Amid COVID, spring show a new experience for Trumbull students

The Trumbull High Thespian Troupe rehearses its 2021 musical, "Working."

The Trumbull High Thespian Troupe rehearses its 2021 musical, “Working.”

Contributed photo / Julie Spillane

TRUMBULL — A year after getting shut down just days before opening night, director Jessica Spillane and the Trumbull High Thespians Troupe are back in the same situation, this time hoping for a different ending.

“We have had some stern conversations with the kids about protecting their health,” Spillane said. “We’re telling them, ‘We need you to be smart.’”

Trumbull High is set to debut its 2021 musical “Working” April 30 in a live performance in front of a limited audience. Spillane estimated no more than 300 people would be allowed inside the 1,100-seat school theater.

“It’s going to depend on the size of the groups, because we’ll be arranging people in pods, with space around each pod,” she said. “So it’s going to be mostly families of cast members.”

The three live performances on April 30, May 1 and May 2 will be recorded and released after the shows.

The play, based on the Studs Terkel book of the same name, examines the lives of various people who talk about their work. The COVID-19 pandemic made “Working” a natural choice, Spillane said.

“The speaking parts are mostly monologues, where characters talk about their lives,” Spillane said. “The songs are a single singer backed by the ensemble, so it allows for social distancing. There are really no scenes of dialogue, with characters facing each other and talking, and there is not a moment in the entire play where anyone touches anyone else.”

In addition, rehearsals have followed strict protocols, and the cast will perform in masks. But the cast, especially those who spent months working on “Bye Bye Birdie” last year, only to have their performances canceled at the last minute, are happy just to be performing.

“It took me a while to process that ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ was canceled,” said junior Nathan Ayotte, who plays iron worker, Mike Dillard. “At first, I didn't entirely register that it just wasn't going to happen, and when that fact did sink in, it was extremely saddening. All of the hard work and time spent in rehearsals felt like it was a waste.”

Ella Miller, a senior who plays mill worker Grace Clemens, remembered the news of the shutdown had trickled in to the cast during a rehearsal. But everyone had initially believed the quarantine would be brief.

“We all joked about forgetting our lines during our two-week break. “But little did we know we were never going to get the chance to bring our hard work to life,” she said.

The disappointment from last year is one of the reasons why Spillane said she and the other staff members working on the production had promised the student performers and crew they would have some sort of performance this year.

“We knew from the get-go, when we started rehearsing in December, that there was no guarantee we would be able to do live shows,” she said. “We really thought the kids needed to be able to have an experience of live theater, so we told them, even if we end up having them spread out at microphones in an empty theater, even if they have to perform outside, they would have some sort of experience.”

With that promise, the cast endured virtual rehearsals, with videos of their speaking and singing submitted for review. Then weeks of in-person rehearsals that featured health assessments and temperature checks before the performers went onstage, ensemble singing with the performers wearing masks and spaced 15 feet apart in the audience section of the theater, and frequent 15-minute breaks to allow the performance space to be ventilated that turned every rehearsal into a three-hour slog.

But the students agree it was worth the effort.

“Rehearsal this year was very difficult,” said senior Caroline Marchetti, who plays Dolores Dante, a waitress. “It’s definitely hard to sing with a mask and to emote while acting (with a mask). “It’s definitely been a rough year for all of us, but we came together to put a show together and that’s all that matters.”

Ava Mancini, a senior who portrays teacher Rose Hoffman, said even with all the challenges, the experience of working on the show was a welcome bit of normalcy for the cast and crew.

“For many of us, coming to rehearsal is the only time we really get to see others and interact and this has been vital coming out of so many months of sameness and isolation,” she said.

And even though the workers in “Working” do not include a student or an actor, Mancini said the experience of working on the show brought the characters to life.

“When we first did a run-through of the entire show, everything just came together even though the majority of the work has had to be done as separately as possible,” she said. “It kind of coincides with the meaning of the show in the sense that each of us is our own person or character and when we all work together, we can create something so much bigger than ourselves.”

Tickets for “Working” are limited due to capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements. Ticket requests are online at THSMusicals.com .

deng@trumbulltimes.com