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Finally, the curtain goes up on theater during COVID

First Imagine U production during the pandemic puts safety at the forefront, telling the story of a boy who overcomes fears through his imagination and curiosity

Since last March, theaters at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts have been dark. The pandemic forced theater students like first-year communication majors Daniel Caldron and Alondra Rios to put their acting ambitions on hold. But now — one year later and under strict COVID-19 protocols — the curtain is once again going up on live theater on campus, albeit with a different look and feel. 

Calderon and Rios were both drawn to Northwestern for the world-renowned theatre program. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, their dreams of time on stage and under the spotlight were dashed even before they made it to campus.

“It’s kind of like having to accept the new normal,” said Calderon who is starring as 9-year-old Tomás Rivera in the Imagine U production of “Tomás and the Library Lady.”

Tomás rewrites his own story

The play by Jose Cruz Gonzales is adapted from Pat Mora’s award-winning children’s book. The story follows young Tomás, the son of Mexican migrant workers. Tomás struggles to read and speak English and fit in at school. But with the help of a kindly librarian and the power of imagination and curiosity, he overcomes his fears and realizes his passion for reading and writing, which enables him to rewrite his own story.

“It’s definitely not what I thought it was going to be when I auditioned [via Zoom],” Calderon said. “I thought this would be a Zoom musical play. So, when they told us that we were going to be filming it in person, I was like what? I can’t believe this is really happening.”

Filmed for streaming

Until now, Wirtz Center productions have been produced almost entirely virtually. This production is an experiment of sorts and was filmed for streaming during three weekends in March. Filming “scenes” allowed for limited actors to be on stage at a single time. Social distancing and safety guidelines including no more than five people in the Ethel Barber theatre were strictly enforced. Others in the cast and crew, attended rehearsals via Zoom.

“I am incredibly grateful, because there are so few people in the country able to say that they’re performing on the stage,” said Alondra Rios, who plays “Josefa,” the mother of Tomás. She initially thought everything about the play would done virtually.

“I will gladly take these rules and protocols. I’ve had more fun doing this than any other show I’ve been in. We’ve really had to use our creativity and figure out and problem solve. It’s really beautiful how we’re still able to express ourselves during COVID,” Rios said.  

Costumes for the entire cast include masks. That forced the pre-recording of all dialogue and musical numbers. Some of the story telling is done with cardboard puppets, worn by several of the student actors, including Rios.

“I have never touched a puppet in my life, said Rios. “It’s different because I’m not using my own body and my own hands or my own facial expressions, especially now with the mask on.”  

Translating through a puppet

Rios believes her performance as Tomás’ mother in the play translated through the cardboard puppet. “I don’t feel like any of my performance is taken away because it’s through [a puppet]. Whatever I’m feeling translates onto her better than just me performing on stage with all these restrictions. Plus, having this [puppet] visual for the children, I think that makes it a lot more special as well.” 

The story of Tomás resonates with Calderon and Rios, who are both of Latin decent. While the play is geared toward children ages 5-12, both say the message of hope and inspiration is one to which anyone can relate. 

“I really enjoy the play because it embraces and reflects Latin culture and family,” said Rios, who grew up in Puerto Rico. She thinks of her character “Josefa” as a love letter to her mom.

“It’s a really important story for kids who grow up from parents who are immigrants. My whole family speaks Spanish and coming [to the United States] from a different culture, my mom really helped me balance it out. She always taught me, not only know about our roots, but to be proud of our roots and to be proud of our language in our culture.” 

Calderon, who was raised in Miami says he connects to his character of Tomás because he too was a “mama’s boy.”

“His mom is his best friend. That was me growing up. Tomás loves to learn and question things. I was that annoying kid that asked a lot of questions. My mom tells me now that I’m older that I would drive her crazy in the car going to school asking her all kinds of things.”

‘Tomás and the Library Lady’

Imagine U’s “Tomás and the Library Lady” streams the weekends of March 12, 19 and 26. Household admission is $20. Admission is free for Northwestern students with a valid Northwestern email address by filling out this required registration form.

For reservations and more information, visit the Wirtz Center Website.

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