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For LU Theatre, the show must go on: Students grateful to continue entertaining audiences

As one of the few collegiate theater programs in the country taking the stage during COVID-19, Liberty University’s Department of Theatre Arts has brought back its postponed productions and staged new ones while adhering to safety guidelines this semester. At Liberty, the saying is true: “The show must go on.”

Students perform a number in the musical comedy ‘The Drowsy Chaperone.’

The possible postponement of the musical “The Drowsy Chaperone” and the COVID-19 pandemic itself were not main topics of conversation in the days before students left for Spring Break in March, theatre arts chair Linda Nell Cooper said. The cast and director Andy Geffken had already begun rehearsals and opening night was set for April.

But when they returned after break, as increasing concerns about the pandemic arose and classes moved to an online format, rehearsals were paused. The cast and crew still held out hope that they could resume in two weeks, however, one week before opening, the show was canceled.

“It really was heartbreaking because we were so excited to make people laugh and bring joy to everyone at that time,” said junior Sydney Borchers, who played the show’s titular Chaperone. “We were all so excited for the seniors to be able to do one last show, and with such a small, tight-knit cast, it felt like a family.”

Over the summer, they received the good news that the musical would return to open the adjusted 2020-21 theatre season. The seniors who had since graduated were invited to assume their roles (three accepted the offer).

As a lighthearted musical comedy infused with the message of musical theater’s unique ability to uplift and entertain, Cooper and Borchers agreed that “The Drowsy Chaperone” proved to be the perfect production to welcome audiences back.

A number from ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’

“In tech week of rehearsals, we started to realize the message of this show (and its timeliness), how musicals help get us through difficult times, that they allow us to laugh at life, and that we can bond over something as silly as a musical comedy,” Cooper said. “I love the line that the character Man in Chair says: ‘(A musical) takes you to another world, and it gives you a tune to carry with you in your head when you’re feeling blue.’ And then to hear the audience (agreeingly) respond to that in the way they did was something we didn’t expect.”

“It’s such a silly, goofy show and we thought last semester was the perfect time to do it, but then God basically said, ‘No, now — this semester — is the perfect time,’” Borchers added. “We thought, ‘We just want to bring joy to people,’ and especially with this show, we wanted to make people laugh when they hadn’t laughed in a long time. That’s the beauty of theatre, too, that it can do that.”

“Our Town,” the production that followed, told a solemn story of the value of loved ones and dealing with life’s uncertainties, which Cooper said continued to share timely insight.

“‘Our Town’ talks about enjoying every detail of every day and realizing that even the mundane is significant, and I think the pandemic slowed everyone down to see that,” she said. “Nobody knew this pandemic was coming at the start of the year. We can’t predict what life will be, so we need to respect others, love those we love, make the most of each day, and follow the calling that God has in our life.”

Joshua Thomas and Morgan McKay played the Gibbs siblings in the play ‘Our Town’

Senior Christopher Ward, who played Dr. Frank Gibbs, also attested to the show’s applicability, particularly when it comes to living in the present with a Christian outlook.

“The theme of slowing down to appreciate life and appreciate what the Lord has blessed us with is definitely relevant to today,” Ward said. “It was nice to have a message to share that did connect with people so well.”

Since the start of the semester, LU Theatre has followed the proper COVID-19 safety guidelines, including mask requirements and proper sanitizing, among others, in the pre-production process. Adhering to state social distancing restrictions, the department limited audiences for each show.

“Our students are being very responsible because they know what’s at stake, they know that if they’re not responsible with their personal health, then the whole season is affected and they won’t be able to do what God has called them to do,” Cooper said.

She said that the ample size of Liberty’s Tower Theater and amount of rehearsal spaces have been major factors in the department’s ability to safely perform in a time when many other college and professional companies cannot. The department was also able to financially afford all of the necessary items to protect performers and audiences.

A scene from ‘Our Town’

“We’ve realized how blessed we are to have the facilities we have that allow us to still do shows at 25% capacity,” Cooper said. “We also have a multitude of actors, and that allowed us to have understudies for every single role, whereas a lot of other schools don’t have enough students to do that. The students have been beyond grateful because they have friends at other universities who are theater majors and are not able to do anything.”

Even with the extra precautions, the students are thankful to do what they love in front of an audience.

“I’m so grateful for our professors because they want us to be on stage, they want us to be able to do what we love in a healthy and safe manner,” Borchers said. “We have had to take the precautions and follow the guidelines, but for me I’m in the mindset of doing whatever I have to do to be able to go out on the stage and perform. It’s something I’m passionate about and something I want to do for the rest of my life, and in the midst of these unprecedented times it’s made me realize how much I really do love it.”

“It’s a tremendous blessing and I’m so glad that the Lord has sustained us and allowed us to continue to do this,” Ward said. “It was definitely different throughout the rehearsal process of having to wear a mask and stay distanced … but I think we all realized the incredible blessing of what we were able to do.”

After the department’s national audio convention Sonic-Con this weekend (Oct. 23-25, postponed from March), the fall semester will conclude with two weekends in November of student lab shows — written, directed, and performed by students — and the Alluvion Stage Company’s production of “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” (Dec. 3-13), with tickets going on sale Nov. 9.

Shows will continue in the spring with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Feb. 18-28), “Decipher: An Unpenned Story of the Civil War” (March 26 – April 10), “Crazy For You” (April 16-25), “Doubt: A Parable” (April 30 – May 9).

Visit Theatre Arts’ website for all dates, times, and ticket information for the 2020-21 season.