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Finally, it’s ‘curtains up’ for Northwestern theater

For the first time since the pandemic began, students are performing before live audiences

The Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts is presenting two productions before live audiences on its main stages this fall. A co-production with the American Music Theater Project (AMTP), “The Battlefields of Clara Barton” is a modern folk/rock musical about the vibrant life of Clara Barton, a Civil War nurse, political activist and a revered founder of the American Red Cross. ImagineU, producer of theater for young audiences, is also back in person with the production of “Last Stop on Market Street.” The story follows CJ and his Nana and the adventures they encounter on their weekly bus ride across town.

The return of live theater on campus comes not a moment too soon for theater students who have been anxious to perform before a live audience. Several of them took time out to talk to Northwestern Now about pandemic lessons and the joy of being back on the physical stage and in-person audiences.

“I’m so thrilled to be back on the Wirtz stage, performing with these incredible actors, working with an amazing team of professionals and making art,” said theater major Jenna Sage. Sage is graduating in Spring 2022 and has been in five Wirtz Center shows during her time at Northwestern. She’s playing the role of Dolly in “The Battlefields of Clara Barton.”

Sage was one of the many theater students who pivoted to a virtual stage last year when the pandemic forced the cancellation of Wirtz in-person productions. While the main stages remained dark, the show did go on with nearly two-dozen virtual productions. Actors had to learn new skills, including operating a camera, video editing and even learning new ways to act and express emotion in the virtual space.

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I’m so thrilled to be back on the Wirtz stage, performing with these incredible actors, working with an amazing team of professionals and making art.”

Theater major Jenna Sage

“I was so grateful for the community and experiences those projects offered, but I really missed that audience connection that is such a key part of the live theater experience,” said senior theater major Emily Brooks. Brooks’ first role this academic year is Ms. Dennis in “Last Stop on Market Street.”

“It was a very frustrating time for theater makers because acting virtually is so strange,” Sage said. “Do you look at your scene partner and make it seem like you’re looking down? Do you stare at your computer camera.”

Senior theater major Kandace Mack agrees. “(Virtual productions) required a lot more effort.” Mack is playing CJ in “Last Stop on Market Street.”

“Last year was a reminder that life can change on a dime. I am nervous and thrilled. I am also so lucky to get back on stage in front of young audiences who will bring so much enthusiasm, excitement and wonder that it will make the re-emergence of live theater easy and fun,” Mack said.

Junior theater major Harrison Lewis has participated in eight shows on various Wirtz Center stages. Currently, Harris is taking on several roles in “Last Stop,” including Reverend Morgan, a Magical Minion and a shopping cart man. In spite of the time away from the stage and live audiences, Harris says the pandemic revealed new opportunities he didn’t expect.

“While it was disappointing to not be able to perform on stage, I actually was able to find a lot of enjoyment in COVID through other ways of being creative. I dove into the worlds of film, directing and music theater writing, which have now become passions of mine,” Harris said.

A variety of health and safety protocols are also taking center stage this season. Actors, directors, producers, musicians and everyone on the crew must remain masked during the weeks of rehearsal if not performing prior to opening night. And so far, all the extra COVID-19 precautions have paid off with no one testing positive for the virus.

First-year theater student Angelena Browne is playing Nana in “Last Stop.” She welcomes the extra breaks now being provided during rehearsals to allow the room to air out.

“It is very different rehearsing with COVID protocols, but I do think it is something we are all getting used to because it is our new normal,” Browne said. “It is something we have to embrace for the safety of everyone in our production.”

There’s an unexpected benefit some students like theater junior Sami DeVries welcome from the COVID-era rehearsals. “Last Stop” is DeVries second Wirtz production, but his first in-person show. DeVries said COVID-19 rehearsals feel almost identical to regular ones.

“Without masks, we would definitely be able to hear one another more, but with our masks, we’re definitely learning how to better project our voices,” DeVries said.

Patrons to the Wirtz Center must also follow strict COVID-19 protocols for the indoor performances, including being prepared to show proof of vaccination at the door or a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of a show. Patrons are also required to wear masks at all times when inside the theater.

“We are thrilled to return to live, in-person theatrical productions, in which students not only perform and manage, but in many cases produce, direct, adapt, design and even write,” said E. Patrick Johnson, dean of the School of Communication.

“The school is following all University and CDC health guidelines to keep our students, faculty, staff and theater patrons as safe as possible as this pandemic lingers on,” Johnson said. “Our school has a strong reputation for producing topnotch theater, and we’re adapting and upholding that tradition even in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Other upcoming, in-person productions at the Wirtz Center include the musical “Something Rotten” set to take the Barber stage in February and “The Ballad of Mu Lan,” also planned for February in the Louis Theater. The 91st Annual Waa-Mu Show also returns in the spring for its first in-person musical in two years.