Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, at Strathmore High School, the show must go on.
The school’s students are putting on a production of A Miracle Worker, a three-act play by William Gibson based on the autobiography of Hellen Keller, a deaf-blind author, activist and lecturer. The production started in September, but rehearsals did not start until October, explained teacher Deanne Bertsch.
“It’s been a pretty fast rehearsal process for these guys, especially because it’s a double cast,” said Bertsch, referring to how two groups of actors are each performing separate shows for the production. “So, we’re double rehearsing everything, just to give more students a chance to be in the play.”
A Miracle Worker is a personal story for Bertsch, as her grandfather, an ophthalmologist, was once Keller’s eye doctor in New York.
“She (Keller) was always a huge hero for him,” said Bertsch. “He had all her books beside his bed, and he loves telling his grandkids that story of how he knew Helen Keller.
“I just think this is a wonderful story about love, and because I’m a teacher, I love the story of Annie Sullivan and how she never gave up on Helen – it’s inspiring.”
Last semester, the school’s performance of High School Musical was shut down due to COVID-19, so the students have been happy and grateful to be back on and around the stage, said Bertsch. “We’re really excited to be able to do this.”
The rehearsals are being filmed in case the production is shut down again. But for now, they are planning five performances, nightly from Dec. 6 to 9 at 7 p.m., and a daytime performance for the school on Dec. 9, with the two casts alternating performances.
Some of the students are jumping between roles in each production, such as Elise Marleau, who is playing Keller in one of the shows, during which she said she gets to act “absolutely insane,” and multiple minor characters in the other.
“It’s really hectic,” said Marleau. “But I really like playing Helen, especially during the table scene because you throw food at people. It’s so weird to be playing someone with no lines, yet I’m acting their life.”
As one of the stage managers, Sara Morse has quite a few tasks at hand.
“Usually we just go over the blocking and make sure the actors are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and their movements are correct (and) making sure that their lines are good,” she said.
While it is Morse’s first time as manager, she is no stranger to the stage, having played the witch in last year’s production of A Witch in the Wardrobe.
“It’s cool to be stage manager to see other aspects of how theatre works,” she added.
The main difference brought by the pandemic is the students having to wear masks, clear plastic coverings that sit over the students’ mouths. Wearing masks through the production has brought some difficulties, said Morse.
“It’s been tough – when it comes to food, we can’t really feed them and it messes with the sound of your voice a bit,” she said.
Playing the characters gave the students perspective into the life of Keller and the others in her story.
“Anne Sullivan is really stubborn,” said Jordyn Shawcross, who plays the teacher instrumental in developing Keller’s ability to communicate. “She really had to be with Keller and all of these people telling her couldn’t do it – but she taught the unteachable.”
Shawcross is “incredibly grateful” to participate in the play despite the pandemic.
“I’ve always wanted to be in a play and COVID took a lot from me, so it was the one thing we still got to do,” she said. “Despite everything, we still get to do it, and I’m thankful for Miss Bertsch trudging through all of this and still doing it with us.”
Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times