A year ago we were deep in the pandemic, and my best friend and partner, who works in the theater industry, was not able to work. All of the summer work that she had lined up in 2020 evaporated with the lockdown. She could have just stayed at home for all I cared, but she is too driven and needed to do something, so she ended up taking up a job as a census enumerator. This stressed me out a bit, as she spent the late summer and early fall wandering the area, visiting the homes of recalcitrant people. I mean, people who don’t do their census aren’t going to want to be bothered about the census, right? I thought she was very brave for taking on this job. After that gig ended, she worked for a high school as a Covid safety officer, which entailed patrolling the halls and making sure the kids were following protocols (they weren’t). That job ended with the school year.
Now it’s summer, and with the pandemic “over” – or at least “winding down” – she has gone back to work in her field. I’m glad for that, because she is clearly much happier. She just finished running a production workshop for teens, producing the musical Chicago: High School Edition. If you don’t know what this means: a production workshop is an educational program, like a summer camp, where each student pays a fee to participate. Chicago is a famous musical by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb which satirizes celebrity crime culture in the 1920s. “High School Edition” just means that the script is shortened and cleaned up a bit, so it is appropriate for younger people.
The fees the students pay cover costs like rent to the space, and the licensing fee to the rights holders. This latter cost is substantial – as in three figures – and depends on the number of performances. In this case, there were four live performances (as opposed to streaming online performances, which was a popular way to do it during the pandemic). Rehearsals started while there were still significant restrictions on group gatherings, so they were online at first. In fact, the auditions were all done by having the students submit videos. Note that every kid who auditioned was going to get cast (that’s kind of the point of an educational workshop), but auditions are still used to cast the specific roles.
Once restrictions eased, some time in June, rehearsals moved to the theater space. At first, many kids weren’t yet fully vaccinated, so everyone wore masks while rehearsing, and temps were taken. By the end of rehearsals, almost all of the kids were vaccinated. I got to see a couple of the dress rehearsals during tech week! If you don’t know what “tech week” means, it’s the final rehearsal phase when the lighting and sound is integrated into the show. Here’s a photo from dress rehearsal, of the merry murderesses performing the Cell Block Tango:
The show went up in early July, on the weekend after Independence Day. Audience members were required to wear masks, though the performers did not, except for two who wore face shields. Those were the two cast members who were not vaccinated. Some audience members refused to come see the show because masks were required. This was actually the desired outcome, and it was probably for the best, since the Delta variant is now spreading like wildfire.
Here’s a short review I posted after the first show:
It’s too bad there are only four performances of this show, since the cast and crew have pulled together a tight and energetic production, showcasing the talents of multiple young performers, directors and designers, and you won’t want to miss it. A teen production of Chicago HS Edition, on the heels of the pandemic, was a gutsy choice for director/producer Aileen Lynch-McCulloch, but as is usual for her, she has pulled it off. She demonstrates her knack for finding the perfect cast, and for translating a script onto the stage in a tight time window and with a shoestring budget. Minimalist set and costume choices, on a stark stage with smooth lighting, succeed in conveying the characterizations and the storyline, giving the talent the opportunity to shine. The director’s faith in the ability of youth and commitment to helping them find their voice have once again resulted in an amazing production. Get a ticket if you can!
I wrote this blog post to extol the talents of my good friend, Aileen, and to raise awareness of the challenges facing the theater industry as we emerge from the pandemic. This production of Chicago was slipped right in between the beginning of vaccinations and the surge of the Delta variant; it may have been a fortuitous occasion that can’t be repeated in the near future. In her role as Artistic Director at The Center Theater, Aileen would like to plan more productions, as part of her program called The Arts Bubble, “a healing project created to help audiences return to the live performance spaces.” But obviously this depends on the state of the pandemic.
I’ve been following Aileen’s work for many years, and it really is amazing to behold. She can handle all aspects of a production – directing, producing, costuming, set design, tech, PR, you name it. When she is working on a project, her commitment is total, and she seems to have an endless reservoir of energy on which to draw. But luckily she has people to help her, so she doesn’t have to do it all herself. She only needs to do three or four people’s jobs instead of ten or twelve.
She has people to help her because over her career she has built up a network of supportive friends, as well as young people who want to come back and work with her time and time again. Many of the teens and young adults who worked with her on Chicago have known her since they were children, when they first acted in a show which she directed. For a long time she ran her own theater company, Vagabond Acting Troupe, and she has also worked as an educator in schools and at other theaters. And she hasn’t changed her fees for over 30 years, while others around her have taken her approach and then raised the cost. Many of her students have gone on to Broadway tours, Cruise Ship entertainment and some have even started their own companies.
I mean, just the fact that Aileen was able to get large audiences to see Chicago and all willingly wear face masks is impressive. And if you think that wearing a mask is just “pandemic theater,” then I submit to you this thought: not wearing a mask is “pandemic theater.” Because everything we do socially, how we dress and how we act, is meant as a signal to others; it’s all a performance. Life is theater, and theater is life. As Shakespeare put it, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
So please join me in congratulating my dear friend Aileen Lynch-McCulloch on another successful theater production. And please get vaccinated, because if we don’t get this pandemic under control, we may all have to climb back into our cocoons, and wait another year before live theater can emerge once more.