Reading, MA — One of the industries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic is the performing arts. Denied the opportunity to perform in-person, creatives have had to re-analyze the reason they make art in the first place, as well as how to showcase their work in the era of social distancing. It is against this backdrop that the RMHS Drama Club found itself drawn to new forms of storytelling and reevaluating its role in the community. Riding the success of the first virtual show, Act Up! Theatrical Activism, from the Bard to Broadway, the club is now preparing for the second show of the season: Pride and Prejudice.
“We’re calling it a Living Storybook. The focus from the actors’ perspective is looking at it as it’s a radio play to create audio recordings of the actors performing. But then, we are combining that with visual arts so that the audience’s experience will be that they are listening to a radio play version of Pride and Prejudice. Still, then at the same time, they’re able to see art by students such as photography, collage work, artwork, and illustrations. So it’ll be as if you’re watching a storybook come to life,” said Natalie Cunha, the RMHS Drama Club Advisor.
The actors make recordings of their performances during virtual rehearsals, and then those recordings are sent to their fellow castmates, so they have something to act off of during their scenes. Once all the recordings are completed, they will be compiled into a single radio play. Pride and Prejudice will be the second partnership between Cunha and Anna Cuevas, the Video Production Teacher at RMHS. The duo first worked together to create Act Up, and this time Cuevas’ expertise will be used to help bring together the video and audio experience of Pride and Prejudice.
Cunha had decided earlier on in the semester that Pride and Prejudice would be produced entirely remotely, a decision that ended up aiding the club after the high school has been plagued with re-openings and closures due to cases of COVID-19 at RMHS.
“We made the really hard decision as a club to plan on being fully remote just because at the time, we didn’t know it was going to be happening past November. We’re glad that we did it now because we can kind of pursue and continue with our program when a lot of other programs in the Northeast have had to stop their events.”
According to Cunha, this season for the Drama Club has been one of both highs and lows.
“One of our biggest challenges is that we have a technical program that we’re really proud of and that has really offered students a lot of independent learning and problem solving from the theater perspective, and not having tangible, active theater has really forced us to get creative. There’s so many really talented students who have had to rethink how they can be involved in our community as artists, and it has not been easy going. I am so grateful for the students that have gone into this year with compassion and still try to find ways to stay involved,” said Cunha.
Yet, within this re-evaluation, Cunha and the RMHS Drama Club students have found themselves rethinking the reason behind why they create art.
“I think one of the big things we learned as a club this past year is that theater can be two things: It can be a platform where you’re standing in the spotlight and getting affirmation, or it can be a community in which everyone can stand together. Really putting our focus in this season on our community as a whole has really helped us go into this process with gratitude,” said Cunha.
In May, Cunha discussed with the club officers what the club’s mission for the upcoming school year should be, with the idea that this mission would inform which shows would be picked for the forthcoming year. With the Drama Club’s goal to bring artwork and education to the community, Cunha and the officers decided to focus on anti-discrimination work.
“Honing in on this theme helps us decide what shows to do and how we were going to tell stories that are still in our own voice, but we’re able to thematically connect to some of the bigger stories that we, as both students and the greater Reading community, need to be thinking about right now with, especially regarding systemic racism and the issues that we’ve got going on in our larger world. And so, our theme throughout the year is taking a look at all of the places that discrimination exists: financially, through gender roles and stereotyping, racism and within student communities,” said Cunha.
While Act Up focused on LGBTQ communities, Pride and Prejudice will look at the multi-faceted nature of privilege itself.
“Pride and Prejudice allows us to thematically talk about the financial disparities and what that does to people, as well as how it affects privilege. We also have been having a lot of conversations surrounding what privilege looks like and how people can operate with privilege,” said Cunha.
The RMHS Drama Club’s Pride and Prejudice production will be premiering virtually on February 5th and can be streamed until February 7th. Tickets to the video streaming event can be purchased on the drama club’s website.
“When audiences see the finished product, I hope they have in the back of their mind
that this is not the typical theatre experience that’s just recorded. It’s like an entirely new way to perform, to act, and to try to make this happen, and the fact that these kids have even been able to do this is amazing,” said Cunha.