankets. Sophomore Camden Deal lifted junior Kelsey Dial onto his shoulder, her feet tucked and hand raised. They practiced a few more lifts, and she laughed. 

 “I don’t know what’s in the water today but everything has felt really good,” Dial said. 

The stage cleared, and the opening monologue began. Director Andy Geffken interrupted, calling to the cast, “Show me something when it comes to vocal will today, like really chew it up and spit it out.” From the wings, an actor yelled, “Yes sir!” The show continued.

It was, in many ways, a normal run-through, one of the final steps in the rehearsal process. With six days left before adding costumes, microphones and lights during tech week, and two weeks until opening night, the cast focused on tightening pacing and hitting the correct spacing in dance numbers. They wore socks, instead of tights, under their character shoes, shattered a prop cup, and occasionally called “Line!”

But there were some differences. Performers wore masks on their wrists, ready to put them back on when they exited the stage. Instead of a rehearsal pianist or a pit of live musicians, a crew member played recorded music, a voice-over interrupting to say “rehearsal track” every few minutes.

An understudy stepped into the role of a gangster while the main actor quarantined at home, waiting for a COVID-19 test result. After the run, the cast sat in the audience for directors’ notes. Tape on the chairs reminded them to spread out. Vocal captain Becca Kellum, Liberty alumna and an actor and understudy in the show, suggested cast members practice singing in their masks.

 “If you can project with your mask on,” Kellum said, “You’re going to be able to do it with your masks off.”

Many COVID-19 related changes have been put into play, even some that an audience would not pick up on. LU senior and stage manager Faith Giammarco said each time cast members leave the stage, they use hand sanitizer in the wings. One exception to this rule is during a number with seven costume changes for Dial, as she exits stage left and sprints to reenter stage right just moments later. 

Giammarco reduced the number of crew members helping with each quick costume change, and they avoid handing actors props to limit opportunities for COVID-19 spread. Early in rehearsals, cast members sat far apart to learn music and avoided touching each other, skipping lifts during dance numbers.

“The Drowsy Chaperone,” originally scheduled for last spring was canceled after a week of rehearsals due to COVID-19. This fall, Geffken cast understudies and swings. Deal understudies two primary male roles in addition to his ensemble role. On top of rehearsals, he spends six hours a week practicing tap choreography and learning to roller-skate for the roles.

Kellum understudies two roles and has an understudy herself. Her understudy, Grace Ehrhorn, performed the role while Kellum waited for COVID-19 results after experiencing a fever and headache. She watched recordings of dance numbers and reviewed blocking notes. Her husband, Rendel Kellum, also in the cast, quarantined with her. When she tested negative, they both returned to rehearsals.

So far, understudies have allowed rehearsals to continue without interruption. Giammarco and Geffken both said the cast has embraced safety measures, eager for the show to    go on.

“It’s all kind of fluid until we get to opening night,” Geffken said.

He said, however, once the university decided to reopen, canceling the theater season was never an option. The theater department had already invested money to purchase performance rights and build sets. Plus, students need performance credit for their degrees. 

“They’re here to be trained,” Geffken said.

And to Dial, it’s a precious opportunity to return to the stage.

“Even if our show got canceled tomorrow, I think that we would all say that this has been a really rewarding and really wonderful blessing,” Dial said. 

Esther Eaton is a Feature Reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @EstherJay10.

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