November 16, 2020 • Achievements

North High School brings back live theater, even in the age of COVID

Boasting a cast of 15 student actors, North High School staged a production of playwright John Cariani's
Boasting a cast of 15 student actors, North High School staged a production of playwright John Cariani's "Almost, Maine" on Nov. 6 and 7. The actors included Maddie Longstaff and Bryten Fredrickson.

Ah, the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd, and, um, the reflection cast off of an actor’s face shield?

When drama director Tim Hess began prep work for North High School’s fall play, he knew the novel coronavirus could possibly have a leading role.

However, he and his cast of 15 student performers were able to present what may be the most unique version of John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine” ever produced.

Think of this as live theater in the age of COVID-19.

Throughout rehearsals, Hess demanded face masks and social distancing among both his cast and the crew. Plus, when the production took place, Nov. 6 and 7, audience members donned masks while the actors used face shields.

“To be honest, the face shields weren’t a distraction,” Hess said. “They were virtually invisible from a distance.”

Thankfully, “Almost, Maine” was the perfect play for an ongoing pandemic.

A romantic comedy-drama consisting of nine different vignettes that explore love and loss in a remote and mythical town of Almost, Maine, the show is dominated by scenes featuring just two actors.

This was actually the second time Hess has staged “Almost, Maine.”

“It is a very versatile play,” he explained. “You can cast as many or as few actors as you want, since it is not uncommon for people to play more than one character.”

“We actually presented the play back in 2013,” Hess continued. “This time, the show was even better than the first one since the actors had to dig deeper into their roles.”

Certainly, COVID made scenes more intense. So too was the fact that each of the “Almost, Maine” actors was required to play one part while understudying for another.

Yes, you read that right. Each actor had to prepare for two roles, in the event that someone in the cast got sick.

Luckily, nobody did. This is why the cast alternated their roles. One night, they’d play their principal role and the next, they played the part they understudied for.

After all, Hess wasn’t taking any chances.

“Last year, we were going to do (John Kander and Fred Ebb’s) ‘Curtains’ as our spring musical,” he recalled. “We were well into rehearsals and the sets had been built. Then COVID hit and the schools had to close.”

“It broke my heart,” Hess said.

Nathan Stokes felt exactly the same way. “Curtains” would’ve been the show for the North 11th grader.

“You work so hard on a show and, then, not be able to perform it?” he said. “Nah, that wasn’t good.”

This meant Stokes was even more motivated to make “Almost, Maine” as good as possible.

So did Samara Fields-Torno, his castmate and fellow 11th grader.

“You miss performing when you haven’t done it for a while,” she said.

Though senior Finnola Coughlin admitted COVID restrictions didn’t make getting into a scene any easier.

“We had to rehearse while wearing masks,” she said. “It is hard to play a scene when you can’t see the other person’s facial expressions.”

That’s where acting comes into play, Hess said.

“You got to dig into the character more deeply,” he said. “If you can’t see somebody’s face, you have to compensate in other ways.”

Which may be easier said than done.

For a performer like senior Ava Hodges, acting isn’t quite like riding a bike.

“I’ve been in shows all through my school years,” she said. “Not having that outlet in my life was tough. Being able to do ‘Almost, Maine’ kept a lot of people motivated, even when there is COVID.”

Hess agreed, adding that the return of live theater is as important to audiences as it is to the actors.

“Theater represents a big part in the lives of my students,” he said. “They want their families to experience what they’ve learned.”

More importantly, live theater brings back some sense of normality during uncertain times.

“Especially now, people want to sit back and be entertained for while,” he said. “That is what live theater is all about.”

View the full article by Early Horlyk in the Sioux City Journal.